REBIRTH BRASS BAND featuring SOULJA SLIM / “You Don’t Want To Go To War”
Lady buckjumpers, y’all buck with that And you ain’t rolling with it if you don’t sweat Soulja Slim with The ‘Birth, they’ll never forget And you ain’t saying nothing, so stop talking that shit We don’t want nobody to get hurt today All we really want to see is footwork today —The late James ‘Soulja Slim’ Tapp, from “You Don’t Want To Go To War”In many forms of Black music, there’s a tradition of competition. In jazz, it’s called a ‘cutting session.’ Horn players square off against each other to see who can play the hottest solos. In hip-hop, there was the ‘park jam.’ DJ crews would set up on opposite sides of the park and spin their best records—sometimes simultaneously. In both cases, there was no input from judges, there were no score cards or computerized results. The winner was decided by audience response, period. So when New Orleans’-own Rebirth Brass Band names a song “You Don’t Want To Go To War,” they aren’t talking about Iraq or Afghanistan or any of the United States’ other attempts at ‘nation building.’ They aren’t making a political statement at all. They are saying in effect, “We’re Rebirth and you’re not. Don’t mess with us.” Or like they put it themselves in the opening refrain: “Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.” Last week, we heard music from one of the other internationally-known brass bands from New Orleans, The Dirty Dozen. If you thought that all brass bands sounded the same, you’re about to find out how wrong you were. Both the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth are from New Orleans and both bands use the traditional brass band structure of bass drum, snare drum and tuba (or sousaphone) backing up multiple horn players, but that’s about it for the similarities. The Dirty Dozen are polished and sophisticated musicians. Their rearrangements of Marvin Gaye’s classic tunes are well thought out and perfectly executed. The cats from Rebirth may be capable of playing clean and tight like the Dirty Dozen does, but if they are, they sure aren’t trying very hard. Listen to the opening horn salvo from “You Don’t Want To Go To War” (from Rebirth’s 2001 release Hot Venom). It sounds like 20 or 30 horns all playing sort of approximately the same tune, but with a wild and reckless attitude that only hints at the words ‘harmony.’ When Rebirth rearranges soul and R&B tunes, it’s usually to add hoarse-voiced and sometimes profane sing-a-longs a la “Rebirth Melody”/“Casanova” (also from Hot Venom) in which they re-imagine Levert’s “I’m so in love with you, baby” lyrics as (and I paraphrase) “I would like to have sex with you immediately.” No matter which tune they happen to be playing, the rhythms usually remain the same—a fiery polyrhythmic brew of tuba blats and bass drums licks that manages to sound African, Brazilian and hip-hoppish all at the same time. The origins of New Orleans’ second-most-famous brass band sounds like an urban myth. Eight teenagers from the same high school marching band ran out of beer money (actually, in this case, it was wine coolers) and decided to play on Bourbon St. for tips so they could buy more drinks. Whether you believe that story or not, this much is true: it’s twenty-some years later and they’re still playing. Sure, there’s only one original member left, tuba impresario Phillip Frazier, but Rebirth isn’t one of those made-for-the-casino-circuit scams with one original member and three or four other guys who were still in diapers back when the band was actually popular. Phillip’s little brother Kevin has been holding down the bass drum for over twenty years and several other Rebirth members have been playing with the band for nearly as long. I was there when Rebirth did an in-store performance at Tower Records in New Orleans—that had to be sometime in the late ‘80s. Trumpet player Derrick Shesbie wasn’t even a teenager yet. I remember thinking that he looked barely bigger than his trumpet…and his trumpet wasn’t all that big. Today, Shesbie is a grown-ass man in his early thirties. Rebirth has been funkin’ it up for a looong time. Whether rhythmically or lyrically, this isn’t music for the faint-hearted. It’s not elegant, erudite or intellectual. It’s not the type of thing you want to play for your impressionable kids or your church-going mother. It’s party music, period. It’s music steeped in centuries-old tradition, certainly. But it’s a tradition that includes working hard all week, than going out and drinking, smoking, sweating and dancing damn near until you drop. If you should you ever have the opportunity to see Rebirth play live, by all means, go. But like I mentioned earlier, this isn’t some well-dressed, clean-shaven casino lounge act. You’re going to see eight or nine unkept-looking, sweaty black men in jeans and t-shirts. Their shouted refrains will probably remind you as much of 2 Live Crew as they remind you of Louis Armstrong. Sometimes, if the spirit hits them, one or two of them will quit playing right in the middle of a tune in order to cut a funky dance step or two. But on the other hand, they’re going to play hard and they’re going to play late and you’re probably going to lose at least a few pounds from dancing all damned night. For my money, you will never, ever, hear anything that grabs you by the gut quite the way Rebirth’s pounding drums and shrieking horns do. So if you don’t believe in shaking what you got, stay at home. Or, as Rebirth has been known to yell from the stage, “If you ain’t come to dance, get the fuck out the way!” —Mtume ya Salaam They want the music, but… It was Clark High School they went to. And as “urban mythic” as the legend sounds, the truth is even more mythic: they played literally to help pay the rent and keep the lights on. It was not just for fun, it was also for survival. Back in the Eighties, I produced music. I took Rebirth on the road both nationally and internationally (to France twice). I remember once in New York, some of the band members had been walking up and down Broadway the day before we left and one of them had purchased a cover-your-whole-head gorilla mask. Not only did he decide to wear it to the airport, but he never took it off until we landed in New Orleans and never spoke a word of English the whole time. Of course, this was pre-911, but it is only a mild example of uninhibited “Rebirth” behavior. Yes, there are challenges in traveling with them, but their primal music is worth the disturbances. They keep alive a raucous and vital tradition. I love these cats. There is an interesting contradiction inherent in Rebirth’s hometown popularity. My dear colleague Jayne Cortez has a wonderful poem about Nigeria consisting of two lines repeated over and over: "They want the oil / But they don’t want the people." As she repeats the lines, Jayne puts emphasis on different words. You get the point immediately but her recitation is so on point and humorous that you are laughing the whole time even though it’s not a funny situation. In an analogous way, it’s the same story when it comes to Rebirth, who regularly play at the Maple Leaf, a club in the University district of Uptown New Orleans whose patrons are largely white collegiates and middle class residents: they want the music but they don’t want the people. There are people who brag about dancing all night to Rebirth and yet for fear of crime and uncomfortableness around large numbers of poor Black people (i.e. more than one maid, one handy man, one gardener and his helper), those New Orleanians would not be caught dead parading through the streets of overwhelmingly Black Central City neighborhoods or even the racially mixed Treme area. Yeah, we want to party to Rebirth in safety, but many of us won’t support the return of poor Blacks back into our city. Forgive me if I sound bitter, but it’s a classic case of class privilege buttressed by racial fears and antagonisms, even as a self-professed love of Rebirth is worn as a badge of liberalism. To be fair, I should make clear that there are also a significant number of Black folk who won’t roll with Rebirth through impoverished neighborhoods. The fears of what could happen is too much to risk. One could get mugged or shot or murdered. And for anyone, regardless of class or race, those are not unreasonable concerns. The streets of inner city New Orleans are mighty mean during the best of times and are especially mean in this post-Katrina era. But on the other hand there’s no secondline like a Rebirth secondline. Parading with Rebirth is a unique and exhilarating thrill, sort of like the rush of participating in that perilous Spanish tradition of running down narrow streets just ahead of a herd of thundering cattle, only here you might find yourself dodging bullets rather than bulls. Implicit in Rebirth’s raw lyrics is a celebration of combative street culture. What Mtume doesn’t say is that though Soulja Slim brags and boasts, he was no match for the assassins who shot him to death a couple of years back. The people laugh and dance, shout and party, but people also get mugged and murdered in this environment. Rebirth’s songs are not just entertaining braggadocio, these cats roll with the weapon of their music, stomping through valleys of death singing a defiant song. This wild music is so full of life precisely because it is joy snatched from the jaws of merciless, oppressive poverty. Yes, it’s vulgar. Yes, it’s often anti-social. Yes, for sure it’s prone toward condoning (if not outright advocating) violence. But it’s also some of the strongest music on the planet precisely because it’s the sound of those who have come marching through the slaughter, those who some-magic-how have summoned up the strength to laugh, dance and artistically celebrate their own survival against oppressive odds. —Kalamu ya Salaam Marching through slaughter Very well put, Baba. Yeah, I wasn't gonna really get into the whole thing with Soulja Slim. This was a Rebirth thing, so I was just gonna focus on them. But since you brought it up.... The first thing I noticed when I listened to Slim's verse was how ironic his verse becomes once one takes into account the circumstances of his death:
"Y'all don't wanna go to war, we got heat" ... "I'm a nigga [who's] never gonna squash the beef" ... "I'm Wild Magnolia, all about that blasting" ... "I got niggas who know where your house is"The last line is particularly ironic in that Slim was gunned down on the front lawn of his mother's place, where he was staying. Apparently, niggas knew where Slim's house was too. For a while, it looked like Slim was getting his life together. After serving time on an armed robbery charge and after beating an addiction to heroin (all of this before his early twenties), Slim scored a couple of regional hits and had a new album set to come out. Apparently though, he hadn't left all of his past life in the past. The way he was killed—execution style and at close range—clearly indicated that the shooting was no random crime. Somebody wanted Slim dead. Although one suspect was arrested and later released, to my knowledge, Slim's murder remains unsolved. And, if the rumors about how and why Slim was killed are true, the murder will never be solved. Like the killing of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. and Big L and Jam Master Jay, etc. etc. etc., Slim's death is the kind that street cats prefer to adjuticate on their own, without benefit of the legal system. Like Kalamu said, these young men are stomping through the valley of death, marching through slaughter. It shouldn't be surprising that they sometimes don't make it out alive. —Mtume ya Salaam
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