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Hard times, tunes in the Big Easy

Critic delves into a new riff on gangsta rap, and its subculture

Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap
By Nik Cohn
Knopf, 211 pp., $22.95

''What happens here, stays here" suggest those ads for Las Vegas, presumably with an exaggerated wink.

New Orleans, America's other favorite indulgent getaway, never promises absolution. ''Laissez les bon temps roulez," as they say, but for many lovers of the place, the constant, heady reminders that the good times don't come free have always been a crucial part of its allure. The Gothic cemeteries, for heaven's sake, are one of the city's biggest attractions.

That's why the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina might appear predictable in hindsight. For all the city's structural and social decay, something was bound to go wrong in New Orleans.

The veteran British journalist Nik Cohn knows the feeling, and he captures it with uncommon clarity in ''Triksta," a dry-eyed love song to a city masquerading as a hard-bitten memoir. It's the highly unlikely tale of a 60-something white man's descent into the underworld of New Orleans's hard-core gangsta-rap culture. An improbable source of poignancy, it's all the more moving as a result.

Cohn is a pop historian; he has written extensively on the early days of rock 'n' roll, and he uncovered the working-class nightclub scene that inspired ''Saturday Night Fever." As his lifelong infatuation with New Orleans reached a fever pitch -- mounting health problems resulting from his battle with hepatitis C convinced him to spend more devil-may-care time in the city that practically invented it -- he found himself moving well beyond the typical bounds of the cultural reporter. Eventually he tried his hand at producing records, with disastrous results.

Like so many of us, Cohn's obsession with the terrible beauty of New Orleans was born well before he got there. As a pubescent youth growing up in London in the 1950s, he found an illicit paradise in the pages of Jelly Roll Morton's memoirs: ''Every night, in bed, I strolled the streets of Storyville," Cohn writes, ''. . . with my pistol at my hip and all those girls in satin and lace just dying to turn my damper down, whatever that might mean."

In the 1970s, he finally experienced the place firsthand while on tour with The Who. His senses, as they tend to be in New Orleans, were assaulted: ''The filtered, stained-glass light. Smells of coffee, damp bread, musky sex." And the music, endless music, spilling from every doorway, courtyard, and passing car.

The sound of New Orleans, of course, is a prime reason the city became a tourist destination. It is the cradle of jazz, a birthplace of rock 'n' roll, a town where every voice joins the gospel hymns and the Mardi Gras chants alike.

But tourists don't go to New Orleans for the gangsta rap. In recent years, a few locals have broken out on a national scale, including Master P, Mystikal, and Juvenile. For each of them, however, there are a thousand nameless boys like the one, ''fifteen at most," who demonstrated his freestyle technique for Cohn at Wydell Spotsville's studio in Pigeon Town.

Where is that kid? Cohn asked innocently, about a week later.

'' 'He got popped,' someone said, and Wydell, a godly man, shook his head and sighed. Then he cued another track, and the kid was not mentioned again."

For the writer, that kind of cruelty was unfathomable, and it wouldn't let him go. He began to see the futility of the city's underclass as the story of New Orleans itself. Gangsta rap -- violent, pitiless, and defiantly ugly -- told the truth. Cohn, who writes that he lost interest in classic rock 'n' roll as soon as the music began to take itself seriously, had found another kind of street-level phenomenon to study.

It's dangerous turf, fraught with issues of race, class, and power. To his credit, the author refuses to preach, and he admits his prejudices. There are moments of levity that come at Cohn's expense, such as his gratitude at being ''offered a plain white handshake, no tricky double-clutching or slithering palms. This was always a relief; I couldn't seem to master the choreography."

The book slows considerably in the second half as the author recounts his awkward relationships with a series of recording upstarts, including a thug prince from the suburbs who calls himself Choppa and a righteous schoolteacher-poet named Junie B.

Here he trains his descriptive talents on the city's individual characters, not all of them hard cases. One benign figure is ''lumpy and shapeless, a sack stuffed with mashed potatoes"; another seems ''otherworldly: some subterranean hybrid of panda and troll."

For the reader such introductions, however fleeting, only make the recent fate of New Orleans that much more heart-wrenching. The fact that this rollicking city is hopelessly underwater -- the very fact that has brought it to its knees -- is what made the author fall so hard for it.

''The air had a velvet weight, the light was thick with shifting currents," Cohn writes of his long-ago first visit. ''I'd lost all gravitational pull. All I could do was drift with the tide."

In the aftermath of Katrina, those words weigh even heavier.

Culture critic James Sullivan was once a resident of New Orleans.

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