Cash Money and Sludge Metal: The Legacy of New Orleans
Often described as the most unique city in America, New Orleans has rich, vibrant culture. It's teeming with extraordinary Cajun food, home to the rapidly approaching festival of Mardi Gras and recently, also home to the comeback of Destiny's Child at this years Superbowl. It's a picante fusion of Creole, Spanish and French cultures that have all melded over centuries to create somewhere kaleidoscopic, somewhere genuinely exciting. Mardi Gras is the world famous carnival to mark the start of Lent, home to fantastic technicolour costumes, jester masks, magical flesh-bearing beads and potent cocktails containing SoCo – it's legendary, a festival with religious roots that is celebrated citywide and is synonymous with the Big Easy. However, perhaps one of its most noteworthy claims is that it's the birthplace of jazz – the grandmother of basically all modern music as we know it.
That enduring musical identity hasn't faded over the years, with many prominent figures having ties to N'awlins, either being born'n'bred there or making active contributions to the scenes. It's where iconic rhythm and blues pianist Fats Domino was born. Scoring five gold records before 1955, he's one of the most prolific figures within his genre (the precursor to rock'n'roll), an inspiration to many – Paul McCartney, Elton John and Neil Young have all cited him as an influence – and one of the leading musicians of the era. James Booker with his mix of rhythm and blues and jazz, Professor Longhair and his experiments with Afro-Cuban beats and pioneering jazz trumpeter Bunk Johnson also called New Orleans home. Another highly-esteemed jazz trumpeter was born there: the one and only Louis Armstrong. With his signature baritone scat singing, improvisational genius and technical dexterity, he's one of America's greatest treasures with a legacy that will persevere through the ages. Who can deny that 'What A Wonderful World' is anything short of flawless?
Another Disney regular, Randy Newman, spent part of his childhood in the illustrious city, and wrote the Oscar nominated score for The Princess and the Frog, the fairy-tale musical set in 1920s New Orleans. The film drew from the vivid majesty of the city during that time, utilising strands of jazz to create a captivating soundtrack that was critically lauded. It also featured the hella creepy Dr. Facilier who (spoiler alert) actually kills a character on screen via gratuitous squishing. Paired with the trauma in Toy Story 3 (scored by Newman, too), it would seem that modern Disney is trying to feeling us to death.
Although not quite reaching the dizzying heights of Aretha Franklin or Etta James, Irma Thomas – 'The Soul Queen Of New Orleans' – made a lasting impression. A true soul diva with a background in Baptist choral music, Thomas made a large impact on the gospel/blues scene, and has continued to do so for 50 years. She finally won her first Grammy in 2007, for After The Rain.
But jazz isn't the only music New Orleans has to offer. There's a thriving hip-hop scene, and the city has churned out massive names like DJ Khaled, Jay Electronica and Curren$y. Cash Money has a base there, originally putting out a localised variation of hip-hop called bounce music, they eventually grew to take on the big dogs like Def Jam at a national level. Also from the city is label stalwart Lil Wayne, who has the city running through his veins, and although having accidentally shot himself in the leg aged 13 there, he managed to climb onto the world stage and frolic with the likes of Nicki Minaj and Rick Ross. He's a pillar of the American rap scene, instantly recognisable due to the dreads, tapestry of tattoos, and immaculate flow.
Frank Ocean, the blogger's darling, hails from the Big Easy. Although not born in the city, he moved there aged five, was immersed in the local jazz scene, and eventually enrolled in the University of New Orleans. Last years phenomenal, subversive record channel ORANGE saw him take the lead in the R&B revolution with his sleek anthems of modern love. Subsequently, critics were unable to contain themselves at his sheer awesomeness, and the LP featured highly on almost every top ten list at the end of the year. Of course, everyone knows this already, as the spotlight has scarcely flickered around him.
The industrial powerhouse Trent Reznor called New Orleans his hometown for a number of years, frequenting Mardi Gras and headlining festivals: “Mardi Gras to me and anybody that's been there for any length of time isn't Bourbon Street. It's the city, the soul of the place. That is because of the neighbourhoods and the melting pot of people, for better or worse, that wound up there.” He became so attached to the city, that after hearing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, went there to pitch in and help out, playing fundraisers and aiding old friends. It just goes to show the bonds the city creates, and the impressions it can make on people who have long left.
Maybe surprisingly, there's actually a substantial metal scene there, with the city often attributed to being the birthplace of sludge metal – a subgenre taking inspiration from Black Sabbath and southern rock. Eyehategod, Soilent Green and the subtly named Goatwhore are heavy hitters of the local scene, with tinges of hardcore punk creeping through. Doom metal permeates the sound, and abrasive guitars are often a symptom of the genre. It's savage, lawless noise from the heart of Louisiana.
New Orleans has a spirited, life-affirming nature – the locals truly know how to enjoy themselves – and that's why it's a must-visit location for many globetrotters. There's a joie de vivre there that's unsurpassed and demonstrated in the plentiful street processions that encompass entire sections of the city in luscious greens, purples and blues. Music is a vital component in the survival of the city, and they've spawned some of the most poignant sounds in musical history. Even when a genre isn't native to the city, they find a way of turning into something their own, as with hip-hop and heavy metal. You'll be hard pressed to find somewhere with a musical heritage so renowned, so decorated and so essential. New Orleans can be credited as the birthplace of jazz, and therefore pop music as we know it today – just as Fats Domino and Bunk Johnson pioneered genres almost a century ago, Frank Ocean and cohorts are doing so today. It may not always be at the forefront of every musical movement, but the Big Easy always manages to lend a hand.