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Gare-on-teed Phat

L'il Brian Terry drags zydeco into the hip-hop era by mixing it with rap

Zydeco, like most folk-based popular musics, may seem to come mainly in two flavors: traditional and not-so-traditional. But zydeco has never really been a static form. Rather, it has been a sonic chameleon for decades, reflecting the influences of its creators. Recently, no artist has embraced this change with more flair than a young Houston-area bandleader named Brian Terry, arguably the face of zydeco's future.

More than any other city, Houston has been the place where young urban players develop. Almost 50 years ago it was where Clifton Chenier crafted a synthesis of the accordion-based la-la folk tradition and electric R&B. Today it's still a major center for experimentation with the form. For younger Creoles, the ancestral music is part of their cultural soundtrack, which also includes mainstream influences, from funk to pop to hip-hop. And in clubs and on disc, these younguns are mixing it all up more and more, creating a sound that is simultaneously old and new.

One fan, 16-year-old Cedric Bradley, digs a local performer identified only as "Big Mike," an accordion-wielding zydeco rapper who plays occasionally at Club Classic. The owner of that Crosstimbers Road establishment, Redell, just Redell, explains he has chosen to book "radical zydeco" specifically because the younger crowd relates to it. "It has more fire and a heavy beat," he says.

L'il Brian Terry cuts up the accordion like a DJ on a Technics turntable.
Jean Hangarter
L'il Brian Terry cuts up the accordion like a DJ on a Technics turntable.

Meanwhile, at the Homestead Road club known as Buffalo Soldier, owner Eddie Moore reserves Thursday nights exclusively for youth-oriented progressive zydeco shows, naming J. Paul Jr. and the Zydeco Newbreeds and Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws as his biggest draws. The popularity of these bands is due partly to the music's high-energy dance vibe. But increasingly it is the willingness of these artists to cross-pollinate zydeco with R&B or rap that appeals to the younger generation.

But of all the youthful Houston-based innovators, none has had a greater impact than the 26-year-old performer known as L'il Brian Terry, front man for the Zydeco Travelers. The originator of a sound he calls "Z-Funk," Terry is appropriately noted in Michael Tisserand's superb 1998 book, The Kingdom of Zydeco, as the first artist -- anywhere -- to forge a musical link between zydeco and rap.

For Terry, the fusion of Creole accordion dance music and a hip-hop mentality came naturally, while he was still in high school. Around age 13, he started learning how to play the accordion during visits with relatives in Louisiana. Lucky for him, his kinfolk include the legendary Delafose family, one of the state's major multigenerational sources of zydeco talent. From them Terry absorbed basic instrumental technique and tradition, which led to bookings at places like the legendary but now defunct Continental Zydeco Ballroom.

"Things began jumping for me in Houston around '89 or '90," he says. "At that time I was basically playing straight-ahead zydeco. I had envisioned in my head that I wanted to do some different things with my music, but I was kind of sticking to the roots back then."

But for a smart teenager who was also heavily into "Snoop Dogg rap and Tupac," it wasn't long before he tried something new. "Growing up around here, I was listening to a lot of different styles of music," he says. "And of course I had friends who were definitely not into zydeco. Into other stuff, you know, rap and hip-hop and R&B. So I began really trying to put some funky hip-hop grooves into what I was dealing, you know. Wasn't nobody doing it but me."

Terry's experimentation set his band apart from other zydeco outfits, catching the attention of Massachusetts-based Rounder Records during a talent-scouting field trip by producer Scott Billington. The collaboration eventually resulted in the 1995 CD Fresh, on which Terry's name was spelled "Li'l."

Aside from the title, another clue that this record is different is the album cover. On it, Terry poses in a sleeveless T-shirt and wears a baseball-style hat with the bill turned up. He also has donned wire-framed purple-tinted glasses and sports a tattoo on his right bicep (of an accordion, bellows open, with his nickname, this time spelled "Lil'," inscribed above). There's a heavy gold chain around his neck. Likewise, in a group photograph, each band member projects a hip urban look. More Compton than country. And not a cowboy hat in sight.

Fresh introduced the world to a unique hybrid of zydeco, funk and rap by featuring challenging arrangements and lyrical sophistication far beyond the simplistic norm. Surprisingly, these qualities are most striking on a remake, the Paul Kelly classic "Hooked, Hog-tied and Collared."

Accented by voice-box guitar, the song gets a brisk, upbeat treatment before it culminates with Terry's vibrant rap: "Now I'm going to break it down like this. / You know there's something kind of got a little twist. / You know you've got me hooked and collared / But that's not the way that I was brought up. / See, I was told a woman should be loved and not slapped around or drug / If that's the way it's got to be / Then babe, you know you're not for me." The sequence concludes: "Say you want a man who's tall and slim / He is I and I am him. / You know you've got me shooked / Baby, yeah, you've got me hooked."

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