— Jay Electronica “Exhibit C”
Nearly 45-years-old, Hip-Hop is a cultural art form that began during house parties in the tenements of the Boogie Down Bronx in New York City. It also provided an outlet of creative expression for Black and brown artists of various mediums who deejayed, rocked rhymes, spray-painted graffiti murals, and breakdanced their way through the looming epidemics of poverty, racism, and drug use. Former Def Jam Records’ executive Lyor Cohen echoes these politically charged sentiments with the following: “Hip-Hop was also rebellion against several norms of the time, and stood against the violence and drug culture that pervaded the time.”
Unlike many of the Black arts that originated within the 3rd Coast, Hip-Hop migrated down south and created legends below the Mason-Dixon Line like Scarface (Houston, TX), Outkast (Atlanta), UGK (Port Arthur, TX), Trick Daddy (Miami, FL), 8 Ball and MJG (Memphis, TN), Lil’ Wayne (New Orleans), et al. New Orleans Hip-Hop and its now globally recognized subgenre of bounce music found its humble beginnings in the early ’90s with MC T Tucker and DJ Irv’s release “Where Dey At” in 1991. The Crescent City jettisoned to the top of the Billboard charts and worldwide popularity beginning in 1997 with consecutive and regularly scheduled releases from Master P’s No Limit Records and Cash Money Records. The latter was also founded by Bryan and Ronald Williams in 1991 “just when bounce music was getting big in the city.”
— Juvenile “Back That Azz Up”
New Orleans’ Hip-Hop scene contains just as much variety then as it does now. One of the few glaring differences is that our contemporary artists constantly live in the shadow of the “taking over for the ’99 and the 2000” era. Some rappers even prefer to exclude the birthplace of jazz as their hometown during interviews or conversations with rap fans and music industry reps for the simple fact of the overwhelming stigma attached.
Two new collectives look to embrace the success of their predecessors yet firmly control their own destinies. Broken Levee is a production company created by 25-year-old rapper Knox Ketchum after emulating the late Soulja Slim’s style over a mixtape verse. Besvibes (pronounced Best Vibes), is an indie label spearheaded by the group’s 21-year old in-house producer/engineer/emcee YDS. YDS and Ketchum classify their music similarly. It’s “heartfelt, soul type music” says Ketchum.
YDS, a senior at Loyola University, states his music is “Honest, soulful and I’d say knowledgeable. I’ve treated Hip-Hop with more effort than any school subject than I ever have in my life.”
Coincidentally, both rappers began their careers in 2014, a very productive year for Hip-Hop with releases from Run the Jewels, Ghostface Killah, PRhyme, The Roots, etc. Jay-Z’s first signee to his Rocnation management group, J. Cole, only added to his devoted following with the December 9 release, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Cole’s held in high regards by YDS and Ketchum, not only for his decisions as a label head but also as an artist. “I have my eyes set to getting some recognition from 9th Wonder or J. Cole, being that their independent labels are stationed in North Carolina. Seeing that both of them have kept their eyes to the streets, to the underground. I see a lot of underground acts and acts that have the same value that I have as far as not following trends or who’s really staying true to the game,” says YDS.
“People like J. Cole, you just think of some raw spit. There’s nothing to remember him by except the music and that’s kind of the lane I want to take” praises Ketchum.
From rookie to vet to OG, Hip-Hop communities have maintained a system based on rites of passage. To some degree, this has been lost in the current age of instant gratification and the “what have you done for me lately” attitude found on social media. Despite these setbacks, a newcomer must still pay dues and ultimately find their niche through some trial and error. “A lot of how everything works as far as coming up in any industry, especially the Hip-Hop industry, it’s all just about being in this type of small circle, the more ingrained you are into it the more exposure you get. I say now after four years of finally coming to grips with that through trial and error, I say the thing that separates me, it’s my awareness of that,” admits YDS. With more and more emcees (Chance the Rapper, Big K.R.I.T., Macklemore, etc.) finding success independently, fans are looking to invest into the lives of artists compared to a cookie cutter image that can be developed, molded, and presented by a record label. In this day and age, your true, authentic self can take you further than a pre-chosen wardrobe or memorized talking points to recite in public. “Everything that I write is mostly my own stuff that I always say anyway, I just rhyme it. Everything that I’m saying in real life kind of translates into my music, so… whatever you’re not hearing is what you’re not hearing when I’m talking anyway,” says Ketchum.
Talkin’ black, brainwashed from rock and rap. He sags his pants, doo-rags and a stockin’ cap.
— Eminem “Sing for the Moment”
In his 2012 book, Bounce: Rap Music and Local Identity in New Orleans, author Matt Miller explains Hip-Hop “emerged from a particular, cultural, spatial, and socioeconomic context.” This music genre and cultural phenomenon was created by “young people (the vast majority of them from an African American or Afro-Caribbean background).” YDS and Knox are of Filipino and Caucasian descent respectively. When discussing their racial identities and how Blackness is not only intricately woven into their hometown but also the city’s rap community, the former states, “I want people to know that I’m continuing that in a way, but in my own way. The origins of Hip-Hop was a very resistant movement but for all the right things. Literally, it’s the number one streamed genre in the world. That’s a beautiful thing, to see a movement and turn it to something like that.” For many Hip-Hop purists, despite their accomplishments or accolades white emcees will always be seen as outsiders and operating on borrowed time. Knox describes his acclimation into the scene by saying the following: “Low income areas just so happen to be more brown and Black and that’s where I was in my whole life, just my family. I never really had a problem being accepted. I’ve always been praised by everyone because they know I try to keep it true to myself. I never try to appease Black people or act like them.”
— Notorious B.I.G. “Sky’s The Limit”
The music industry can be a cutthroat business similar to Lord of the Flies but in recording studios compared to remote islands. Many have left small towns and traveled from cities across the globe to achieve success and become “stadium status” musicians and performers. Though relatively new to the Mardi Gras Mecca’s Hip-Hop community, Knox, YDS, and their respective crews look towards the future with larger ambitions and new music on the horizon. Plans for Knox and Broken Levee include having “an image, sort of a theme that people can recognize when they see us or see each of us individually. I plan on bringing out the best in each individual in their own way to get us all established one by one. Within the next five years, lots of videos and spreading our influence out around the region and eventually the North, trying to book shows; the normal stuff.”
A self-described student of the game, YDS intends to further hone his engineering skills. “I’d just love to see my skills really skyrocket within the next five years. That’s just a personal goal I’ve set for myself.” He adds, “As far as the trajectory of my career, I would like to have a little bit more following not just in New Orleans but within the Southern region.”
With these two — and their groups — building their brands in the city, the future looks bright and in good hands.