Before there was Juvenile, Lil Wayne or Master P, two in-your-face rappers pioneered the defining sound of NOLA hip-hop. Now all they want is a little respect.
New Orleans Rapper Tec-9 steps onto a helicopter to be flown to his lucrative gig. He’s been off work for two weeks but is about to embark on twenty-eight straight days of giving people what they need. “Mondays I cook anything I want. Tuesday is steak day. Wednesday I cook whatever I want. Thursday I cook what I want. Friday is seafood day. Saturday is steak day again,” says Tec, one half of the famous New Orleans gangsta bounce group U.N.L.V., “and Sunday is fried chicken day.”
Tec-9, a.k.a. Reginald Manuel, spends most of his time offshore, cooking for an oil rig’s crew — one of the few ways he could figure to make over $60,000 a year, enough to continue paying for whatever luxuries he got used to in the ’90s as a star on the fledgling Cash Money label.
“When I get jazzy with it I have a Mercedes R35, sitting on 22s,” says Tec. But today he meets me at the Burger King in his gimpy Ram 1500 work truck. He wants to take our hood history tour in my similarly shitty Ram truck. “My A/C is broken,” he tells me.
“So is mine,” I tell him.
“My transmission burnt too,” he says.
I don’t know what that means. But my truck runs fine, so I first follow him to his lil girl’s mama’s house around the corner. Tec pops into her small shotgun shack for a moment, then comes out and hops into my beater: “I only had one cold tea left. You want this cold beer?” He offers me a tall boy of Olde English 800. I have not had OE since college, and though it’s very presumptuous of him to think I’d drink malt liquor at all, much less during the daytime while driving, I thank him and crack it open.
Tec-9 has agreed to lead me on a tour of sites important to the career of his twenty-two-year-old rap group (now a duo) U.N.L.V. As teenagers in the early nineties, U.N.L.V. members Tec-9 and Lil Ya copped their name from their favorite college sports team, but then told the world it stood for “Uptown Niggas Livin Violent.”
“We started out as the Sporty MCs: Polo Pete and MC Food,” Tec laughs, flashing a bottom row of gold teeth.
“We was positive rappers then, we rapped about black situations, what crack cocaine and drugs do to you,” recalls Lil Ya (Yaphet Jones) via phone from Houston, where he’s lived with his kids since 2007, commuting often to New Orleans.
“A guy called Everlasting Hitman — deceased, rest in peace — he was one of the first people I knew who started doing gangsta rap in the bars,” Lil Ya continues. “Then everyone started doing it. We were better at it than any of those other guys, and the positive rap wasn’t poppin’ anymore. People didn’t want to hear that.”
Violence, too, was trendy in the Crescent City at the time and the Sporty MCs’ transformation into Uptown Niggas Livin Violent was inspired as much by New Orleans’s early ’90s crime stats. “We were the murder capital in 1994,” Lil Ya says, as if reminiscing about a championship season. The Sporty MC’s “black situations” were traded out for explicit lyrics like…
I got a bitch named Carrol
Fucked her in the ass with my double barrel
She enjoyed it a LOT
While I was fucking her with the barrel she was sucking the chrome of my glock
— “My 9” (1993)
U.N.L.V. made gun violence fun with a sing-songy flow over the “triggerman” party beat that fuels New Orleans’s indigenous “bounce rap.” The soundtrack to many a local black block party for the last several decades, “bounce” is the specific call-and-response rap that begat “twerking,” a dance Miley Cyrus learned in New Orleans. “People called us gangsta bounce,” Tec-9 chuckles at some far off memory as we drive past Carter G. Woodson Middle, where Tec and Lil Ya attended school together.
My tall boy is empty as we approach what was once the famously tumultuous Magnolia Projects in Central City on the edge of Uptown — now un-ironically renamed “Harmony Oaks.” The dreary red and brown brick apartments have been replaced by clumps of lower quality but pleasant shotgun townhomes that look very little like public housing. “They got it lookin’ all pretty now,” Tec observes.
The old brick monstrosities on Magnolia and Washington were where U.N.L.V. first helped producers Brian “Baby/Birdman” Williams and Ronald “Slim/Sugar Slim” Williams begin to build Cash Money Records — now a multibillion-dollar stable that includes Drake, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, and dabbles in clothing, liquor, even the oil industry. “We didn’t know the business and they knew we didn’t know the business, some young poor kids comin’ out of the hood,” says Tec-9. “They would take us to the car lot, buy a new car, put us in a new house or apartment. And we thought we’d made it, but they were pocketing millions of dollars. We were so happy to have a little money, we didn’t realize we were deserving of much more than we were given.”
I drive us farther Uptown to U.N.L.V.’s old hood. “When we were nineteen or twenty, me and Ya would walk around here beatin’ on the houses, practicing what song we was gonna rap at WYLD talent shows and open mic nights.”
Tec-9 came up with all of the concepts and most of the lyrics. “My role always has been the guy to give energy,” says Lil Ya, who’s known as a confrontational performer. “I have some lyrics, but my main role has always been to hit ’em with the energy.”
We stand below a giant red arrow pointing us in the front door of famous dive bar Joe’s House of Blues. In 1992, when New Orleans’s drinking age was eighteen, Joe’s was Newton’s, where Tec-9 and Lil Ya demanded their start. “We recorded our first record at Newton’s,” says Tec-9. “DJ Red would put on the Triggaman beat and give us the microphone. One night we recorded ourselves and that’s how our first single came out, called, ‘Another Bitch.’”
“Another Bitch” features the first instance of the much co-opted, classic New Orleans refrain, “Bitch, keep talking that shit / suck a nigga dick for an outfit.” Versions of this phrase and its cadence appear in hundreds of New Orleans bounce songs. Though the lyric is most often associated with “the king of bounce,” DJ Jubilee, Tec-9 tells me he and Ya invented it at Newton’s in 1992. “Then we went up the street to K&B [now Rite Aid] to buy some double-side cassettes and just spent all morning dubbing ’em,” Tec recalls. “We wrote on them ‘U.N.L.V. Another Bitch’ and we rode around to all the different projects selling it for $5. Before you knew it, everybody was riding around the city playing our song. DJ Red was proud to’ve recorded it, so then he would play it a lot at the club. It just blew up — the whole city got behind it.”
Brian “Baby” Williams, CEO of Cash Money, soon got ahold of a tape and made U.N.L.V. one of his very first signings. At Baby and Slim’s house out in New Orleans East, the future moguls sat on milk crates in front of a tape machine, rerecording “Another Bitch.” “It wasn’t really a big house, but a decent house in a decent-like middle class neighborhood,” says Tec, who gets evasive when I ask him what the Williams did for a living at the time: “Word is they were selling drugs to support themselves, but I wouldn’t speak on that.” He could only verify that they were most certainly not working offshore.
The larval Cash Money label packaged and marketed and distributed “Another Bitch” professionally, and it was a hit throughout the South, especially in Houston, and with Atlanta DJ Lil Jon. “The profits from that single allowed the whole [Cash Money] camp to be able to go into real studios and pay for studio time,” says Tec. “Cash Money acquired their major label deal based on the numbers that we were putting out. With the success from that, we started planning to record our first Cash Money album.”
* * *
For their big debut, Tec and Ya initiated a third U.N.L.V. member, Yella Boy. “Yella kinda blackmailed his way into the group,” laughs Tec-9. “Me and my mom was having problems during that time, and she kicked me out the house. So I went and lived with Yella and his mom. He wasn’t initially a part of U.N.L.V., and he’d always be like, ‘Tell your producer you got another person.’ Then when I was staying with him, he kinda said, ‘Put me in the group, or you gotta go.’”
“Baby and Slim didn’t want him in the group neither,” adds Lil Ya. “Tec convinced me, and I convinced Baby and Slim.”
Tec and I stop at the intersection where Yella lived on 4th and Dryades. Tec points to a triangle of small colorful houses. “Ya lived right across the street from Yella, and I lived over on 6th and Barrone. Me and Ya knew each other since we were twelve, but they knew each other since they were babies. Yella couldn’t rap for nothing. So I taught him how.”
We sweat in New Orleans’s fall weather as we step out and walk around a corner to the nexus of the U.N.L.V. legend: 6th and Barrone — the corner that provided inspiration for their second biggest hit song, “6th and Barrone,” from their debut 1992 Cash Money “6th and Barrone.”
A ubiquitous regional hit, “6th and Baronne” is arguably the most geographically specific hood anthem ever recorded, leading people right to the spot where Tec and I now stand, before a moldy, two-story classic New Orleans abode with white siding and a wide balcony. Tec is shy to take a photo out front of the house and talks in whisper — prompting me to ask if all the song’s gun talk didn’t bring some unwanted negative publicity to his block. Maybe he made his neighbors mad, blowing up their spot?
“That song made the area really popular,” he whispers out on the street, letting me snap just one photo of him and the historic landmark. “The whole south started hearing about 6th and Barrone, and it made everybody proud to be from this area. It turned from being our regular hangout to just traffic all day… People’d be passing like, ‘Ooh, there he go right there!’ and snapping pictures.”
The song didn’t necessarily make their hood sound like a fun-loving area though:
Chillin’ on the set with the fully automatic tec
Never was caught slippin’ that’s how I got my respect
I pop ’em up pop ’em up watchin’ bleed to death
Ya played with the Tec-9 now ya takin’ yo last breath
While I’m chillin’ on the corner I’m a get fucked up
My nigga T got a forty and brought two cups
Lil’ Ya is chillin’ Yella is thuggin’ and talkin’ on the phone
And I’m chillin’ on 6th and Baronne.
Tec-9 points to the stoop featured on the cover of “6th and Barrone” — Tec, Ya and Yella pose with a stern-faced posse, all in white tees, all aiming guns at the viewer. “Yeah, I called a friend and said, ‘Can we use your guns?’” laughs Tec-9. “He pulled up with a little suitcase full of guns. He had a Tec-9 so I was like, ‘I gotta have that! That’s me!’”
U.N.L.V.’s imagery and lyrics somehow don’t clash with Tec and Ya’s enjoyable flow, which the few New Orleans musical historians who deign to give rap music a place in the conversation often equate with Mardi Gras Indian chants. Many bounce artists have aped U.N.L.V.’s singsong flow, but one could argue that no one in southern rap has had as much stolen from them as U.N.L.V. and gotten so little credit. “It’s like rap music did James Brown,” says Lil Ya. “There’s a little bit of us in everything, especially if it’s from New Orleans.”
One could also argue that in New Orleans there is no such thing as musical thievery, only versions of a musical idea. But if they were to consider it stealing, U.N.L.V. could rattle off a list of thefts:
1. The other New Orleans rap mogul, Master P of No Limit Records, stole the catchphrase from U.N.L.V.’s local hit “(Nigga I’m) Bout It.” Acclaimed Producer Mannie Fresh, who made the beats for all of U.N.L.V.’s classic songs and almost every other first-wave Cash Money hit, told HipHop DX in 2011: “No Limit was not even started in New Orleans, it was started in [Richmond], California… [Master P] came down to visit [in 1995] and [U.N.L.V.] had this song. [Master P] took the slogan ‘Bout it’ and ran with it.”
2. Juvenile, one of very few New Orleans rappers to remain in the national eye for many years now, was first introduced to Cash Money Records by U.N.L.V. Once Cash Money finally got their national deal and dumped U.N.L.V., the label repurposed the beat from U.N.L.V.’s biggest regional hit “Drag Em In the River” and used it for Juvenile’s national hit “Set It Off.”
3. In 1994, after a newly unaffiliated U.N.L.V. had a huge local hit with a song called “Go DJ” they got a call from their old partner Baby at Cash Money: “I want you to do a song with Shorty,” he said, referring to Lil Wayne, according to Tec-9. “Our ‘Go DJ’ was hot, everyone driving around bumpin’ it,” says Tec-9. “And Lil Wayne’s second album didn’t do too good. So they hear how hot ‘Go DJ’ got, and they still had our catalog… Baby never called me back, and next thing you know we hear Lil Wayne came out with ‘Go DJ.’ They didn’t try to get us to do the song together, or holla at us, or try to compensate us — and that’s when we went to court.” U.N.L.V. won an undisclosed settlement that gave them the rights to their own catalog.
4. There’s even another rapper now named Tech N9ne, whose debut album, Calm Before the Storm, came out in 1999.
“I applaud it now,” says Lil Ya of his influence on the many folks who are much richer than him. “They showin’ love and don’t even know it. In the beginning I did feel sore, and I wondered, ‘Hey, why they stealin’ our music?’ But now that I’m older in the game I realize people steal music cause they do whatever they gotta do to make a hit.”
The group’s deepest ire however, was reserved for dragon-mouthed No Limit rapper, Mystikal — a beef that birthed U.N.L.V.’s single biggest hit, “Drag Em In Tha River”:
I’ma drag him from tha river dump his body in chuck’s yard
Leavin’ a note around his neck readin’ bad ass Yella Boy
Oooooh he wants some? ain’t that cold?
You a hoe Mystikal
You a hoe Mystikal
See I’m from the 3, and I don’t give a fuck
“Every time we saw him, he wouldn’t let us catch him,” Tec-9 says as we travel to where he was born, in the old Melpomene Projects, which have also since been torn down. “If Mystikal knew we were in his area he wasn’t gonna be still, he gonna keep it movin’. Cause he know if we catch him it gonna go down. But I’m glad we all grew out of that shit.”
When I later call Lil Ya though, he tells me the U.N.L.V. vs. Mystikal beef was all kayfabe expressed only in the music: “It was just a beef on wax. There wasn’t no gunplay ever. When Mystikal got out of the service he asked me about signing to Cash Money and I told him I thought it was a good idea because he had a nice style. He ended up signing with Big Boy and he asked me about doing a war on wax with us, and we was cool with it. I thought it was a great idea. I was never mad at him.”
After a couple hours, Tec-9 casually mentions that through all of the Cash Money years, he and Yella were shooting heroin. “That’s another reason I started working offshore,” he says. “I was addicted to heroin throughout my whole twenties, struggled with it off and on. Me and Yella was the worst kind of addict: the kind that has a lot of money where you can still dress nice. That’s worse than someone who doesn’t have a quarter and is out there robbing and stealing for it.” He rubs his forehead. “Man we burned through a lot of money…”
Tec believes that, sans drugs, U.N.L.V. might still be rolling with Cash Money. “We got so angry that it started turning into street shit. Baby and Yella got into fist fights. Yella went and shot their house up, in like 1996.” (Many other accounts of the incident have Yella pistol-whipping Baby and then shooting up his car.) Tec rubs his forehead again. “The drugs made us make poor decisions — it made us not deal with disagreements rationally. We would get violent. I feel like if we’d never gotten involved with drugs we would have dealt with a lot of things better.”
Shit got heavy enough between the two parties to completely sever U.N.L.V.’s connection to Cash Money, the best industry contact they would ever have. The Cash Money parade, massive but still gathering financial momentum, rolled on without Tec and Ya, who would never again see that level of success.
U.N.L.V. did remain hugely popular in New Orleans for several more years. Then, soon after Mystikal signed with No Limit Records in 1997, Yella was murdered. “I was in rehab when I heard,” says Tec-9. “I had tried to get him to come to rehab with me but he didn’t want to go. My third day in there I got a phone call telling me he was murdered.” Yella was shot while sitting in his car.
“Yella was twenty-three. It was a shock to the city, it was almost like Tupac was killed. It was all over the news,” says Tec-9. “And our name got even bigger, the record got even bigger. From that day on it’s like people really look at us as legends in this city.”
Like almost all murders of hip-hop artists, Yella’s was never solved. But the Internet spills over with conspiracy theories, most involving the suspicion that, after Yella whooped his ass, Baby put out a hit, which Baby then rapped about on the rapper BG’s song, “Made Man”:
Nigga disrespect let’s put the nigga to sleep (put ’em ta sleep)
I’m discreet about the things that I do on the streets
Them niggas be sayin’ Baby put that fuckin’ boy to sleep (Baby done that?)
Them niggas be sayin’ Baby put that change on his feet (Baby done that?)
“Overall it’s some street shit, and I try to leave it at that. The streets took him,” says Tec-9. “He was very different from us in that he really did live what he talked about in his music.”
Nowadays both rappers are quick to point out that originally, U.N.L.V. was only two guys. Though not nearly as prolific since, as a duo U.N.L.V. have recorded “The Return of U.N.L.V.: Trendsetters” (2001), “Keep It Gutta” (2003), and “Gutta for Life” (2004), all of which they either released on their own, or with much smaller labels than Cash Money. With Lil Ya in Houston and Tec-9 offshore, they perform live only about once a month, but they are more than fine performing as a duo. “When Yella’s verse come up we combine and we do his verse,” says Tec-9. “Or else we cut him out.”
* * *
Tec skips back in time abruptly, taking me to where he was “born” — the long-demolished Melpomene projects, birthplace of Katey Red and other notable rappers. After Tec-9 moved to 6th and Barrone, he always kept strong ties to “the Melph.” Today there is only a stack of old white apartments left: “That’s the Melpomene old folks home,” Tec points up. “When we were little we used to run around inside there for fun, drive the old people crazy.”
Not too long after that, crack cocaine came to New Orleans, creating jobs for lots of teen boys in the projects. “My dad died of cancer when I was twelve years old, and a young man that don’t have guidance, no role model, the streets will get ahold of you,” Tec says. “I made seventeen that Wednesday, and that Friday I got arrested — I just made old enough to go to the big jail.” Young Reginald Manuel did twenty-one months for possession of crack.
Years later, just after Hurricane Katrina, Lil Ya would kill U.N.L.V.’s momentum with a jail spell in Houston, after he moved to take care of his children and run U.N.L.V.’s business. The Star-Telegram reported that “Yaphet Jones, 32, of New Orleans was arrested outside a Motel 6 in Houston and charged with indecency with a child by exposure, and burglary of a habitation with intent to commit sexual assault, police said. The victims, including a fourteen-year-old girl, were also Katrina evacuees.”
Ya denies the charges, claiming that: “I did two years and ten months for peeing in public…I was checking in this hotel, and they was taking a long time to get a key, so I went around the dumpster and urinated… I was a Hurricane Katrina evacuee, was the real reason they had me in court. But I got a lawyer working on it, and I will be cleared up and compensated.”
It’s unclear exactly what happened in Houston that day, but it was when Ya went away that Tec-9 signed up to wash dishes offshore and then eventually cook. “I always knew how to cook, and I knew it was time to leave the streets alone,” says Tec. “I figured maybe I could duck offshore to kinda maintain my dignity. For me to just be out there in the world doin’ just a regular average joe job would be kind of embarrassing for me, since everyone knows me from the success we had.”
Many of the guys on the rig know U.N.L.V.’s music and treat Tec-9 with extra respect, the same way many inmates treated Lil Ya in prison. “And being out on the rig also gives me a peace of mind,” says Tec. “I can really write shit out there. All that water, and I get to thinking and writing.” It was under these isolated, meditative conditions that Tec wrote much of U.N.L.V.’s new 2014 album “The Relaunch,” (distributed digitally by a branch of Universal Records). Tec stared out at the waves to dream up the lyrics to the album’s first single “Can’t Walk Straight”:
I’m drunk and I can’t walk straight
Got work in the morning but I might be late
Got weed but I need another gar
My drink low, so I’m on my way back to the bar.
At the end of our tour, at a bar in the St. Roch neighborhood on the edge of the 9th Ward, Tec admits it’s been tough to really push The Relaunch with Ya in Houston and him out in the ocean. Along with their usual one show a month, both men claim they’ve booked a seven-city tour opening for Juvenile and Mystikal this January — though when contacted, Mystikal’s management knew nothing of a tour where the openers would sing “Yous a ho Mystikal” over and over each night.
Either way, at forty-one years apiece, both surviving members of the South’s most important gangsta bounce group still consider each other best friends: “Yeah that’s my brother man,” says Tec-9, sipping his first beer of the day, and I my second. “After all these years, we still strong wit it.”
* * *
Michael Patrick Welch is the author of books including “The Donkey Show,” “New Orleans: the Underground Guide,” and his latest, “Famous People I Have Met.” His work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Vice, Salon, McSweeney’s and many other places. Blow him up @mpatrickwelch.
Sara Drake is a storyteller based in Chicago. She received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011 and is a columnist for the contemporary arts series, Bad at Sports.