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.” To read the rest of this piece at Medium, CLICK HERE!