The My Spilt Milk Awards show performers make clear a connection that was always there.
For years, much of the New Orleans music community treated hip-hop as the bad cop to the brass bands’ good cop—one suspect; one real music. One sold a ton of records, while the other was treated as true New Orleans music. But the dirty little not-so-secret is that both were street musics, and they influenced each other. Brass band members were listening to hip-hop as much as rappers, particularly bounce artists, were listening to brass bands. Rebirth Brass Band made the connection clear when it released Hot Venom in 2001, but since hip-hop had long been a staple in the listening of young African Americans in New Orleans just like the rest of the country, it was formative for most if not all contemporary brass band musicians.
The Soul Rebels laid bare their hip-hop game in 1995 on Let Your Mind Be Free, but on 2005’s Rebelution, they made their comfort with rap more obvious by positioning themselves as an urban band, one as at home with a DJ and rappers as with trumpets and drums. Over time, hip-hop has become central the band’s identity. In 2013, they released their version of mixtape, Power = Power, with covers of Jay Z, Nicki Minaj, Kanye, and Drake, and remixes of their tracks including a collaboration with Big Freedia and Gypsyphonic Disko on “Get Lucky.” They performed at Voodoo last year with Joey Bada$$, and earlier this spring they backed Talib Kweli in New York. On Thursday, they’ll perform at The Howlin’ Wolf as part of the My Spilt Milk Awards.
The Soul Rebels’ Lumar LeBlanc remembers very clearly the first rap record that blew his mind: 1981’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” The Roots’ Questlove summed up the track as “a five-minute history of what a night in the Bronx musta been like” as for the first time it let listeners at home hear the DJ skills that made early hip-hop block parties go. He was at summer camp, and a friend had the song on a cassette he played on his boombox.
“I actually thought it was somebody live doing that because you could tell the song was actually scratched and spliced together,” he says. “Is that from New Orleans? What is that? We listened to that over and over until the batteries ran down.”
Like many people, “Rapper’s Delight” was the first rap record he heard, but it didn’t hit him the same way. “That was a regular R&B record with a dude rapping over,” LeBlanc says. “But when I heard all that scratching, that blew my mind.” He similarly became a fan of New Orleans DJ Slick Leo—one of the first to scratch in the city in the early ‘80s. “Most DJs were like regular DJs and just played hit record after hit record. Slick Leo tried to do like Grandmaster Flash, cutting and scratching and doing all that turntable stuff.”
LeBlanc believes the same impulses that drove hip-hop drove brass band music. “The urban hip-hop scene in New York mirrors our scene here in New Orleans with the brass bands,” he says. “Street music. Music that comes from the community, comes from the streets, brought to the stage. Olympia [Brass Band] was hip. Olympia was different from the Eureka, even from the way they looked with those colored pants and King Richard up front. They probably looked like a hip-hop act to the older brass bands.”
That connection didn’t mean that finding acceptance for hip-hop-influenced brass band music came automatically or easily. New Orleans looks side-eyed at all variations from tradition, and years of dealing with that makes LeBlanc careful when he talks about picking a path that was influenced by The Dirty Dozen and Rebirth, but one that is clearly The Soul Rebels’ own. “They feel if we’re doing something different, we’re disrespecting, but we’re not,” he says. “We’re taking it to another level or a level of our own doing.”
Brass bands, like early DJs throwing parties in Bronx schoolyards, have traditionally responded to the dancers. Songs and grooves can stretch out if the dancers are feeling them, and LeBlanc came to appreciate Trouble Funk and go-go because like second lines, they didn’t let the dancers go once they had them. Still, The Soul Rebels don’t turn their songs into jams any more than necessary. Just as the running times on rap singles gradually shortened from the 14-plus minutes of the full length “Rapper’s Delight” to relatively concise, pop-friendly three and four-minute bursts, so did The Soul Rebels’ songs. “We’re in a more stage band mindset than we were in our second line era,” he says. “Beyoncé or Stevie Wonder—they’re not going to play one song for the whole show. We have moments that we can keep going, but we want to stop to be polished like a stage act. And it works for us, but it took a lot of practice. Coming from New Orleans, we get that engine going and you want to keep rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ rollin’!”
That choice is an extension of a decision The Soul Rebels made more than a decade ago to stop being a band that leads second lines in the streets and focus on the stage, much the way the Dirty Dozen did. The Soul Rebels began as the Young Olympia Brass Band, and they were a more conventional brass band at the time. But by the time of Rebelution, they didn’t feel like second lining was the best way to present their music. They dropped “Brass Band” from their name to discourage people from expecting them to second line, and made choices that made it unlikely they would march. They didn’t go as far as the Dirty Dozen and add a full drum kit and an electric guitar, though they have experimented with their lineup, at times including stationary, electric instruments. Today LeBlanc and drummer Derrick Moss perform with their drums on stands onstage, which has frustrated some out-of-town fans who assume that at some point, a brass band will always leave the stage and second line through the audience. That doesn’t mean they’ve turned their back on the music or its values; only where and how people hear it.
“I personally love the second line,” LeBlanc says. “Rhythmically as a drummer, it emphasizes muscles that other drummers don’t have.”
The recent collaboration with Talib Kweli was a few years in the making. He joined them onstage two years ago at The Howlin’ Wolf, and at the time they talked about wanting to play together again some time. Collaborations like that one, or with Joey Bada$$ or even Metallica require a lot of work as The Soul Rebels have to figure out how to translate the artist’s sound to horns. As Bonerama has shown, hard rock translates to horns surprisingly well, but The Soul Rebels are often taking electronic beats and making them organic. After that, they have to work out verse and chorus lengths that are frequently unpredictable. “You have to get the bars correct,” LeBlanc says. “The measures. How many measures will that actually be? When does the chorus come in? When do you go to the verse? With rappers, you have to hit it on cue. When it’s time to hear that part, that part has to be played.”
Most of that homework is done before the band and the rapper are in the same room together. Once Kweli heard his songs with The Soul Rebels next to him, he heard changes he wanted to make to better capitalize on their power and what they bring to the table. Since dress rehearsals are usually the afternoon of the show, “You’ve got to be able to learn it on the spot,” LeBlanc says, and during down time at the gig, the band is often working on the last minute adjustments.
“In New Orleans, we’re used to people catering to us and adapting to what we do,” he says. “Doing this other thing, we have to adapt to what they do.”
The New Orleans Music Awards take place Thursday night at 8 p.m. (doors at 7) at The Howlin' Wolf, with performances by The Soul Rebels, Rotary Downs, Tank and The Bangas, The Breton Sound, AF the Naysayer, and host, comedian Andrew Polk. Tickets are on sale now.