By Jae Lee
A black man, aged anywhere from seventeen to thirty seven, approaches you on the street. He’s wearing a dark hooded jacket—mostly to keep off the chilly night air—with his hand halfway inside a backpack. He follows you somewhat persistently. Don’t be afraid. Chances are that he is only trying to say to you the following words before you walk away: “Will you check out my mixtape?”
A new generation of artists has taken over the streets and corners of New Orleans, standing along Bourbon, Canal, and outside convenience stores to push their craft—their music. Many people would consider it difficult to gear up for a day of rejections for hours on end, but these rappers prepare for the worst as they approach random strangers with the product of their laborious work.
One such artist by the name of “Yung Pro” can occasionally be seen outside the Walgreens on South Claiborne, shivering by the door with a bag of white CDs in plastic sleeves. “Hey yo, check out this mixtape. We’ll take anything you care to give for it,” he repeats to passersby, receiving anywhere between $1 and $10 for a CD. I gave him $3. The title of his latest CD: 2 Important 2 Ignore. Like many others around his age of twenty years, sometimes as young as fifteen, Yung Pro is trying this authentic way of being discovered. “It don’t really matter how many people say they don’t wanna listen to my music. ‘Cuz every time, they’ll be at least one who will. And that may be the person who matters in the end, you know?” he said while folding his collection of one-dollar bills. “I just wanna spread positivity in my music, and maybe get a record deal one day.”
This dream, held by many New Orleans youth, is far from new. Years ago, the mixtape culture involved recording songs onto cassette tapes (hence the name “mixtape”), and the famous image of that time included young rappers selling these tapes from the trunks of their cars. Now, many young rappers choose to release digital versions of mixtapes online or spread their work verbally, oftentimes with street performances. Yet, artists like Yung Pro, a native to a city proudly known for its hip hop culture, are proving that the culture of tangible music is not dying. When asked about this culture, Yung Pro leaned against the brick wall of the Walgreens building while pushing up his red cap, then proceeded to talk about young aspiring musicians.
“A lot of the kids in this town, you know, they just want their voices heard and somebody to listen.” he said. “Some of ‘em think they can be like Lil Wayne and get famous but I just wanna talk about real stuff.” He demonstrates this in his song lyrics:
My homies say I’m different
I’m just tryna make a difference.
I don’t wanna be no victim
Getting caught up in that system.
Yung Pro spends his weekdays working at Pizza Hut, his week nights writing and recording new songs with his group of fellow musicians at their home studio, and his weekends out selling. By standing outside Walgreens for three hours he may make between $10 and $50, money that ultimately goes into his music production. Other artists, such as the ones standing in the streets at the French Quarter, end up using these funds for a variety of essential things, from taking care of their families to saving up for a car. Yung Pro feels as though the mixtape culture is becoming more of a “side-hussle” for some rather than a desire to become famous, but he knows the culture will never die.
“I mean, if I get famous, that’s cool, but it’s more than that for me. It’s like a community. We all out here doing it for different reasons. Like, people wanna walk by us like we are criminals or like they don’t want to be bothered, but you never know if that person who’s selling CDs might just be trying to get food for their little siblings or something. Those other rappers are not my competition; they are my family. We support each other, ” he said sincerely. As someone who has been rapping since the age of twelve, Yung Pro has been listening to rap music for as long as he can remember. Some may pass by these rappers thinking they are holding on to unattainable dreams, not to mention that the odds of being discovered this way by any legitimate record label are slim to none, yet the satisfaction of spreading their craft to others may be well worth it in the end.
The rapper community in New Orleans is increasing steadily, prompting artists to think of better, more creative ways to promote their music, even if this means standing outside a Walgreens for five hours on a chilly January Saturday. “We just do the best we can,” Pro added. “It’s not crazy; it’s just what works for us.”