Dancing onstage at a New Orleans bounce show can be a hazardous business. They’re typically crowded with jiggling, upside-down female booties, and revellers have been known to hit the floor harder than expected. Fortunately, Big Freedia, one of the city’s reigning bounce emcees, knows what to do when a dancer goes down.
“If you was on the floor dancing to me, and you was working real hard and you fall and everybody see, I could say something that’d make everybody forget you even fell,” she says over the phone from her home in New Orleans. “Like, she’ll get down on her head, and I’ll just make her work harder.”
Bounce music is a style of rapid-fire call-and-response club rap that originated in New Orleans. All the songs are based on two late-‘80s hip-hop tracks: “Drag Rap (Trigger Man)” by the Showboys and Derek B’s “Rock the Beat.” From those two samples, emcees such as Juvenile, Mia X, Cheeky Blakk and Partners in Crime crafted countless hard-hitting, playful and nasty-ass club jams throughout the ‘90s.
“It was at the school dances. I grew up listening to bounce music and loving bounce music,” says Freedia. “And those were some of the idols I looked up to.”
A decade later, bounce music has captured the imagination of the American media, thanks largely to a handful of so-called sissy-bounce rappers — gay and trans performers who, despite blunt lyrics about queer lifestyle and drag theatrics, are wildly popular with the city’s mainstream hip-hop fans.
Canadian audiences will get a rare glimpse of New Orleans bounce royalty when Big Freedia brings her stage show to Toronto during NXNE.
Freedia began her bounce career in 1999 as a backup vocalist for Katey Red, the first openly gay rapper to rock a mic. “I definitely looked up to her, especially when she came out,” she says. “It gave me a lot of confidence to do what I’m doing now.”
Since going solo, she’s become one of the scene’s biggest stars, thanks to jams such as “Azz Everywhere” and “Gin in My System.” Earlier this year, she released the compilation Hitz Volume 1: 1999–2010 and guested on New Orleans funk outfit Galactic’s album, Ya-Ka-May.
Freedia credits Hurricane Katrina with spreading bounce beyond the city’s underground club scene. After the disaster, she travelled around the US South performing for displaced victims. “I’d go around to all of the different places to make my people feel at home in a different home,” she says.
Five years later, she performs five to seven nights a week in New Orleans and regularly tours to other US cities. Occasionally, she’ll team up with Red or her bounce “daughter,” Sissy Nobby.
“When we both started gettin’ hot, we thought we might as well work together as a team,” she says. “You can give them even more drama. When we give them the mother-daughter, it’s like the roof is about to be on fire in the building for real.”
By day, Freedia’s occupation is a lot less messy: she runs an interior decorating and floral arrangement business.
So it’s for good reason she’s dubbed herself the hardest-working bounce queen in the game.
“No rapper down here in New Orleans has been consistent like me, rapping and holding the clubs down,” she says. “There are people that have came and that have left in the bounce game, and Freedia has still been here all those years.”