Signature Sound: Hip-hop Legend Ricky B Reflects on the City and His Musical Legacy

Ricky B -- photo by Dan FoxJames Joyce once said, “I want to give a picture of  Dublin  so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth, it could be reconstructed out of  my book.” In that same way, Ricky B’s music maps New Orleans for listeners. His album B is for Bounce is the debut release from DJ Brice Nice and WWOZ Music  Director Scott Borne’s new label, Sinking City Records. The tracks on B is for Bounce are from 1994 and ‘95,  providing a window  into bounce’s formative days, including Rick’s smash hit “Shake It Fo Ya Hood.”  It’s hip-hop with  an upbeat outlook, using Mardi  Gras Indian  chants and brass bands. Most  importantly,  it’s timeless good music and a perfect party record.

Remastered  by audio engineer J. Yuenger, the sound is immediate and clean without  being sterile, crisp without  being cold; you’d never guess some of  it came off  20-year-old  cassettes. Says Brice about compiling the tracks: “We went through and listened to everything we could, different versions from different places, and decided what we wanted. Then we got it all to J., who did a great job of  making everything sound similar…  It was  cool to get somebody from outside listening to those songs, to put a fresh ear on it from an audio perspective.”

On anthemic tracks like “Let’s Go Gitt’em (With the Mac  Band,  Live),” “What  School’s In the House,” “City Streets” and “Who  Got Dat Fire,” Ricky B rolls between neighborhoods, schools, projects and wards—including New Orleans East, the Westbank and the North Shore—rhyming  their names and connections to one another. The effect is powerful New Orleans pride, a sense of  an interwoven, unified community made up of many parts.

I spoke with Ricky B on a sunny Saturday morning in Gentilly, outside the Palms Plaza  barber shop, where he was preparing for a video shoot with fellow New Orleans hip-hop veterans Manny  Bigalow and 5th Ward Weebie. While cars were detailed around us, we talked about the musical past, present and what lies ahead—and  the bottom-line personal business policy that’s given Ricky B creative freedom.

This album is more  musically diverse and way more  lyrical  than what most people expect from  bounce music in 2013. Where do you see yourself in relation to bounce?

Ricky B: I don’t try and put myself in that spot. I let the crowds decide. Now when bounce comes on, people tell me all the time, “that’s not bounce.” Someone told me once bounce had to change, because nobody could emulate what Ricky B was doing. [laughs] But it’s artistry; I appreciate it as good artistry. The people who listen to bounce music decide what they like. When I hit the stage, I see that okay, people still know the original bounce.

In terms of New Orleans hip- hop, you’ve been  through  a lot of different eras  and phases of it—from this record  to a more  hardcore style  with [Ricky B’s former group] Felony Squad. Where do you feel like New Orleans hip-hop is today?

I’m going to say hip-hop is the genre, bounce is a part of hip-hop. I think we’re in a good spot as far as the genre as a whole, but I think we can be more creative when it comes down to bounce. Nationally, New Orleans hip-hop fits in its own unique way. People have yet to discover all that we have to offer. We can contribute a lot to the game, but it has to be creative enough for other areas of the country to buy into what we’re doing. You can’t just make a song, screaming on it, asking people to dance and do this and do that, and have it catch on. You have to say something that people want to hear, to get their attention, and once you get their attention they’re going to listen to everything else you have to say.

Ricky BSo much  of New Orleans doesn’t sound  like anywhere else… and with your music, among the things that stand  out is how you draw from some of the other  musical traditions from within  New Orleans, like Mardi Gras Indian  chants and brass.

There’s a lot of trend-setting in this city; somebody’s always first to do something. I figured, people already like New Orleans jazz, people already like the brass bands. You put the right type of lyrics with it, you can’t lose. For the era that I came out with music in, I tried to utilize everything New Orleans had to offer. It’s why I don’t have to say “New Orleans” a million times in a song, because it’s all there in the music.

Right! “City Streets,” for instance, to me seems way ahead  of its time—it’s like musical GPS or a guided tour: turn left here, turn right here.

That was my purpose with that song, to take people through the city. Go here, turn here to get here. All those places I named were party spots. You come from the Ninth ward, you have a spot to find a party, whether you come from the East, take it to the St. Bernard, take it to the West Bank, take it to Algiers, all those places. You can find a party anywhere. Those were routes, the main streets. You’re right: it was a map. And that’s what I call creativity.

How is it that New Orleans music can be so specific, so rooted in a specific place  or even a certain time and yet people from all different backgrounds, from different parts  of the country  and world, get so into it?

Because everybody—not everybody, but the majority of people in this country that I run across, and I’ve traveled the country a whole lot—got some kind of tie to New Orleans. Whether their grandparents grew up here or their kids go to school down here now, there’s some type of tie to New Orleans. Some relationship, even if it’s just because they visited. I guess people just gravitate towards New Orleans because of its culture, its multicultural background. I mean, we in the city, honestly—we don’t appreciate it, because we’re here all the time.

Were spoiled by it, maybe.

Exactly. I think sometimes people who come here and see New Orleans appreciate it more than we do. So musically, I just think with so many different cultures in the city, from French backgrounds, European to Blacks, Asians, Caucasians, it’s just—the music you make won’t be locked into one demographic. You just can’t do it.

I was talking earlier with [Ricky B’s longtime friend  and collaborator] Bigalow about  you guys coming up together, doing  shows during  the lunch periods at John McDonogh. Who were your inspirations then, when you were  starting out?

Bigalow was a big part of me wanting to get into the game. Besides the national artists who made me want to get into rap music, it was Bigalow, Peter Bo, Marvin, Coke the Crowd Rocker—those guys used to be in the bathroom at lunch time, beating on the walls. There were hollow areas where the walls used to sound just like that bass, and I used to stand in the crowd and watch them rap. One day I just jumped in the circle and started rapping. So I was pretty much part of the clique. Every day at lunch time, in the bathroom, we would go in and rap… and I just kept doing it.

When you think of the amount of New Orleans talent  that came out of those  lunchtime shows… and if there  had been  camera phones back then! [Cash Money  founders] Slim and Baby were at some of those, right?

Yeah, they were regular guys like us. I remember my very first photo shoot— [Cash Money artist] Pimp Daddy’s photo shoot was the exact same day, same place, half an hour apart. Baby and Slim and Pimp Daddy came in the door and I remember Baby telling me “Rick, I will  not stop. I will not stop til I make it.” And he made it! They put in the work. But they were normal guys just like us, normal guys trying to create a movement and keep something going. Bigalow and I decided to do things the way we’re doing it, get to a certain plateau and just turn it over. Open up the doors for the younger ones. That’s where we’re at with ours.

But you and Bigalow are here  today shooting a video  for a new single [“Molly Wildin”] with 5th Ward Weebie, and you’re  still  performing; it’s not like you’re  just sitting back.

Oh yeah, that won’t stop. But when we first got in the game it was more about let’s get this money, let’s get these records out, let’s get known. But in the learning, the road to that, you can run into some serious bumps. Now it’s not about the money. The money will come—take care of your business, the money will come. But if you go for the money, I just feel people think you’ll sell yourself  for a dollar, you’ll do anything to get money. We’re not about that… It’s about the relationships. You could have the best music in the world, but if you don’t have relationships in this business  it’s not gonna work for you. So we established a whole lot of relationships. It’s how we end up with people like Brice and Scott—build relationships. Keep them in on what you’re doing, keep in on what they’re doing, be a part of  it, help them out. And that’s something we’re turning younger ones onto: “Hey man, look: y’all are part of these relationships we build, so when you guys are ready to go, these are the guys that you need to know.” But we’re still doing our thing. That won’t ever change.

You took a hiatus…

Oh yeah. And I was counted out, but you know New Orleans, man. If nobody sees you for a while you’re either dead, in jail or on drugs, strung out somewhere… so I was dead.

Yeah! Bigalow even was saying he’d heard that.  Nobody knew what happened to you.

Ricky B -- photo by Dan FoxI didn’t even know until I was looking at Youtube with my daughter, and she asked me what R.I.P. meant. She was six at the time. I was like, “Oh, don’t worry about it.”

And in fact you were raising a family—

I was always just living with my family, still riding around the city, having fun, doing normal things.  Still doing it.

That show  in 2010 with Brice and Musa [at the Maison] was your first show  in a while, right?

That show was my first since 2001. I’d just started recording a song called “Hello,” to let ‘em know that I was back, and then Brice called me and said, hey man, I got your number, just wanted to know what you’re doing, I’d be interested in doing a show with you if you want to. I was like… [pause] yeah, I want to. And I did that show with Brice. It was a nice show too, it was real nice. So when I went and finished that song “Hello,” I put Brice and Musa in the song. I let ‘em know—Brice found me, who’s next?

How do you feel about  having  music that you recorded 20 years  ago being  re-released?

I love it. It’s like, I don’t have anything to prove; my music speaks for itself. I feel good about still being part of this culture.

What gets you excited that’s  going  on today?

I get excited when I see young rappers here doing something positive, because I know if they’re always doing something positive, it’s keeping them out of trouble, and seeing older rappers still around—I think, okay, I shouldn’t stop. The young guys are doing okay, but we’re still creative, we still know how to do what we do.

When you’re referred to as a legend, or—I guess the term “role  model” is a heavy  thing  to put on anybody

It is, it is.

but it seems like you’re  someone who’s  happy  where  he’s at. So for a younger person to be able o see  someone who’s  been  through  it and come out the other  side, and is in a good place… that’s  a path, or an example, that’s  very positive. And I would  also  use the word “positive” to describe your music.

If I’m going to rep the city, I want to rep it right. We can look at the news all day and find what’s really going on, but if you really want to get to the core of what this city’s about, talk to the people who’ve lived in it and experienced it. We survived ‘93 to ‘99, worst time in the city. And you know, we’re still here, doing something positive. Living experience, sitting right in front of you. But if they don’t listen, well, you can’t force it on ‘em… I want to take aspiring artists, doesn’t just have to be rappers, sit down, help them write what they’re trying to write. Because we know they’re gonna express what they’ve lived through, what they’ve seen—we’ve heard that story a million times. Instead of them harping on what they’ve lived or what they’ve seen, I wanna help them go towards, okay, what would you do different? Get that response. Okay, now let’s build these lyrics off what you would really do, not just what you’ve seen.

I hear you’re  looking to work with a high school band again.

I would have to say that’s my passion, to work with a band. To grab a bunch of kids that’s in school, maybe one or two from every school and just get them in the studio. I have the music; blow it. And let them blow it, hear it, and I’ll record the lyrics. I feel like if you’re part of something you’re excited about, you’ll be willing to do almost anything to stay out of trouble; and that CD, that record, that’s something they can feel connected to for the rest of their lives. Especially if it blows up! Even if it doesn’t blow up, it’s a lifetime memory that you’ll be able to tell your kids, your grandkids—Hey, this is daddy on this song, or mommy blowing on this song. It’s what I’m able to do with my daughter… So that’s my passion; I really want to get with a band. I just did a show in Baton Rouge the weekend before last, and I sent McKinley High School a record, “Tell ‘Em Boys It’s On.” My vision for that record is a football game  with the band in the stands, the other band across the field and “Tell ‘em boys it’s on,” they’re just blowing at each other. That’s how the bands do at the football [game]. I told McKinley, hey, I’ll record the song with you for a fundraiser. Y’all put it on CDs and sell them five dollars apiece, I don’t want anything from them. You go raise your money for whatever you’re trying to do. So we’ll see if they take us up on the offer. We’ll do it in the city too… so if you know some bands looking to be part of a historical moment, you say, hey man, you need to contact Ricky B. This guy’s looking to record with a school band, help with fundraisers, whatever they need to do.

Hearing “Lets  Go Gitt’em (With the Mac Band, Live),” the energy  off  that combination is incredible.

I’m willing to work with jazz artists, anybody, because I know: the more creativity you got, the more artistry you have.

One of the things Brice was saying made this re-release go so smooth is that you owned  the rights  to your own music. Is that uncommon?

That’s very uncommon. See, I never signed a contract. This is the kind of thing I can bring to a lot of these younger local artists. But when they’re under contracts—that’s why I say it’s hard to get to them, because, you know,  they’re pretty much set. They sign the paper and  they don’t pay attention to what they’re signing… I had never signed a contract. When they decided to release “Shake It Fo Ya Hood,” they wanted me to sign. I said no, I’m not with being locked in a contract. So when it was time to do the re-release, all I had to do was go back [to the label, Mobo Records] and say, hey, sign this letter stating that I own all my rights, all my publishing, everything’s under me. And they signed it immediately because they knew, we have nothing on this guy. He’s registered his own music; he’s published his own music; we just recorded it and put it out. We don’t own masters; we don’t own any of that. So that was a real easy process.

Whats next for you?

After we’ve promoted this thing with Brice as much as we can, the next thing is to put our focus and our attention behind Giant Life, a real positive record, structured from where we were, where we’ve gotten to and where we’re at now as far as the music and the evolution of hip-hop. So this song, “Molly Wildin,” is pretty much the stage that hip-hop is at right now. We’re gonna shoot some scenes for the video today.

When are we going to see  you back at Jazz Fest?

That’s a good question. When that phone call comes, I’m ready.

Ricky B’s B is for Bounce is available in local stores and via mail-order at Catch Ricky B live at the Blue Nile on April 5th and April 27th.