Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Archive: Nik Cohn

An interview from the back pages with the Derry writer

Wed, Nov 2, 2016, 14:00


Nik Cohn wrote the book. Actually, to be honest, he wrote a fair clutch of them. It starts with “Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom”, the pop culture rush written by the then 22 year old Cohn in a few weeks in a rented cottage in Connemara. It takes in trips down New York’s Broadway and around England for “The Heart of the World” and “Yes We Have No” respectively. Also in there is “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”, the New York magazine story which provided the foundations for “Saturday Night Fever” and all of that. Back in 2005, Cohn published “Triksta” about the rap game in New Orleans, a city which had fascinated him all his life, and that’s what set this interview in motion.

Nik Cohn knows that he must have been quite a sight. At least, he says wryly, he was never going to be mistaken for anyone else. For a start, few other pale, middle-aged men with clipped English accents have ever taken to prowling the hip-hop clubs and ramshackle studios of a New Orleans so far from the tourist beat. Certainly few have done so in a floppy fedora hat and suit, while none at all have harboured a desire to become a hip-hop svengali.

That low-down and dog-eat-dog world of Big Easy hip-hop became Cohn’s turf for some three years. Along the way, Cohn morphed into Triksta, a hip-hop impresario who, while he didn’t quite walk the walk, at least could talk the talk. The London-born, Derry-raised writer found himself toiling alongside characters called Choppa, listening to tracks in studios surrounded by cats like Jahbo and Snake Eyez Entertainment and trying to interest the world beyond Louisiana in the skills of Junie B and Stevee.

What came out of his adventures in the dirty south is one of the most impressive music books of recent years. “Triksta: Life & Death & New Orleans Rap” is a fascinating tale of an outsider wrestling with the unwritten initiation rites of a society to which he certainly can never belong. It also captures the day-to-day hustles and dreams which keep that group in the game as they struggle to survive. That “Triksta” was written and published before Hurricane Katrina struck and wiped that world away only adds to the poignancy of what you’re reading.

Cohn has considerable form when it comes to observing and inking scenes. He arrived in London from Derry in 1964, just in time to cover the swinging Sixties for many different publications. His acclaimed “Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom” followed in ’68, before he headed to the United States.

There, he penned stories like “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” (which provided the foundations for “Saturday Night Fever”) and “Arfur Teenage Pinball Queen” (which The Who borrowed for “Tommy”). Later on, books such as “The Heart of the World” and “Yes We Have No” saw him turning his attention towards Broadway and England respectively.

“My attraction has never been to the mainstream”, Cohn says about what pulls him to a story. “I’ve never been interested in people who are already successful. I have a natural attraction to people beyond the fringes as you can see in the Broadway book or “Yes We Have No”.”

He finds it hard to finger what exactly drew him to the Big Easy’s hip-hop underworld. It helped, of course, that he always had a fondness for hip-hop’s sound. “I was hooked on early hip-hop, always the beats and the backing tracks. It wasn’t the usual pop music you’d hear at the time.

“But during the Nineties, I began to have trouble with some of the gangsta lyrics. I always felt that the very best of hip-hop was the very best of pop music at any particular time, though an awful lot of rap is absolute rubbish.”

New Orleans too had long got under his skin. Since his first visit, on tour with The Who in 1972, he had developed an obsession with the place and returned year in, year out. Sometimes, he would look out the window of his rented house and marvel at how the city constantly reinvented itself without a care in the world.

By 2000, worn-out and sick from the ravages of hepatitis C, he felt in need of some of that reinvention juice himself. He found it one Sunday afternoon at a street parade in the Treme section. A DJ on a float played Magnolia Shorty’s “Money On Da Dick” and Cohn was smitten with bounce, the sleazy, rudimentary sound of New Orleans-bred hip-hop.

He decided he wanted to find and produce promising rappers. Initially, he was met with suspicion, but this changed. “I think the fact that I looked so bizarre saved me” Cohn notes. “If I had come in at my age wearing hip-hop gear and calling people ‘dog’ with my voice (laughs), I’d really have been asking for trouble. By holding onto what I am and not fronting to be something else, I piqued curiosity. When I stuck around, they knew I was serious.”

Over time, relationships did develop and flourish. “I like to think that we had, we still have, a closeness. Some of the relationships are complicated, but they’re emotional on both sides. Early on, when I just walked in blind, people didn’t care very much about me at all. I had to prove that I had some awareness of what I was doing and that I was not there just to rip people off. They were hardly expected to trust me on sight, especially given how bizarre I probably looked to them.”

As “Triksta” unfolds, Cohn uses old music industry contacts to unlock some money for recording budgets. He may have harboured some small dream of becoming a label boss or impresario, but this didn’t materialise.

Now, with hindsight, Cohn accepts this outcome, though he admits the dream was tempting. “At the deepest personal level, what I got was a richness and an impact on my life that I would not have got if I had got a huge hit right out of the box. I would dearly have loved to have hooked the artists up with major label deals and for them to be multi-millionaires by now. But I wouldn’t have swapped what happened, God was good.”

The unlikely bond that developed between Cohn and the rappers also pleased him. “From growing up in Derry, I’ve always looked with envy at the male gang, people who are comfortable together in a large group. As an outsider, I’ve always wanted to be part of that, but realised that I never could be.

“The New Orleans rappers were probably the ultimate group that I could never be a part of. After five years, I’m obviously not one of the boys, but there’s an improbable connection and a belonging there because I’ve established my bona-fides.”

After the book went to press, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. All the people Cohn had worked with survived, but relocated to other cities. “At first, they swore they would never go back. After a month, though, they started to creep back one by one.”

Cohn also plans to return to see if he can help in any way. “While they survived, all their houses and possessions are now gone. They have lost everything and some of them had absolutely horrendous experiences beyond what you’ve seen on TV or read about in the papers.”

But the tragedy has other effects on the city-dwellers. Cohn talks about “fantastic” post-Katrina raps from New Orleans rappers about how the authorities are trying to further destroy the city and its social fabric by moving the bulldozers and real estate pimps in. It’s a far cry from the bling-obsessed lyrics which dominated bounce records before now. “The new tracks are very passionate, very powerful”, says Cohn. “I don’t think such raps would have been produced before Katrina.”

He also senses a welcome coming together of people who would previously have been at each other’s throats. “People now see for the first time that they face a common enemy. Those neighbourhoods which survived the hurricane are now under threat from the developers and demolishers.

“All the turf wars between wards have disappeared because they now have a common goal which is to survive. That sense of black tradition and pride has become inescapable to everyone there so, for the moment, they’ve stopped fighting each other. That can only be a good thing.”