When people think of the sound of New Orleans, what do they hear (other than the obnoxious noise that comes from both Bourbon Street and our often-crooked politicians)? More often than not, people think about the sounds of jazz music on every street corner of the city. Understandable, since New Orleans is considered to be the birthplace of jazz, i.e. America’s music (fight me, Mississippi). However, the city’s distinction with jazz has unfortunately often eclipsed other New Orleans musical genres that deserve to be better recognized. So, here’s a list of some non-jazz-related New Orleans music genres that should always be on your radar.
New Orleans Blues
Developed in the 40s and 50s, New Orleans blues is a distinct variation from the Louisiana blues that it spawned from. What sets New Orleans blues apart are the elements of jazz and Caribbean influence that the genre adopted into its sound. Typically, the genre is characterized by pianos, horns (usually saxophones), and guitars, and is generally happy-sounding and laid-back, but with multifaceted rhythms placed just behind the beat. The best representative of New Orleans blues was the late Professor Longhair, whose songs, like his signature “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” have left a lasting impact on the culture of the city and inspired some of New Orleans’s best-known musicians. The genre hit a hard decline in the 60s as rock- and-roll became more popular, but New Orleans blues is a classic genre that built the groundwork for many musicians in our city. It’s classically New Orleans.
Notable Acts: Professor Longhair, Snooks Eaglin, Dr. John
New Orleans Rhythm and Blues
One of the most prominent genres to come out of New Orleans blues was New Orleans rhythm and blues (add the rhythm and it’s a completely different beast). Considered to be the granddaddy of rock-and-roll, New Orleans R&B is characteristically made up of soulful vocals, electric guitar, piano, drums, horns, and bass, all of which are used to incorporate strong backbeats and second-line rhythms to create fun and danceable melodies. Just like New Orleans blues, the genre also incorporates Caribbean rhythms (calypso, mambo, and rhumba) to make its sound more lively and energetic. Keep in mind that if it wasn’t for New Orleans R&B, we might not have gotten the popular rock-and-roll sound that dominated the world from the 60s on. In fact, the late Fats Domino was named as a direct inspiration for some of history’s most highly regarded musicians like Elvis Presley and the Beatles. So the next time you’re rocking out, make sure to pay your respects to the genre that paved that rock-and-roll yellow brick road.
Notable Acts: Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint
Moving on to a fairly recent genre, sludge metal was first formed in New Orleans during the late 80s. Known for its abrasive style, sludge metal combines elements from slow-tempo doom metal (dark rhythms and cynical atmosphere) and fast-tempo hardcore punk (aggressive lyrics and screaming vocals). Sludge-metal bands often combine these different tempos, and also use heavily distorted instruments, to create a harsh and dirty sound that is meant to put listeners into a feeling of unease and discomfort to match the dark subject matter in these bands’ lyrics. Quite a few bands in this genre also incorporate elements of stoner metal and Southern rock, like the now-defunct Acid Bath, which was helmed by vocalist Dax Riggs (who is very talented, and you should totally check out his solo work and other projects as well: Agents of Oblivion and Deadboy & the Elephantmen). I know some extreme types of metal just sound like complete noise to a lot of people, but keep your mind open. Sludge metal is harsh, but its dark atmosphere and often introspective lyrics are just too unique to be written off.
Notable Acts: Eyehategod, Acid Bath, Down
The last genre on this list is probably one of the more prevalent genres of music in today’s popular music world. Finding its start in the early 90s, bounce music is an enthusiastic form of New Orleans-flavored hip hop, which utilizes Mardi Gras Indian chants, dance call-outs, and call-and-response interactions to form a genre of hip hop that is high on energy. Bounce was strictly an underground genre all throughout the 90s, until, with the help of performers like Big Freedia, it exploded onto the national scene in the early 2000s. Mainstream labels No Limits Records (Snoop Dogg, Mystikal, Soulja Slim) and Cash Money Records (Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj) then started taking in bounce musicians, helping the genre get more exposure and admiration. Nowadays, bounce is still popular in the mainstream, even inspiring musicians like Beyoncé to incorporate the genre into their own sound. Bounce has definitely come a long way since the 90s, but always remember that New Orleans was there to nurture it in its humble beginnings.
Notable Acts: MC T. Tucker, Big Freedia (pictured below), Katey Red