When Big Freedia took the stage at The Other Tent at Bonnaroo 2012, it was likely many festivalgoers’ first exposure to the unique style known as bounce. Characterized by a few familiar beats and samples (an eerie arpeggio known as the “Triggerman bells” is one) and, often, call-and-response lyrics asking listeners to represent for their New Orleans neighborhood or high school, bounce emerged in New Orleans in the early ‘90s as the city’s personal, upbeat twist on hip-hop.
Big Freedia live at Bonnaroo 2012
“Bounce music is a cultural thing, it’s like jazz and blues,” says Lucky Johnson, a New Orleans bounce promoter. “In the early ‘90s, you had gangster rap and you had commercial rap. Bounce is party music, it’s feel-good music. There’s no dancing to gangsta rap.”
Freedia’s performance last year wasn’t technically bounce music’s Bonnaroo debut. In 2011, Galactic sax player Ben Ellman debuted his studio project Gypsyphonic Disko at Bonnaroo’s Silent Disco, rocking the dance floor with his tricky mash-ups of classic bounce and Eastern European brass music, many of which he’d released the previous year on the mixtape Nolaphonic Vol. 1.
Rebirth Brass Band w/ Cheeky Blakk – Pop That Pussy
The Gypsyphonic project was born out of outtakes from Galactic’s 2010 album Ya Ka May, a pastiche of collaborations with New Orleans luminaries like Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, and John Boutte plus bounce rappers Katey Red, Sissy Nobby, Cheeky Blakk, and Freedia. With assistance from fellow Bonnaroo alumnus DJ Quickie Mart, Ellman cut and pasted bits of the scrapped Ya Ka May vocals alongside snippets of vintage bounce music going back to its earliest days, including tracks from style pioneers like DJ Jimi, Everlasting Hitman, 2 Blakk, and even Juvenile, who recorded “Bounce for the Juvenile” way back in 1992.
Juvenile — “Bounce for the Juvenile”
The addition of the Balkan brass-band sound was Ellman’s special twist—but the use of deep, thudding drums and horn shouts in bounce isn’t unprecedented. A defining element of contemporary bounce, as performed by masterful crowd-movers like Big Freedia, is a rapid, punishing machine-gun beat that rat-a-tats so speedily, few human rumps can shake in time with it (though they do try.)
That wasn’t always the prevailing style. In fact, as New Orleans developed its own hip-hop sound in the early ‘90s and bounce established itself alongside straight Crescent City rap, bits and pieces of older, more traditional New Orleans party music frequently snaked their way into the new tunes. Bounce music today is fast, hard, and almost completely electronic, with short bursts of lyrics and an ever-increasing BPM count—but back in the day, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the familiar second-line thump of a sousaphone underneath an MC spitting call-and response bounce commands, or to hear a bounce rapper quote classic Mardi Gras Indian chants like “Iko Iko.” In 2003, bounce MC Cheeky Blakk and the late rapper Soulja Slim dropped verses on the Rebirth Brass Band’s killer album Hot Venom; in 1995, Ricky B enlisted a local high school marching band for his bounce update of the Indian war cry “Let’s Go Get ‘Em.”
Ricky B. Performs “Let’s Go Get ‘Em”
It’s less surprising than you’d think, when you consider how bringing tradition into innovation is very much the New Orleans way. Think of how the No Limit Records rapper Silkk the Shocker created a hit with a hip-hop update of New Orleans drummer Smokey Johnson’s R&B classic “It Ain’t My Fault”—or, going further back, how the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians combined historic chants with sizzling local funk to create the 1975 stone classic “They Call Us Wild.” In New Orleans, no musical tradition —whether it’s hundred-year-old parade rhythms or a sound as young as hip-hop—ever dies. Not as long as you can dance to it.
Download a brass-and-bounce mixtape:
The “Where They At” bounce photo and oral history archive