The Voodoo Experience sprawls through City Park in New Orleans as it has sprawled to a greater degree every year since 1999. Scheduled around Halloween, the three day festival invites costumes and painted faces.On Friday at 10, as the gates open electronic music pumps from the speakers at the Red Bulletin stage. The crowd is just beginning to pile in. Only a few of the vendor booths are fully arranged and put together. People in small cubby-hole tents name plated with white letters on black vinyl extent table legs and unfold chairs. On the tables, they place pamphlets, bandannas, and coupons ready for the thousands that will pass by. The surest indicator of being at an event too early is the bar register. If the bartender at one of the twenty or so Bud Lite sponsored bars says you’ll have to give her a moment while she finishes setting up her register, you are far too early in arrival.
I tell her I’m in no hurry. She can take her time. She smiles and finishes counting. Then sells me a seven dollar beer. Voodoo fest makes its name in the reunion. Each year at least one of the headliners is a band from yesteryear reforming to give one more tour or show. In past years fan’s have funneled through the gates to relive Jane’s Addiction, Rage Against The Machine, or The Smashing Pumpkins. For all of us who remember Billy Corgan informing us that “Smashing” is an adjective not a verb, we get one more chance to catch the bands of our youths or to relive that moment from 199X. And to further remind ourselves of the passing years. The cynical urge is strong. That this festival and each band reforms to cash in on the fans once more as they hit their crisis years rolls easy off the tongue until the performance starts. The chords start, the bass drum kicks, and we get a tour of all the significant moments attached. This year’s pop nostalgia brought to you by Soundgarden.At 11:30 seven people stand in front of the Bingo! stage waiting for Cheeky Blakk. Two mid-twenties guys in matching orange camelbaks saunter to the police barricade before the edge of the stage. One wears a neon yellow Camel hat with the brim bent upward. The other sips amber-tinted liquid from the long tube coming out of his backpack. The band comes on stage before Cheeky. While they play, the speakers shout, “Who ya’ll waiting for?”
The band along with a lanky young black man standing on the stage responds, “Cheeky!”
Cheeky walks out from back stage. The music stops. The lanky, young man, Cheeky’s son Lil’ Pimp 21, asks Cheeky where everyone is. “There ain’t no one here.”
Cheeky glances out at the audience as if casually surveying a nearly empty bar at the comment. “They coming. These people know,” she says without looking at the audience. “Don’t worry about that. They’ll be here. Just wait.”
With that the band starts up. Cheeky goes into song. Lil’ Pimp 21 jumps into the small crowd. Cheeky instructs us what to say and when. Lil’ Pimp 21 runs through the crowd with a mic, giving everyone a chance to hear their voice raised above all others: “Ninth ward!”
Cheeky paces, claps, and bends over the edge of the stage. Every move filled with a smooth, practiced energy. She performs regardless of numbers. Rapping hard then slow. Laughing into the mic. The sound traveling beyond the meager audience says the show is bumping. She turns to face the audience. “Come on, come on.” She snickers and spreads her arms out. Her shirt reads “F.A.M.E.” and underneath “Fuck All My Enemies.” “Ya’ll don’t even know,” she says turning away.
The crowd grows. Some wander over. Some walk with more purpose obviously interested. After a few more songs, Cheeky tells the band to hold up. She looks to Knowledge who’s come on stage. He’s older and thicker than Lil’ Pimp. His cornrows lead into braids at his neck. A couple of his teeth, outlined in gold, shine as he says, “What up, girl?”
“Can I get real for a second?”
The MC says that this is where they do their thing, up on stage. He tells Cheeky not to worry about these people just to say what’s on her mind. She relates a common story about being done wrong by a lover as an intro for a slow jam. Cheeky moves across the stage. She tells security that they need to move the barricades, because she’s coming out.
The asides, the moments when Cheeky either disregards or ignores the audience establishes a wall between performer and spectator, or since there is already a wall there, it directs the audience to pay attention to the wall. Ignored and enthralled. Each aside reminds that the stage is hers, and each of us is here to see that the stage is hers to do with what she wants.
In the crowd, Cheeky divides the crowd into two sides: men and women. Cheeky’s side yells about their ability to ride a
dick. The other, Lil Pimp’s side, responds that they expertly use their dicks. Lemme see you drop that, drop that, Cheeky beckons. One middle aged white woman awkward but smoothly bounces her ass nearly to the ground. Cheeky asks her if she likes getting head. With the mic in front of her, she yells, “Hell yeah.”
“I like this one,” Cheeky says laughing. Lil Pimp smiles and shakes his head. The song ends, and Cheeky says she’s going to be right back. She leaves her own show as if she’s doing us a favor, and we’ll have to bare with having imposed that favor on her. It works. Everyone laughs as she runs back through the gate and around to the backstage area. Her performance balances these ups and downs. One moment Cheeky dances with us. She walks up and grabs a thick bald white man by the crotch. Eyes grow big. “I like this white boy,” she says. “What about you?” she asks his friend then grinds her hips toward him in a motion that somehow only grazes his leg.
The next, she eschews the crowd to have a moment with her band. Speaking into the mic but with her back turned to us. She creates the feeling that we’re overhearing a moment she’d rather keep privet. The crowd has filled out completely. When Cheeky comes back she moves into her take on Al Green’s classic “Let’s stay together.” Her twist matches her attitude and the theme of the show. Cheeky raps in her gruff rasp flowing hard into a chorus she sings to her former lover that she is doing so much better. The audience grooves. Halfway through the song most people sing along with the chorus. Cheeky holds up the mic, and voices blast from the speakers back into the speaker’s faces.
The song ends. Cheeky tells us she loves all of us, and she leaves with the band.
At the Red Bulletin stage, two girls in matching Alice in Wonderland dresses bounce to in and out of rhythm to the electronica that fills gaps between sets. The two men they’re with stop playing with a beach ball as the girls’ dresses rise higher exposing their white pantyhose. One wears black underwear. A man next to me says “a lot of these people are still awake from the rave last night.” He looks like he only got a few hours himself. He grins with shiny blown out pupils and moves away through the crowd.
Tony Skratchere walks up to the turntables. He keeps his eyes on his work and his head down. Halfway into the first song the crowd notices him and moves closer to the stage. The music booms from the speakers. The beat drops in Gnarls Barkley circa St. Elsewhere-esque pieces. Tony peppers in light dub step samples. The young costumed crowd bounce and laugh. Tony doesn’t look down at them from his position up and away, behind the large turntable booth. Lights behind him flicker faintly in the daylight. He moves from record to record frowning in concentration. The crowd dances but individuals pause to talk or yell to each other.
The third track rolls out Tony Skratchere’s baby, his created genre, Yacht Bounce. Journey’s “Wheel in the Sky” comes on and is quickly toppled by a harsh old school bounce beat. A few people throw fists into the air. Most of them moderately dance.
Yacht Bounce probably bares some explaining, or at least it did when I first heard the term. The genre is a fusion of ostensible polar opposites. Tony mixes “Yacht Rock,” the soft rock made between 1975 and 1985 by hit making musicians like Toto, Kenny Loggins, and Boz Scaggs–the name references the popular yuppie pass time of the era and the myriad nautical references in the music–with New Orleans Bounce music–see No Limit records, Magnolia Shorty, or DJ Jubilee. In an interview with Bounce New Orleans, Skratchere said, “The beauty of the genre is it takes the whitest music of my lifetime and mixes it with the blackest music of my lifetime, forming the ULTIMATE gray genre. Its smooth music thrown onto the streets and forced to fight for its survival.”
Skratchere and his friends came up with the idea last Thanksgiving. Since then Yacht Bounce parties have gained a respectable following in the Mid-City area of New Orleans. The genre has enjoyed some good press. Off Beat’s Annie Weldon wrote an enthusiastic introduction/history of the genre in July. On the same day, Alex Rawls condemned the music in the same publication. Rawls quotes Skratchere saying, “Bounce is a specialized genre that’s not for everyone. Anyone can listen to yacht bounce.” Rawls concedes the point but asks if that is what anyone wants: should bounce be castrated instead of served raw and full on? Given the rise of Sissy Bounce, there is obviously a market. Rawl’s inserts a hint of class war asking, “Do you want to buy into all the bourgeois musical values imbedded[sic] in those songs, or do you want Take Them to The St. Thomas?” Given the gaudy irony omnipresent in the Yacht Rock revival and the diversity at every bounce show in the city–not to mention performers like Big Freedia playing Best Friends Day in Richmond,VA–it seems not to be an either/or situation.
Tony Skratchere starts a new track. A No Limit era beat comes on. The sped up “Tubular Bells” esque tinking moves to the sinister bass line. The crowd turns back to the stage recognizing the music. A shirtless twenty-something drops his backpack next to his friends and moves in a half-dance toward the stage. As he pushes into the main crush, the smooth tones of Wham!’s “Everything She Wants” over take the beat. The dancing slows through out. The shirtless guy walks back to his friends, picks up his backpack, and says, “Let’s go.” Tony still hasn’t noticibly looked up at the crowd. People turn to talk to each other. A few walk away from the stage to hear each other. Thinning with empty pockets and cliques tightening, Tony’s set resembles a dying house party. On cue with the crowd, Tony hits the needle, accidentally scratching and stopping the song. This is the first moment Tony looks up and out at the people he’s here to entertain.
Rawls’ accusation that Yacht Bounce creates a safe or cleaner bounce may have merit. Yacht Rock’s irony and gentle melody soften what are often tinny, harsh beats. It’s also hard to imagine a scene in a club where two men have been staring each other down all night, measuring each other up, and then bump chests on the dance floor in pre-fight ritual while “Africa” plays in the background. But Rawls only hints at the main issue with the new genre. He writes that Tony is “far too respectful to the source material.” With the prevalence of mixing software and the endless ability to upload new music on the Internet, electronic music, DJing, and mixing evolve daily. Gregg Gillis a.k.a. Girl Talk routinely samples ten or more songs spanning all genres in his tracks. DJ’s at The Hood Internet churn out well mixed two to three song indie meets hip-hop mash-ups at a steady clip. Toto meets No Limit might not scream out the same irony as Meek Mill vs. Beirut, but the tracks wait in the same line auditioning for the next hipster dance party. The process of making music is repitition. All notes have been played, and the most popular and pleasing combinations are well traveled and recorded. I say this only to make the point that I see nothing diminutive or uncreative about using samples or recorded songs as the building blocks of new tracks or, in the best case, new songs. Each Girl Talk track runs like a mix tape with its own themes. Those themes reflect the larger arc of the album. The Hood Internet, like Tony, looks for the least obvious artists to pair, but they pay close attention to mixing melody and vocals. They use the conflicting songs to comment on underlying themes and change the feel or emotion conveyed. IYAZ’s “Replay” becomes mournful and dramatic when clashed to The Big Pink’s “Velvet,” shifting the lyrics’ meaning from a flirting holler to a lamentation on a song the triggers a memory that wont leave. What Yacht Bounce fails to do is use samples or songs as building blocks for new music. The tracks fall short after the tongue-in-cheek humor passes. The bounce track starts strong then falls out as the joke kicks in and nearly whites out any audible creation or drastic change.
A.V. Club writer Steven Hyden makes this point in his article “What makes music boring?” He says, “When music is boring, it speaks to a lack of what people turn to music for, which is a connection. It might be physical, it might be mental, it might be emotional—but we all want to feel something when we hear a song. If it moves us in some way (whether it’s in our hearts, minds, or hips), we like it.”
Later, Hyden makes the obligatory conceit that all art is subjective. Given the chart topping status of Yacht Bounce’s shtick and the cult following and, at least regional, staying power of Bounce, the connective tissue Hyden speaks of seems present in the source material. Even if either or both are laughably out of date, when recognized their familiarity sparks a momentary connection–fist pumps or rushes to the stage. While Tony spins, his head down, moving only from turntable to turntable, the links or cohesion between the mixed songs fizzles. The ignored crowd loses interest, talking amongst themselves or reading schedules.
DJ Quickie Mart joins Skratchere on stage. Quickie moves frantically, his long hair trailing behind him, getting in his way, being pushed out of it. His hands slap and fly off the needle in exaggerated motions. After a song, Quickie takes over the stage. The crowd draws back to the stage. Quickie pauses the track and rewinds while mimicking the sound. The crowd pauses with the music and redoubles as the beat re-drops. Quickie leans over his tables and shouts, “Make some noise if you’re still up from last night.” He leans back, purses his lips, and nods.
Gotham Green runs on to the stage. He greets the audience by grabbing a beach ball out of the air, signing it, and tossing it back. The bass beat slows as Gotham smoothly flows in his West Coast style. Heads nod along with his stresses. The beat moves past the song. The bass becomes unstable and grows into a dirty wobble. A few people bounce. Most writhe, going limp then lurching forward with the wobble. Quickie throws up his hand and brings it down with the beat. A cheer rises with the drop. Gotham Green runs across the stage to grab the beach ball. He passes it back into the crowd. This continues every few moments, the ball going back and forth between audience and performer: back and forth, back and forth.