Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
What was public housing like in New Orleans before Katrina? Videos from the city’s hip-hop scene tell the tale.
Discussion about life in New Orleans before Katrina often reduces the city to its former public housing projects (with a sometimes-special-mention of the Lower 9th Ward), as if these were the only places black people dwelled. I’m not sure why this is exactly, but I think it may have to do with the way those projects were known as exceptionally prodigious compared to their counterparts in other cities.
New Orleans’ public housing game is well-documented, for better or worse, for a number of reasons. As the architect Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote in The New York Times in 2006, New Orleans’ public housing buildings “have little in common with the dehumanizing superblocks and grim plazas that have long been an emblem of urban poverty. Modestly scaled, they include some of the best public housing built in the United States.”
Depending on who you talk to, those architectural accolades have been widely circulated for one of two reasons: Either as a way of keeping low-wage, black people in certain areas, quarantined from New Orleans’ middle-class and gentry; or because the buildings truly have proven themselves solid examples of resilience—of community and against weather.
Either way, most of the public-housing projects are gone now. They’ve been replaced with mixed-income housing developments, about a third of which are considered public-housing units, with homes for low-wage workers spread across neighborhoods rather than condensed into a few complexes. Images of the “Big Four” and other large public-housing developments mostly live on in the memories of those who once lived in them—and in the imaginations of those who didn’t.
If anyone ever wanted to revisit them, though, to see how people actually lived in these spaces and maybe glean some understanding of what these homes meant to the families they served, they'd be in luck. We have an audio-visual record of life in New Orleans’ public-housing landscape, thanks to the music videos of No Limit Records and Cash Money Records. The artists of these two New Orleans-based hip-hop labels blew up in large part due to the Straight Outta NOLA-type stories they offered the world through their songs and videos.
“The emergence of No Limit and Cash Money Records helped to bring New Orleans rap and hip-hop from a city, state, and regional audience to a nationwide audience in the late 1990s,” says Amber N. Wiley, an architecture and American Studies professor who examined this phenomenon while leading the “Sites and Sounds” community public-history project in New Orleans from 2012 to 2014. “The rise of the labels and their musical stylings is heavily indebted to the musical traditions of the city. The locations celebrated in the music, however, have all but disappeared in the post-Katrina urban-planning frenzy.”
As part of Wiley’s “Sites and Sounds” project, she led students at Tulane University’s School of Architecture on a research journey to unearth various locations around the city where New Orleans musicians made history. They partnered with MediaNOLA, another project out of Tulane that maps cultural and artistic sites around the city.
“The former Magnolia Projects, once home to some of the most prominent bounce and hip-hop artists, lies a mile east of the Tulane University campus,” says Wiley. “The social, economic, and cultural dichotomy between the two locations, however, couldn’t be larger—pushing the areas far apart in the New Orleanian mind. Invisibility shrouds the unique tradition of musical culture in the place where it was born.”
And yet Tulane has helped host a number of efforts that might help bridge that gap and bring visibility to these obscured traditions. The NOLA Hip-Hop and Bounce Archive is one such project, founded by ethnomusicology researcher Holly Hobbs and nested in Tulane’s Amistad Research Center. In this archive, you can watch interviews with dozens of rappers and bounce artists who’ve not quite caught the national spotlight, but are hood superstars. Artists like No Limit rappers Mr. Serv On, Fiend, and Mystikal, fabled Cash Money producer Mannie Fresh, and bounce legend Sissy Nobby discuss how their public-housing communities influenced their music, and how Katrina affected that.
You could also just hit up Youtube, VEVO, and Vimeo, where you can find many of these early music videos and learn about the New Orleans communities from the words and expressions of the artists they produced. The housing projects featured in No Limit and Cash Money videos were not the dens of misery that new urbanists often cast them as, but nor are they presented as neighborhoods entirely safe from drug and gun activity.
Instead, the videos capture a wide range of human emotions, from the wretched to the ratchet to the rambunctious—the whole gumbo. Perhaps most important, these artists weren’t afraid to show the worst of these conditions alongside the best. These videos were by no means brochures for easy city living. But they were unconcerned with the white and middle-class gaze, and the judgement that comes with that. In other words, they presented the un-simple reality of living in New Orleans public housing. Below is a roundup of eight music videos that remind us today of those realities:
“Solja Rag” — This 1997 video was one of the earliest filmed out of New Orleans public housing. Set in the Magnolia projects, the young rapper Juvenile (of the label known today as Cash Money Records) asks, “Lil’ Daddy, do you take care of yo’ kids? Is it clean in yo’ crib? Can’t you stand to eat some ribs? Ain’t it scandalous how we live?”
“Ha” — This 1998 video officially launched the rise of Cash Money Records, with heavy radio rotation and plenty of play on MTV and BET. “When I started Cash Money, I was hoping it would get us out of the projects and into a positive way of life,” said Cash Money co-founder Bryan “Birdman” Williams in a 2012 interview. Says Hobbs, “’Ha’ was absolutely instrumental in putting the New Orleans housing projects on the map, so to speak, nationally and internationally. It, more than any other video, solidified the look of N.O. 90's rap, still today.
“Slow Motion” — Featuring a slightly older Juvenile, this 2004 video is much more polished than his earlier offerings. The song was recorded with his friend Soulja Slim, who was killed shortly before the video was released. It’s set in A. L. Davis Park (also called Shakespeare Park), a pivotal meeting space for the Mardi Gras Indians, particularly on Super Sunday, near the former Magnolia/C. J. Peete housing projects.
“Nolia Clap” — Also released in 2004, this video from Juvenile’s rap group UTP was shot in the Magnolia projects, but it shouts out other housing projects like Melpomene and St. Thomas in the hook. At this point, St. Thomas had already been torn down and resurrected as River Gardens, a mixed-income development that was a pre-Katrina sign of what was in store for the rest of the city’s public housing. Melpomene similarly was re-developed as Guste Homes. Rapper yasiin bey, better known as Mos Def, re-made the song after Katrina (“Katrina Clap”), using it to call out government officials who fudged the recovery.
“Hoody Hoo” — We’d be remiss not to include No Limit Records, which was the first to export New Orleans public-housing rap videos to the national and international stage. This is a later No Limit video, by TRU, the rap group consisting of No Limit founder Master P and his biological brothers C-Murder and Silkk the Shocker. This 1999 video is interesting in that it projects what the group believes their Calliope housing projects might look like in the future. It also shows the massive courtyard space once shared by Calliope residents for community gatherings. “It is really amazing to think that in both Magnolia and Calliope, the courtyards were big enough to throw concerts in,” says Wiley. “That is how bounce music and its hip-hop outgrowths came to be, originating at block parties hosted in those courtyards.”
“Wobble Wobble” — This 2000 song is from The 504 Boys, a mega-group consisting of basically every artist in the No Limit stable at the time. The video is filmed during the 2000 Mardi Gras parade, the Zulu parade route in particular (which features the controversial black-faced float riders). Besides other scenes at French Quarter daiquiri shops, the video gives viewers a glimpse of Mardi Gras from the porch perspective of Calliope housing projects residents.
“Y’all Heard of Me?” — You might have heard of C-Murder, Master P’s brother and a rapper currently serving life in Angola Prison after being convicted of murder. (Writer Jeffrey Goldberg coincidentally ran into C-Murder while reporting a story on New Orleans violence for The Atlantic.) This video, dropped in March 2005, just months before Katrina, shows one of the last glimpses of the B. W. Cooper housing projects before it was demolished after the storm.
“I’m Bout It, Bout It” — This 1995 song and video, along with Master P’s “Ice Cream Man,” were the first to capture the attention of a national audience. The video wasn’t as blatant about centering New Orleans’ hip-hop scene squarely in the housing projects as the Juvenile videos that came a few years later. But the projects figure prominently in the lyrics, from Master P’s first verse: “I represent where them killers hang/Third Ward, Calliope Projects, we got our own name/It’s a small hood, but it’s all good/And Mr. Rogers ain’t got shit up on my neighborhood.” No Limit rapper Mia X expands the public housing listings in her later verse, saying “Downtown Sixth Ward left feet on guard/Seventh Ward hard heads, niggas out that Saint Bernard/Ninth Ward pressed for Desire and Florida/New Orleans so ‘bout it, every day we coming harder.”
Calliope, B. W. Cooper, St. Bernard, Desire, and Florida are all public housing projects that have been redeveloped into new mixed-income developments. These songs and videos ensure, though, that the memories of what they were will never die.