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Sesame Streetwise 

Rami Sharkey and Adam Bourgeois — aka West Bank rappers Ballzack and Odoms — graft a laugh track onto bounce music with a little help from a lil' friend.

On the first 90-degree day of 2008, Rami Sharkey is standing alone in front of the train station in old Gretna, grappling with 100 percent humidity and humility.

'Mathlete," snickers one onlooker.

'Clark Griswold," laughs another.

And that's just coming from his crew. Via sideways glances, the wary passersby on Huey P. Long Avenue are eyeing the small congregation — Sharkey and four friends assisting a video shoot — with appropriate suspicion.

Their apprehension is understandable: Sharkey looks absurd. His mini Afro is matted nearly flat and on his nose rests an oversized pair of nerd-issue prescription eyeglasses. His outfit consists of a short-sleeve, pink plaid shirt tucked high into dated denims with rolled cuffs that point like reproachful arrows at a gleaming pair of Chuck Taylor Converses.

'It looks like you're headed to a middle school dance," surmises Mike Kennedy, a film director who is helming the day's schedule. But, as usual, the sharpest observation comes from Sharkey himself.

'I'm like an engineering student from Pakistan who just got a scholarship to MIT," he fires back, posing for faux photos by flashing a thumbs-up sign and mile-wide smile.

The peanut gallery has assembled this muggy afternoon in May to shoot the visual accompaniment for "A Rainbow in Marrero," a new single off Yeah Indeed, the June-released third album from local rapper Ballzack. If the buttoned-down, bespectacled Sharkey today resembles a humbled Clark Kent, then his alter ego's hyper-confidence makes him a sort of Gretnese hip-hop Superman.

'It's supposed to be us back in the day, then as cowboys," says Adam Bourgeois, aka Odoms, answering a question about the video's concept. Wearing skinny jeans and a plain white T-shirt with a pack of cigarettes hiding up one sleeve, Bourgeois — Sharkey's longtime partner in crime and, in this clip, Ballzack's Jimmy Olsen — looks less like a fellow mathlete and more like a dime-store greaser. For "Rainbow," Kennedy and two cameramen are filming the costumed MCs in the West Bank boroughs that inhabit the song's hook:

They got unicorns up in Gretna

And castles made of Play-Doh

They got pandas down in Harvey

Like a rainbow in Marrero

The chorus blares from a nearby boom box as the two cut-ups flip quarters, fumble with smokes and play rock-paper-scissors. This is the "back in the day" segment, and it isn't much of a stretch to imagine their pre-teen selves doing the same things. Later, by some happy accident, Ballzack and Odoms will find themselves performing in the scorching hot parking lot of Pho Tau Bay, wearing brightly colored bandanas and 10-gallon hats, backed by a supercharged white Cadillac on Richter-registering hydraulics and making lots of magnified gestures while mouthing the same silly Jefferson Parish fantasy. This, as promised, will be the "cowboy" portion of the program, and if it is considerably less convincing than its precursor, it will be no less entertaining.

But first, there is the small matter of finding Harvey.

'I thought it was at that bridge," Bourgeois sighs, pointing from Sharkey's passenger seat at the supposed city limits. "Man, we're still in Gretna."

A rough cut of Yeah Indeed is spinning on the car stereo as the two talents scout out their next location. When a glitzy, repeating bounce rhythm signals the start of a song called "Limousine Mouse," Sharkey reaches for the volume.

'This one's about ferrets," he says.

Bounce music is New Orleans' gift to hip-hop. Invented in area housing projects and pioneered on party singles in the early 1990s by underground artists like DJ Jubilee and MC T.T. Tucker, the sub-genre's unmistakable ticks and clicks, typically set to metronomic "showtime" beats and punctuated by synthesized handclaps and hollered shouts, now can be found on albums from native rap stars like Juvenile to mainstream pop divas like Beyoncé — and, as of this month, on a joke-laden record by a half-Lebanese, half-Palestinian former stand-up comedian from across the Mississippi River.

All of which raises an obvious question: Is Ballzack the least likely bounce rapper ever? Based on his unusual back-story, maybe not.

'Jubilee was my substitute teacher in high school," Sharkey explains. "My dad would hire DJs in the projects to do bounce records, and Tucker and Jubilee would perform in front of my dad's store. So not only were we hearing that on the radio, but on the occasional trip to the store. We just thought it was normal; we didn't realize how indigenous it was to New Orleans at the time. We loved it so much, it was inevitable that we would try to emulate it. Copy it. Bite it. Rip it off."

It was actually comedy, and not music, that originally drew Sharkey to the stage. The natural-born jokester became a fixture at open-mic nights held at underage East Bank gathering spots such as the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse and now-defunct Movie Pitchers, reciting unrehearsed routines for crowds consisting mostly of rowdy friends. "I was around 17 or 18, and I loved it," he says. "You get that affirmation from being onstage, and you feel good about yourself."

Sharkey's next stop: Broadway. Specifically, the corner of Broadway and 97th Street. "Literally, I told the cabbie, "Drop me off at this youth hostel,'" he recalls. "I didn't know anybody (in New York City) and didn't have a place to stay."

A spate of citywide auditions landed him "the late-late slot" at the Boston Comedy Club, a Greenwich Village venue owned at the time by super-agent Barry Katz. "You'd see guys like Jim Breuer and Tracy Morgan — they were all managed by [Katz]," Sharkey says. "And if Dave Chappelle ever showed up, your slot just got bumped: "You,'" he fingers unforgivingly, ""you're done.'"

Despite the rare good fortune in Manhattan, Sharkey quickly tired of both the comedy club game and the banal Wall Street temp jobs that enabled it. "I wasn't smart enough then to know that if you analyze comedy, you kill it," he says. "It has to come naturally. And I would obsess over jokes and rehearsing. You can't really have that approach; you're either funny or you're not. Sometimes you would go out and just bomb, and you'd feel miserable. I'd get tomatoes thrown at me like Fozzie on Muppet Babies: "Wakka-wakka-wakka!'"

Armed with a Roland ST-808 Groove Sampler — a parting gift from his landlord, an Upper West Side comics shop owner who had become a close friend — Sharkey moved back to Louisiana to pursue an alternate career in music. Or, in a perhaps more accurate variation, to alternately pursue a career and music. "My parents were like, "Oh, you're home! Gonna get a job?'" he jests.

In 1999, Sharkey enrolled in LSU and, absent a more definite direction, began taking communications classes, "Because that's what they tell anybody creative (to study)," he says with a laugh. "That's what I would always say: "I just want to do something creative, like advertising.'"

His neighbor in the dorm was a tall, skinny computer science major from Marrero. Recalls Sharkey, "He had a crustache, and he was wearing camouflage pants and a white T-shirt with a soldier's rag around his neck. I was like, "Look at this West Bank dude.' He was like, "Wha's happenin', brah. My name Adam.'"

Talking music and making mix tapes, the two became fast friends. "We both loved the Hot Boys and New Orleans rap — mainly the Cash Money stuff," Sharkey says. "And we loved all the old bounce stuff. So any time we'd talk about that, we'd be like best friends. We would just geek out to it: "What do you think Lil' Wayne meant when he said this?' And we'd worship Mannie Fresh, who produced all that stuff: "He makes such great beats. He's so smart.' If you're from the West Bank, every little school dance you went to, that's what was being played."

The music soon found its way onto Sharkey's 808, by way of stolen samples and arrhythmic beats programmed by the students in fits of sleepless folly. One early composition, "Pencil Crack Tournament," would go on to become something of a legend at the Baton Rouge college radio station KLSU — and would eventually anchor 2002's Knucklehead Memoirs, Sharkey's first proper release as Ballzack. Its popularity even placed Sharkey on the cover of Gambit Weekly for an August 2003 story about emerging New Orleans musicians (www.bestofneworleans.com/dispatch/2003-08-12/cover_story.html).

'We made that song in my dorm room when we had no friends and no life," he says. "We had drank, like, two Rolling Rocks, and we were like, "Yeaaah. Let's do a song about pencil crack!' Even then, KLSU wouldn't play it. They were like, "This is stupid.' It wasn't until we put it on a CD that they were like, "This is the best thing ever.' They had to retire it from rotation: "We get everything from thugs to frat boys to kids calling — Can you play that "Pencil Crack" song?'"

Neither Knucklehead Memoirs nor its 2005 follow-up, the analog/digital mash-up Chipmunk Dream Machine, would adequately prepare Ballzack's burgeoning fan base for the all-out bounce explosion to come; both albums are more Ween than Lil' Wayne. Though the goofball rhyme scheme is still present on Yeah Indeed — the couplet "People think I'm smart, they say I'm a genius/Got an outtie bellybutton that looks like a penis" being among the few printable chestnuts — the diverse production, spearheaded by Sharkey and Jay Yuenger, the former guitarist for White Zombie, is sure to surprise even devotees.

'Synthetic, sparkly, electric," Sharkey says of the sound. "I was totally going for that Mannie Fresh, New Orleans rap sound. At first we set out to make a whole bounce record, but throughout the course of it, I got bored. Like, "What if we made a "60s rock song using nothing but 808 sounds? And what if we had a song with harmonies? How come nobody ever used harmony in rap?'"

Along with Yeah Indeed, Sharkey and Bourgeois' latest undertaking is the production and promotion of The Thoughts of My Mind, the recent debut record by Douglas Fontaine, aka Lil' Doogie, an outspoken, up-and-coming rapper from Marrero. Something of an overnight sensation, Fontaine's rise is notable for another reason: He's a 25-inch-tall Sesame Street ripoff voiced in gangsta-slang by Bourgeois. Ballzack and Odoms share co-writing credits on the four-track EP, whose lead single, a bounce song titled "Hard Since a Lil' One," debuted in April on Fontaine's Web site (www.lildoogie.com) with a video directed by Mike Kennedy.

'The views kept getting bigger, then people were emailing, and the hits on the site were getting bigger," Sharkey says of Fontaine's surging popularity in 2008. "Suddenly we were getting recognized everywhere. Now, he's so big locally, we're gonna have to start doing some Lil' Doogie shows."

Five weeks to the day after the Ballzack video shoot, the 50-deep crowd at the Color Bar, a swanky new salon located on the Lower Garden District stretch of Magazine Street, is a half-and-half mix of East Bank hipsters and West Bank cronies. Tonight, they've gathered together for a second filming: Doogie's Night Out, another video production event staged by Sharkey and Bourgeois, but this time for Fontaine, whose various projects — a new EP, a frequented Web site and, as of late May, a personalized blog on Nola.com ('Street Scene with Lil' Doogie") — are on the verge of exploding.

Fontaine, the guest of honor and all-night center of gravity, is busy making the rounds. "Thank you for coming to my party. Thank you, thank you," he says, giving fist bumps to a group that includes Anthony "Turducken" DelRosario (a former music promoter and DJ), Erik Kiesewetter (founder of the annual art compilation Constance) and Leo McGovern (publisher of the local music and culture magazine Antigravity, which featured Fontaine on its April "08 cover).

At one end of the room, a huge banner depicting the diminutive rapper atop a winged wolf, soaring above pink-and-purple mountaintops, serves as the backdrop to a Fontaine photo op. There is no shortage of people eager to shell out the fee for a Polaroid, which, after captured, is inserted into a paper cityscape frame under the intersection of "Keep It" and "Real" streets. The theme is echoed on a Dirty Coast T-shirt also being sold at the event, a cartooned image of Fontaine over the words, "Brah, I'm Real?"

'Doogie, I'm your biggest fan," one woman says to Fontaine, stroking his tuft of black hair. "Can I take a picture with you?"

'Fo' sure, fo' sure," he replies. "You paid $5?"

Sharkey asserts that Fontaine's broad appeal reaches beyond the typically male-dominated hip-hop market, a claim borne out by the Color Bar's sizable female contingent. "Doogie's also got a huge under-18 fan base," he says. "His MySpace account is riddled with 15-year-old girls. They're all like, "Doogie, we love you. You hot.'"

Bourgeois even sounds a shade envious of his protégé: "Doogie is getting so much more love than I will ever have. One girl was like, "Hey Doogie, I just broke up with my ex — he acts just like you. I even called him Lil' Doogie. But he's not as funny as you. And you cute.'"

Around 10 p.m., Sharkey makes an announcement that the clip for Fontaine's next single, "Hustlin'," will be filmed in the audience. "We're about to shoot the Doogie music video," he says, "so when he starts rapping, just crowd around him and act stupid." Without reservation, everyone obeys.

Afterward, Fontaine is entertaining a huddle of excited fans. "People are buyin' the album," he tells them. "It's sold like a million already."

Sharkey shakes his head at the hyperbole. "Last time I checked it was probably in the 200s," he corrects.

'Matter-of-factually, I don't write nothin' down," Fontaine continues, unfazed. "I just go in there and flow out my mind, like Jay-Z."

Expounding on Fontaine's myriad accomplishments in little more than a year's time, Sharkey sounds like a proud parent. "We've done over 50 Doogie videos — two seasons worth," he says. "And we want to do the movie, the full-length movie. Rappers always do an extension of their albums. What if Doogie did, like, My Left Foot? Doogie Day-Lewis."

Bourgeois nods. "Doogie Nights," he adds.

An hour or so later, the night has nearly wrapped. Fontaine, partied out, is lying on the back bar, his still, seemingly lifeless body surrounded by empty cans of Miller High Life, the props of a bird's-eye photo staged by some ne'er-do-well paparazzi. About a dozen people remain: mostly close friends and supporters of Sharkey and Bourgeois, congratulating the artists on their upcoming projects and talking up the undeniable phenomenon of Lil' Doogie. Within a matter of weeks, Ballzack's Yeah Indeed will graft a laugh track onto bounce music, and months later, Odoms will release his debut album, tentatively titled either Humanitarium or Harvey Tunnel Syndrome. The best friends are living a lifelong dream.

And improbably, but as prophesied, a little rapping puppet shall lead them.

Correction

In "Porkapalooza" (News & Views, June 10, 2008), the last name of Sen. Dan "Blade" Morrish, a Jennings Republican, was spelled incorrectly. Gambit Weekly regrets the error.

click to enlarge cover_story-17456.jpeg
click to enlarge Douglas Fontaine takes part in a workplace ritual: photocopying body parts. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Douglas Fontaine takes part in a workplace ritual: photocopying body parts.
click to enlarge Fontaine answers calls from fans. - CHERYL GERBER
click to enlarge Exchanging gossip around the water cooler. - CHERYL GERBER"
  • Cheryl Gerber"
  • Exchanging gossip around the water cooler.
click to enlarge "See what life does to you?" Sharkey asks in reference to a childhood photo.
  • "See what life does to you?" Sharkey asks in reference to a childhood photo.
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