Meet New Orleans Rap's Most Surprising Savior
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: November 6, 2005
A FEW years ago in New Orleans, an odd man out started sloping around
the hip-hop clubs and studios of the West Bank and the Seventh Ward: a
pale, aging record producer with a fedora and an English accent. He
was Nik Cohn, one of the first rock critics; a novelist of great power
at an early age; the unintentional progenitor of "Saturday Night
Fever"; and a recovering burned-out case. He was there in a role he
had never tried before: hip-hop producer.
He has written a book about the experience, called "Triksta: Life and
Death in New Orleans Rap." Mr. Cohn is a natural memoirist, adept at
braiding his own story into bigger events, and he is no more retiring
in this book than in his others. But it is in equal measure about New
Orleans hip-hop - bounce, as it was locally known - and may be the
only such in-depth look at the other New Orleans musical culture, the
one that has been largely overlooked in the months since Katrina.
Mr. Cohn was born in 1946, the son of Norman Cohn, a historian with a
cult following among British university students. In Nik's childhood,
his family relocated from London to Londonderry, in Northern Ireland,
where he was an outsider top to bottom: in his words, an "Anglo-Irish
Russian German South African Jew caught up in the tribal war between
Protestant and Catholic, equally unacceptable to both."
Cold and unforgiving, Londonderry was the opposite of New Orleans, but
his childhood left him with a life-long interest in
self-mythographers, people preening beyond their station: first with
Elvis Presley and Little Richard, and then, after a little research,
with Jelly Roll Morton. His early novels, "Market" (written at 17) and
"I Am the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo," are about street life and
teen-pop myth, and he wrote about them as if he wanted to wade into
them and suck them up.
He first visited New Orleans in 1972, while rolling through with the
Who. He moved to New York a few years later, and his visits Down South
grew longer. In the mid-1980's, after an entanglement with drugs, and
in the middle of an eight-year period of no writing at all, he began
to sense that New Orleans was losing its authenticity, becoming a city
of ripe clichés, all party debris and bougainvilleas. Yet he kept
returning: it was where he could get over himself, the place where
self-invention and a certain amount of decrepitude was normal.
By the late 90's he was a changed man, clean but worn out from
hepatitis C. It was then that Mr. Cohn saw, in the Tremé section, a
street parade. A D.J. was playing the Triggerman beat, the menacingly
thin, rattlesnake rhythm of early-90's southern hip-hop made popular
by the Cash Money and Take Fo' labels. He was ready to be revived, and
Triggerman made him hungry again.
It wasn't necessarily the brilliance of the music that lured him. "If
someone had just sent me a little bundle of Take Fo' records, none of
this would have happened," said Mr. Cohn, interviewed late last month
at a TriBeCa coffee shop. He looked his age, but healthy; he wore a
dark suit and sharp dress shoes, with a T-shirt from the funeral of
the rapper B-Red. "But at this stage of the game, what I like is
something that makes me feel more alive," he said, "and bounce makes
me feel unbelievably - transcending age, transcending damage - alive.
I had to have a piece of it. So it was a siren. An elixir."
One expects such grand pronouncements from Nik Cohn. The 1976 article
that made him famous here, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night"
(first published in New York magazine and later adapted into the John
Travolta film), was so forceful that the magazine appended a paragraph
at the start of the story maintaining that it was wholly factual. As
it turned out, it was not; Mr. Cohn had hung out in discos, sucked in
the crowd and made composites. (He later became a hard factualist, but
he deposited his checks. In "Triksta" he writes: "I'd been rich once
in my life, and it hadn't suited me one bit.")
In "Triksta," more than any other of his books, Mr. Cohn owns up to
his blarney, almost batters himself with the realization of it.
Gradually moving out of a life of exaggerations and deceptions, he
learns one rugged truth after another: that New Orleans hip-hop is
deeply conservative and resistant to change; that it has little
musical connection to the New Orleans music he has known and loved;
that most hip-hoppers are uninterested in him and his ideas, unless
he's got money to back them.
In effect, he was dealing with the inverse of swinging London, the
scene that he wrote about in the 1960's. That, he now says, was "a
con": a movement of about 1,500 people which the press represented as
a nationwide obsession. New Orleans bounce, on the other hand, has
been a legitimately popular music for 10 years, but never engaged the
attention of the mainstream cultural media; further, it is made by a
poor populace who were the majority of New Orleans and yet aren't part
of public consciousness.
He worked some music-industry contacts and got a small budget from
DreamWorks, then an active major label, to executive-produce some New
Orleans bounce records. Having rented a converted oyster shack in the
Mid-City neighborhood, he got to work.
Working on a freelance basis in 2001, he had produced tracks with a
local rapper named Choppa. (At the time, the song "Choppa Style" was
No. 1 on the New Orleans hip-hop station.) Now Mr. Cohn brought in a
producer for the musical issues but supplied ideas for samples,
including Algerian rai music, bits of John Adams and Ennio Morricone,
and New Orleans rhythm-and-blues riffs by Eddie Bo and King Floyd.
And he brought all his experience as a writer. "Nik's passion, really,
is a story, " said Shorty Brown Hustle, part of a group Mr. Cohn
worked with called Da Rangaz. He spoke from San Antonio, where he and
his family have been living post-Katrina, helped into a house by Mr.
Cohn. "But the trick part about it was that we respect his mind when
he speaks on hip-hop. This old white guy who comes out of nowhere," he
guffawed, "and he makes more sense than some of the artists."
At one point Choppa gave him a glossy photograph of himself, signing
it to "Nik da Trik." Mr. Cohn turned this into a private joke: he was
Triksta, a reminder of his old, hustling self. And yet his involvement
wasn't a joke at all. Rappers began to approach, cruising him for
Shortly afterward, the DreamWorks label ran aground. Mr. Cohn started
paying production expenses himself. He secured an advance for
"Triksta" so he could keep working with a rapper named Che Muse, with
whom he wanted to make the ultimate New Orleans rap album, a catalogue
of the city in its glory and sadness. "Sweet Sickness," a rap over a
Frankie Beverly and Maze song, is about loathing and loving your home,
and in one of its verses the rapper K. Gates concludes:
But I grew up in it
I jumped off the porch with my shoe up in it
But we still swingin', and we still singin'
Marching to the drum and gun.
Mr. Cohn's wife, Michaela, dragged him out of New Orleans in 2004 when
he ran out of money as well as psychic and physical energy. He
regenerated enough this year to return and make a few more recordings;
then Katrina blew his posse all over the South. Mr. Cohn has spent the
last months helping to relocate them. None of the records he worked
on, except Choppa's, were commercially released, but he continues to
talk with his contacts about the next move.
Che Muse, reached by phone at his new home in Atlanta, spoke eagerly
of working with Mr. Cohn again. "He always did what he said he was
going to do," he said. "We're just waiting for something that we can
sink our teeth into."
Mr. Cohn says he has a concept for the next record. "I can't give up,"
he said. "New Orleans is a culture that won't revive in a recognizable
form, but the idea - it's dead but it won't lie down - well, something
could be conjured out of that."