Justin Ivey has the recipe for low country boil.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, a trend started developing within the city’s hip-hop scene. Just a short walk away from the French Quarter, regulars began congregating at a place called the Dragon’s Den. Crowds filed into the downstairs section of the venue, where a familiar face stood tall on the small stage, greeting all those in attendance. The man was Truth Universal, a bespectacled emcee with a trademark flat cap and a few gray hairs in his beard.
Even though it was ostensibly a hip-hop show, each night played out like a family gathering with Truth as the patriarch. Rappers, producers, DJs, fans, and anyone else involved in hip-hop culture, comprised that family. Like a young child, first timers would arrive and quickly become part of the tradition.
Truth was and remains a true master of ceremonies. He handled hosting duties while performing most nights. Whether cracking jokes with audience members or jumping into an impromptu acapella set because of technical difficulties, you were always entertained.
As an attendee, there was always reverence for the performance. No matter who was on stage, the crowd was at full attention. Unlike some local shows, Truth created an atmosphere that demanded respect for the performers and everyone obliged. Truth’s ultimate goal was to shine a light on an underrepresented side of the New Orleans hip-hop scene.
“There’s so many talented, extremely skillful artists here in New Orleans,” Truth says. “And they don’t just do what you think they do. I think people still think there’s a certain type of music that’s supposed to come from here or the south. Period. They still think that, but it’s not necessarily true.”
Like a bowl of gumbo, New Orleans hip-hop is comprised of many ingredients. Bounce music and hardcore street rap are the most well-known components when it comes to style and content, but there’s much more to it. There’s also a strong traditionalist contingent, plenty of stoner rap, a small group of conscious emcees, and even those veering more into experimental or electronica styles. Through example and action, Truth Universal has opened the door for artists to explore different lanes in New Orleans.
While he may not be a household name, his determination has helped keep the underground scene alive in New Orleans. A humble streak precludes him from boasting about what he’s done for the hip-hop community, but those who’ve benefited from his leadership have no such filter.
“He’s one of the unsung heroes of New Orleans hip-hop,” says RCA-signed Dee-1, perhaps the most successful hip-hop artist to emerge in the post-Katrina landscape. “For me, he’s the pioneer and president of conscious New Orleans hip-hop. I’m a product of what Truth Universal started. He paved the way for artists like me.”
Since the beginning of his career, Truth provided socio-political content in a scene largely bereft of it. DJ Quickie Mart, who made his name in the city’s circuit through everything from boom bap to bounce, reflected on Truth’s vitality to the scene.
“He’s still the iconic, pro-black and conscious emcee of New Orleans,” Quickie Mart says. “He’s the balance to the other types of styles and messages that people in and outside the city associate with New Orleans.”
Truth’s diligence is remarkable when you look at the different facets of life he manages on a daily basis. He’s an independent touring artist with a day job as a computer programmer, all while raising two daughters with his wife of 16 years.
“Paid dues that average cat could not afford
Urge support of independents, both implied and implored
Studied and mastered the craft, blessed to be on tour
Both domestic and abroad / rock and watch patrons applaud,”
Truth raps on his Khrysis produced song “Praise The Lord.”
Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Truth Universal and his family moved to New Orleans when he was 4 years old. Growing up, Truth developed a deep passion for traditional hip-hop, studying the likes of Big Daddy Kane. He started writing in ’91, but 2000 marked the official start of his career as an emcee.
He first battled in something called “Mic Check 2000,” held at the dimly lit, grimy, and now defunct Café Brasil. Although he didn’t win, Truth’s participation and the release of his first 12 inch helped establish his name in the New Orleans scene. With local labels like Cash Money and No Limit Records flourishing, hip-hop was booming in the Crescent City. But Truth saw that the underground was being overlooked.
“In the years after, say, around 2002, I noticed there wasn’t an infrastructure for the scene,” Truth says. “I wanted to contribute and put on showcases.”
Truth created the Grassroots showcase to fill that need. The monthly event became a networking and performance hub for all the underground hip-hop artists in New Orleans. It also allowed Truth to bring in underground hip-hop to New Orleans, including artists like One Be Lo, Zion I, and StaHHr.
“Grassroots was pivotal,” rapper Slangston Hughes says. Hughes created the Uniquity event series after seeing what Truth accomplished with Grassroots. “It was the jumping off point for so many events that have come to life since then. Events like the Soundclash and Uniquity are the fruit of Truth’s hard work and dedication towards having a hip-hop community in New Orleans.”
All the positive steps to screeching halt when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans on August 29, 2005, causing 1.2 million people to flee the region.
“When the storm hit, my family evacuated,” Truth says. “We went to Northern Louisiana. I went to school up there at Grambling, so I had a friend up there in Ruston. We thought it would just be a few days, but obviously that didn’t happen. We ended up in New Roads after that.”
Then Truth’s company told him he’d been relocated to Houston, but he also had a tour scheduled a week before he’d have to move. He called up EF Cuttin, his longtime friend and DJ, to see what he thought of the situation. A member of the renowned New Orleans collective Psychoward, Cuttin had evacuated as well and settled in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“Truth called and we talked about if we could still pull it off,” Cuttin says. “We said ‘yeah!’ So, I flew into New York from where I was at and met him there. And we made it happen. It was kind of cool when you think about it.” And so they hit the road.
What stood out most to Truth was the amount of New Orleanians they saw at each tour stop.“We saw people from home everywhere we went,” Truth says. “Whether it was New York or Chicago, we’d see 10 to 20 people at the show from home. And that was cool. I don’t think it had sunk in yet how drastically different everything would be.”
After the tour was over, Truth and his family moved to Houston. He stayed there for three months before moving back to Louisiana in January of 2006.
“We lived in Gentilly, so we couldn’t move back home,” Truth says. “We got 6-8 ft. of water in our area, so we were flooded out. We had to gut the house and renovate.”
So when Truth’s job came back to an inhabitable New Orleans, he and his family ended up in Gonzales, a town just outside of Baton Rouge with a population of less than 10,000. Truth commuted to work, occasionally staying in a hotel room provided by FEMA during the week, for over a year.
As Truth raps on his single “Get It:”
“Storm hit and for life had to tooth and to claw
People suffered, and who prospered? Halliburton and Shaw
I worked for almost everything that about me you saw
Dueling with the industry, take 10 paces and draw,”
Like many New Orleanians, Truth and his family faced difficulty getting the proper funds to rebuild from the Road Home program. In 2010, a federal judge stated that the Road Home program was $1.2 billion short of reaching its intended mission of funding the rebuild and relocation efforts of those affected by Katrina (according to a report by WWL.)
“I was frustrated,” Truth says. “I was at the point where I didn’t want to feel like I’m sitting here and begging. But my wife was diligent with the appeal and got us twice the amount of what we were originally told. It was still a fraction of the amount we expected, but it helped.”
Truth and his family were finally able to move back home in 2007.
Amidst all this chaos, Truth attempted to keep his music career afloat. He’d recorded what was meant to be his debut album, Decolonization, but encountered red tape and frustration with Paris’s Guerilla Funk label. The project was ultimately shelved and Truth began working on his actual debut album, 2008’s Self-Determination. The well-received LP featured production from heavy hitters like Gensu Dean and Grammy winner S1, as well as features by Wise Intelligent and Dead Prez’s Stic.man.
“It was real stressful, but also a good time,” Truth says. “It took a while, but I got to do it right and make the record I wanted.”
As he dealt with life and career turmoil, Truth kept his city’s hip-hop scene in mind. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Truth was one of the driving forces in reestablishing the scene in New Orleans. He also credits local emcee Impulss as being an important part in getting things back on track.
“Impulss was putting on battles at One-Eyed Jacks,” Truth says. “These events were a place for everyone to congregate and see who was there again. It was a real turning point for getting things back together.”
Looking back at that time, Impulss remembers how it took a unique mindset to bring music back to a city devastated by the storm.
“Music was one of the first things to come back,” he says. “ People that got settled in other places. Others said I’m not gonna come back to a post-apocalyptic, decimated place that’s practically like The Walking Dead and rebuild a music scene. It takes a kind of crazy to do that, but there’s plenty of crazy in New Orleans.”
The first show ran in December of 2005 and the events lasted a year. By late 2006, Impulss felt the shows had run their course and served their purpose in reconnecting people within the hip-hop scene. But Truth saw that there weren’t many outlets for artists to perform. So in February of 2007, he restarted his Grassroots showcase.
“Truth had the gumption to come back and get it going,” Impulss says. “He was the most consistent. He managed to find a way to balance his family, work, and community responsibilities, as well as his responsibility to hip-hop culture.”
The Grassroots showcase would run monthly for the next five years. The events brought together a mixture of those who’d been participating before the storm and young artists who were getting involved for the first time.
“Truth was not only able to bring back those who were part of the scene before Katrina, but also give the new generation a platform,” Impulss says. “He had his finger on the pulse and was able to identify those who had the right mind for the culture.”
These Grassroots showcases gave some of city’s current top talent – artists like Dee-1, 3D Na’Tee, Nesby Phips, and Alfred Banks – their first opportunity to perform.
“Truth Universal was pivotal in my career,” Alfred Banks says. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have a career. And that’s no exaggeration. He taught me so much about being an independent artist. He opened the doors for a lot of people.”
Throughout 2007 and 2008, Grassroots was the main outlet for the local hip-hop scene. But Lyrikill, a fellow artist and friend of Truth’s since the Mic Check 2000 days, had an idea. After attending a Red Bull beat battle in Washington, D.C., he thought the concept would work well in New Orleans.
“I went to Truth with it cause that’s what I’d normally do,” Lyrikill says. “I knew Truth had better relationships with people in venues, so I relied on him. I had this vision for it, but he had the expertise of putting on events and networking with people.”
Out of that discussion, the Soundclash Beat Battle developed. Truth used his connections to book the Blue Nile, a music venue on Frenchmen St., for the first event, and soon, the Soundclash soon became one of the most successful hip-hop events in the city.
“It was a beat battle, but it was also another platform because it had live performances,” Truth says. “Soundclash got to the point where 400 people would come and it still runs to this day.”
Though officially a co-founder of the event, Truth tries to downplay his early involvement in Soundclash, calling himself, ” a consultant, simply doing what he could to help out.” But when he looks at the event itself, he makes a point of stating how important it was and still is to New Orleans hip-hop.
“It’s one of the most significant things to happen for the scene post-Katrina,” Truth says. “Because it was a beat battle, it brought all these people who gravitated to different aesthetics to one place. You’d have the different styles performing, too. So you could have Curren$y up there one month, and Melaphyre up the next. That’s beautiful.”
As he looks back on the work he’s done in reorganizing the hip-hop community post-Katrina, Truth recognizes that the rest of the scene’s perceptions of hip-hop began to change.
“It took that event, that shock and awe, to really show us that we shouldn’t be this disconnected,” Truth says. “There was a different attitude than I saw before.”
While he’s pulled back from putting on shows these days, Truth Universal’s influence remains strong. His approval is the ultimate coup for any hip-hop artist trying to make it in New Orleans.
“If you’re going to be an emcee in New Orleans, it’s imperative that Truth has given you the time of day and that nod,” Impulss says. “He’s a gatekeeper for New Orleans. But he’s also such a nice guy that he wouldn’t knock your talent, even if it wasn’t up to his standard. He’d be patient, let you grow, and teach you.”
Grassroots may be gone, but the family Truth built remains.