Cash Money Records producer Mannie Fresh, the craftsman behind such hits as Juvenile's "Back That Thang Up" and B.G.'s "Bling, Bling," roars up on a gleaming motorcycle. Fresh's platinum medallion the only sign of his hip-hop life dangles from his neck, catching and reflecting the sunlight in contrast to his T-shirt and jeans. Fresh and Battiste venture into the upstairs studio, where electronic bleeps and taps are being assembled into a compelling beat by the lanky, casually dressed Rog Dickerson, AKA "DJ Rajsmoov." Dickerson is a beloved and respected disc jockey, best known for his party-making abilities on Hip-Hop Night at House of Blues and other venues. As Battiste settles in and watches Dickerson manipulate the stack of equipment, he makes a confession.
"It's got to be fundamentally different from the way I used to do things," says Battiste. "I didn't know how you guys worked. How do you recreate this live?" asks Battiste.
"Bring it all (the equipment)," says Fresh, laughing.
"What a lot of musicians don't understand is that hip-hop started with a DJ," 24-year-old Dickerson explains. "We didn't have instruments, all we had was two record players and back-spinning the breaks between two records, and that really became the driving force behind the hip-hop performance.
"We of the technologically advanced generation use a lot of different synthesizers, electric keyboards, drum machines. Where before, you would have to use three different types of Rhodes pianos and a Moog or another type of keyboard ... and I've got 15 or 20 different keyboards right here in this module," he says. "The equipment has gotten a lot smaller, a lot more condensed and a lot more flexible."
It's hip-hop's intertwined combination of beats and words that most fascinates and impresses Battiste. "I am so in awe of the way you young cats use the rhythms, and to be able to use the words in that same rhythmic vein, it's wonderful," he says. "You know it reminds me of epic poetry. When I was in school, we had "Beowulf" and those poems that were about 10 pages long. But the songs that you guys do are so long and involved ... ."
"But this is in the African oral tradition! You have the history of the tribes being passed down," states Dickerson.
"Yes, the griots," Battiste says with a knowing nod.
"Especially if it's something that the crowd likes, you'll remember the song," Fresh interjects. "But just to mix a song, you'll probably hear it 40 to 50 times in the studio. So by the time you leave, long before the song comes out, you'll know it."
It's a much different recording process than during Battiste's early days with AFO Records, which he founded in 1961. The renowned saxophonist, composer and arranger usually recorded live, whether he was working with his modern jazz band, the American Jazz Quintet (which included Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, Ed Blackwell and Richard Payne), or with a wide variety of artists ranging from Sonny & Cher to Sam Cooke.
Battiste's AFO label documented the New Orleans modern jazz scene, producing debut albums by Marsalis, Blackwell and Germaine Bazzle. AFO also stamped the New Orleans sound on the national music landscape with such seminal hits as Joe Jones' "You Talk Too Much," Barbara George's "I Know," and Art Neville's "Cha Dooky Do." Battiste started AFO -- an acronym for All For One -- as an idealist.
"AFO was done to allow us to have ownership," remembers Battiste. "All this music we create, we ought to be the main owners of it, but I was very naïve. I didn't know about the business. You needed a special kind of motivation to really embark on an entrepreneurial kind of thing. All I knew [in the '60s] is that we made music, and every time we made music somebody else would go off with it and make the money."
It was an unfortunate lesson for Battiste -- and one that Fresh and the Cash Money Records empire have avoided. A record distribution deal with industry giant Universal Music Group guarantees that Cash Money albums find their way into virtually every record store across the country. It's a partnership that's helped launch a stack of million-selling records by Cash Money artists like Lil' Wayne, the Hot Boyz, Juvenile, and Mannie Fresh's own rap duo, the Big Tymers. The Big Tymers released two chart-toppers in 2000, "No. 1 Stunner" and "Get Your Roll On." Dickerson praises Fresh and Cash Money's founders, Ronald "Slim" Williams and Bryan "Baby" Williams, for overcoming the odds and taking a New Orleans sound to a national audience.
"Cash Money took its respect," Dickerson says. "They did their thing locally, got to the regional level and they eventually reached critical mass where they couldn't do anything but go national. You can't do nothing but respect it. They helped lead the way, so I'm going to follow in their footsteps."
While AFO didn't have the commercial success of the Cash Money empire, Battiste believes that both ventures, outside of their immediate peers, received the cold shoulder. "Whatever music came out of our community was misunderstood, even feared and denigrated, and it gave us that feeling about our own music," he says. "It made us feel that our music was low-down."
"Yeah, it's the improvisation and the expression of urban culture," says Dickerson. "Jazz was kind of a rebellion against the tradition of music -- it was basically created, for lack of a better word, in the ghetto. Musicians back then came up with their own thing, and we came up with our own."
Fresh laments the consistent dismissal of his work and creativity, as well as that of other local rap artists. "Our city won't give anybody young a chance," he says. "This city is [saying] 'We're jazz, we're jazz ...We don't even hear y'all.' No matter how many songs you've sold, no matter what you have done, it's like this is Allen Toussaint's city, you know what I'm saying? We're going to [praise] Toussaint or Irma Thomas or the Neville Brothers or Willie Tee or someone like that. You can have your little parties or whatever, but we're not going to acknowledge you. Y'all are not going to be on 4, 6 and 8."
"4, 6 and 8?" Battiste asks, puzzled.
"The TV stations. Channel 4, Channel 6, Channel 8," Dickerson answers. "But let somebody get shot at a party ... ."
"Then, you'll get on," says Battiste with a wistful laugh.
The observation brings up a common complaint in the hip-hop community: that the media uses different standards in its coverage of the genre. "If you want to break it down, all songs deal with love, sex, drugs, money, some type of drama," says Dickerson. "You have old songs talking about people getting shot, getting caught with someone else's old lady, yet they want to categorize our stuff as 'gangsta rap'."
But Fresh admits to promoting an image of machismo -- complete with cash, jewelry, cars and scantily clad women -- to sell records. "When we decided we were gonna go major, that was part of our gimmick. We said we were going to do it big time, we're not gonna hold back. It was the Lamborghinis and all that stuff. The stuff that the average person would never dare do," he said. "And believe it or not, part of success in the rap thing is you gotta show it like you talk it or no one will pay attention to you.
"But it's all crazy, though," Fresh says. "Now, I could put out an album and in three weeks, that album is platinum and three weeks later that album is gone. That's just how fast people are moving these days. They're [saying], 'Alright, we don't want to hear that [anymore].' And I'm saying, 'Dang! OK, let's chunk that one out and go to the next one!' It's gone just that quick."
The pressure to create new beats and production sounds keeps Fresh and Dickerson too busy to worry about media stereotypes, which pleases Battiste. "There is a power that these words and labels have; it can really mess with your career," he says. "That's why I'm so fascinated by what you young people are doing! If you want to call it the new rebellion music or the new young music, the new creative, the new way that people want to express themselves, yeah!"
"That was how the South and New Orleans came up [in the industry]," says Fresh. "While everybody was beefing, 'This is East Coast, this is West Coast,' they wasn't even worrying about us, and we were just putting our songs out."
Fresh's business acumen makes Battiste proud, knowing that a new generation of musicians and their music is keeping New Orleans on the map -- and protecting their business interests. "You cats know how to do it," he says. "You understand the system well enough to make a product that you love, but also make money. I'm glad to see young black men getting a share of this record industry."