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Zydeco Rap?

Houston's Step Rideau drags Creole music into the '00s

These days, Houston's Step Rideau is cooking up zydeco that is staunchly traditional and turn-of-the-millennium progressive at the same time. But then again, zydeco music itself, like the black Creole people who created it, has always been a celebration of apparent opposites attracting. On Rideau's fourth CD, the just-released I'm So Glad (Bridge Entertainment), the 33-year-old makes his boldest contribution yet to the evolution of the form.

As in Creole cuisine, standard elements compose Rideau's fundamental musical roux. He plays the most basic of zydeco instruments -- not just the common accordion but also the old-style button type (as opposed to the more "modern" piano key model popularized by the late Clifton Chenier). And his backing band includes a rubboard player, an electric guitar and bass player and a drummer.

But then there are the nouveau spices Rideau tosses in for some unexpected zing. For starters, there's a dash of postmodern vocal effects via electronic talk box. There are also heaps of relatively sophisticated, imagery-laden lyrics, which are anathema to the regrettable zydeco norm of repeating one phrase over and over and over. And there's also the pleasantly shocking special ingredient of rap. The record includes guest appearances by MCs Dirty Red and Swiff Haywire.

"I'm really proud of this project," says Rideau. "And I feel like it's going to go a long ways and be, you know, a new trendsetter. I've never heard anyone else do what we're doing, not like this."

Perhaps the most revolutionary track, in terms of old and new styles, is "Bayou Swamp Thang," which is a combination of the seemingly antithetical elements of waltz and hip-hop. The song features a chorus of vocal harmonies rarely encountered in zydeco, the kind of group singing one might expect to find in traditional gospel or R&B.

Following a short sequence of opening sound effects, the three-quarter-time beat kicks in, accented by the rhythmic scratching of the rubboard. Several voices coalesce beautifully on the repeated line: "It's just a Ba- / you / Swamp / Thang." Then producer and co-writer Dexter Simon lays down the verses, starting off with, "Me, I'm just a city boy / Country-born with heart / Louisiana parts, where I start / When I go down there / I feel a lot of love / That I don't feel anywhere else."

The lyrics go on about an idealized vision of the rural ancestral homeland, a cultural repository of memories for thousands of Creoles who have settled in the urban magnet of Houston over the years. The softly flowing rap describes riding tractors, feeding livestock and other bucolic delights, especially the rituals of gathering and sharing food.

For instance, another stanza tells of a bountiful fishing trip, concluding: "Got enough fish / To feed the whole crew / Take 'em home / Clean 'em down, fry 'em / Get on the phone and call around / What do you know, Joe / We partying on the bayou / Getting down with this Creole sound." Near the end of the track, the contrast between country and city living is succinctly communicated in a final food-themed couplet: "So pass another plate of étouffée / I'm tired of hamburgers, french fries and shakes."

Says Rideau: "Anyone who listens to it should like it, young and old. The message is so deep, and it's got great hook lines all through it."

Rideau himself was born in the tiny Louisiana hamlet of Lebeau and came to the big city on his own around 1986, motivated by the lousy economy back home and the opportunity to work construction in Houston. Before that he was just a zydeco dancer, visiting venerable Louisiana clubs such as Slim's Y-Ki-Ki and Richard's. He wasn't a player. Yet.

After settling in Texas's largest city, however, Rideau became a regular at the Saturday-night zydeco parties sponsored by local Creole Catholic churches. It was at such gatherings that Rideau's general fascination with the music turned into squeeze-box fever.

"So I went all over Houston, trying to find a cheap accordion in the pawn shops, just to see if I really could play it," Rideau says. "I eventually found one for $45, an old Hohner accordion with holes all in the bellows and everything; a couple of the valves was broke off, too. So I patched it up, man, and made it work and got to learning on it."

Rideau experimented with the instrument privately before he got up enough nerve to take it, ragged as it was, out in public, showing up at a dance at St. Monica's Catholic Church hosted by local zydeco stalwart Wilfred Chevis. "He let me sit in on his gig over there at the bazaar. I played and enjoyed it," says Rideau. "So I went and invested my money, got a single-note accordion out of Louisiana -- the kind I play now -- and started really practicing on it."

After subsequently sitting in with touring artists Boozoo Chavis and Willis Prudhomme, Rideau formed a band, The Zydeco Outlaws, and began playing his own gigs at places such as the Ebony Club. He knew he was on the right track when the late Doris McClendon hired him to play her now-closed Continental Ballroom, considered by many to have once been the Apollo Theatre of Texas zydeco. "She gave me my big break over there," he says.

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