The Pinhook, Durham
Photo by Grant Britt
Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014
When Big Freedia
, bounce music’s self-proclaimed Queen Diva, hit Durham’s The Pinhook last Wednesday, she necessitated a rumpquake. Freedia’s sweaty, exuberant and way-over-the-top bounce show played to a crowd jammed shoulder-to-shoulder from the stage to the front door.
There was an hour’s wait just to get inside, with the line snaking down the block and around the corner. Inside, a relentless sledgehammer beat assaulted the senses, like the heartbeat of a reanimated disco corpse. Patrons mingled and jockeyed for viewing position inside the cramped club; one free spirit vogued
in the corner.
An hour after the announced 10:30 p.m. start time, Freedia and her entourage finally took the stage. Freedia fired off a string of “Yabba Dabbas” as her six dancers struggled to find room on the tiny stage. There was more twitching than twerking at first, as the dancers fought for wiggle room. Freedia kept pumping away with “Explode,” from her Just Be Free
: “Release your wiggle/Release your anger/Release your mind/Release your job/Release the time,” she bellowed.
The gender-bending creation of New Orleans native Freddie Ross, Big Freedia has a voice like a carnival barker—a big, ebullient, radio-ready tone that sounds like it might belong to a DJ from a bygone era. It recalls Jamaican toasters, too, like King Stitt, Big Youth and even Dave and Ansel Collins. The forerunners of rappers, toasters were influenced by silver-tongued DJs they heard broadcasting from New Orleans; they shouted reverb-drenched, self-aggrandizing, often salacious remarks over the top of loping ska. Dave and Ansel Collins’ biggest hit, “Double Barrel,”
even features a passage that sounds like the duo is shouting “Twerk! Twerk!”
Earlier in the day, Freedia said she had not heard those Jamaican artists, but instead took her musical schooling from Run DMC's “Peter Piper” and the Showboys’ 1986 number “Drag Rap (Trigger Man),” considered by many to be the first bounce record. She listened to Patti LaBelle, Frankie Beverly and Maze and the O’Jays, too.
Her performing history is a bit more celestial: “I started singing in a church choir and was raised singing gospel music.”
But Freedia showed she was acquainted with classic rock, too, reaching back to update Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.” At The Pinhook, she sampled Haley’s classic before quickly dismantling it into a house-rockin’ “oh she rocka rocka” chant that had both dancers and audience twitching.
As chronicled on her reality show,
Freedia has restructured her dance team recently, hiring a new choreographer and firing Steph, a longtime collaborator. The three male dancers—Skip, Flash, Phats—are still in the troupe, as is original shake team member Tootie. Decked out in T-shirts with Yakka Yakka Yakka stenciled down the front, the men were impressive, but even with new female talent on hand, nobody beats Tootie when it comes to twerking. She got her showcase during “Beat Go Boom,” her gold short-shorts shimmying until it became a blur.
“It don’t feel like a Wednesday night in here. It feels like a fuckin’ Sattidy nite,” Freedia shouted, the crowd roaring in approval. A Freedia show is an interactive affair. After Freedia yelled the opening line of “Gin In My System,” for instance, the crowd shouted back “Somebody gonna be my victim.”
A duffy outbreak followed, a phenomenon that uses one of Freedia’s favorite words. In a July interview with Time
, the bounce diva said duffy means “go hard or go home,” which is what her dancers do onstage. “We’re not here to play,” she told Time
. “We go duffy.”
But she stopped the momentum to wish her mom, Vera, who died in April, a happy birthday. “It’s my first year without my mom,” she said. “I'm proud to be her child,” she said, before launching into an a cappella version of “I’ll Fly Away.”
The gears shifted abruptly as Freedia shouted, “We gonna tear it up for my mom.” There was a down-and-dirty version of “Big Dick Daddy.” Some ragged cheers went up, and Freedia brought the energy level back up by pulling would-be twerkers from the audience for “Azz Everywhere.” It was a mob scene onstage, crammed with enthusiastic women hand-picked by Freedia.
“Alla you onstage, keep your asses to the audience,” Freedia admonished. She demonstrated the correct technique by turning around and getting low before starting her motor. Her technique proved difficult to emulate, but Freedia’s a hands-on instructor, guiding fledgling twerkers in the right direction with a few well placed hands meant to stimulate the proper method. She admits to having plenty of practice.
“It’s been around for a long time here in New Orleans, for over two decades, with us shaking our asses and poppin’ all over the floor,” she said. “Even when I was kid back in ’89, we were twerking and doing our thing.”
The men got a turn as well, as Freedia stepped offstage to let them have a go at it. The stage was swept clean of amateurs for “Dangerous,” with Freedia slinking around to warn the crowd that “Everywhere we go, it’s dangerous.” The dancers indulged in free-style shaking that combined break dancing, the robot, “beat boxing” (a pugilistic display of pulled punches and near misses) and impressive gymnastics.
“Durham, y’all got a whole lot better from the last time I was here,” Freedia told the crowd, making the house erupt in cheers and a burst of frenetic twerking as the Diva slammed into “Excuse.”
“I don't mean to be rude, but give me the mic and let me do what I do,” Freedia chanted.
The audience roared approval. The show was soon over, but Freedia didn’t go anywhere. After she leaned down to let one fan take a picture, autograph seekers, picture sharers and those who just hoped to touch the hem of her sweaty garment rushed the stage. As stragglers filed from the club, she stayed onstage, dispensing hugs and benedictions. Her mission, as she told me, is about empowerment on the dance floor: “to let people be free, to be able to express themselves through dance music the way they feel comfortable, without being judged.”