TRIKSTA—Life and Death and New Orleans Rap
By Nik Cohn. 211 pages. Harvill Secker
“My mother said I never should/ Play with the gypsies in the wood”, sang the ancient rhymer wisely. As a velveted child I envied common boys their tough clothes, sneers, and perpetual racket. As a teenager in 1950s London I was, like our author, spellbound by “Mr Jelly Lord”, a book about the gold-toothed ragtime braggart Jelly Roll Morton, set in New Orleans, an underwater swamp city of fantasy and lies, of smiling tricksters who’d slit your throat for a misplaced glance even as mesmerizing blues slithered around you.
The Nik Cohn I strolled with down the King’s Road in the early 1970s was affable and tweeded, a perfect British gentleman. The mutual friend who’d introduced us, Andy Wickham of Warner Bros Records, was dressed like a gentleman too. He and Cohn talked cricket. I wanted to talk pop because Andy and I were taking a break from making country & western records in Nashville. We had been given the green light by Mo Ostin, rabbinical head of WB, and we were deep in the business of exploiting hillbillies. While the natives liked the colour of our money they rightly despised us as carpetbaggers, trespassing in the precious mud of America’s rootsland. We were, naturally, soon sent packing. We were in that time-honored line of well-bred Britishers with a taste for lumpen ethnics--- we were embracing the mud.
Now, over thirty years on, I read how Cohn has joined that line, drawn moth-like to the flame of dawn-of-the- 21st century New Orleans, to become a senior citizen A&R man/ talent spotter adventuring recklessly into the mosh pit of rap and hip-hop, a degeneration of the elegant and European-influenced syncopation of ragtime and jazz into an Africanized primal roar of postured boasts specifying we’re “black beasts fit for nothing but fucking and killing and what you plan to do about it mutherfuckas”, and all set to a relentless thump-thud.
Cohn’s asking for trouble and he gets it in spades. Early on, down among the Z-people of New Orleans, he’s strolling along thinking of pizza when a black boy splatters him with spit, spoiling his new leather jacket.” In a fury partly induced by hepatitis C, he strides into the heart of a really dangerous slum and is immediately swarmed by brackish smelling black bodies. He gets away but, safe in a taxi, finds himself “swept by blind animal terror”. His negro girl friends have been telling him for years: “All whites, cut deep, are racist at core”. Rocking-chaired on the porch of his rented space, an old oyster house sporting an upside-down portrait of Napoleon (another whitey who sold out the natives), and taking in the evening glow of the “orange crime lights” as they come “softly thorugh the leaves”, he’s interrupted by a gaggle of gangbangers swaggering by, clad in the rap uniform of hooded jackets and sagging jeans: “One of them caught me looking and cursed me out”.
Nevertheless , he becomes besotted by the local style, the Triggerman beat called Bounce, a rhythm that makes the “big fine women… shake that thing till sweat flies and the concrete underfoot turns slick as an ice rink”. He takes to singing in the shower:”Walk it like a model, I’m do ya lika dog”.
He soon discovers that it is the local negresses who really run the neighbourhoods and can hold their own against barbarism: on a talent-scouting mission at a party where deep-fried turkey necks are today’s special, Cohn is escorted by a tough TV woman, Loren, of “bountiful cleavage”. In the middle of her live broadcast a small boy comes up and demands:” Trick bitch, I’ma let ya suck my dick”. Loren doesn’t drop a beat. She winds up her show, gets into her flashy convertible sports car and makes a grand exit, with her assistant “scattering gnawed trurkey necks like blessings”.
He becomes enamoured of a teen gangsta rapper called Choppa, loose-limbed and in love with himself. In his middle class home he answers to Derwin and his interests are video games and getting so many gold teeth that he’ll have to go platinum. His rap concerns making headboards bang all night; in concert he asks his little girl fans,”If you like your pussy ate, say Aaaahh”. They all go “aaahh” and this means that his “curve appeal” coupled with his rooster crow could spell a hit record if Cohn chooses the right beat and tracks (stolen from other records, of course).
At the behest of Cohn our friend Andy Wickham now enters the picture. Loathing rap and everything it stands for, Andy understands the need to meet the market. Hip-hop is now a billion dollar business and Warner Records must have a slice of it. He agrees to lunch with Choppa at a nice New Orleans restaurant. Choppa is only twenty minutes late, not his usual two hours. He orders buffalo wings and slathers sauce on them. He asks who all else Andy has worked with. “Eyes fixed on his manicure”,Andy spends eighteen minutes working through his decades starting with the Rolling Stones. “If he’d looked up, he’d have seen that Choppa’s eyes were closing, globs of red sauce congealing around his chops”. He asks, “Where you located?”.”I live in London”. “Europe, right? I like Europe..they lovin’ me in the clubs..Europe’s good“. This is par for the course: another rapper, learning that Cohn was born in Ireland asks whether he meets many bears and tigers out there
Wickham agrees to sign up Choppa but the deal goes sour when Andy’s suddenly terminated by Warners. Senior citizens should not be in the rap business, they should be on the golf course. But Cohn is by now addicted to this underworld, despite being told by a music lawyer who knows the ropes that rap is a“sick and hideous business”. With Andy’s help he gets a meeting with Mo Ostin, who, as a white-beared septuagarian is presently running Dreamworks Records. Ostin’s verdict is that Choppa speaks “gibberish” but the company needs to get current because it’s drowning in red ink. “I believe everything happens for the best”, he says. “ I trust you will not think me unduly Panglossian”.
Cohn recieves money to produce some rap demos. But again fate intervenes: Dreamworks is terminated too. The old brigade have lost the whiphand. Undefeated, Cohn is fired to pursue a dream: he will chase “hard truth through rap”, catch its essential “howl of defiance’”. Suddenlyt he feels “all black New Orleans spread out for me like a tapestry”. Raptured,he determines to make a deathless anthem for rap, an art work.
He takes on an alter ego called Mort Ziploc,a Simon Legree figure who so puts the fear of God into the rappers that they take to calling him “Boss Man”. But his chosen rapper, Che, fails to deliver the goods: “Pick up your guns, strap on your vest”, the hook begins. This from a man who lives in a gated community and is a “strictly fasten-the-seatbelt, check-the-rear-mirror” type. The game is up : there are no real primal screamers—only poor blacks kids in search of cash money, gold teeth, and fine women. Michaela, his wife, flies in to make him come home.”I had failed at every possible level”. But failure in the unholy angry clouds of rap brings a silver lining: he has created a book and a rollicking good read it it is!