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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.

Zydeco stalwart Step Rideau is youthful. And so is his music.
Rudy Flores
Zydeco stalwart Step Rideau is youthful. And so is his music.

"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.

Rideau is also grateful for the support of another woman, his wife, Nena, who supported his decision to quit his day job and pursue music full-time. Ironically Nena appears on the new CD as the voice of the bitchy female nemesis in the mildly comical lead-off track, "You're Nagging Me." Along with numbers "Oh What a Habit," a spoof on cigarette addiction, and "For a Dollar," a note on the rising cost of living, an element of lighthearted social satire comes through on this disc. It's another shift of direction for Rideau.

"What I'd been doing in the past was real danceable music," he says, noting that early on he didn't really pay much attention to developing lyrics. But eventually the accordionist came to realize that "the best music is about telling stories."

In that respect, I'm So Glad is truly a breakthrough for Rideau, who wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 14 tracks. Many of them are fairly traditional in terms of theme, celebrating elements of Creole folklife such as community barbecues ("Fire It Up") and horseback excursions ("Step's Trail Ride"). But they generally offer lyrical depth beyond the generic standard and include startling references to contemporary amenities such as cell phones and pagers.

But the most progressive compositions obviously are those featuring guest rappers. On "If U Don't Use It, U Gonna Lose It," Rideau delivers some classic R&B-style testifying complemented by the slick poetry of a hip-hop ringer known as Swiff Haywire, Houstonian Vonnie C. Dones III. Following two lengthy verse-chorus cycles led by Rideau, Haywire takes the mike and builds on the song's nostalgic theme of learning from elders and holding on to what you've got. It's an energized yet mellow sequence, highlighting the value of paternal wisdom.

Though Rideau was initially a bit wary of the producer's suggestion to weave Haywire's rapid-fire rap into the mix, he now delights at the song's "inner message" as well as its impressive synthesis of disparate musical styles. "People don't understand what a lot of rappers be saying," Rideau says. "And then what they be saying is usually a lot of negative stuff." Haywire, however, wanted to keep it accessible and positive, and Rideau soon realized rap was "the key to the rest of the puzzle."

The rather unique fusion of hip-hop and zydeco on I'm So Glad makes for a tasty musical gumbo, precisely because the surprise ingredients don't overwhelm each other. "Now I'm not fixing to go total rap," Rideau says. "It's all about spice. That's how this rap thing got to be part of my work. It's just a spice that adds to the flavor of what I'm serving up."

Along with his partners, executive producer Lathan Johnson and attorney Lori Chambers Gray, at the independent label Bridge Entertainment, Rideau understands such experimentation to be organic, part of his musical heritage. "We're all for zydeco," he says. "But we're open-minded, and anything is possible. I haven't heard anybody originate anything like what we've done, made from scratch. But it's part of who we are."

For information on upcoming local appearances by Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws, call the hot line number, (713)699-5615, or check the Web site at www.bridge-entertainment.com.

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