Ticksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap
White, British, and pushing 60, Nik Cohn never fit in with New Orleans's rap scene, but for a brief period in the late 90s and early 00s he explored its margins as a journalist, talent scout, and manager. Triksta, his book about this period, is partly a memoir, partly a meditation on hip-hop, and partly an expose of what's under the glittering surface of the music industry. But mostly it's a story about hubris: Cohn's an outsider who tried to harness and influence the scene and failed in spectacular fashion to do either.
Cohn, the author of 1968's Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (often cited as the first book of rock criticism), has been obsessed with New Orleans since childhood: he writes vividly and enchantingly about the city and its music, from his early fascination with Jelly Roll Morton to his first visit there in 1972, while on the road with the Who. Though he later moved to New York, he continued to rent a house in New Orleans for several months each year, describing the city as "the lover I could never be free of." And he knows New Orleans's hip-hop scene, which centers on bounce, a club-centric, bump-and-grind style. Cohn puts on his musicologist's hat to explain that bounce is "patterned on the call-and-response of Mardi Gras Indian chants," but another way to put it is that it's hip-hop with the formal rigidity of a square dance, with the MC commanding the crowd--bend over and touch the floor, now turn around, now throw your hands up.
Cohn knew the music, but he didn't feel it until the 90s, after he was diagnosed with hepatitis C. Hep C's symptoms include insomnia and exhaustion, but to hear Cohn tell it the diagnosis forced him to live his life in a new, reenergized way. So he catches a parade float in New Orleans blasting a bounce track, Magnolia Shorty's "Monkey on tha Dick," and it connects. "The effect was baptismal," he writes.
Cohn's initial research leads him to Earl Mackie, a Jehovah's Witness whose label, Take Fo' Records, specializes in sex raps. (Mackie's faith prevents him from releasing records advocating violence, but he believes sex is an acceptable theme. "It beats killing people," he says.) Cohn brokers a major-label deal for one of Mackie's artists, Choppa, and is initially granted a budget of $250,000 from Warner Brothers to make an album. "I would select producers," he writes, "provide song ideas, hire guest artists and singers and live musicians as required, and try to keep Choppa's nose to the grindstone." He even writes lyrics: "Bend it over, catch the wall / Wobble wobble for me."
It's not giving away a significant plot point to say that the deal eventually falls through and Choppa defects to Master P's New No Limit Records. Bounce insiders bristle at his attempts to turn a regional genre into a national success. One producer all but calls Cohn a carpetbagger, and Choppa is deaf to Cohn's talk about broader career strategies. "They love me all over," Choppa tells him. "Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Lafayette. Everywhere."
Triksta is full of interactions like this, where Cohn and the artists seem to be talking past each other. Bounce's rules are inflexible, and Cohn's ideas simply don't match up with his artists'. Cohn wants an ode to independent women and single mothers, but Choppa just wants another remix of his familiar hit, "Choppa Style." Cohn leaves a voice mail for producer Supa Dave suggesting a change to a bass line, and the message gets played in the studio to riotous laughter. Choppa nicknames Cohn "Triksta" during a pot-fueled studio session, after first calling him "Nik da Trik." Neither name is exactly affectionate.
Triksta is constructed in part from pieces Cohn wrote for Granta, the Guardian Weekend magazine, and British GQ, and its seams occasionally show--the chronology is scrambled, and the stories of many characters are confined to a single chapter. But the book has a compelling theme in Cohn's relationship to New Orleans as well as his constant grappling with race, particularly race in pop music from the earliest days of rock 'n' roll to the present. He worries that his obsession with black musicians has "some taint of idealization, the flip side of condescension," and that sort of candor keeps Triksta from becoming a work of unintentional comedy.
Cohn's in his element when he's looking closely at hip-hop's allure, especially how and why it titillates white audiences. He's conflicted about gangsta rap and devotes numerous pages to his love-hate relationship with it, but for Cohn the hedonism of bounce accurately reflects a very New Orleans worldview: "Fantasy, braggadocio, myth--these weren't just fancy words for lying, but a sort of art. . . . That was how I came to think of New Orleans: my city of beautiful lies."
Triksta was written and printed before Hurricane Katrina, and it's hard to read it now as anything other than a kind of memorial. Certain passages have an eerie premonitory tone, as when the mother of once bounce producer describes the decay of her neighborhood: "Now there was nothing left, just wickedness and crime, and God was mocked. . . . But he would not be mocked forever, no, God always had the last word."
Katrina also reveals just how difficult a task Cohn created for himself: even the hurricane couldn't rewrite the rules of New Orleans hip-hop. Rapper and Cash Money Records president Lil' Wayne, who was raised in New Orleans, recently released Tha Carter II (Cash Money/Universal), which contains not one reference to Katrina. He had no interest in pursuing new subject matter, he recently told the New York Times. "When I get behind the mike, I got a whole 'nother mind frame," he said. "I rap about what they wanna hear." Master P recently addressed the disaster by releasing Hurricane Katrina--We Gon' Bounce Back (Gutter Music), an album by bounce supergroup the 504 Boyz, but most of the tracks wouldn't sound out of place on any of No Limit's late-90s releases. Resilience is at the heart of bounce--Triksta ends when Cohn gives up the rap game, but the game keeps right on going.