Due to health problems, Big Freedia had to cancel her and Rusty Lazer's Noise Pop gig at Public Works Sat/25. The event been transmutated into a big gay dance party with Double Duchess, DJ Bus Station John, and more. You should still read this interview, though.
With all its technicolor thrift flair, Mardi Gras costumes in state of midway-preparedness, and sleepy passels of breakfast-cooking houseguests, Jay Pennington's New Orleans clapboard house is pretty hallucinatory on the Saturday afternoon of Carnaval weekend. Staring out the window waiting for the bounce DJ to call me up for our interview, I was to be excused for imagining that the shed in the side lot was producing actual chords while the New Orleans monsoon that raged outside hit it.
When I come across him in his bedroom, Pennington – who is also known as Rusty Lazer, and is the now-famous transgender NOLA bounce artist Big Freedia's DJ and informal manager – is threading colored paper onto a string. He was going to be Hanuman the monkey god at the Mardi Gras parades on Sunday, his day off from work over Mardi Gras weekend. Around him, the city has ballooned with tourists and locals chucking beads at targets, high-stepping through brass numbers, eating frosted king cake, and peeing in inappropriate places.
I braved the rain that afternoon to talk about bounce music and Mardi Gras with Pennington, so it was kind of a surprise when our conversation swerved into the intricacies of 501(c)3 registration. It shouldn't have been. He is a lot like New Orleans itself, a town that counts as a centuries-old melting pot, where the frat boys hang at the same bars as the career jazz musicians hang at the same bars as the pretty queer kids who sometimes party at dark gay leather bars (I was privy to this last comingling within six hours of landing in the Big Easy, at Daddy Aki's Peacock party at the Phoenix Eagle Leather Bar where Pennington and his new managee Nicky Da B spun). [Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Peacock as Jay Pennington's party. It is actually organized by Daddy Aki. Our bad.]
If you are a NOLA entertainer, Mardi Gras weekend counts among the most hectic of the year. Pennington had evenly informed me that my suggested meet-up time of noon was at least two hours too early considering the aftermath of the night shift on the decks he'd pulled before and that he would surely pull again that evening. But it's two thirty now and for the moment, he's able to focus on Hanuman, and attempt to tell me what's so special about his city.
Hands-on Hanuman: Rusty Lazer in mid-Mardi Gras repose. Guardian photo by Caitlin Donohue
Though the DJ is playing less and less a role in Big Freedia's career as she blows up and sells out shows around the country, Pennington continues to be a driving force in bounce's dispersal outside NOLA. He signed his first official managerial contract with Nicky Da B, an adorable local whose track with Diplo hit Soundcloud last week. Bounce is indigenous to New Orleans -- like Chicago's juke and Detroit's jit -- a Caribbean-inflected dance music that is well known for the way its dancers pop their hips at machine gun rates.
Pennington is also is the co-founder along with Delaney Martin of New Orleans Air Lift, an international program he made to support local artists post-Katrina. This loosely-incorporated organization (it's not 501(c)3 and relies instead on private donations, like the sales of the work of Swoon, one of the few females in the upper echelons of the street art world – her intricate, delicate wheatpastes blanket the fence next to Pennington's house.) The Airlift Project has sponsored trips by New Orleanian artists to Berlin, even the import of Siberian breakdancer Ivan Stepanov to New Orleans.
This last story illustrates one of Pennington's biggest turn-ons -- fostering the artistic combustion that happens when a bunch of different energies get together. As illustration, he shows me a high fashion video shoot made by Lady Gaga's stylist Nick Knight featuring the 19-year-old local bounce dancer Quack.
After seeing a video of the improbably Barbie-bodied dancer, Knight contacted Pennington to ask if she'd care to do the same dance wearing Alexander McQueen for a fashion film series. Quack didn't have a passport, but she went and got one with Pennington. The next day they went to London, found themselves “sitting in a room with nothing but Amazonian models.” Quack danced for eight hours to make the video, which turned out to be a testament to not just the extreme sexuality of bounce music, but also its athleticism, and emotional panacea.
"This is the music that makes people forget that they're hungry," Pennington tells me, excitedly clicking through videos of schoolkids bouncing in rec centers, and endless YouTube clips of home bounce practice, done against a wall, ass to the camera. "It's finally tuned to helping you forget your problems." He wants to "take a New Orleans plane full of people all over the world," to teach bounce to the masses. "In case anybody around here has forgotten how to have fun."
The music lends itself to teaching -- singers often give specific commands in songs, a popular request being for everbody to bend over and keep their ass popping. "Bounce is all instructions," Pennington says.
The ability to move among social groups is one of the reasons why Pennington fell in love with New Orleans.
“Here, you're part of a community, not just part of a scene,” he reflects. “The difference is that the communities include all the people in your community. I don't feel that in Portland or Austin.” He says the young arrivals in other artsy, liberal towns “hang out in mirrored social groups. I don't know if that means anything, but it makes sense to me.” Pennington considers the neighborhood connections he's made through participating in NOLA's famous informal second line parades as, if not more, crucial than the ones he's made with fellow travelers who have alit upon New Orleans as a haven for weirdos and music freaks. "New Orleans black community is nothing if not family-oriented," he says.
Those mirrored social groups are a concept that should make sense to those beyond DJ Rusty Lazer. Part of what makes gentrification such a bummer is that when young bohos move into low-rent, family-oriented neighborhoods, they don't form connections with the existing culture, imposing their own wacky adventures on top of the landscape as though they're the first to really enjoy it.
This missed connection leads newcomers away from frequenting established neighborhood businesses, and doesn't provide for enough interconnectedness to get any kind of organizing come when rents start to rise and the condos come in. So good for New Orleans, and especially the rapidly changing Bywater neighborhood if they can avoid the typical storyline of minority community attracting broke artists attracting yuppies who can pay first, last, second, and third months' rent in cash.
Not the town doesn't have other defense mechanisms. "The heat, the bugs, that lack of industry, the violence -- that keeps it from growing out of control," says Pennington. "It keeps the excessively ambitious away. When this place piles it on, it really piles it on. You can't just casually live in New Orleans." Wise words to the San Franciscan exodus that will surely come in the next months after tech boom 2.0.
And for the record, I wasn't hallucinating the house making music. The Ninth Ward's musician mad scientist Quintron installed a rain organ into the Music Box, a small village of structures built in Pennington's sideyard by 70 people to be played like a symphony, complete with Quintron playing conductor and a capacity crowd crammed into bleacher seating and crouching amid the structures themselves. At recent performances during last fall, 750 people showed up to watch the show. There was space for 250 in the sidelot.