“I was thinking about stories that weren’t being told. I saw how excited people were talking about the shoes and I was like, wow, this is really important to people.” (Animals director, Benjamin Simmons)
Launched in 1991, the original collection of Bally Animals celebrated the 700th anniversary of the Federation of Switzerland. However, their bold colors, use of pastoral imagery and royal crests resonated with the population of New Orleans (think urban horseback riders and the fleur de lis). New Orleans had a taste for comfortable luxury long before fashion fully embraced the concept of high-end sportswear. This insular, yet cosmopolitan culture is both emblematic of days gone by, and a feeling we are not yet ready to let go. An era when a small, majority- Black, American city set its own rules about art, music, and high-fashion and made the whole world listen.
Amidst the current era’s rapid gentrification of not just New Orleans neighborhoods, but arts and culture itself, the impact and influence of 90s New Orleans artists and Black youth culture remains everywhere. Back when corporations and corporate culture didn’t dictate to the city what to sound like, what to buy, or how to dress. New Orleans told Switzerland- based Bally that the Animals were a commodity and created a sound and a style that remains a phenomenon.
I got a chance to talk to Benjamin Simmons director of Animals, a documentary that explores the New Orleans fashion phenomenon of Bally Animals and the more intangible joy of memory.
RM220: What exactly did you admire or enjoy most about culture and New Orleans in the 90s and early 2000s including Bally & beside it?
Simmons: One thing I was always impressed by was how clean the dudes in the street and even dudes at school dressed. They could take a Polo with some blue Girbaud’s and the right tennis, and that outfit was fresh. From the haircut down to the shoes. I was especially impressed with the Bally’s.
RM220: What made you decide to make a movie about Bally’s?
Simmons: I knew I wanted to make something that was about legacy. I didn’t want it to be corny. I wanted it to be significant. I love documentaries so the idea of making a documentary was there, but maybe it was something I was reading at the time that said do something that’s going to get you out of bed every day, whether you get an income from it or not. The shoes came up because of they were supposed to come back and be rereleased. And I remember the excitement. My partner told me that there were also some bootlegs. They were like $150. This was like 2014. I realized that the shoes generated a lot of excitement and if they came back out, that we could still talk about it. I was thinking about stories that weren’t being told. I saw how excited people were talking about the shoes and I was like, wow, this is really important to people.
RM220: Why do you think it’s an important story? What makes this such an important story?
Simmons: There’s a voice that hasn’t been heard. We haven’t heard these voices before. When I was thinking about all the people I knew for sure I wanted to interview, I know for sure, we haven’t seen them on TV before. It was going to be dudes from the street. I knew that already, for sure. Dudes from New Orleans are not getting interviewed about anything unless it is the producer from out of town, you know, being like you know, tell me about the gangs. Tell me about the murders, you know, the sensational stuff. But I never have seen dudes from the street, on TV, talking about fashion. You know the stuff they like. Regular things, what their interests are. Human beings are complex. The shoes were something people felt pride about. Let’s talk about your emotions around this fashion. It was a joy to sit down and talk to some dudes about their feelings. How the clothes and the shoes and the music made you feel.
RM220: How important is music to the story of Bally In New Orleans and to the documentary itself?
Simmons: I am biased toward music. I love music. It had to be a part of it. We’re talking about an era that’s gone, so we have to bring up the music present in that era. I had the opportunity to interview UNLV. That was so important to me. I met Tech-9 through Polo. That’s a group I remember– UNLV bumping out of cars when the Bally animals were out.
RM220: Chilling on the set with the automatic tech!/ Never caught me slipping that’s how I got my respect! I young, but I remember, it made me feel alive! Remember the album cover?
Simmons: The collage element was so nice. That whole era. I knew the music would bring you back. I tried to get the movie to represent every part of the city. So the music, when I put it together, I tried to do my best to represent Uptown, Downtown, and across the river.
RM220: I appreciated that because, for such a small city, we definitely had different musical cultures in the various parts of the city. They were unique.
Simmons: Doing the music, I brought in all parts of the city. We brought in Bustdown. He represents across the river. UNLV, Uptown, 3rd ward really. And of course KLC, he represents music in general. He came through Danny Kartel, who did the music for “Slow Motion”. We had to bring in Pimp Daddy, one of my favorite tracks ever. “Gots To Be Real,” I remember recording that off the radio on tapes. I liked Lokee. He did a song with Magnolia Slim that was Uptown and Downtown together. Talking about needing the particular Bally that was out..there’s Cheeky Blak, “Let Me Get That Out Ya.” She is all energy. To this day. Music is huge here obviously. It’s the fabric of the city. You found out about music in the city because you would hear it playing out of somebody’s car or your partner it would share a tape. It was all social.
RM220: So, with hard-copies of the DVD coming soon, what are your hopes and ambitions for the film locally, nationally, and beyond?
Simmons: Number one, I would like for everybody in the city. It’s important to me that people in the city get to see the movie. And if you moved away, you need to see it too. Because it’s for you that’s the best way I can say it. When I was cutting the film, I made certain decisions I made thinking about people in New Orleans. We’ve had a lot of cultural impact that we don’t get to see reflected back, or we think it was just a one-off and not a literal footprint.
I want to show the passion we have for life. That’s one of the most important things about the city that we can’t forget. We talk loud here. We get excited to dress up and go out and see people and give people compliments. I learned how to compliment other men and women from living in the city. That’s my era.
You may be cleaning your car and a dude who was walking by will say, you keeping the car clean, ha? that’s nice. We’ll tip our hat. We have a passion for people and life.