How DJ Rusty Lazer Helped Break Bounce (Music Box Remix feat. Big Freedia and Nicky da B)
by Michael Patrick Welch
Jay Pennington sits, today, more than alive, children running around him with drumsticks, pounding on every part of the wondrous Music Box art installation that he helped conjure. Slabs of metal and glass bang and tinkle, and a low-end sawtooth wave unfurls slowly from a speaker high above us. When the wild sounds crescendo, dead leaves fall lightly down from the enormous trees that shade the Music Box compound. Pennington’s journey has brought him through musical heartbreak, death and grief — in helping finally break New Orleans bounce rap to a national audience, Jay Pennington was nearly broken himself — but then finally, here, to this magical musical village.
Over the racket, in a calm voice befitting his long grey mustache, Pennington tells me the story of his small but essential roll in finally smuggling bounce music across Louisiana state borders. “Bringing bounce to an outside culture via the music industry directly is next to impossible,” he explains. “It’s hard because bounce is more like the blues: you play other people’s songs your way, you sing it your own way, and it’s your song now — doing bounce means you’re violating copyright laws and limiting your career dramatically.” Bounce is also famously, lovably foul-mouthed, and so far more bounce records have been sold out of car trunks than via major record labels.
In 2010, Rusty Lazer’s journey began with the creation of a short, simple path around bounce music’s decades-old challenges.
Like many refugees in that year after Hurricane Katrina, Pennington found himself flung across the globe on a forced adventure — in his case, working as a professional art installer in Berlin, Switzerland, Miami, Tokyo and other beautiful, non-flooded cities. During these travels. Pennington met up with other New Orleans street musicians. “We’d go play a show, trad jazz usually, and then after it was over I’d just plug in my iPod and start playing New Orleans music: brass bands, bounce. And people just ate that shit up everywhere I went. It didn’t matter that the lyrics were in English; I guess ‘Azz Everywhere’ sounds cool even if you don’t know what it means.”
When Pennington finally returned to New Orleans in 2007, he rushed to tell the queen of his findings overseas. “I was the queen for a secondline [parade] group at the time in New Orleans called the VIP Ladies,” recalls Big Freedia today. “Jay came up to me while I’m sitting on top of this convertible, wearing all white on a hot sunny day, being the queen that I am and waving my hands. And he hollered at me at the secondline with all those black people — he was like the only white dude out there. He walked alongside the car for a minute, told me what he wanted to do, and we exchanged information.”
The next day the duo broke bread while Pennington told Freedia of a project he’d just started with some friends, called New Orleans Airlift, an artist exchange program between New York and New Orleans. “I told Freedia, ‘People outside of New Orleans need to see you,’” says Pennington. “’The music is so powerful without you even there, how much more powerful would it be if you were there with me?’”
New Orleans is full of major music stars that rarely leave the city. When she met Jay, Big Freedia was already a huge celebrity among the city’s African Americans. A spectacular combination of man and woman (with no particular pronoun preference), Freedia commanded the mic, led her dancers, bounced her ass, whipped her hair and, block party by block party, club by club, she’d taken Black New Orleans over. “At the peak at club Caesars we were probably packing in 1,500 to 2,000 people at $20, $30 tickets,” Freedia tells me.
But Freedia admitted to Pennington at the time that she’d had trouble expanding outside of New Orleans, especially when it came to getting booked at “straight clubs” in places like Houston or Atlanta. Even in New Orleans at the time, very few white people had experienced the undeniable power of Big Freedia. “Outside of the city, a lot of people expected that because Freedia was gay that she should play for gay audiences,” says Pennington, “but that’s never been her plan.”
Freedia’s plan, as she has explained it to me over the years, has always been world domination. “So, I first took Freedia to New York because I knew people there who threw parties with a huge mix of people,” Pennington says. “I had her playing punk rock shows with straight kids, gay kids, black, white, Puerto Rican kids, Asian kids. People who, it didn’t matter what kind of band came on; they just wanted to be into things.”
During New York’s Fashion Week, Freedia rocked eight shows over nine days, starting with a performance alongside famous, young Baltimore rapper Spank Rock. A human pocketknife, Pennington also DJ’d these shows he’d booked and served as defacto tour manager. The punk rock, sleep-on-the-floor lodging arrangements Pennington set up in New York caused Freedia’s touring partner, Sissy Nobby, to leave immediately for New Orleans after just one show. But Freedia stuck it out. “After the first show of that trip to New York Freedia was like ‘I want to do this, what we’re doing, together,’” Rusty remembers.
Pennington’s friends from Bust feminist magazine and also Fader music publication came to the shows to watch Freedia rule the New York crowds with the same ease that she controlled her New Orleans fans, and both magazines immediately gave New Orleans bounce music glowing national coverage. Though Freedia always managed to look uniquely stylish (partly thanks to her hair-stylist mother), a marketing director for American Apparel who’d seen Freedia perform during Fashion Week, invited the duo down to the store to take all the clothes and shoes they wanted for free.
Freedia seemed to cover as much ground and gain as many fans in those nine days as she had in 12 years hustling in New Orleans.
Naturally, Jay and Freedia continued to hit New York again and again. On side trips to Los Angeles, the duo made fans out of rapper M.I.A., singer Lady Gaga, and transgender performance artist Amanda Lapore. Within that year, the Scion car company agreed to release Freedia’s first national EP. “Then the New York Times picked up the story of sissy bounce,” remembers Freedia, “and from that I started to get a real buzz all over the world.”
It did shock a few of her longtime local fans when, with the help of a new white manager, Freedia suddenly began packing rock n’ roll clubs full of white kids who, in earnest, began learning to twerk. “But it wasn’t about what my circle had to say, it was about what I wanted to do,” asserts Freedia when I ask if any of her (black) friends expressed cynicism regarding Jay. “If they wasn’t down to roll with me, they had to get rolled over. This was about me and Jay’s vision.”
Melvin “Boss” Foley, associate of rappers like Juvenile and Choppa, also joined Freedia’s team around that time. “‘Rusty got the white crowd. I’ll get the Chitlin Circuit,’” Freedia quotes Foley as saying in her autobiographical book, God Save the Queen Diva. “I didn’t want to abandon my fan base, who were mostly black women at that point,” writes Freedia. “Rusty could get the cities like New York, Portland and San Francisco, and Boss could focus on the south.” A seasoned manager, Foley also got a contract right from the beginning. Freedia admits in her book that she worried how Pennington would take that news.
Pennington was not paid for booking and promoting these tours, or his work managing Freedia’s stage show. “I was only paid to DJ during the show,” he attests. Pennington barely ever attempted a contract with Freedia. “I brought it up three years in, a contract. But I couldn’t get an answer. She didn’t really wanna broach it. One thing I learned from all this: You can’t really wait for those things…”
Pennington learned that a manager with a quickly rising star and no contract for himself, was not long a manager to be.
In the years before Jay met Freedia, one of two houses on his Upper Ninth Ward property had begun to disintegrate. “The inspector who came out said it was being held together by good wishes,” he told me at the time. Then just as he first hit the road with Freedia in 2010, the structure finally collapsed into a pile of beautiful, historic bargeboard — wood from the ships that had brought new immigrants to the neighborhood hundreds of years ago.
Strapped to the freight train of Freedia’s ascension, Pennington had little time to address the collapse. Cleanup fell to his artistic collaborators back home in New Orleans. The members of New Orleans Airlift, led by New York artists Delaney Martin and Taylor Shepherd, decided to use the valuable wood from Pennington’s house to create an ambitious musical art installation. Titled “Dithyrambalina,” inspired by a whimsical cardboard model created by New York-based artist Swoon for the New Orleans Museum of Art, the alternately named “Music Box” would be a shantytown playable by visitors.
“I reached out to friends and strangers with an invitation to become settlers in this strange village,” Martin explained to me back then. “I guess I acted as the Mayor of the town. If we’d been making a film I would have been the director. Along with Theo Eliezer, I also acted as a producer, beginning with fundraising and ending with organizing details of our performances.”
This first draft of the now world-famous Music Box contained a robotic Indonesian gamelan percussion orchestra controlled by video game buttons; an autoharp that folded out like a Murphy bed; a shack whose floorboards emitted loud creaking sounds amplified through a reverb chamber and small hidden speakers; and a “water organ” that forced a signal through plumbing (turning the spigots and filling the pipes with water manually filtered and changed the sound). Famous local one-man-band and electrician Quintron also donated the “Singing House”: weather vanes and solar panels equipped with audio sensors that turned wind, rain and ambient light into layers of droning sound — an idea that would eventually evolve to become Quintron’s “Weather Warlock” instrument.
The small buildings that comprised Dithyrambalina were soon visited and played by internationally renowned musicians from drummer Hamid Drake, to Cash Money beat god Mannie Fresh, to Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore.
All this wild shit DJ Rusty Lazer returned home to, whenever Freedia’s freight train momentarily pulled back into New Orleans.
After three years of his undying support, Rusty Lazer lost his role as Freedia’s manager in a televised contest.
On the pilot episode of Freedia’s Fuse TV reality show Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce (now in its sixth season) Pennington was pit against Renee Moncada, a multi-media documentarian and television producer who also happened to be married to Thomas McElroy, the impresario behind singing group En Vogue. She had read about Freedia in Bust magazine, and planned to do a documentary, but Freedia quickly added Moncada to her management team alongside Jay and Boss.
“I don’t think I had anything that Jay couldn’t bring to the table,” says Moncada. “I just added on. I helped enhance things that Rusty was already doing.” But when Moncada’s bounce documentary eventually morphed into Freedia’s current FUZE TV reality show, Pennington saw the end coming.
Moncada also claims she wanted to manage Freedia out of a sense of protectiveness. “As a fellow black person, I always saw an aspect of it that people thought Freedia was a joke and they didn’t take him seriously,” she claims, pointing to the aforementioned televised contest, wherein both she and Pennington were tasked with each dreaming up a concept for Freedia’s first ever world tour. Pennington pitched a pro-gay tour with the title “Go Homo,” an inversion of the anti-gay hip-hop tagline “no homo.” “I felt the fact that Freedia was gay was secondary — even the fact that he was black was secondary to his talent,” says Moncada. “Rusty and his girlfriend came up with a flyer for the Go Homo tour and had Freedia in some kind of Elizabethan outfit with like a buttplug in one hand and… I was like no way… I was offended. That kind of messaging is not cool. It doesn’t give him any dignity. This music is part of our culture, and the world is always watching black people. So I didn’t want Freedia emasculated, or laughed at. I wanted him celebrated. And no one was managing the message that was going out into world. I think I came in and helped shape the branding and the messaging.”
To be fair, Moncada’s idea involved Freedia touring with Mr. Ghetto, a bounce artist as famous for his hit video “Walmart” (filmed commando in the store, with women twerking in the aisles) as he was for caricaturing bounce and black New Orleans poverty. “That was literally the last day I worked for Freedia, technically,” says Pennington who, feeling equally protective, implored Freedia to abandon the Mr. Ghetto tour — a tour that quickly imploded when Mr. Ghetto was arrested on charges of “hostage taking.”
Renee helped Freedia land not only on TV with Jimmy Kimmel and Carson Daly, but eventually on stage with Beyonce. Freedia is credited with Miley Cyrus’s humorously weak twerk attempt on national television in 2013; instead of getting mad, Freedia took that momentary attention and set about breaking the Guinness record for most people simultaneously twerking (350 people; 700 cheeks).
That same year the word twerk officially entered the dictionary.
And with that, Jay Pennington was sent back to what he thought was his old life — though he found it had changed drastically in his absence.
Back at home, Pennington did not give up on bounce. He hosted bounce parties at local dive bars and otherwise spread the gospel of bounce music any way he could. “I was always helping Katey Red get gigs, and Sissy Nobby, and DJ Jubilee, and just doing anything I could think of to spread this thing that I loved,” remembers Pennington, who made an especially strong connection with then 21-year-old rapper, Nicky Da B.
Nicky stood out brightly among a crop of gay bounce rappers empowered by the success of Freedia, Sissy Nobby and Katey Red. “Nicky had a weird dancehall approach to bounce, with crazy sounds and tongue rolls and things,” says Pennington, who employed the same tactics managing Nicky as he had Freedia: get him in front of diverse live audiences.
After a year of casually managing Nicky — and even taking him on his first gigs out of town — the duo’s relationship grew serious enough that it came time for Nicky to introduce Rusty Lazer to his mother. “Nicky had made some bad choices, like being Sissy Nobby’s dancer for free,” remembers Nicole Toney, Nicky’s mom. “So when I met Jay, we talked on the telephone…and I was very rude. Here’s this person who suddenly wants to take my son out of town…You have to understand [Nicky and his friends] are young gay men who haven’t really lived, and are just figuring out how to live this lifestyle, and then this guy comes along to take Nicky away…”
“I wouldn’t say I was jealous,” laughs Terrance Allen, who was 23 when he and Nicky lived together as partners. “But at the time I wasn’t very open-minded about new people. I wasn’t really good at making friends. I was shady a little bit. [laughs] You gotta understand I am a little black boy from the Marrero projects, and here you got this little white guy coming around. The way we grew up, white people didn’t just hang with us like that. So I was on guard. Not jealous. Just on guard. I didn’t trust him.”
Seconds later he adds, “I guess it does sound like I was jealous.”
But both Allen and Toney soon came to more than trust Pennington. “He has never lied, he has never let me down,” says Toney. “Now, I have a deep respect and love for him — just like Nicky loved Rusty. He was like ‘Rusty the one…’”
One night in 2012, as Rusty Lazer’s DJ set moisturized the floor of the St. Roch Tavern, Pennington was visited by the world’s most famous underground dance music producer, Diplo. He wanted badly to record with Freedia.
“Freedia’s out of town,” Pennington informed him, before introducing Diplo to Nicky. Following Nicky’s electric performance at St Roch, Diplo decided they’d meet up again the next day to record at the Music Box.
Nicky told me at the time of the session, “First, we took Diplo inside the Music Box and ran around trying everything out. He liked the samples I’d made there with Mannie Fresh when we performed together the weekend before… Then Diplo and I went inside and recorded,” Nicky fluttered. “I knew that he was going to stick with the theme ‘express yourself, release and go / attack the flow, and work it low.’ But I gave him a lot of other vocals to use.”
Pennington recalls, “Diplo brought along one of those little Duet interface boxes and a mic with toilet paper wrapped around it as a pop filter. That’s how Nicky’s vocals were recorded for the song ‘Express Yourself.’”
That January, Diplo and Nicky shot the video for “Express Yourself” outside of the Music Box. By now the song has over thirteen million hits on YouTube, and has appeared in movies, TV shows, FOX Sports segments, a Doritos commercial, even a dance set piece in Beyonce’s 2013 world tour (Nicky’s image appears in her “Formation” video).
“At that point I had a great lawyer with Jay Z’s law firm in New York. And I told Nicky, ‘You make contracts between your friends to preserve friendships.’ A piece of paper between me and Nicky is what respect looked like.” Pennington adds, wistfully, “I remember when we signed it in my bedroom, he was jumping up and down and being like, ‘I told myself I’d sign this contract within a year and I did it within six months!’”
The sounds of the Music Box surround us still as, in a rushed voice, Pennington comes to the part in his story when Nicky “got sick” in 2012. In 2014, Nicky suddenly passed away.
“I don’t answer questions about it,” Pennington replies when I ask how Nicky passed. “When his mother wants to talk about that, she will.”
Nicky’s mother told me “no comment.”
Sometimes being a journalist in New Orleans is tough, because while you have a journalist’s passion for truth, you also realize you live in a rare, real community, and you don’t want to poison that precious environment — which is why, even though you’re expected to, you do not push harder when a musician’s grieving mother asks you to leave it be. In these rare cases, you err on the side of community.
She suggests instead that we simply remember the music of Nicky da B each time we drive down Piety Street and see the full, Technicolor portrait painting of the young bounce rapper leaning against the outside fence of the Music Box’s original site, Jay’s home. In small print read the numbers “1990 to 2014.”
Nicky’s death dictated the end of Pennington’s bounce career. He would remain forever hesitant to manage artists. “It was all I could do to get the strength together to make DJ sets, and to try to make other people happy,” Pennington sighs. “At home, we played only sad music for like two years straight. But there’s no room in the DJ world for feeling somber.”
At his lowest moment, Pennington now had time to deal with all that his collapsed house had become. The Music Box project had grown and grown in both scope and popularity, with pieces of it traveling to Russia, Florida and elsewhere — while back home on Piety Street, once-in-a-lifetime Music Box performances created lines around Pennington’s block.
He staved off depression by helping work to procure a larger, permanent local space where the final draft of the Music Box could live, hosting artists from around the world, forever. Today the 10,000 square-foot Music Boxinstallation hums and buzzes and thumps at the far end of the Upper Ninth Ward, near the same industrial canal whose levee broke during Katrina and flooded the Lower Nine.
“Once the new Music Box came to fruition, it became apparent immediately what I could do with all I had learned on the road, and all the goodwill I had built up during that period of touring the world,” says Pennington of his new full time job as The Music Box nonprofit’s Creative Managing Director. “It was suddenly clear what all that was for: so that I could book things at Music Box with authority. Now, I am no longer nervous about talking money with artists, dealing with managers about guarantees. Like, we booked Bonny Prince Billy for the Music Box, and that went so smooth. I booked a show where Kip Malone [TV on the Radio] just stood and played guitar out here — an $8 solo show that was under these trees… Why see him in a dark club where other people are trying to get laid when you can just lay out on a blanket? At that show, people were drifting! They had their eyes closed, laying on their backs, staring up into the trees…”
Big Freedia, who has since cut Renee Moncada from her team in an effort to “move in a more international direction,” has performed multiple times at the Music Box. “Oh my god it’s fucking amazing. It’s unbelievable. It blows people minds,” says Freedia. “And that’s Jay, he’s a mind blower. I even shot a video over there for my new song, ‘Training Day.’ When I was there for that, it felt like home,” says Freedia. “Jay and I got to hang out the whole day, and it felt really good. Our relationship hasn’t changed. It felt really good to still feel the love and still have open arms.”
Though many will never know or recognize the small but essential role Pennington played in the history of local music, New Orleans’s bounce community keeps Jay in their hearts. “People don’t know how much influence this funny lookin’ Leprechaun-lookin’ man had on bounce music,” laughs Nicky da B’s mom. “He got bigger people to see [bounce] culture, and got those people to like it. Everything that’s happened since with Big Freedia and Nicky da B and bounce music, the foundation of it rests on Rusty Lazer.”