Rapper Juvenile Returns to New Orleans

New Orleans rapper Juvenile's appearance at this year's Jazz and Heritage Festival was poignant. His own home was destroyed by Katrina. His recent lyrics focus on the city's problems.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, sather -- forgive, saber tooth daffodils. Now, that's funny. But first, the New Orleans rapper Juvenile has sold millions of records with hits like Back That Ass Up. Sorry, that's the title. His home was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. He's living in Atlanta now. At the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which closes this weekend, Juvenile gave an emotional performance. The disaster appears to have sobered some of his raps.

Corey Takahashi has this profile.

JUVENILE (Rapper): Hey, New Orleans! Yeah! Feels good to be home, baby!

(Soundbite of cheering)

COREY TAKAHASHI reporting:

In a city that honors its musicians like elected officials, concerts come loaded with larger meanings. Consider Juvenile, a multi-platinum rapper who has been dealing with the same problems as everyone else in this town.

JUVENILE: But I'm a Katrina victim, too. So when I say to y'all, I ain't never gonna give up on y'all, I ain't never gonna give up on y'all. I mean that from my heart. Peace.

TAKAHASHI: In New Orleans, Juvenile's music still blasts from cars and front porches. Downtown, a billboard for his new album looms over the city next to those of mayoral candidates.

(Soundbite of laughter and chattering)

TAKAHASHI: And after the show, in his high-rise hotel suite, wraparound windows allow him to peer down from the sky. Members of Juvenile's crew crack jokes and catch a football game on TV. The rapper's wincing grin reveals teeth fit with diamonds and precious metal.

JUVENILE: I am one of the faces of New Orleans. And there's not a person in this city that don't recognize me as being that. I don't care what your race is, black, white, or Hispanic. Wherever you're from, everybody give me the same respect.

(Soundbite of song "Around the Way")

JUVENILE: (Singing) I'm from the projects, as in the Third Ward, as up in uptown, ah-what you heard of, it goes, Hey, hey, hey!

TAKAHASHI: Juvenile was born with the name Terius Gray. He grew up and launched his career in the tough Third Ward.

JUVENILE: And here we go. To the left is the remnants of the Magnolia Projects, gated up.

TAKAHASHI: DJ Slab One has toured with Juvenile. On this trip through their old neighborhood, Slab passes the vacated public housing that minted the rapper and other local stars.

SLAB ONE (Rapper): Now, don't get me wrong. The culture, the musical culture and the camaraderie that came with it, you know what I'm saying, was great, you know. But also came with the drug culture and the jail culture, and that's really not nothing we need to be teaching the kids, real talk.

TAKAHASHI: Juvenile began rapping in the 1980s with other future stars, like Soulja Slim. The two collaborated on many projects, including the chart-topping Slow Motion. Soulja Slim was shot to death in 2003. Danny Kartel was his producer.

Mr. DANNY KARTEL (Music Producer): I'll tell what. I think God and the devil frequent New Orleans. And I believe New Orleans is one of them spots where they box each other out at.

(Soundbite of laughter and clapping)

Mr. KARTEL: That's why this place is the way it is. And this is like the Bermuda Triangle.

JUVENILE: For real.

Mr. KARTEL: It's crazy.

TAKAHASHI: This is the world Juvenile grew up in. And the married 31-year-old father knows he's lucky to be alive today.

Mr. KARTEL: There's a lot of people that's got a lot of hatred in their heart because they never had nothing. And you got to understand that. You got to be able to put yourself in that man's shoes who grew up and never had a chance.

(Soundbite of rap song)

TAKAHASHI: Rap labels like Cash Money and Master P's No Limit put New Orleans on the hip-hop map in the late 1990s. Those labels were to New Orleans what Motown was to Detroit. Juvenile specialized in rugged, rump-shaking anthems, songs built to blast from car stereos and nightclubs. His lyrics are still laced with grit, sex, and Southern slang.

(Soundbite of a "Who's Your Daddy")

JUVENILE: (Singing) Move, shake, bounce, pop. Pancake it. Pull it over at the bus stop. Swing it back around. Stop it there. Make it wiggle. Put it in reverse and back it up just a little

TAKAHASHI: But New Orleans' rap influence has waned. No Limits spiraled into decline, and Juvenile and other stars left Cash Money. A new album for his own label is nearly completed. And Juvenile was on the road when Katrina devastated New Orleans, as well as the rapper's home in nearby Slidell.

JUVENILE: Totaled, man. You know, the house got flattened, really, you know.

TAKAHASHI: Juvenile managed to slip some Katrina-related rhymes into his new work. Reality Check, his seventh solo album, was released in March. It debuted at number one on the Billboard Album Chart and received positive reviews from the Los Angeles and the New York Times. His video for the song, Get Your Hustle On, spotlighted New Orleans' most ravaged neighborhoods and contained the now-infamous lyric suggesting that Katrina victims do whatever they had to to survive; even if that meant using FEMA money to hustle drugs.

JUVENILE: Take what you got and make something out of it. It don't necessarily have to be selling drugs or nothing like that. Get your hustle on. You know what I'm saying? Do something.

TAKAHASHI: Back at his hotel, after the show, Juvenile sits before his laptop, his eyes intent on editing his new video. This one will tell a new story.

JUVENILE: Basically, this video is about bringing New Orleans and Houston together, that's the thinking.

TAKAHASHI: In the aftermath of Katrina, the uprooted culture of New Orleans was re-concentrated in places like Southwest Houston. Juvenile filmed this video in a Houston park. He wants to send a message to his scattered fellow residents.

JUVENILE: At the very end of this video right here it says, Save ourselves. Who could save you better than you? Who's gonna pay you better than you can pay yourself? See right there? Save our, S.O.S., save ourselves. You know, that's what I'm about.

TAKAHASHI: He hopes others will get that S.O.S. For NPR News, I'm Corey Takahashi.

(Soundbite of rap song)

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