Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Juvenile featuring Lil Wayne and Mannie Fresh, ‘Back That Azz Up’ (#478)

For most of rap’s first 25 to 30 years, different styles or innovations within the genre were closely associated with different regions.  You could hear a song, note its characteristics — everything and anything from accent to beats per minute to lyrical content — and stand a very good chance of identifying the city or scene from which it sprang, even if the artist were unknown to you.

Early rap tended to be very much a DIY sort of project, conceived from the ground up.  Its roots couldn’t have been any grassier.  It’s no accident that rap’s origins more or less coincide with the advent of (relatively) cheap and reliable ways to record work and distribute it on a local scale.

The traditional path for would-be musicians in 1979, the year the Sugar Hill Gang released ‘Rapper’s Delight’, could present serious obstacles for people of limited means…like many of the people who would eventually create and develop rap music, for instance.  Instruments were (and still are) prohibitively expensive, and even if an instrument were somehow procured, one still needed the time and the will to achieve proficiency with it, and a place to do it in.  And this is just for one individual person.  If you’ve got or want to have an entire band?

Good luck with that.

Time and space, never mind access to instruments and instruction in their use, were not things possessed in abundance (if they were possessed at all) by most young people in the Bronx circa 1980.  What they did possess in abundance — what the people they inspired would have in abundance — was the powerful human urge to create art for its own sake; to be heard on their own terms, in their own words.

And hell, you didn’t need an ensemble, or a guitar or a piano or a trumpet to create with this new art form.  If worse came to worst and you weren’t picky, you didn’t need anything but your own wits and maybe a friend to spitbox the beat.  Equipment and the technical know-how to produce sounds to go with your flow were nice, but they weren’t, strictly speaking, necessary.

Rap music’s bottom-up, hands-on model produced strong regional variations.  How could it not?  Of course overlap and cross-pollination occurred, but in general, a would-be rap artist’s peers — both competition and inspiration — were local.  The target audience was local.  The market was local.  In rap’s first decades, each metropolitan area that adapted the art form brought their own distinct regional flavor to it:  New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta…

…and New Orleans.[1]There was and still is plenty of rap going on in other countries and even other languages, but that’s a discussion for another day and another forum.

Enter native son, Terius Gray, a.k.a. Juvenile, and his goofy, exuberant Bounce hit, ‘Back That Azz Up’.  Grounded by a snaky string groove courtesy of producer Mannie Fresh, and an appearance by Cash Money label-mate Lil Wayne engaging in Lil Wayne-type shenanigans, ‘Back That Azz Up’ is both ridiculous and irrepressibly awesome.  Like dating a stripper or closing down a bar the morning before a job interview, ‘Back That Azz Up’ presents a set of questionable merits that you nevertheless can’t help but embrace.

According to The Culture Trip, the characteristics of New Orleans’ Bounce Style are as follows:  Defined by a steady tempo ranging from 95 to 105 beats per minute, heavy brass band beats, and Mardi Gras Indian chants and call-and-response routines, this indigenous music trend is part of New Orleans’ traditions and embedded in the fabric of the city’s diverse communities.

As Mannie Fresh put it in 2019, “Twenty years ago, ‘Back That Azz Up’ coming out, that was the introduction to Bounce music to the world.  A lot of people don’t know it was met with, ‘Nah, maybe the world not ready for it.’  Like, ‘We get it.  It’s New Orleans.  We get it.'”[2]

In other words, though Juvenile himself was a Bounce pioneer who’d been performing professionally since his teens (he was 24 when ‘Back That Azz Up’ was released), ‘Azz’ didn’t invent Bounce so much as it codified it and brought it to national attention.

One last note on this business of regionality:  it’s largely disappeared.  The styles still remain, of course, and they’re still taxonomically referenced with the regions from which they sprang; but new tools — SoundCloud, YouTube, etc. — have brought new perspectives and new practices…and not just for rap.  The developing ground for new sounds has largely moved from the public to the private; from clubs and stages to living rooms and studios.

Note:  The video posted here is the higher quality ‘clean’ version of the song (‘Thang’ instead of ‘Azz’, a distinction which no doubt salvaged the moral fortunes of many a wayward youth).  The women doing the backing up in the video, by the way, aren’t models but legit locals…!  Holler!

Michael Strum: “Instantly recognizeable as late 90’s rap. The strings are nicely done. I’ve always thought Cash Money was a perfect name for a record company. Mannie Fresh crushes his bars here, really top-shelf stuff from him. A 16-year old Lil Wayne adds a signature hook. Surely the best rap track ever associated with the 2020 South Carolina Democratic Primary. Juvenile, who is from NOLA, endorsed Tom Stryker for president in the 2020 election, and the two were seen dancing to ‘Back That Azz Up’ in the Palmetto State.”

Rolling Stone: In the late Nineties, Mannie Fresh’s diamond-sharp productions for Cash Money Records helped put New Orleans in the center of the hip-hop map. The title of this hit was so reminiscent of local artist DJ Jubilee’s single “Back That Thang Up” that Jubilee sued (unsuccessfully) for infringement, and the beat rode the “Triggerman” rhythm that is foundational to New Orleans bounce. Juvenile freestyled his best shit-talking bounce rhymes, and Lil Wayne shut it down with a “drop it like it’s hot” hook. As Mannie said, “[He] immediately was just like, ‘Shit, I’m getting a piece of this.’”


1 There was and still is plenty of rap going on in other countries and even other languages, but that’s a discussion for another day and another forum.

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