Interview: Dr. Holly Hobbs
Dr. Holly Hobbs is a cultural researcher based in New Orleans, Louisiana. She’s best known as the founder of the NOLA Hip-Hop and Bounce Archive, and currently works as a corporate developement specialist for the University of New Orleans’s NPR affiliate WWNO.
What was your field of study at Tulane?
So I’ve done a lot of cultural development work around the world over the years; I was just telling you that I lived in Ireland for ten years, I spent a lot of time in East Africa and still do, going back and forth and working with issues of tourism and social justice in music. So I first moved to New Orleans in 2008 - that was just a couple years after Katrina, a lot of demographic shift was happening. New demographics of people were moving in from the coast, a lot of young white people were moving in to try to help. Doing a lot of outreach work, but then lots of startups and stuff like that. So the city was at a really weird point; we had just elected Obama, and it was both a really hopeful time and a really confusing time because nobody really knew what was going on on the ground. People were starting to come back finally; a lot of people didn’t come back for many years, and a lot of people are still not back.
So it was a weird time to come here, and in thinking about social justice and music rap and bounce are really where it’s at in New Orleans in terms of that work. That music is omnipresent all around the city. 2008 was also the year that Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III album came out, and that was just everywhere. Everybody was playing it, no matter where you were in the country - I’m sure you remember. It was industry-changing, and it changed New Orleans too. But at the same time that there was this omnipresent record from a kid from New Orleans, I had just started at Tulane and there was no way to learn about this music at all. You really had to go and try to track down and talk to the practitioners themselves if you wanted to find out anything about it. We forget how quickly things change, too; in 2008, there wasn’t the amount of information online yet.
All that stuff together made me think that this was really where I wanted to put my emphasis. My background was an undergraduate degree in gender studies and African studies, and then I got a master’s in ethnomusicology from Indiana University and a PhD in ethnomusicology from Tulane. In conjunction with finishing my PhD, I really felt like there needed to be some kind of outreach component to the work that I was doing; what’s the point in writing a dissertation about New Orleans rap and bounce if very few of the people who are actually doing the music have access to it, or are able to read it? Dissertations are highly theoretical, they’re not really readable. They’re not meant to be; they’re meant to be an exercise in using theory to better understand the situation at hand, whatever you’re working with, but they’re not meant to be accessible to a wide public. And I firmly believe that academics have a responsibility, you know? Intellectualism for intellectualism’s sake is extremely important, but I think that there should also be an outreach and extension component to whatever academics do. In doing that, I decided to start this archive, and the archive was just gonna be a repository of interviews. Nothing fancy, just interviews; it looks like a library site, it doesn’t look pretty, but that was the point. The point was that we wanted to make this look like library data that was just as effective, and scholarly, and scientific as any other book on the shelf at the Tulane library.
So we started that process, got a couple grants… it was done on such little money, I didn’t even particularly try to find money, it was just subsistence-level whatever. And you can see it, the videos are super basic but all the information’s there. Got a little crew together, and through a couple years did like sixty interviews. Then Amistad Research Center, the oldest and largest archive of African-American history in the country, signed on to house it, so there’s a permanent station there. But it mostly lives online. And it’s free, and anybody with an internet connection can access it; you don’t have to have a library code or anything, it’s like any other website. And then Tulane University Digital Library signed on to house and build the site, to keep it up permanently.
You said that you weren’t really pursuing grants or institutional resources - did you get the sense that it would be a somewhat futile exercise?
I had been a grant writer, on and off - I hated the process, I still hate the process. A lot of it was just my reticence to really put forth the effort, because I was doing so many other things at the time. And we could get done what we needed to get done on very little money anyway. It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to pay the artists, I don’t like that. But they also got, you know, something that they could use for their personal use. They have a full oral history interview that they can send to people for whatever they need. People can research them, find out all about them, which helps them as an artist. So there was a reciprocation, I just wish that we’d had money to actually pay them for their work and their time.
But it was a really weird time also, because as New Orleans was shifting there were so many kind of big industry corporate entities that were fishing around for stuff. I won’t name names, but I got approached by a number of big corporate entities that were interested in, quote, “buying" the archive, hosting it, but I would have had to relinquish all rights to do that. And all of them insisted on having full editing rights, and I don’t trust those people to do right by the artists. I just don’t. And then it’s an issue of well, if these corporations are benefitting so much, all of these musicians already signed over all of their rights to me. So they’re powerless in the situation, and the corporate entities could’ve done whatever they wanted with this video. Not that they could do anything terrible, but at the same time it was just icky. I could’ve sold it and made a lot of money; didn’t, obviously, wouldn’t. And if I had chosen to do that, it would’ve been divided amongst all the musicians anyway.
And now all of that interest has kind of dried up, everybody’s just kind of like “you know, New Orleans, whatever," searching for the next thing. The interest has passed. There was a huge new wave of interest in New Orleans with sissy bounce, which as probably remember. Everybody was coming into town - The New York Times was here, big filmmakers were here, Big Freedia still has her show on the Fuse network. There was a ton of attention around that time, and now here we are in 2019 and we’re in a different position altogether. So we’re talking about a decade that I’ve been here - ten, eleven, twelve years of serious and curious change that nobody really understands.
Time has shown that your concerns about passing control of the archive over to another entity are pretty well-founded, and I’ve also noticed, here, a great deal of skepticism of, you know, me. People have been a lot more guarded than I’ve seen in other cities.
You’ll see more suspicion and skepticism here than you will many other places because there’s a two hundred, three hundred year history of exploitation here. People taking resources, not properly paying artists, backdoor kind of licensing deals - all this stuff that was just shady, and artists have always been taken advantage of here. So it’s a culture of suspicion and skepticism, and then also there was a period of time where everybody was in town. For a good three or four years, I would get two or three interview requests a week. This would’ve been probably 2011 to 2015, and the artists were getting just as many. So for a while it was like “alright, I don’t care who you are, come on over." So a lot of them were very open, and then now, since nobody’s come around asking for a couple years, they’re back to, like, “Who are you?"
It seems like everyone’s so interconnected that your reputation gets around quickly, but did you have any issue initially gaining peoples’ trust?
Yeah, everybody talks to everybody else. That’s kind of what field work is; that goes the world over. For the most part, working in marginalized communities, if you get a couple of good reviews - if people feel like you have their best interests in mind - they’ll tell their friends to talk to you. It’s pretty much as simple as that, just don’t be an asshole.
I had a few methodological questions - first, what drew you to video as a medium?
Accessibility. There are serious variations in educational levels here. Two things: I wanted to make sure that the information was completely accessible to anybody who wanted to access it, and then one really important part to me is to start a culture where that is understood by kids as being scientific data. Say for example, middle school kids could watch these videos and then watch papers about them for junior high or high school. College kids could use the data and do little research papers. So it starts a culture of taking this data very seriously, using it as data and understanding it as such. If I’m a middle school student or a high school student, it will be a lot more helpful to me to have a video resource as opposed to an old book that they’ll be like… eh. On all levels, it seemed like the best thing to do. And then the main thing that I wanted was to make sure that it was mobile-accessible; not everybody has a home computer, but most everyone has a phone that can play some video at this point.
I go back and forth - I hate watching video, personally, but interviews can work. They’re a bit more irreducible, or resistant to de-contextualization than simply highlighting whatever subset of text that you want to share. I guess it’s both a plus and a minus of text that it’s easier to parachute in, find exactly what you’re looking for, and leave.
Sure, it’s easier. But I wanted to start a different way of thinking about how we use this kind of data, which means a different way of writing. If I’m a high school kid and want to write a research paper about this stuff, I would literally have to stop and write down exactly what the artist is saying, play it back a thousand times so I get it right. It’s an interesting, different way of using the materials, but I think it incorporates digital and print in an interesting way.
What sort of end goal was shaping the questions that you asked?
So yeah, we could have done a better job of kind of covering both angles, we could have made a much more shiny, consumer product while at the same time focusing on local interest. We didn’t; we ended up, for a lot of reasons, for the money and everything else, and my interest in having this be considered as data and not as entertainment. It’s entertainment too, but I wanted it to be considered data first. We were still fighting a legitimacy battle, nobody in the big universities was - there was the Harvard Rap Archive, there were a couple of others, but things have changed night and day now. Now everybody’s got a class about Kanye, that’s not a thing. Ten years ago, it was a thing. There were some hip-hop classes in higher education, certainly, but not to the level that there are now. So we were still fighting a legitimacy battle in that there was serious invisibility; going back to the Lil Wayne thing, the music was omnipresent but at the university level there was no way to access it or study it.
We could have made a more consumer-friendly product, but at the same time, because of Katrina, so much of the regional knowledge was being lost. Neighborhoods were shifting, the names of things were changing. The Magnolia Project, which features centrally in all Cash Money output, is now Harmony Oaks. Everybody still calls it the Magnolia, but Magnolia as a thing does not exist anymore. So I really wanted to focus on very, very specific local interest stuff. So, tell me what cross street this happened at. Tell me what club you were playing at in 1991 - where was it, what was it like, what kind of people went there? That kind of stuff. People who aren’t from here would probably not find the interviews as useful, but I did try to strike a balance between really focusing on local interest and then focusing on their greater careers, which almost all of them had at some national or international level.
I was at a musicology conference recently, and was interested to see that a lot of musicologists seemed somewhat dubious about interviews -
Well, musicologists or ethnomusicologists? They’re two different things. There’s a lot of confusion about it, because even here Tulane has an ethnomusicology program which they call a musicology program because it’s through the music department. But the actual definition of these things is that musicology is the study of Western musics, ethnomusicology is the study of culture-based musics and everything else. So a musicologist would study the texts; they would study Beethoven’s Symphony text, and then learn all about his life and understand the more written-based materials. Ethnomusicologists are much more oral-based, and they study more of a cultural approach to music-making. So interviews are fundamental, fieldwork is fundamental; you can’t sit in your armchair and listen to a song, then think you know anything about it. You have to go talk to the people that made the song. But those are two very separate understandings of how to approach music study. There’s nothing wrong with musicologists; they have quite a lot to add, and a lot of them are doing interesting work, but as a paradigm of the field ethnomusicology is, for me, the appropriate way to study culture.
I think this was a mix of both, and there actually seemed to be a lot of agitation for a more ethnomusicological approach to things, but the specific objection to interviews seemed to be that they found the subjects unreliable, or inconsistent.
That’s insane. Who’s the reliable narrator, the person that wrote the book that’s in the library? Why are they more reliable than the person who is actually making the music on the ground? That’s just such a white, Western paradigm of thought that… no. That’s completely inappropriate. It’s not like a murder scene; we know that witnesses tend to be somewhat unreliable, that mostly you can’t put somebody away for murder because somebody saw you do it from three blocks away. When you’re talking about making art, saying that somebody’s unreliable for talking about the art that they make is really, really condescending.
I’ve never really felt the need to try and reconcile or iron out competing narratives, but what’s the actual ethnomusicological approach to that?
When you’re dealing with culture, you’re not dealing with a universal truth. Even in journalism - well, not for many people - there’s an awareness that there’s no necessarily universal truth governing everything. If I’m a journalist and I’m covering something outside, it’s still my perspective what I’m writing. The facts might be truthful, they might be facts, but at the same time it’s my experience and my perspective. I’m not writing from a blank page, I’m not a computer. So if I’m writing a journalistic article, at the end of the day it’s my perspective that’s informing the facts that I might be presenting.
When you’re talking about culture, culture is an entirely different deal. The differences between people are what’s fascinating, and it’s your job as a researcher to put all that together and see behind what people are saying, or why they might be saying that. If I’m dealing with a musician who is not particularly well-known but claims to have the biggest record of 1990 or whatever, or that everybody knew him from x, y, z, you can go and prove that that’s wrong. But what’s interesting is why is he saying that in the first place? So then we talk about aesthetics, cultural aesthetics - why is this person saying that? If you’re dealing in rap and bounce, there’s a lot of bravado there. A lot of “I’m bigger, I’m better, I’m faster, I’m smarter." So that’s interesting; now we’ve narrowed down a cultural aesthetic. And that’s something that’s interesting to talk about - what’s the lineage of that bravado? That’s what cultural research is, it’s not about proving little data points of what happened when. It’s culture; it’s moving, it’s not a dictionary.
Right, talking to B.G. and Birdman about the specificities of their record deal is going to yield a very informative juxtaposition. You were saying that the more interviews you were able to get, the more things fell into place - was there anyone that you really had to chase down for whatever reason?
Yes and no. Some people just have weird schedules. Na’Tee was one who… she was just nervous, and she put me off for ages. She thought she didn’t have anything to contribute, but she’s amazing, and she did. Juvenile got to be a good friend, and I ended up working on a film about his son and B.G.’s son, but he’s moody, and it just depends. It took months to talk to him. But that’s before he knew me, and then once he knew me he was accessible whenever. So yeah, up and down. Big Freedia is one who just never responded to anything, but I was asking at like the height of her stuff. She was on tour all the time, she had a book, she had a TV show, she had everything. Why’s she gonna talk to me? Katey Red is another one, she was really nervous. A lot of times when you put an academic thing in front of people they’re like ugh, no thanks.
On the Big Freedia thing, I’ve noticed that artists tend to be the last people that think their music will garner any interest beyond the moment. Do you think that people assume now that anything released online will be available forever, or is there not even a concern about twenty, thirty years down the road?
New Orleans is notorious and continues to be notorious in terms of a serious history of exploitation, going around people and stealing music, producers cutting artists out. Then you have a whole other issue of mislabeling, and once you get into the pre-digital era a lot of bounce stuff uses the Showboys song, “Drag Rap," and they can’t get clearance for it because the Showboys refuse, or their management refuses, or whatever. So they literally cannot copyright any of it, and you’re talking about the backbone of a whole genre of music. So then, it’s not, quote, “legitimate." So it’s harder to find, a lot of times you only have an analog copy of stuff, and it’s just a mess.
And then you have a whole bunch of people who’ve come through and taken stuff and left with it. That’s happened with the whole history of this entire city; Mardi Gras Indians are a really good example, people will come take a picture of an Indian for magazines and then not bother to track down even the name of the Indian. It’s fine if you do that for personal use; everybody does that, they’re beautiful. But putting it on the cover of a magazine, not even a name credit, much less money, and thinking it’s fine. That happens all the time. It’s messy, complicated… everybody does what they can in the moment, but the reality is that there is no making money off your catalog here. Very few people have kept the records to be able to do that. Some of the bigger banks now will say “well, you can take your music catalog and get a line of credit." That’s wonderful, but most of the artists in this genre haven’t done, weren’t able to do the IP work to even get to the place where they can own their own music. So yeah, it’s complicated.
Apparently the label was telling people that The Showboys were dead, and then they found out and managed to get down here. But yeah, obviously at the corporate level they’re totally powerless. This sort of ideal of legacy self-determination is actually something I’ve come across a lot down here - what do you think are the obstacles to that?
There will be some new thing that will come through, as there always is - New Orleans often leads cultural trends. So some new thing will come through, and a whole new wave of researchers, corporate people, music executives, and everything else will come in and do another wave of this stuff. But as for now, rap and bounce is completely sustained by a wide public. And most of that, you in public performance. So the thing is, there’s not really money to be made in printing records anymore. Nobody’s making tapes or CDs; they still are, but there’s so little money in it that there’s not as much of a need.
A lot of the money is in live performance, and then in terms of bounce it’s a public performance kind of genre. So it’s block parties, school dances, all that stuff. That’s the majority of places where bounce is consumed, and there’s not really money in those spaces; you can get notoriety, you can get fame in those spaces, but you have to take it somewhere else to make money off of it. But that’s where it’s sustained, and it continues to be sustained; it’s a very well-supported genre of music. But now, national rap is going in a totally different direction. Pre-Katrina, this was a much more insular place, but then all the Katrina kids left and a lot of them came back not sounding so much like New Orleans anymore. So you don’t have the same level of hyper-regional music-making as you did before. It’s still here, and it will always be, but it’s less regional than it used to be.
What do you think are the effective ways of trying to maintain a history of those movements that happen in very ephemeral, live environments?
That’s what cultural researchers do - academics if they’re any good, music journalists, although music journalism is in such an endangered space at this point. Academia is endangered, for Christ’s sake. We’re in a really disturbing part of history. But people like you, doing this relatively on your own, these things are important. Even if they don’t make huge waves initially, when you add up all these different dots and start to connect them they become important.
Do you have any particular theory on the relative lack of recent New Orleans stars in contrast to the ascendance of Baton Rouge?
It’s a shift, and I’ve been out of it long enough that I’m not quite sure what’s going on. It’s a combination of a number of factors, and I would have to guess because I just don’t know. I would imagine that the national sounds of rap are much different than what a lot of people are doing here; Southern rap is not necessarily hot right now. And then you have a newer generation that don’t really sound like they’re from New Orleans, and so they’re not really so identified. Pell lives in LA now, and he’s doing extremely well, but he doesn’t have an identifiably New Orleans sound. Same thing with Frank Ocean, if I listened to him I wouldn’t have a clue he was from here. They’re both from here.
So a lot of musicians like that - PJ Morton, from Maroon 5, is another one - are making it, even in rap, but the sounds are not quintessentially New Orleans like they used to be. I don’t know of anyone who’s hot right now that’s making songs that sound like New Orleans rap. But then, Solange lives here. Beyonce has two houses here; well, a house and she bought a church up the road. So yes, all that’s happening, but it’s weird and it’s kind of low-key. New Orleans has become the place where people like that want to be low-key and chill, not be out and about with their stuff. Things are shifting to a much more quiet space, rather than a space for authenticity that everybody wants to namecheck.
What was your introduction to bounce, or New Orleans hip-hop?
Gosh, I mean New Orleans has always kind of loomed large in the cultural imagination. I’m a musician myself - I’m a piano player - so I don’t even remember when I first heard James Booker. I was just captivated, absolutely captivated. I remember being super little and Preservation Hall Jazz Band came to town, to Columbia, Missouri, where I’m from. Went to that concert, saw a second line, and was really fascinated by it. But I’m fascinated by culture, that’s why I’m a cultural researcher. It was one of many traditions that I was always fascinated by. And then, Missouri’s not that far away, so I came here a lot. I was super interested in the place, knew I always wanted to live here on some level, and then after Katrina things just kind of aligned. I really didn’t plan on being here indefinitely, but as happens with some people you just get sucked in and stay.
I was wondering the extent to which that world left the state, or permeated Missouri particularly.
I was just seeing the beginnings of it, and then we get to rap - I graduated high school in ‘96, and that was the height of all this stuff. That was the golden era. I remember 1998, I was going to the University of Wisconsin and I can remember like it was yesterday what 400 Degreez was like when it came out. Everybody was just obsessed with it. It was just night and day, everybody was like “what is this, and how can we get more?" From then on, everybody was captivated by it. So having that formative experience on top of all the others definitely led me in that direction.
I assume that ethnomusicology generally points in the direction of practice over pedagogy - had that been your intention the entire time?
I would love to have been an academic - my father was a professor, but it used to be a much different life than it is now. Now, getting tenure is so difficult. The publication schedule, the stuff that they expect from you, the level of pay, the level of respect, it’s just much, much more difficult to be an academic these days. And then also, I’d just never liked that ivory tower kind of understanding; it’s so insular, and so shuttered away, and it doesn’t have to be. So by the time I finished my PhD, I did think about moving into the academic route, but by that time I had spent years doing public sector work, and by then I didn’t have an appropriate work and publication body to be able to go into that track if I’d wanted to. I’d kind of just always known that I wanted to do cultural research, and NPR is the best place to do that for me. It allows me to do both; I do development, and they let me do my own work on the side.
I think that’s all I have - was there anything else that you wanted to have on the record, or to discuss?
I think just an awareness of the importance of cultural research, of studying culture. And importance of the awareness of sustainability, and how just like our environment - our air and water and animals - these things aren’t guaranteed to us. We aren’t always guaranteed a vibrant local, regional identity in New Orleans; it’s something that has to be protected. And there have to be methods in place to help protect that. It’s existed this long just by the sheer tenacity of the musicians and the artists involved, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be here forever. And we have to have an awareness, just like we do with our environment, that these things aren’t promised to us, and that they’re precious.