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.
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."
Other tracks on Fresh confirm that Terry ain't playing your mama's zydeco. On "FuNkABlUeSaDeCo," a heavy bass intertwines with pounding drums and the jingly funk of rhythm guitar. Tight accordion riffs are laid down like a DJ's laying tracks on a Technics turntable. It's total rap from the get-go, effectively processing hip-hop elements through zydeco filters.
"I was raised up on zydeco," says Terry. "That's in the blood of my family from Louisiana. But the rap and the hip-hop just give me some room to play around with other stuff, to make it my own thing and mess with the ideas I have going around in my head."
Terry's synergistic experimentation continued on his second Rounder CD, 1997's Z-Funk, which kicks off with the track "H-Town Zydeco," a tribute to the hometown music scene. Featuring some piercing blues-rock guitar by brother Patrick "Heavy P" Terry, the song climaxes with a bass jam right out of Parliament Funkadelic.
Meanwhile, the title track offers a swaying groove, hip-hop atmospherics fused seamlessly with an eerie accordion line. In a fiercely aggressive manner, Terry raps: "Believe it, you know that I'm here. / Grew up on that blues and that Clifton Chenier. / It appears that a lot of zydeco bands have lost the juice. / But Li'l Brian and the Travelers, you know we're getting loose." Near the end of each line, the crew shouts out the final phrase, gangsta-style. The lyrics flow forth in rapid-fire sequence, culminating each time with the major theme: "It's the Z-Funk / And I cannot lie. / Zydeco is what I know / And zydeco will never die."
The two Rounder releases, and extensive appearances at festivals and major venues worldwide, have made Li'l Brian Terry and the Zydeco Travelers better known, in recent years, outside of their home base. In particular the band has become popular on the East Coast college circuit. "They hear us and have a good time, tripping out because we adding elements in an original mix," Terry says. "We're not just giving them a straight-up, repetitious zydeco thing all night long. They really dig it because it's zydeco, but it connects with their own music culture, too."
Having signed a new deal with Tomorrow Records, Terry has just completed work on his third major album, due for an early 2000 release. This disc will feature a duet with his mentor, the music's biggest success story, Buckwheat Zydeco. "I'm really excited about being with Buckwheat, soaking up all he's done, all he knows," says Terry. It may well be a shrewd apprenticeship, for like his respected elder, Terry makes no apologies for being progressive.
"We ain't scared to try to push this stuff mainstream and get it off the back burner," he says. "Zydeco is definitely in the heart and in the blood. But I just feel like we must acknowledge rap. We must not box ourselves in."
Li'l Brian Terry and the Zydeco Travelers will perform Thursday, November 25, at 8 p.m. at Club Essence in Barrett Station (on U.S. Highway 90 in eastern Harris County). Little Porter and the Zydeco Hustlers will open. Call (281)328-6588 for more information. And you can sample some zydeco-hip-hop at these clubs: Club Classic, 802 Crosstimbers, (713)697-9966; Buffalo Soldier, 13515 Homestead, (281)590-8866.
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