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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: The Eternal Bounce of ‘Back That Azz Up’

On today’s show, we’re headed to New Orleans for Juvenile’s classic single and Cash Money Records’ big breakout

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Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 31, which explores the history of the Juvenile and Cash Money Records.

In 1986 the Showboys, a young rap duo from Hollis, Queens, put out a gritty, six-minute-long, gangster-rap epic called “Drag Rap.” Ingredients included the DUH DUH-NUNNT-DUNNT theme song to the cop show Dragnet; ad campaigns for Wendy’s, Old Spice deodorant, and Irish Spring soap; a little beatboxing; and a xylophone riff that would inadvertently help kick-start a vibrant regional rap scene 1,300 miles away. If you know “Drag Rap,” you likely know it for one specific sound, and most likely you know the whole song by another name. It is better known now as “Triggerman.”

Don’t do it, Nardo. “Drag Rap”: not a huge hit in Queens, but a foundationally huge hit in New Orleans. Here’s what you do. You take that DOOT-DOOT-DOOT-DOOT DOOT-DOOT-DOOT-DOOT xylophone riff. Next you take “Brown Beats,” a 1987 track by a San Francisco DJ named Cameron Paul. This guy’s 2,200 miles from New Orleans. That’s a 33-hour drive, nonstop, assuming traffic ain’t too bad. Terrible assumption. But it goes a lot faster if you listen to this loop the whole time.

Take those two songs, just a touch under 3,000 miles away from each other, and you have—inexplicably, gloriously—the foundation for New Orleans bounce music. The xylophone riff, in the “Triggerman” beat, the Showboys called that part “the bones.” But in New Orleans they called it “the bells.” And there were the bells, in 1991, on T.T. Tucker and DJ Irv’s “Where Dey At,” part sex rap, part shout-out to a risible local politician who really needed no introduction.

In 1992, DJ Jimi put out a cover version, of sorts, called “Where They At.” An upgrade to the original, theoretically. DJ Jimi, on the album cover here, looks just about as cool as a grown man has ever looked wearing shorts. Next time that tiresome “grown men shouldn’t wear shorts” argument breaks out on the internet, pull that one up. And in the meantime:

Around this time, DJ Jimi also hooked up a brash teenage rapper named Terius Gray, soon known to the world as Juvenile. He was raised in New Orleans’s Magnolia Projects. He was 4 years old when his biological father walked out on his family. He was 10 years old when he started rapping. He first enjoyed sizable regional fame as a teenager with the early-’90s DJ Jimi track “Bounce (For the Juvenile).” Such a malevolent but mellifluous voice Juvenile had from the start, even as an extra-brash underage shit talker. Do what this kid says, but watch yourself.

TRIIIIIIIIIIIIICK, stop telling that lie
We done hit you from the back for some Popeye’s
You got a three-piece white, a small, cold drink
Some red beans, a biscuit and small fries

You gotta appreciate the specificity of the Popeye’s order in this particular insult. And the charisma with which the Popeye’s-order-slash-insult is delivered. It turns out the single most important word Juvenile raps on that song is you, in you got a three-piece white etc., but we’ll get back to that. One of my favorite aspects of New Orleans bounce music overall is the preponderance of answer records, many of these supplied by even brasher female rappers who wouldn’t stand for all these fried-chicken-for-sex boasts. The best of these, to my mind, being Mia X’s 1993 broadside “Da Payback,” which itemizes and then vaporizes many of these boasts, culminating in quite possibly the single hardest line I have ever heard in a rap song in my whole life.

Doing damage to my backbone? Please!
You’re barely tickling the walls—bitch, you’re just a tease
And make my pussy scream for a 6-inch dick?
I’m pushing 8-pound babies, so you talking shit

“I’m pushing 8-pound babies, so you talking shit.” Do a reboot of the movie 8 Mile, set in New Orleans. Mia X is from the 7th Ward projects. Call it 7th Ward. And end the movie, at the climactic rap battle, with Mia X rapping “I’m pushing 8-pound babies, so you talking shit” and instantly the dude she’s battling just blows up, spontaneously combusts, whatever, just BOOOSH, and the whole building collapses around her and she strides out of the rubble victoriously in slow motion, perhaps holding an 8-pound baby. Try coming back at her with “You went to private school” after that shit.

I bring this up just to underscore that however uncouth and let’s say unromantic Juvenile and his various hotshot-rapper buddies are about to get, on their various beloved national pop hits, the various pulchritudinous targets of their uncouth and semi-romantic attention are not gonna take any of this lying down or bent over or whatever. These ladies might back their azzes up for you, but don’t you ever turn your back on them. Juvenile got a deal with New York City’s Warlock Records and put out his debut album, Being Myself, in 1994. He sounded like a 19-year-old steeped in bounce music who thought he was irresistible and invincible, because that, for the most part, was what he was.

The best and most prophetic song on this record, in terms of where Juvenile and New Orleans bounce as a whole were headed, is called, indeed, “Shake That Azz.” Yeah. A-Z-Z. It’s a slow jam. It’s almost a love song. It’s not really a love song. Mellifluous, though. What a mellifluous voice this kid already had. You’d do anything he asked. And you knew exactly what he was gonna ask.

Shake shiggedy-shake shake shake that ass
Shake shake shiggedy-shake shake shake that ass
Shake shiggedy-shake shake shake that ass
Shake shake shiggedy-shake shake shake that ass

He’s a charmer. Honest. But keep your guard up.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.