In September, veteran underground New Orleans musician Big Freedia stood atop a makeshift stage in New York’s Herald Square, flanked by two back-up dancers, a Guinness World Records judge and hundreds of would-be twerkers. The event was ostensibly to set a world record for Most People Twerking Simultaneously (they did, with 358 people). But it also highlighted the mainstreaming of twerking and, by extension, bounce music—an uptempo strain of hip hop popularized in New Orleans in the early 1990s designed to make asses, well, bounce.
The uproar that was Miley Cyrus' performance at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, in which the singer introduced your mom to the word “twerk” and unapologetically grinded Robin Thicke’s crotch, brought the dance into the national consciousness, with most people either learning about bounce music for the first time and/or lambasting the singer for what they perceived was racial appropriation. But bounce music fans who’ve been following and immersed in the culture for decades know that twerking has been a small part of a much bigger movement.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Bounce music started more than 20 years ago, drawing from both hip hop’s call-and-response beginnings and the frenetic rhythms of Mardi Gras Indians, a group of African American partiers dating back to the mid-1800s. In bounce, the words “slow” and “somber” are as welcome as kale at a steakhouse. These are high-energy, exuberant beats to soundtrack that night out you may not remember in the morning. “Bounce music makes you want to rejoice,” artist Hot Sizzle said in a mini-documentary on the genre. “It makes you want to move your feet. It makes you want to dance and lose control.”
Despite the variety of artists in the scene, bounce’s roots can be traced back to two beats: DJ Cameron Paul’s 1987 “Brown Beat” (whose rhythmic elements also form the basis of Derek B’s bounce staple “Rock the Beat”) and the Showboys’ “Drag Rap (Trigger Man)” (aka the “Triggerman” beat). The Showboys were, incongruously, a Queens, NY duo whose 1986 track—most notably its booming 808 drums and Dragnet-sampling intro—became the blueprint for nearly all early bounce music.
The genre’s pioneers may not be household names, but they were pivotal in bounce music’s development. In 1991, MC T Tucker and DJ Irv released a cassette-only track entitled “Where Dey At?,” considered the genre’s first official product. A year later, DJ Jimi’s “(The Original) Where They At?,” a cover of “Where Dey At?,” became the first bounce record released nationally and in 1993, local artist DJ Jubilee released “Do the Jubilee All,” which Big Freedia told Fuse was “ground zero” for the genre.
“It was happening way before him, but he took it to a whole 'nother level once he started making the videos,” says Freedia. “In all of the middle school and high school dances, you could not go anywhere without hearing a Jubilee track or seeing him and his dancers cutting it up at a concert. He was the King of Bounce. All of his songs are New Orleans classics. As a kid, you just wanted to dance to it.”
If this sounds like Freedia prizing the music over lyrics, well, she probably is. The focus is clearly on the beat and filling dance floors, with chanting, repetitive and sexually explicit anthems used to achieve this end. “Suck dat p-ssy for a pork chop,” rhymes Cheeky Blakk on Rebirth Brass Band’s “Pop That P-ssy,” while a decade later, Big Freedia’s raucous, buoyant 2011 anthem “Azz Everywhere” became an unlikely hit.
Unlike the more lyrical side of hip hop championed by rappers such as Talib Kweli and Mos Def, bounce lyrics, consciously or not, nod back to hip-hop’s early years, in which MCs were exactly that: Master of Ceremonies. Years before rappers like Big Daddy Kane and Rakim would turn rapping into an art form, rappers would just yell out commands to the audience, providing vocal accompaniment to the “real” stars: the DJs. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, bounce music didn’t give much thought to social commentary and introspection—more on that later—preferring call-and-response vocals shouting out different wards of New Orleans.
But genre is squarely about getting asses moving on the dance floor. Twerking has become the default dance move for the uninitiated, but as Freedia pointed out in an interview with Fuse, it’s just one of many dances created by bounce music artists, including clapping, bending over, busting open, shaking, dropping, mixing and the colorfully named euphemism “p-poppin,” in which the “P” does not stand for “Party.” (And no, Miley, Freedia does not approve of your twerking.)
By the mid-1990s, the genre was slowly growing outside of its regional roots. Five years after spreading the bounce gospel with 1993’s “Bounce for the Juvenile,” rapper Juvenile sold 4 million copies of his third album 400 Degreez (powered by bounce anthem “Back That Azz Up”). Brothers Bryan "Baby" Williams and Ronald "Slim" Williams were two hustlers running a small-time label on the 1100 block of Tulane Avenue, who would eventually run internationally renowned music label Cash Money Records and turn New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne into a global megastar. (Mannie Fresh, the label’s former in-house producer, remains one of bounce music’s biggest supporters.)
The Rise of “Sissy Bounce”
But for many of these rappers, success was the result of straying from bounce music’s roots, using elements of it but shifting their sound into something more commercially palatable. As “pure bounce” waned in the late 1990s, the result, in part, of major labels unable or unwilling to market a genre lacking in radio-friendly songs and reliant on unlicensed samples, an unlikely group of rappers would come in and fill the void. “Sissy Bounce” featured openly gay rappers performing bounce at clubs both straight and gay. Big Freedia has become the most notable name in the subgenre, but far from the only one, as rappers like Katey Red (Who once employed Freedia as a back-up dancer) and Sissy Nobby have taken on the role of bounce music ambassadors.
In contrast to mainstream hip hop’s reluctance to condone homosexuality in general and gay rappers in particular, New Orleans has long embraced its gay musical roots. “As far back as the 1940s and ’50s, it was a really popular thing,” Alison Fensterstock, a New Orleans music journalist who coined the term “sissy bouce” told the New York Times. “Gay performers have been celebrated forever in New Orleans black culture. Not to mention that in New Orleans there’s the tradition of masking, mummers, carnival, all the weird identity inversion. There’s just something in the culture that’s a lot more lax about gender identity and fanciness. I don’t want to say that the black community in New Orleans is much more accepting of the average, run-of-the-mill gay Joe. But they’re definitely much more accepting of gay people who get up and perform their gayness on a stage.”
“Gay performers have been celebrated forever in New Orleans black culture.”- Alison Fensterstock, music journalist
Hurricane Katrina’s Unintended Effect
The tragic events of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 ironically also helped turn the genre from regional buzz to national sensation. Many of the genre’s artists displaced from the natural disaster, including Freedia and Katey Red, began performing shows in Baton Rouge, Dallas, Atlanta and Houston, helping to spread the genre past its New Orleans roots. Clubs would host “New Orleans” nights featuring music from the city, and during one show in Houston, bounce artist Fifth Ward Weebie changed the lyrics to one of his songs, yelling “F-ck Katrina” with a chorus of “Hurricane Katrina got me living off the FEMA.” Many of the attendees, composed of both local residents and Katrina evacuees, roared in approval.
The show also underscored the new role of social commentary in the music. Now, Katrina-themed songs like Mia X's “My FEMA People” and “1,000 Miles to Downtown” began to crop up among other apolitical tracks. “Katrina had the odd effect of suddenly making bounce into a kind of rallying point,” Nik Cohn, author of the book “Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap,” told Fox News. “Bounce has become the symbol of what they used to have.” You could now hear and feel the anger and hurt that many of the formerly party-centric musicians felt. Sure, bounce was still about the party, but post-Katrina lyricism blended screeds against the U.S. government’s delayed response time with lyrics of hope and optimism for the city to rebuild and rejuvenate.
“Like crunk and trap...sissy bounce is experiencing the highest profile moment in its history.”
“The World Is Ready Now”
In recent years, bounce music has achieved a level of national recognition transcending other regionally successful genres. Beyonce, arguably the most popular female vocalist in the world, utilized elements of bounce for her 2006 song “Get Me Bodied.” In 2010, a New Orleans museum presented "Where They At: New Orleans Hip-Hop and Bounce in Words and Pictures", an exhibition collated by Fensterstock featuring an oral history and portrait gallery of the music's originators and pioneers. A year later, Big Freedia and Sissy Nobby appeared on Season 2 of the HBO show Tremé, which prominently featured bounce music.
Like crunk and trap, two other regional rap genres that exploded past their Southern roots into the suburbs and beyond, sissy bounce is experiencing the highest profile moment in its history. “Everything has a time and a season,” Big Freedia told Fuse after the Guinness Record. “It’s the time and it’s the season. The world is ready now.”