When Hurricane Laura hit last week, all I could think about was Katrina. The world considers August 29 the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. For New Orleans residents like myself, that date marks the mere beginning of a disaster that unfolded over the course of a week and then reverberated for years and years. It’s a trauma we relive with each new storm. And despite climate scientists’ many warnings to prepare for more storms ahead, the fundamental pattern of human suffering and inequity seems to repeat itself.
Hurricane Katrina passed over New Orleans on August 29, 2005. Over the next day or so, the area filled with water from the many breaches in the federally built levee system that was supposed to protect the city. My neighbors then either died or were rescued from their roofs, as the Superdome and the Convention Center filled with the city’s most vulnerable residents. Then drinking water ran out, and somehow no one could get water to my suffering neighbors for almost a week.
My partner and I, evacuated to Florida, learned about our beloved city’s destruction through the racist prism of national television. Nancy Grace was the first talking head I watched shift focus from the information we really needed onto “looting”—as if the theft of TVs and diapers represented the worst things happening during that week of death and destruction. TO READ THE REST OF THIS STORY AT The New Republic CLICK HERE.
This week, the director of the Travis Hill School inside of New Orleans’ jail, Christy Sampson Kelly, was arrested for an allegedly inappropriate relationship with an 18-year-old imprisoned man. Evidence supposedly included over 700 recorded phone calls of a sexual nature, and Kelly depositing hundreds of dollars in the young man’s account.
I worked under “Miss Christy,” as we called her, for almost two months in summer 2019 at Travis Hill. And though I can’t say I knew her, definitely not enough to defend her, I find this news unbelievable. It’s tough to imagine anyone crossing that dangerously stupid line, much less Miss Christy.
Travis Hill School, a charter run by the non-profit Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings since 2016, remains a beautiful example of the way America should handle young people, or really any people, who’ve broken serious laws: At the jail, recently renamed the Orleans Justice Center (OJC), any imprisoned person 21 years old or younger is forced to attend high school, with the goal of earning not a GED but a real diploma.
At last summer’s end, I watched two students walk across the stage in their cap-n-gowns.
The shredding Swede, Yngwie Malmsteen, remains peerless; a classical composer whose too-fast guitar playing owes more to Bach than Eddie Van Halen. His influence is hard to spot these days, because no one else can do what Malmsteen does. Also, impressive as it is, it just doesn’t sound that good.
By the time I spoke to Yngwei — who rode on a bus through Cleveland, Ohio, on tour opening for Dio — “hair metal” had become a source of parody. Dio and Yngwie stuck with their sober themes of magic, sorcery, and knights in shining armor. If RATT, Warrant and Poison were all about T&A, Dio and Malmsteen were more D&D.
Malmsteen kept the faith though. “(The fans) are ready to have it again . . . people who can play,” he told me. “People don’t want to be putting time into becoming a good musician anymore,” Malmsteen claimed in an accent unaffected by decades living in Miami. “Now they just want to bang out a few chords.”
What I am trying to say, is Yngwie Malmsteen has a superiority complex.
#126: RATT’s Stephen Pearcy: One of the few hair bands that I still love, RATT came through Tampa in the late 90s, and I interviewed both Pearcy and Brett Michaels of co-headliners, Poison. I don’t remember much about either of those two guys, except that Pearcy carried a chipped shoulder over having to alternate headlining slots with Poison. “Back on the Strip it was always them opening for us,” he claimed. He seemed kind douchey. Pearcy currently stars in a brand new Geico commercial, fronting his band in the attic of a couple whose new home is having “RATT problems.”
#127: Sean Yseult of White Zombie: The bassist has lived in New Orleans full-time for a long while now. I see her everywhere. She plays in bands with my friends. I interviewed her once for a woman’s magazine, then again for the release of her photography book, then for Gambit Weekly about her band Star & Dagger. The first time we met, I went by her big purple New Orleans house, and interviewed her between the coffin and rack of candles in her den. She seemed nice enough.
#128: Todd Barry: I really like Berry’s comedy, but I’d forgotten he was performing at the tiny Dragon’s Den, when I just happened to be outside leaning against the club’s front window one night. Berry walked out and right up to my friends and I. A little drunk, I stood straight up, “Oh wow! Man, I love you!” He smiled and went to shake my hand, until I said, “I totally forgot you were performing tonight!” His smile vanished: “You weren’t at the show?” he asked and walked off.
#129: Tracey Ullman: True comedy goddess. Mother of the Simpsons! I was at a book party at a bar one night in L.A., there to visit author Jerry Stahl, who brutally brushed me off. As I hung at the bar alone people-watching, I saw Tracey fucking Ullman darting around the room, as if looking for someone she couldn’t find. I felt my blood pressure rise, because I LOVE HER. I always think no famous person can impress me, but amazing artists sure can. It felt nice just to be in the room with a true comedy hero, and get to watch her a little, though she didn’t seem happy. But on my way out to the cab we exited the door at the same time and we organically said hello to each other, and I will never forget looking down into the cute, smiling face of Tracey fucking Ullman.
#130: Vince Vaughn: One night out drinking in the French Quarter, I found myself in El Matador on the corner of Esplanade and Decatur. Fairly lit already, I ordered a drink from the bartender before realizing he was actor Vince Vaughn. His buddy Rio Hackford, son of director Taylor Hackford, played a small part in Swingers and now owned El Matador. I remember VV as a good, nice, attentive bartender, especially impressive on a packed night. I asked those around me if he was raising money for a charity or something, before I didn’t tip VV, since he’s rich.
#131: Warren G: I happened to find a Warren G Regulate t-shirt at the thrift store in Tampa, Florida, and rocked it till the wheels fell off. I wore it to work in the empty newsroom one Saturday, a couple days after I had covered the Up In Smoke tour, on which Warren G had performed. As I typed the morning obituaries, the phone rang. “Yes, I am with the Up In Smoke tour, and I think you should write a story about how poorly it’s being run,” a man began. “I have some inside information that I think you’d be very interested in.” I wrote down his words as the man went on like this for a while. I told him the tour had left Florida, and I wasn’t sure if our paper would do an investigative piece, but I promised to pass his info on to my editors on Monday morning. I asked for his contact info, and also his name. “This is Warren G, man.” Suddenly, recognizing the voice, I blurted, “I am wearing a Warren G t-shirt right now, at this moment.” This coincidence did not impress Warren G.
When interviewing a funny person, you just lob them softballs that they knock out the park. But the funniest thing about Weird Al was how radically unfunny he was during our interview. So unfunny that it was hilarious. Maybe not unlike his music?
I don’t use the word “genius,” but Weird Al bumps up against that title, in that, like Einstein or Prince, he could not be replaced. On the surface, his shtick is dumb, but Weird Al is actually a master musician and meticulous, passionate showman — as discussed in this really great recent New York Times piece.
I, however, couldn’t get him to make even one joke! “Have you ever gone to therapy?” I asked Weird Al, who had only recently shaved off his signature porn stache and gotten laser eye surgery, so that he no longer needed his signature glasses: a total makeover, from one type of nerd, into another type.
“No. No, I haven’t,” Al answered innocently. “Have never needed to, luckily.”
I laughed anyway, and tried again, “What do you think your therapist might say if you did go to therapy?”
“Oh wow.” He definitely seemed to think about it hard, but couldn’t come up with anything. “Jeez. I don’t know,” Weird Al finally admitted.
#118: Comedian Judy Tenuta: I interviewed the accordion playing Love Goddess over the phone. You may not remember her, but she was huge for a minute, with flowers in her hair. Sort of the feminine answer to Bobcat Goldthwait, with a pinch of Rosanne Bar (who used to be very funny!). Judy (JudyJudyJudyJudyJudy) was the same in her interviews as on stage, which is how most comedians tend to play it.
#119: Actress Linda Hamilton: I shouldn’t write too much about this but: The lead actress from the Terminator movies lives in my neighborhood. Linda’s very nice and sweet and normal. Walks her dogs, drinks at the neighborhood bar. She once invited my partner and some other neighborhood ladies to skinny dip at the pool she’d just installed. I asked to take her fishing, and she said yes. We’ll see.
#120: Underwear model Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg: I belonged to a semi-luxury old-school gym in New Orleans’s French Quarter, and as I was walking out onto Rampart Street one day I brushed by Mark Wahlberg, who said, “Sup man.” I repeated that same greeting back to him.
#121: Vocalist Mike Patton: A guitar magazine had assigned me to write about Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Dennison, playing at VooDoo with his side band Tomahawk, featuring Helmet’s drummer John Stanier, and singer Mike Patton of Faith No More, Mr Bungle, etc. I walked onto Dennison’s bus, and ran directly into Stanier and Patton. I told Stanier how I, like he, had attended USF in Tampa, and how the music teachers there had often mentioned Stanier to us as one of their better students. Though Stanier seemed really moved by, some biker bodyguards interrupted and pushed me past Patton to the back of the bus, where Duane Dennison awaited with his guitar for our interview. On my way off the bus, I ran into Stanier and Patton again, and we spoke for another five minutes, mostly about Stanier and USF. Patton listened intently, and seemed to appreciate me not focusing on him (I bet that gets annoying).
#122: Metal band Mastodon: Leader singer Troy Sanders told me, “We could write 15-minute songs all day but for The Hunter we decided to…get in and out of each song, which was ultimately more energizing, especially after two-and-a-half straight years of touring and playing all these really epic layered and emotional songs. The Hunter is more quick bursts of raw energy.” Produced by Michael Elizondo (Eminem, 50 Cent, Pink, Gwen Stefani) The Hunter was Mastodon’s first album that didn’t follow a detailed storyline. “No matter what kind of riff came along, no matter what it sounded like, if we liked it we just built it into a song,” Sanders said. “So this time…the record is more to the point.”
#123: Singing legends, The Pointer Sisters: So excited was I to buss these ladies’ table at Palace Cafe on Canal Street just before 9/11. All three acted very sweet, all dressed up in sequins as if going to perform a concert.
#124: Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin: I’ve met Ray a few brief times (as every citizen should their city’s Mayor), but my most distinct memory is from before he was mayor, when he came out to install our Cox cable. Kidding! I wish I had that story to tell. My brightest memory of Ray is in the month or so after Katrina, at a grocery store, after he’d made his famous “Chocolate City” remark (a remark I always agreed with; Ray Nagin’s Kanye moment). Nagin walked around the Rouse’s, handsome and bald, shopping like the rest of us which, given the historical moment, had to be a low-key publicity stunt of some sort. He didn’t push a cart, instead carrying his big case of Heineken Light bottles (?!) by hand, silently announcing that he was just like the rest of us. No one bothered him, but I did say casual hello in passing. I liked Nagin enough. I can’t imagine he’d ever shout at me for wanting to take his picture at an inopportune moment, like Mayor Landrieu did. Weeks later, I wrote an article about painting floats for Newsweek, and in my author photograph I wore a piece of tape stating: “Ray Nagin was right.” That was before the countertops. But New Orleans is and should always be a Chocolate City. And even though grifting during Katrina was particularly despicable, his ten year sentence remains racist as fuck. Cosby got three to ten. When I see a photo of Ray now, it only reminds me that America is more rotten than Nagin ever was. I am glad he’s out. I hope the rest of his life goes more smoothly.
New Orleans Rapper Tec-9 steps onto a helicopter to be flown to his lucrative gig. He’s been off work for two weeks but is about to embark on twenty-eight straight days of giving people what they need. “Mondays I cook anything I want. Tuesday is steak day. Wednesday I cook whatever I want. Thursday I cook what I want. Friday is seafood day. Saturday is steak day again,” says Tec, one half of the famous New Orleans gangsta bounce group U.N.L.V., “and Sunday is fried chicken day.”
Tec-9, a.k.a. Reginald Manuel, spends most of his time offshore, cooking for an oil rig’s crew — one of the few ways he could figure to make over $60,000 a year, enough to continue paying for whatever luxuries he got used to in the ’90s as a star on the fledgling Cash Money label.
“When I get jazzy with it I have a Mercedes R35, sitting on 22s,” says Tec. But today he meets me at the Burger King in his gimpy Ram 1500 work truck. He wants to take our hood history tour in my similarly shitty Ram truck. “My A/C is broken,” he tells me.
“So is mine,” I tell him.
“My transmission burnt too,” he says.
I don’t know what that means. But my truck runs fine, so I first follow him to his lil girl’s mama’s house around the corner. Tec pops into her small shotgun shack for a moment, then comes out and hops into my beater: “I only had one cold tea left. You want this cold beer?” He offers me a tall boy of Olde English 800. I have not had OE since college, and though it’s very presumptuous of him to think I’d drink malt liquor at all, much less during the daytime while driving, I thank him and crack it open.
Tec-9 has agreed to lead me on a tour of sites important to the career of his twenty-two-year-old rap group (now a duo) U.N.L.V. As teenagers in the early nineties, U.N.L.V. members Tec-9 and Lil Ya copped their name from their favorite college sports team, but then told the world it stood for “Uptown Niggas Livin Violent.”
“We started out as the Sporty MCs: Polo Pete and MC Food,” Tec laughs, flashing a bottom row of gold teeth.
“We was positive rappers then, we rapped about black situations, what crack cocaine and drugs do to you,” recalls Lil Ya (Yaphet Jones) via phone from Houston, where he’s lived with his kids since 2007, commuting often to New Orleans.
“A guy called Everlasting Hitman — deceased, rest in peace — he was one of the first people I knew who started doing gangsta rap in the bars,” Lil Ya continues. “Then everyone started doing it. We were better at it than any of those other guys, and the positive rap wasn’t poppin’ anymore. People didn’t want to hear that.”
Violence, too, was trendy in the Crescent City at the time and the Sporty MCs’ transformation into Uptown Niggas Livin Violent was inspired as much by New Orleans’s early ’90s crime stats. “We were the murder capital in 1994,” Lil Ya says, as if reminiscing about a championship season. The Sporty MC’s “black situations” were traded out for explicit lyrics like…
I got a bitch named Carrol Fucked her in the ass with my double barrel She enjoyed it a LOT While I was fucking her with the barrel she was sucking the chrome of my glock
— “My 9” (1993)
U.N.L.V. made gun violence fun with a sing-songy flow over the “triggerman” party beat that fuels New Orleans’s indigenous “bounce rap.” The soundtrack to many a local black block party for the last several decades, “bounce” is the specific call-and-response rap that begat “twerking,” a dance Miley Cyrus learned in New Orleans. “People called us gangsta bounce,” Tec-9 chuckles at some far off memory as we drive past Carter G. Woodson Middle, where Tec and Lil Ya attended school together.
My tall boy is empty as we approach what was once the famously tumultuous Magnolia Projects in Central City on the edge of Uptown — now un-ironically renamed “Harmony Oaks.” The dreary red and brown brick apartments have been replaced by clumps of lower quality but pleasant shotgun townhomes that look very little like public housing. “They got it lookin’ all pretty now,” Tec observes.
The old brick monstrosities on Magnolia and Washington were where U.N.L.V. first helped producers Brian “Baby/Birdman” Williams and Ronald “Slim/Sugar Slim” Williams begin to build Cash Money Records — now a multibillion-dollar stable that includes Drake, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, and dabbles in clothing, liquor, even the oil industry. “We didn’t know the business and they knew we didn’t know the business, some young poor kids comin’ out of the hood,” says Tec-9. “They would take us to the car lot, buy a new car, put us in a new house or apartment. And we thought we’d made it, but they were pocketing millions of dollars. We were so happy to have a little money, we didn’t realize we were deserving of much more than we were given.”
I drive us farther Uptown to U.N.L.V.’s old hood. “When we were nineteen or twenty, me and Ya would walk around here beatin’ on the houses, practicing what song we was gonna rap at WYLD talent shows and open mic nights.”
Tec-9 came up with all of the concepts and most of the lyrics. “My role always has been the guy to give energy,” says Lil Ya, who’s known as a confrontational performer. “I have some lyrics, but my main role has always been to hit ’em with the energy.”
We stand below a giant red arrow pointing us in the front door of famous dive bar Joe’s House of Blues. In 1992, when New Orleans’s drinking age was eighteen, Joe’s was Newton’s, where Tec-9 and Lil Ya demanded their start. “We recorded our first record at Newton’s,” says Tec-9. “DJ Red would put on the Triggaman beat and give us the microphone. One night we recorded ourselves and that’s how our first single came out, called, ‘Another Bitch.’”
“Another Bitch” features the first instance of the much co-opted, classic New Orleans refrain, “Bitch, keep talking that shit / suck a nigga dick for an outfit.” Versions of this phrase and its cadence appear in hundreds of New Orleans bounce songs. Though the lyric is most often associated with “the king of bounce,” DJ Jubilee, Tec-9 tells me he and Ya invented it at Newton’s in 1992. “Then we went up the street to K&B [now Rite Aid] to buy some double-side cassettes and just spent all morning dubbing ’em,” Tec recalls. “We wrote on them ‘U.N.L.V. Another Bitch’ and we rode around to all the different projects selling it for $5. Before you knew it, everybody was riding around the city playing our song. DJ Red was proud to’ve recorded it, so then he would play it a lot at the club. It just blew up — the whole city got behind it.”
Brian “Baby” Williams, CEO of Cash Money, soon got ahold of a tape and made U.N.L.V. one of his very first signings. At Baby and Slim’s house out in New Orleans East, the future moguls sat on milk crates in front of a tape machine, rerecording “Another Bitch.” “It wasn’t really a big house, but a decent house in a decent-like middle class neighborhood,” says Tec, who gets evasive when I ask him what the Williams did for a living at the time: “Word is they were selling drugs to support themselves, but I wouldn’t speak on that.” He could only verify that they were most certainly not working offshore.
The larval Cash Money label packaged and marketed and distributed “Another Bitch” professionally, and it was a hit throughout the South, especially in Houston, and with Atlanta DJ Lil Jon. “The profits from that single allowed the whole [Cash Money] camp to be able to go into real studios and pay for studio time,” says Tec. “Cash Money acquired their major label deal based on the numbers that we were putting out. With the success from that, we started planning to record our first Cash Money album.”
* * *
For their big debut, Tec and Ya initiated a third U.N.L.V. member, Yella Boy. “Yella kinda blackmailed his way into the group,” laughs Tec-9. “Me and my mom was having problems during that time, and she kicked me out the house. So I went and lived with Yella and his mom. He wasn’t initially a part of U.N.L.V., and he’d always be like, ‘Tell your producer you got another person.’ Then when I was staying with him, he kinda said, ‘Put me in the group, or you gotta go.’”
“Baby and Slim didn’t want him in the group neither,” adds Lil Ya. “Tec convinced me, and I convinced Baby and Slim.”
Tec and I stop at the intersection where Yella lived on 4th and Dryades. Tec points to a triangle of small colorful houses. “Ya lived right across the street from Yella, and I lived over on 6th and Barrone. Me and Ya knew each other since we were twelve, but they knew each other since they were babies. Yella couldn’t rap for nothing. So I taught him how.”
We sweat in New Orleans’s fall weather as we step out and walk around a corner to the nexus of the U.N.L.V. legend: 6th and Barrone — the corner that provided inspiration for their second biggest hit song, “6th and Barrone,” from their debut 1992 Cash Money “6th and Barrone.”
A ubiquitous regional hit, “6th and Baronne” is arguably the most geographically specific hood anthem ever recorded, leading people right to the spot where Tec and I now stand, before a moldy, two-story classic New Orleans abode with white siding and a wide balcony. Tec is shy to take a photo out front of the house and talks in whisper — prompting me to ask if all the song’s gun talk didn’t bring some unwanted negative publicity to his block. Maybe he made his neighbors mad, blowing up their spot?
“That song made the area really popular,” he whispers out on the street, letting me snap just one photo of him and the historic landmark. “The whole south started hearing about 6th and Barrone, and it made everybody proud to be from this area. It turned from being our regular hangout to just traffic all day… People’d be passing like, ‘Ooh, there he go right there!’ and snapping pictures.”
The song didn’t necessarily make their hood sound like a fun-loving area though:
Chillin’ on the set with the fully automatic tec Never was caught slippin’ that’s how I got my respect I pop ’em up pop ’em up watchin’ bleed to death Ya played with the Tec-9 now ya takin’ yo last breath While I’m chillin’ on the corner I’m a get fucked up My nigga T got a forty and brought two cups Lil’ Ya is chillin’ Yella is thuggin’ and talkin’ on the phone And I’m chillin’ on 6th and Baronne.
Tec-9 points to the stoop featured on the cover of “6th and Barrone” — Tec, Ya and Yella pose with a stern-faced posse, all in white tees, all aiming guns at the viewer. “Yeah, I called a friend and said, ‘Can we use your guns?’” laughs Tec-9. “He pulled up with a little suitcase full of guns. He had a Tec-9 so I was like, ‘I gotta have that! That’s me!’”
U.N.L.V.’s imagery and lyrics somehow don’t clash with Tec and Ya’s enjoyable flow, which the few New Orleans musical historians who deign to give rap music a place in the conversation often equate with Mardi Gras Indian chants. Many bounce artists have aped U.N.L.V.’s singsong flow, but one could argue that no one in southern rap has had as much stolen from them as U.N.L.V. and gotten so little credit. “It’s like rap music did James Brown,” says Lil Ya. “There’s a little bit of us in everything, especially if it’s from New Orleans.”
One could also argue that in New Orleans there is no such thing as musical thievery, only versions of a musical idea. But if they were to consider it stealing, U.N.L.V. could rattle off a list of thefts:
1. The other New Orleans rap mogul, Master P of No Limit Records, stole the catchphrase from U.N.L.V.’s local hit “(Nigga I’m) Bout It.” Acclaimed Producer Mannie Fresh, who made the beats for all of U.N.L.V.’s classic songs and almost every other first-wave Cash Money hit, told HipHop DX in 2011: “No Limit was not even started in New Orleans, it was started in [Richmond], California… [Master P] came down to visit [in 1995] and [U.N.L.V.] had this song. [Master P] took the slogan ‘Bout it’ and ran with it.”
2. Juvenile, one of very few New Orleans rappers to remain in the national eye for many years now, was first introduced to Cash Money Records by U.N.L.V. Once Cash Money finally got their national deal and dumped U.N.L.V., the label repurposed the beat from U.N.L.V.’s biggest regional hit “Drag Em In the River” and used it for Juvenile’s national hit “Set It Off.”
3. In 1994, after a newly unaffiliated U.N.L.V. had a huge local hit with a song called “Go DJ” they got a call from their old partner Baby at Cash Money: “I want you to do a song with Shorty,” he said, referring to Lil Wayne, according to Tec-9. “Our ‘Go DJ’ was hot, everyone driving around bumpin’ it,” says Tec-9. “And Lil Wayne’s second album didn’t do too good. So they hear how hot ‘Go DJ’ got, and they still had our catalog… Baby never called me back, and next thing you know we hear Lil Wayne came out with ‘Go DJ.’ They didn’t try to get us to do the song together, or holla at us, or try to compensate us — and that’s when we went to court.” U.N.L.V. won an undisclosed settlement that gave them the rights to their own catalog.
4. There’s even another rapper now named Tech N9ne, whose debut album, Calm Before the Storm, came out in 1999.
“I applaud it now,” says Lil Ya of his influence on the many folks who are much richer than him. “They showin’ love and don’t even know it. In the beginning I did feel sore, and I wondered, ‘Hey, why they stealin’ our music?’ But now that I’m older in the game I realize people steal music cause they do whatever they gotta do to make a hit.”
The group’s deepest ire however, was reserved for dragon-mouthed No Limit rapper, Mystikal — a beef that birthed U.N.L.V.’s single biggest hit, “Drag Em In Tha River”:
I’ma drag him from tha river dump his body in chuck’s yard Leavin’ a note around his neck readin’ bad ass Yella Boy Oooooh he wants some? ain’t that cold? You a hoe Mystikal You a hoe Mystikal See I’m from the 3, and I don’t give a fuck
“Every time we saw him, he wouldn’t let us catch him,” Tec-9 says as we travel to where he was born, in the old Melpomene Projects, which have also since been torn down. “If Mystikal knew we were in his area he wasn’t gonna be still, he gonna keep it movin’. Cause he know if we catch him it gonna go down. But I’m glad we all grew out of that shit.”
When I later call Lil Ya though, he tells me the U.N.L.V. vs. Mystikal beef was all kayfabe expressed only in the music: “It was just a beef on wax. There wasn’t no gunplay ever. When Mystikal got out of the service he asked me about signing to Cash Money and I told him I thought it was a good idea because he had a nice style. He ended up signing with Big Boy and he asked me about doing a war on wax with us, and we was cool with it. I thought it was a great idea. I was never mad at him.”
After a couple hours, Tec-9 casually mentions that through all of the Cash Money years, he and Yella were shooting heroin. “That’s another reason I started working offshore,” he says. “I was addicted to heroin throughout my whole twenties, struggled with it off and on. Me and Yella was the worst kind of addict: the kind that has a lot of money where you can still dress nice. That’s worse than someone who doesn’t have a quarter and is out there robbing and stealing for it.” He rubs his forehead. “Man we burned through a lot of money…”
Tec believes that, sans drugs, U.N.L.V. might still be rolling with Cash Money. “We got so angry that it started turning into street shit. Baby and Yella got into fist fights. Yella went and shot their house up, in like 1996.” (Many other accounts of the incident have Yella pistol-whipping Baby and then shooting up his car.) Tec rubs his forehead again. “The drugs made us make poor decisions — it made us not deal with disagreements rationally. We would get violent. I feel like if we’d never gotten involved with drugs we would have dealt with a lot of things better.”
Shit got heavy enough between the two parties to completely sever U.N.L.V.’s connection to Cash Money, the best industry contact they would ever have. The Cash Money parade, massive but still gathering financial momentum, rolled on without Tec and Ya, who would never again see that level of success.
U.N.L.V. did remain hugely popular in New Orleans for several more years. Then, soon after Mystikal signed with No Limit Records in 1997, Yella was murdered. “I was in rehab when I heard,” says Tec-9. “I had tried to get him to come to rehab with me but he didn’t want to go. My third day in there I got a phone call telling me he was murdered.” Yella was shot while sitting in his car.
“Yella was twenty-three. It was a shock to the city, it was almost like Tupac was killed. It was all over the news,” says Tec-9. “And our name got even bigger, the record got even bigger. From that day on it’s like people really look at us as legends in this city.”
Like almost all murders of hip-hop artists, Yella’s was never solved. But the Internet spills over with conspiracy theories, most involving the suspicion that, after Yella whooped his ass, Baby put out a hit, which Baby then rapped about on the rapper BG’s song, “Made Man”:
Nigga disrespect let’s put the nigga to sleep (put ’em ta sleep) I’m discreet about the things that I do on the streets Them niggas be sayin’ Baby put that fuckin’ boy to sleep (Baby done that?) Them niggas be sayin’ Baby put that change on his feet (Baby done that?)
“Overall it’s some street shit, and I try to leave it at that. The streets took him,” says Tec-9. “He was very different from us in that he really did live what he talked about in his music.”
Nowadays both rappers are quick to point out that originally, U.N.L.V. was only two guys. Though not nearly as prolific since, as a duo U.N.L.V. have recorded “The Return of U.N.L.V.: Trendsetters” (2001), “Keep It Gutta” (2003), and “Gutta for Life” (2004), all of which they either released on their own, or with much smaller labels than Cash Money. With Lil Ya in Houston and Tec-9 offshore, they perform live only about once a month, but they are more than fine performing as a duo. “When Yella’s verse come up we combine and we do his verse,” says Tec-9. “Or else we cut him out.”
* * *
Tec skips back in time abruptly, taking me to where he was “born” — the long-demolished Melpomene projects, birthplace of Katey Red and other notable rappers. After Tec-9 moved to 6th and Barrone, he always kept strong ties to “the Melph.” Today there is only a stack of old white apartments left: “That’s the Melpomene old folks home,” Tec points up. “When we were little we used to run around inside there for fun, drive the old people crazy.”
Not too long after that, crack cocaine came to New Orleans, creating jobs for lots of teen boys in the projects. “My dad died of cancer when I was twelve years old, and a young man that don’t have guidance, no role model, the streets will get ahold of you,” Tec says. “I made seventeen that Wednesday, and that Friday I got arrested — I just made old enough to go to the big jail.” Young Reginald Manuel did twenty-one months for possession of crack.
Years later, just after Hurricane Katrina, Lil Ya would kill U.N.L.V.’s momentum with a jail spell in Houston, after he moved to take care of his children and run U.N.L.V.’s business. The Star-Telegram reported that “Yaphet Jones, 32, of New Orleans was arrested outside a Motel 6 in Houston and charged with indecency with a child by exposure, and burglary of a habitation with intent to commit sexual assault, police said. The victims, including a fourteen-year-old girl, were also Katrina evacuees.”
Ya denies the charges, claiming that: “I did two years and ten months for peeing in public…I was checking in this hotel, and they was taking a long time to get a key, so I went around the dumpster and urinated… I was a Hurricane Katrina evacuee, was the real reason they had me in court. But I got a lawyer working on it, and I will be cleared up and compensated.”
It’s unclear exactly what happened in Houston that day, but it was when Ya went away that Tec-9 signed up to wash dishes offshore and then eventually cook. “I always knew how to cook, and I knew it was time to leave the streets alone,” says Tec. “I figured maybe I could duck offshore to kinda maintain my dignity. For me to just be out there in the world doin’ just a regular average joe job would be kind of embarrassing for me, since everyone knows me from the success we had.”
Many of the guys on the rig know U.N.L.V.’s music and treat Tec-9 with extra respect, the same way many inmates treated Lil Ya in prison. “And being out on the rig also gives me a peace of mind,” says Tec. “I can really write shit out there. All that water, and I get to thinking and writing.” It was under these isolated, meditative conditions that Tec wrote much of U.N.L.V.’s new 2014 album “The Relaunch,” (distributed digitally by a branch of Universal Records). Tec stared out at the waves to dream up the lyrics to the album’s first single “Can’t Walk Straight”:
I’m drunk and I can’t walk straight Got work in the morning but I might be late Got weed but I need another gar My drink low, so I’m on my way back to the bar.
At the end of our tour, at a bar in the St. Roch neighborhood on the edge of the 9th Ward, Tec admits it’s been tough to really push The Relaunch with Ya in Houston and him out in the ocean. Along with their usual one show a month, both men claim they’ve booked a seven-city tour opening for Juvenile and Mystikal this January — though when contacted, Mystikal’s management knew nothing of a tour where the openers would sing “Yous a ho Mystikal” over and over each night.
Either way, at forty-one years apiece, both surviving members of the South’s most important gangsta bounce group still consider each other best friends: “Yeah that’s my brother man,” says Tec-9, sipping his first beer of the day, and I my second. “After all these years, we still strong wit it.”
#94. 5’8″: Not really famous, this GA band was much beloved throughout the south in the 90s. They packed shows way down in Tampa, where we opened for them at The Rubb in Ybor.
#95. Assuck: Friends of mine more than musical peers, Assuck did headline a mini festival I played at Club Detroit in St. Petersburg, with just one band playing between us. I’ve watched Assuck perform half a dozen times at least, but am just as familiar with Assuck “singer” and tremendous visual artist Paul Pavlovich’s living room, where we’ve smoked and joked.
#96. Bingo!/Liquidrone: I loaned Clint Maedgen my guitar talents and my entire band to reform Liquidrone for a night at One Eyed Jacks, then I never got my band back; Clint made them into Bingo! Bingo’s not necessarily famous, but I do love that anecdote. No hard feelings, Clint.
#97. Bra1n1ac: My band opened for Brainiac at the short-lived Tarantula Records store in Tampa. We were morphing from a loud aggressive post-punk act into a more mature psychedelic band at the time, and I remember Brainiac’s singer Tim Taylor telling me he really liked it, but we should ditch the punk shit altogether. Extremely handsome, Taylor looked and danced and yelped like a streamlined Mick Jagger, and after the band’s amazing show, he tried multiple times to get our guitar player, my on-again-off-again girlfriend, to take him back to her apartment. I watched him, terrified that she’d say yes. She probably regrets saying no, especially as, a few months later, Tim Taylor died in a car accident. A brilliant fucking band.
#98. Dalek (3x): For some reason this amazing noise-rap group would ask White Bitch to open for them whenever they swung through New Orleans (mostly Mermaid Lounge). I sometimes suspected they just liked laughing at my “act,” or just enjoyed saying the name White Bitch, but offstage we did vibe. Their music is ferocious. They came through town with Isis, and Isis hated White Bitch. Which is why Isis doesn’t get their own entry.
#99. Dash Rip Rock: I learned not to book concerts after Mardi Gras parades by inviting this legendary NOLA rock trio to play after us on Muses night at All Ways Lounge. No one showed up. DRR played their songs at triple speed just to get out of there quickly. Frontman Bill Davis and I went fishing a few times after that. He helped me land my first big redfish, which I wrote about for Louisiana Sportsman.
#100. Elf Power: Legendary Elephant 6 band. Played with them at Circle Bar.
#101. The Fucking Champs (2x): When we opened for The Fucking Champs and Trans Am in Tampa, I hadn’t heard Champs, I only knew their guitarist Tim Green helped power The Nation of Ulysses, the only punk band I ever loved. The Fucking Champs play uplifting, instrumental metal. I remember sitting with Tim at a table that first night, nervously discussing the metal genre. “I don’t think we’re metal,” he trolled me. I later opened for The Fucking Champs again in New Orleans at Mermaid Lounge. Tim Green probably didn’t remember me, but at that gig he loaned me a distortion pedal, and when I finished my set he ran out on stage to tell me how much he enjoyed White Bitch.
#102. Greg Ginn: My college band opened for the former Black Flag guitarist’s solo band at Stone Lounge in Tampa. I remember his drummer taking hours setting up a massive red kit, covered in fur pelts. People went crazy when Ginn played a Black Flag song, but would literally leave the building during Ginn’s new songs — then they’d all come rushing back in when they heard another Black Flag riff. Then they’d leave again.
#103. GirlTalk: Aaron at Spanish Moon in Baton Rouge used to give me great opening slots like this. Place was so packed with what seemed all of LSU’s undergrads. Gregg Michael Gillis was just like, a chill bro, sitting around smilin and bein nice. He does have a good gig/life. Party was so lit, with everyone up on stage dancing, Girl Talk had to strap his laptop to a table with cling wrap, to also keep it from getting doused with beer.
#104. Home: I grew up with one of my all time favorite psychedelic pop groups. I’ve opened for Home in some terrible bands of mine, and some good ones. Very underrated group. Still around after almost 30 years, just released their 18th record.
#105. Japanther: Opened for them at a pirate radio station benefit in Brooklyn.
#106. Killdozer: Opened for this Amphetamine Reptile band at Stone Lounge in Tampa. I remember the singer/bassist stood on a trunk, high above the crowd. Good gimmick.
#107. Little Dragon: Another show Aaron hooked me up with out at Spanish Moon in Baton Rouge in 2009. Not a lot of people attended the show, but Little Dragon sounded amazing, all those live electronics, and Yukimi Nagano’s creamy voice. I feel in love. I bought a CD copy of their new album Machine Dreams directly from Yukimi, then proceeded to listen to it until it disintegrated.
The MakeUp: I already wrote a long entry about meeting Ian Svenonius, one of my favorite artists of all time, over the years, and opening for The MakeUp in Tampa, Florida.
#108. Mike Dillon: The wild percussionist for Primus and Rickie Lee Jones and many others lives in New Orleans and, not only did I open for his crazy band at local club GasaGasa, but he played percussion in my vocal group Lil Current on a couple occasions.
#109. ManMan / Needs New Body: Interviewed psych-freak-out band ManMan for Gambit before VooDooFest one year, and also got to open for their sister band Needs New Body at Twiropa. I remember taking NNB to Cafe Du Monde at 2am.
#110. Of Montreal: One of the biggest shows I’ve ever played. Kevin Barnes seemed extremely nervous and barely talked before the show. MC Shellshock and I played well in front of a totally packed One Eyed Jacks. Of Montreal were incredible, and backstage afterwards Barnes came alive, complimenting us on our “90s sound.”
#111: Peelander Z: Andy Warhol once said that eventually, every band will open for Peelander Z, at least once, like we did, at One Eyed Jacks.
#112: ReBirth Brass Band: I performed at a party in the Marigny and was surprised to find out they’d hired ReBirth to play after me. Since brass bands don’t have a lot of heavy gear to haul around, a lot of them zip around town playing multiple short shows in one evening. ReBirth showed up in get-in-and-get-out mode. They played, sunglasses on, for about 25 minutes, while talking on their cell phones (my brass band pet peeve!). Still sounded killer.
#113: Radiators: The Rads opened for my band at Krewe Du Vieux ball a handful of years ago — which sounds impressive, but it simply means they got the best slot. By the time we played, the whole audience were on the other side of their mushroom trips, too tired to dance or do anything but stand and stare at us like a herd of cattle. A weird experience that I will always cherish.
#114: TransAm: For a few years we worshipped this hard-rocking Thrill Jockey Records electro act, and then I opened their show in Ybor City, with The Fucking Champs also on the bill.
#115 Thrones: The former bassist from the Melvins now records as one-man-band Thrones, and he didn’t just seem to dislike my opening set before his show at Mermaid Lounge, he seemed to be actively angry at me for not being good enough to open for him. I bought a (really great) CD and shirt from him and dude didn’t even thank me.
#116: Walter Wolfman Washington: Another artist I can say “he opened for me once,” but what I mean to say is, “he got first pick, and made me play last because he didn’t want to play at 1am.” But yeah, Walter opened for my band at a Halloween or Mardi Gras party at Michaelopolis’s funeral home building on Elysian Fields. An honor. I could watch Walter play guitar all day.