Rebels Without a Pause: The Oral History of New Orleans’ The Soul Rebels

Together with Rakim, Slick Rick, Mannie Fresh, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, and DJ Green Lantern, The Soul Rebels share their story of provenance in hip-hop and beyond.
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In 1991, a group of New Orleans musicians with rebellion in mind formed a band. At the time, they were members of the Young Olympia Brass Band, playing a traditional melange of European military-style music coupled with African traditions brought to the region by slaves. Buoyed by trumpets, trombones, saxophones, tubas, and drums, brass bands at their most orthodox perform jazz funerals and second-line parades, traditions which made them an early keystone in the development of jazz.

But back to the insurrection. Drummers Lumar Leblanc and Derrick “Oops” Moss were part of the storied brass-band tradition but wanted to do something bigger. They listened to funk and rap, drawn to the rebellious stylings of groups like Parliament-Funkadelic and Public Enemy. The two parted ways with Young Olympia and formed The Soul Rebels.

Nearly 30 years later, The Soul Rebels are the pre-eminent non-traditional “brass band” from New Orleans. They’ve toured with Nas, backed GZA for his NPR Tiny Desk Concert, and frequently share the stage with Rakim and the Wu-Tang Clan. They’ve become an industry standard for live hip-hop, not only backing iconic headlining talent but releasing original music and lyrics—all of which they showcase on their October 2019 album, Poetry In Motion. Featuring Robert Glasper, PJ Morton, Tarriona “Tank” Ball of Tank and the Bangas, Dee-1, Matisyahu, and others, the music is representative of the band’s diverse capabilities, but above all else captures the fearless nature of the band’s founding ethos.

Today, The Soul Rebels consist of Lumar and Oops, plus six others: Trumpeter Marcus “Red” Hubbard, who joined in 1999; saxophonist Erion Williams, who joined in 2005; trumpeter and MC Julian Gosin, trombonist and MC Corey “Passport P” Peyton, and trombonist Paul Robertson, all of whom joined in 2010; tubist Manny Perkins, who joined just a couple of years ago.

Together, the eight members have stepped into the band’s most fruitful chapter yet, breaking ranks with one musical tradition while simultaneously preserving the sanctity of another. Together with Rakim, Slick Rick, Mannie Fresh, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, and DJ Green Lantern, The Soul Rebels share their story of provenance in hip-hop and beyond.

The Message

There is an argument to be made that all Black (read: American) music comes from New Orleans. More specifically, Congo Square. There, tucked away amid the mighty oak trees, is sacred ground where enslaved peoples were “allowed” to congregate with one another on Sundays, playing their traditional drums. The Europeans living in the French Quarter just across the street were entranced and blended their classical music with the African and Caribbean stylings of Black and Brown peoples. Jazz, funk, and hip-hop can all trace their DNA to Congo Square.

The Soul Rebelsbirthed in the tradition of jazz music but who could just as accurately be described as a hip-hop bandare the embodiment of that DNA.

Talib Kweli: First off, New Orleans is so important as a city to Black music, and The Soul Rebels represent the best of that. Playing with them connects me to a rich tradition of Black American music. Hip-hop, by definition, is built around the DJ, and The Soul Rebels play in a way that feels like a mixtape.

Julian Gosin, trumpet/MC: All of the music we make derives from the natural instrumentation that comes from the slaves. That’s the first imprint of music pretty much. It was born in New Orleans, so we are hip-hop at its rawest form.

Slick Rick: Jazz, funk, and soul are the true seeds of hip-hop.

Rakim: Hip-hop grew out of breakbeats, but as we became more technical in our production with samples and original music, you’ve almost got an orchestral arrangement every time you walk into the booth. You’ve got bass lines, melodies, horns, and key riffs, the syncopation of the drums... Each one can come from a different source before blending into a new work. And when you interpret each of them individually, musicians can explore how to replay and rearrange them. Taking parts of the old and creating something completely original is at the core of hip-hop culture.

Julian: Right, you gotta think—the machines and samples, all they did was take from us [instrumentalists]. All of those samples they used in the late ‘70s and ‘80s when hip-hop was coming around, that was from instrumental music.

Pharoahe Monch: What we’re sampling is live instrumentation. We don’t necessarily have to sample, but I think hip-hop and its producers needed more time to grow to a level where it was as accomplished and polished live as well as in the studio.

Julian: A lot of the popular rap songs were probably samples of your favorite R&B tune or your favorite soul tune. And a lot of jazz tunes were sampled and reborn through hip-hop. So what we are is original, organic hip-hop, like in the drug game. They get it in its pure form, but they break it down with whatever, to sell it. They don’t sell it in its pure form. They would lose out on money if they did that. So we just takin’ it and bringing it back to its raw form. It’s already been broken down, cut up, and bagged up. We putting it back in the bag and bringing it back to its original form.

Slick Rick: The Soul Rebels stand out because they are purists at what they do.

Marcus: With the horns, it worked for us ‘cause they’re mostly just sampling old records, and it made us feel like we had a place in this ‘cause all they doin’ is sampling horns and drums, and that’s what we do naturally. We’d been keeping this division, but really, we mo’ connected than we realized.

Talib Kweli: The horn is so important to Black music, which is why the hip-hop The Soul Rebels play feels authentic, even when they are not playing the songs exactly how they are recorded. The drive of those horns makes up for and adds a lot to their interpolations.

Rakim: When we were breaking down records into samples, it was usually because we didn’t have the instruments to play those tracks ourselves, so working with musicians was always the goal.

No More Parades

By the time The Soul Rebels released the album No More Parades in 1998, The Soul Rebels were becoming known for infusing live performances with old-school hip-hop elements, including rapping over instrumentals and writing original music with lyrics. But that album’s arrival was preluded by years of gigs, lineup changes, and songwriting. More notably, as its title suggests, the band was already years into its journey into the unknown: What does a career for a hip-hop brass band look like?

Mannie Fresh: Musicians need to grow, and it’s crazy when someone puts you in a box. That’s probably why The Soul Rebels felt that, ‘cause I feel that way sometimes. I don’t belong to hip-hop. I belong to music. I think it was one of those things for them to be like, “We’re good at this.” They’re great at what they do now, they just wanted to venture off and do some new stuff, and I feel that as a fellow musician from New Orleans. Sometimes you need it as therapy.

Derrick “Oops” Moss, bass drum: We wanted to be not just considered a brass band. We wanted to make music that could be played on [the] radio along with pop, funk, and soul music, so hence we had to have lyrics. Brass bands were mostly instrumental.

Marcus “Red” Hubbard, trumpet: Hip-hop has always been in the fabric of The Soul Rebels. When the group was created in ‘91, N.W.A was at its height. When Rebirth and Dirty Dozen [Brass Bands] were doing it, hip-hop wasn’t a big thing, but when The Soul Rebels started, all of the guys that were in the band were connected to the hip-hop era, so it was natural for them.

Erion Williams, saxophone: It had always been like that. Even when I was a fan of the band, it was still about playing hip-hop, funk, and throwing some second-line music in there occasionally. It was the same as Rebirth Brass Band, but The Soul Rebels was more hip-hop infused.

Corey “Passport P” Peyton, trombone/MC: The band was known, but they weren’t doing second lines anymore. As far as brass bands, that’s where you get your recognition.

Julian: I think, from a local standpoint, that was the first step they had to take. They blatantly just acknowledged, “We’re not doing parades anymore.”

Marcus: We started this brass band, we’re doing brass band music, but every day we’re listening to hip-hop all the time, this is what we love. So the thing was, “How do we still make brass band music but do this thing we love, too?”

Corey: The Soul Rebels would take shit from old hip-hop songs and use that as call and response things in between songs, so they wouldn’t have to keep playing all night.

Marcus: We’re the first band to have rap on a brass record.

Julian: They always saw themselves on the bigger stage. To strive for that, we had to take what we learned from the street and augment all our skills and try to make this main stage thing a reality—versus being in the street, being in the hood, seeing it on TV, and just wishing we could do it.

Marcus: Rakim loves playing with us cause we’re actual horns. Horns have always been looked at as backup, but now people are askin’ us to come more towards the front. We want to make it so, when they see those horns, they ain’t lookin’ for another person to come up. They’re not looking for the main frontman. This is the main thing.

[Do] Sweat the Technique

It’s difficult to quantify what The Soul Rebels do, on paper. The band isn’t merely covering songs we all know intimately; it’s also rearranging elements and reverse engineering building blocks. For example, prolific hip-hop producer DJ Green Lantern first took notice of the band when he came across an interpretation of The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” which he then sampled.

DJ Green Lantern: If a band can either re-create the sound of a song live OR come with a dope interpretive version, they will be super valuable out here. The Soul Rebels command value in the space these days because they do both.

Pharoahe Monch: With the live band, it’s like you can go in a different direction, or things can continue. Chord structures can change and evoke different feelings. The harmonics of a horn section over a particular section of a song can move your soul, move your spirit in a way that couldn’t possibly translate on the recording.

Rakim: Hip-hop always needs to be pushing itself into the next original form, and as the listener becomes more accepting, the artist can move on to the next phase. The Soul Rebels are part of that new phase, but still, stay true. They pull from the purpose of the track in front of them and re-interpret it into something that moves a whole new crowd.

Pharoahe Monch: What you do get is variation. I think that’s needed in music in general. Like, how many times can you go and see something done the same way? That’s something that The Roots have taught us all. We’ve all seen them so many times; it’s like you gotta keep switching it up and bringing some flavor to it. And with The Soul Rebels, when I’ve rocked with them, it has a New Orleans flair to it that made it funky.

Talib Kweli: I wouldn’t compare The Soul Rebels to The Roots. The Roots try to duplicate the exact nuances and sound on a hip-hop record, and The Soul Rebels do their version of hip-hop classics.

Julian: Typically, your average band will consist of electric bass, a guitar, drum set, maybe some keys. You might have a horn or two, and perhaps some background singers. But we have five horns across the front, two trumpets, a saxophone, two trombones, and we have a sousaphone that’s substituting for the bass, and two individual drummers. To most people outside of the South, the instrumentation is kinda foreign. They grew up seeing, you know, the guitar and the likes of The Roots. That’s their image of a band. So when they see us, everybody assumes we’re a marching band... until they hear us.

On February 25, 2020, The Soul Rebels will continue the national Poetry in Motion Tour, which brings them to the Midwest and East Coast.

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