Watch as Billboard's Kevan Kenney visits some of New Orleans' most prominent music stars and landmarks on his "One Time in New Orleans"
"When you grow up in New Orleans in 3rd grade, there’s already 200 trumpet players in your school"
Billboard: Can you envision what your life might be like if you didn't grow up in New Orleans?
Scott: I am who I am because I grew up in New Orleans. My family includes a long lineage of Afro-Indian culture [Scott’s grandfather was Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. of the Guardians of the Flame], which is really the primary folk music of the region. In fact, I became a chief myself and I was just coronated this year. This music culture is ground zero of what came out of Congo Square, so a lot of what’s been developed in our particular way of playing, our style of music, and how we operate as musicians comes directly out of this culture and directly out of the jazz created in New Orleans which is very different than what the jazz scene is in other locales. It’s really hard for me to picture what I’d be like or who I’d be [if I weren’t from New Orleans], so that ties into what I create artistically. New Orleans is a space with a very dense collective cultural memory.
Growing up, did you have particular local artists or venues you kept finding inspiration from?
I was really fortunate—my uncle is a guy named Donald Harrison Jr., In the last 40-50yrs, he’s been one of the legends of jazz music and he’s the person who trained me. I was mainly inspired by him because my proximity to him was so close. I also loved a number of older, legendary musicians: Doc Cheatham, the great cornetist and trumpeter, was a contemporary of Louis Armstrong and one of my teachers; Clyde Kerr Jr., for New Orleanian jazz musicians, if you liken them to Jedi he’s Master Yoda; Kidd Jordan; the entire Batiste family, Harold, Alvin, and Milton, the elder Batistes; Danny Barker… It’s really hard to pitch a rock and not hit some pillar for the culture in New Orleans. If you look at jazz as the world’s first highly disseminated fusion form, it has the ability to inundate spaces where other things from that culture may not have been eligible for, because it was being created by oppressed people. But the music had the ability to encroach into spaces where maybe the people weren’t even welcome—so because of that, there are no spaces in the city that music hasn’t touched.
As someone who’s still very active in the New Orleans music community, are there artists and venues you’re continually revisiting today?
When I’m home, I always make it a point to check out what's going on in the scene. I’ll go to Gasa Gasa. I like going to the Hi-Ho Lounge, Sweet Loraine’s, Snug Harbor. There are so many different rooms in New Orleans—the Prime Example—I’m naming rooms that are sort of off the beaten path a bit. Most people know about the main rooms, they know about the House of Blues. You’d be hardpressed to find a city that has this much exciting new music coming from a few blocks. Every venue you walk into you can find some of the dopest, most cutting edge young bands that are developing, so I make it a point to go and be apart of those things. And now they have the Red Bull Academy, so a lot of young developing musicians are doing what they’re doing; and my uncle is the director at the Tipitina’s Foundation. The kids are making great music out of there, and obviously they have a world class venue. It really is hard to find bad music in New Orleans, you’d have to be diligent to find that. If we’re honest about the way culture and societal structure is set up, music is one of the vocations that people from underserved communities are eligible for. When you grow up in New Orleans in 3rd grade, there’s already 200 trumpet players in your school and you’re a kid. When you hit High School, there may be 500 more who want to play trumpet if we’re keeping it real. So in a space like that when you have such competition from such a young age, cats are going to develop a lot quicker than in an environment where you’re perceived as a nerd for playing music. It’s a different culture. It’s hard to find a place where you won’t hear the most incredible music, because the musicians are being refined and trained, challenging each other. These kids when they’re 4 or 5 years are walking around with trumpets and trombones and saxophones, by the time they’re 10 they can really play.
If someone comes to you who’s never been to New Orleans before, what's the first thing you want them to know about the city and the first place you'd tell them to check out?
New Orleans has the opportunity to be the type of place we all talk about wanting to exist in. It’s a place where it doesn’t matter what cult you come from, what your creed is, what you believe in terms of theology, what your identity politics say in terms of race or sexual preferences—there are spaces in New Orleans where none of these things matter. Obviously there are spaces where they really do, but I think new Orleans has a profound opportunity. It can actually lead the charge in creating the most beautiful spaces one can think of in the modern world, a place where cultures can interact and mingle. Now it has a history in doing that, but obviously that was really difficult at certain points. If I had to say one thing to someone going for th first time, I’d say really look around and pay attention to what’s happening. You can see the future, if the lens you’re looking through has hope and sees all people as valid. If there’s one place I can tell you to go, I’d tell you to go to Congo Square. 20th century music cannot be divorced from Congo Square. It is the most important piece of real estate of what’s grown in music. 21st century is obviously a little different, but in the last century, you can’t divorce any music from it—whether you like the Beatles, whether you’re talking about Jay-Z, whether you’re talking about Radiohead, whether you’re talking about Buddy Guy, or Elvis Presley, or Johnny Cash, or Muddy Waters—you can’t divorce that from New Orleans and you can’t divorce it from Congo Square.
That’s really hard, because there’s a lot. But the one that covers all the bases would be the Jazz Festival, because it’s a space where you can hear Nicholas Payton play but you can also hear Cyndi Lauper. For the music fan, if you can handle the New Orleanian heat, this is a space where you can get your full fix of music. It’s not just what comes out of jazz, but you can see some of the best young touring bands in hip-hop and in rock music. And if you don’t catch them one year, look at the line-ups over three years. If your band is any good, you’ll be there.
The city has experienced so much in recent decades—experiencing and rebuilding after Katrina, more new residents than ever before—how has the music scene played a role in shaping the city as it goes through this latest period of change?
In New Orleans, the music culture is always at the front of the charge. When the storm happened, it was the musicians who came back and started to galvanize resources for the city. We were first. Other cities may have more Fortune 500 companies or bigger sports franchises, but in New Orleans we have musical artists and entertainers. Obviously there’s still tons of work to be done—and when I say tons, that’s me putting it lightly—but on a general level, the fact that so many artists from this community have come back to be a part of it and champion the causes of this city, to be the avengers of it is what makes me most proud
This interview has been lightly condensed for clarity
"Music not only shapes the city, music is the city. All of American popular music comes out of New Orleans, that’s an actual fact."
Billboard: Are there modern venues and artists you find inspiration from?
DJ Soul Sister: My favorite music to go see, or that I recommend for people to go see, are all brass bands. That’s my favorite thing that’s been a continuum in my life—whether you see a brass band in a second line, in a club, a neighborhood bar, a street corner, any of those things. New Orleans brass bands have honestly been a conduit of the culture for decades. That is a part of the culture that will not die, and I still love to hear it whether it’s Rebirth, Hot 8, Soul Rebels, the Preservation Hall brass band, The Pinettes, The To Be Continued Brass Band, The Stooges… we just need people to keep creating, and the young people are carrying this tradition. We have to keep the music alive and we have to keep neighborhoods alive that support music culture, because that’s the backbone of the city.
Beyond brass bands, what are some of the other things you recommend to people visiting New Orleans for the first time?
Record stores, that’s easy! My recommended record stores are Domino Sound and Record Shack, which is a tiny store on Bayou Road but it’s curated with quality. There are larger stores that are tons of fun and filled to the brim with records: Euclid Records, Louisiana Music Factory, and NOLA Mix Records. Disko Obscura is another tiny one, but it’s got the stuff that I like and Peaches Records has been around since the 1980s at least.
What’s your can’t-miss music event throughout the annual calendar?
My favorite time of year is Jazz Fest, I call it Mardi Gras for music freaks. It’s literally 24-hours a day music going on somewhere. It can be 10am, midnight, 2am and there’s something going on. Last year, for instance, there was music and Jazz Fest Yoga—it’s non-stop, 24 hours-per-day for two weeks. I also happen to love the Essence Festival time of year. It’s different than other festivals here: it focuses on R&B with some hip-hop. And it’s not just the official events, but all of the satellite things people do to attract and present more soulful and urban kinds of entertainment. I like these two times of year the best, but there’s always something going on
New Orleans is a melting pot of such distinct music styles, how has that influenced the sound you create while performing?
For me, that happened indirectly through people. I wasn’t one of those kids whose parents brought them to second lines, or anything like that, but my dad listened to a lot of records and he was obsessed with the Meters and the Neville Brothers. I learned a lot of things when I started volunteering at WWOZ as a college student—I was the youngest person there at the time, and our studio was in the middle of the Treme district. It was nothing to walk down the street and come across some kids practicing their instruments for the Mardi Gras parade season coming up. Being in New Orleans, I’ve been able to play with live musicians and local heroes who want to play with me and invite me to these live settings. New Orleans isn’t a DJ culture, it never really has been but I’ve been constantly inspired to do my own thing. And as a native New Orleanian, the city embraces individuality in ways that might not happen other places all the time. It happens at a level here that you might not get anywhere else.
The city has gone through a lot of changes in recent decades, how has music been at the forefront to shape the city today?
Music not only shapes the city, music is the city. All of American popular music comes out of New Orleans, that’s an actual fact. Everything comes out of jazz and blues, which got it’s start here. Going back to these stories you hear about Congo Square, that won’t go away because that’s a part of our DNA. New Orleans has always been a melting pot of different people, people from all over: African, Caribbean, Irish, Italian, European, Native American—it’ll continue as our culture because it can’t be changed. The charm and the energy of city will always remain. Come in, do your thing, and you’re welcome so long as you don’t stifle the creativity that exists here.
This interview has been lightly condensed for clarity
"New Orleans has this magic that will trap you and there’s this sense of comfort and this sense of lifestyle that is unlike anywhere else in the US."
Do you think you’d still be making music if you lived somewhere other than New Orleans?
Yes I would be but at the same time it wouldn’t be as good as New Orleans. I’m a big fan of live instrumentation so I feel like if I wasn’t from New Orleans I’d be making some typical [insert trap rapper that doesn’t have swag here] music. In New Orleans, the people are so deep here and all the artists that I know have so many layers. Because of that, I feel like I wouldn’t be the type of artist that I am today, I wouldn’t care about the music as much as I do if I weren’t from here. Being introduced to music early let me know how important it is to have multiple flows, listening and watching artists like Mystikal and Master P, seeing how they move independently was a very inspiring thing to me growing up. Cash Money, that speaks for itself, just making things larger than life is something that they were always good at and I feel like that’s something we try to do. I think I soaked up a lot of game from those around me in the city and the influences I had from outside of New Orleans as well.
Who are some of the other artists you looked to for inspiration?
PJ Morton, Tank and the Bangas, Phillip Manuel. I’m more in tune with people who are currently doing stuff. I would say Currency, Wayne, – that goes without saying -- but I feel like there’s a lot of energy right now. The Pink Room Project, they’re also inspiring, wherever the energy is, I like that.
What about local venues? What were some the venues you visited growing up and visiting to this day?
Ebony Square. I wasn’t able to go outside during the ‘New Orleans golden rap era’ but as I got older there were a few venues that I really liked like Dragon’s Den. Hi-Ho Lounge is definitely something you have to cross off your checklist and it’s pretty funny because Hi-Ho lounge is one of the first shows that I did in New Orleans after coming back from Mississippi so that was a huge thing for me. Gasa Gasa is another one; that’s where I did my release party for my album Floating While Dreaming, it was really special. If I had to pick one more it would be The Republic.
For someone new coming to New Orleans, what’s the first thing you would want them to know?
That the first stop they should be making is the Café Du Monde to get the Beignets. Second, I’d say eat as much food as possible – you’re not going to be disappointed. Eat things that you would never eat.
Now New Orleans is known for its distinct musical styles from jazz to bounce and Americana. How has this sonic melting pot influenced your sound?
I definitely think bounce has impacted my sound the most, especially some of the stuff that I’ve been doing recently because I feel like every song has to have a pulse and a rhythm. In terms of jazz, I feel like it has so much emotion in it because a lot of it is improvisation and the music goes along with feeling so that’s something that influences what I do also.
The city has experienced so much in recent decades—experiencing and rebuilding after Katrina, more new residents than ever before—how has the music scene played a role in shaping the city as it continually changes?
I think it plays a very important role because art represents the life that’s surrounding it. We can only talk about our experiences so to have a sense of comfort and struggle allows people to get over things that may seem world-ending. I feel like with Hurricane Katrina not everything is 100 percent okay but at the end of the day, it reflects what’s going on in the city and artists can be that voice for people to understand that we’re all one and the same and we’re all going through similar struggles
How would you describe today’s New Orleans music scene?
Vast. It’s crazy. It’s a world of emerging talent and a bunch of people that are influenced by stuff outside of New Orleans. There’s this thing where, I feel a lot of artists come to New Orleans and stay here once they see we live in that magic. New Orleans has this magic that will trap you and there’s this sense of comfort and this sense of lifestyle that is unlike anywhere else in the US.
What's the one music event in the city you can't skip year-to-year?
Jazz Fest to be honest. I mean VooDoo is amazing, but Jazz Fest is an institution. It’s important for people to check out Jazz Fest because you’re never going to find a more diverse lineup of artist. I think a lot of festivals try to stay current, but Jazz Fest is a jazz heritage festival so they’re showing respect to those who came before and you’re going to find some gems in every year’s lineup. It’s a good way of mixing the old with the new especially for young music listeners. When you’re talking about jazz, you can’t exclude New Orleans from the conversation so it’s an embodiment of the culture.
NOLA is obviously a great music city, but there's also tremendous history, art, literature, food. etc.—how does music interact with all those other aspects of the city's culture?
Like I said earlier, music is meant to reflect the times because it’s a direct representation of everything that surrounds it. Music is how we live our lives essentially and you can’t cut it out of any aspect of New Orleans culture.
This interview has been lightly condensed for clarity
No matter where you are in New Orleans, close your eyes and listen—maybe it’s a horn or some drums, could be a banjo or accordion. Whatever the instrument, the fact remains that the music is everywhere. From the very first artists gracing Congo Square pre-America to bands playing for tight rooms at Gasa Gasa this month, New Orleans has always been home to world class music and musicians no matter what style you’d prefer to hear. While jazz and brass bands have the highest profile, the city has deep histories in bounce, hip-hop, folk, Americana, rock, zydeco, bluegrass, and much more. No matter what sound an artist most often embraces, New Orleans musicians find ways to combine multiple ideas in novel and unexpected ways; just look to modern acts like Tank & the Bangas or a local legend like Dr. John for quick examples.
Ask virtually any artist in town, and what they’ll tell you first about the scene continues to ring true — no style of music from the last century can be separated from the impact of New Orleans. Danny Barker took the city’s pre-jazz influences to the Mississippi in the early 1800s, which trickled to Louis Armstrong in the early 1900s and eventually the world. In the 1950s, Cosimo Matassa captured early rock for the masses by producing early records for legends like Ray Charles and Little Richard. Preservation Hall and Jazz Fest followed in the coming decades, eventually bringing Mardi Gras Indian sounds to the masses along side gospel, Cajun, hip-hop, pop, and rock from acts that range from Bruce Springsteen to Chaka Khan and hometown hero Lil’ Wayne.
While some historic venues have been lost to the passage of time, it remains hard to walk down a street anywhere between the Carrollton area of Uptown and the Ninth Ward out east without a must-see venue nearby. You can go to the Warehouse District’s Howlin Wolf every Sunday to catch a set from the world class Hot 8 Jazz Band, see Kermit Ruffins channelling the ethos of Louis Armstrong on a Monday at the Mother in Law Lounge in the Treme, squeeze in for the intimate Rebirth Brass Band Tuesday night sessions at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street, or catch the legendary Preservation Hall Band which welcomes visitors into their hallowed grounds for multiple shows every night.
There’s a reason even the biggest acts in modern music—Arcade Fire, Solange Knowles, Father John Misty — keep flocking to become part of this artistic community. New Orleans will always be a place with unrivalled history, but what makes it special remains its present. No other city has such thriving traditions consistently sharing a double-bill with the experimental and innovative artists of today. As resident Win Butler once put it, “New Orleans is one of the last places in America that’s its own place—for the rest of us there’s this.”
3/23/18 - 3/24/18
Congo Square New Worlds Rhythm Fest
French Quarter Fest
4/12/18 - 4/15/18
4/27/18 - 5/6/18
4/27/18 - 5/6/19
Tipitina's Free Fridays
Fridays June - September
The Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival
7/5/18 - 7/8/18
8/3/18 - 8/5/18
First 2nd Lines of the Year
NOLA Burlesque Fest
10/6/18 - 10/7/18
Quintron and Miss Pussycat's Halloween performance
Crescent City Blues and BBQ
The Bayou Classic
11/30/18 - 12/2/18*
Fan Fest at the All State Sugar Bowl