Latinos and Hip-Hop Music
Rafy Miyares, a young man born of Dominican parents, stands on the corner of 180 Street and Broadway in the Washington Heights section of New York City, a neighborhood known as much for its epidemic amount of illegal drug activity as it is for being the major enclave of the Dominican community in America. Although the colors and brand names may differ from the next individual, his uniform of Polo Sport, Mecca jeans, Avirex leather jacket and Tims betrays him as one of the many hip-hop heads in the New York metro.
Lightweight headphones perched lightly on his ears, he’s nodding his head and swaying his torso in time to the latest from Busta Rhymes. His eyes dart across the street as he spots one of his boys: “¡Tigere, ven aca!”
The two engage in rapid-fire conversation, effortlessly switching back and forth from English to Spanish, finally ending the exchange with a hearty pound and the requisite, “One, m’nigga…”
“Anyway,” says Rafy, turning his attention back to the subject at hand, “it don’t matter to me if Busta’s Black, yo. Why should it? If the nigga’s nice, he’s nice.”
When asked why he refers to himself and Busta with a word that many Blacks have deemed off-limits to non-Blacks, he replies, “Aw, man, look at me. I ain’t exactly white, y’know? I know my history, kid. Besides, I got mad friends that are morenos [Spanish word meaning “Black people” which comes from moros, the Spaniards’ word for the Moors, a North African Muslim people who invaded and occupied Spain for over 700 years]. They know the deal, B. I ain’t tryin’ to shit on ’em. That word just means ‘a dude’ to me.”
Three thousand miles away on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in East Los Angeles, a region of L.A. county recognized for its overwhelmingly Mexican population, Jesus Gutierrez leans on the shiny front fender of his metallic-blue ’64 Impala, sporting the East Los customary pressed Dickies, Black Flys, freshly shaved bald-head and monochromatic tattoos for days.
Careful to lower the volume whenever the ever-present LAPD cruiser strolls by, Jesus blows the smoke from his cigarette while seemingly meditating to the eerie horns and uptempo rhythms of “Stone Garden” from Psycho Realm. The occasional other cholo who happens by is greeted with a casual, “Orale, homes,” and a laid back nod of the head.
“Fuck yeah,” he answers to a previously asked question, “it definitely matters that Psycho Realm is Mexican, ese. They’re representin’ la Raza. I ain’t got anything against the negros, dude, but it’s cool to see my own people up there.”
Rafy and Jesus are not unlike countless Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Columbian or any other Latino kids who populate the hip-hop nation. But although hip-hop is lauded as—and expected to be—the great unifier of the disenfranchised masses of Urban American Youth, it is a culture which mostly everyone—from the media to academia to some of the very heads who claim to live it—defines as “Black.”
For Latinos, that persistent labeling shouldn’t register anything more severe than a slight annoyance. After all, a quick perusal of a history book or two will show that along with inheriting a religion and an entire language from the Spaniards, Latinos have inherited quite a bit from their African antecedents, as well. If the one-drop rule means anything, Black is Black.
But when “Black” is used more as a definition of culture than as a definition of outward appearance, defining hip-hop culture as “Black” leaves the impression that any other cultural group who participates must somehow negate its own identity and assume the identity of the dominant group. That simple annoyance becomes a big pain-in-the-ass. And when Latino hip-hop kids are asked by non-hip-hop Latinos to explain why they’ve “sold out,” the negative feelings grow exponentially.
“I still remember when Luis, my best friend, who’s Puerto Rican, once said to me, ‘Why you always listenin’ to that gorilla shit?’ because I was always into hip-hop. Damn. I ain’t understand that shit, B. I mean, I expected that kind of shit from my older brothers, who were not only on some anti-Black shit, but on some anti-Puerto Rican shit, too. But from a Puerto Rock?!”
In that quick breath of a statement, Rafy touched upon touchy subjects that have plagued the Latino and Black communities of New York for some time.
In simplest terms, the Blacks—already feeling the ever-tightening choke-hold of America’s policy towards its darker denizens for three hundred years plus—didn’t exactly appreciate the Puerto Ricans coming over in droves during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, and snatching up some of the few jobs available to non-whites.
Worse, some of these mira-mira muthafuckas are so light-skinned, they even think they white!The Puerto Ricans—already aggravated beyond recompense because of Uncle Sam’s insistence upon controlling the fate of their homeland and its precarious economy—didn’t appreciate having to uproot their lives, and leave their beloved Borinquen for the colder, literally and figuratively, climes of New York.
Worse, the morenos say we’re dark-skinned whites and (of all the fuckin’ nerve!) the whites call us ‘niggers with straight hair!’And the Dominicans—already fleeing a thirty-year dictatorship and the subsequent corrupt governments that followed its demise, not to mention an all-out invasion by US troops in 1965 and a rapidly widening gap between extremely rich and desperately poor—didn’t appreciate having to put up with any uppity attitude from a bunch of wannabe-American Boris who couldn’t even keep their own country for more than seven days in 1898 when they won their independence from Spain and lost it to the Americans within a week.
Worse, people confuse us with the maldito prietos, like we look like them or something!
Such attitudes, while not necessarily representative of the majority, reflect the ongoing struggle to maintain a sense of self in a country which demands that its newcomers—both the voluntary and involuntary kinds—jump into the great melting pot, while asking them to discard most of the flavor they’ll be bringing to the stew.
By the time Kool Herc and company were doing their thing in the Bronx, those feelings definitely still existed, but after years of having shared the same stifling air-space, Blacks and Latinos in New York were co-existing with relative peace. And because of their linguistic, religious, and cultural similarities, Latinos in the area—who were primarily from the Caribbean—were doing the same amongst themselves.
On October 12, 1492, an Italian explorer and his three-galleon entourage, traveling under the auspices of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela of Spain, stumbled upon the Bahamian island of Guanahaní after wandering around in the Atlantic Ocean for several months in search of a westerly route from Europe to Asia. Incorrectly assuming he’d succeeded in his mission by landing in India, Cristobal Colón—or “Christopher Columbus,” as the English would later call him—dubbed the curious natives “Indios” and immediately claimed the island for the Spanish crown, christening it “San Salvador.”
The indigenous folk, an openly friendly lot whose ancestors had crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia into North America some 10,000 or so years prior, had no way of knowing Colón’s intentions when they greeted him and his equally pale-skinned cohorts with as much hospitality as they did awe. These natives—Arawak by name, although Colón’s mistaken identification persists to this day—offered all types of assistance to the newcomers, including directions to Cubanacán, a larger mass of land about a hundred miles to the south.
Colón, still believing his calculations to be correct and that he was in Asia, set sail a few days later and upon landing at the larger island, sent a delegation ashore to demand gold from the Emperor of China. Needless to say, he never found the Emperor, or any other Chinese for that matter, but instead encountered three other groups of Arawak: the Siboney, the Mayari and the Taino.
Not long after arriving on Cubanacán (or “Cuba,” for short), Colón and his men sailed eastward until they landed on yet another island, this one also claimed in the name of Spain and her Catholic monarchs. Christening it “La Hispaniola,” Colón decided to return to Spain and tell the King and Queen of his amazing “discovery,” leaving 39 of his men behind while he sailed back to Europe.
Hip-hop’s earliest history records a number of Latinos who, along with the likes of Bambaataa, Flash, Coke La Rock and other pioneers, were right up in the parks DJing, MCing, breaking and bombin’. By no means predominating, but far from occupying token positions, brothers like Disco Wiz, DJ Charlie Chase, Ruby Dee, Whipper Whip, O.C. and Devastating Tito, among others, were indicators of a Latino presence in hip-hop music. In the early ’80s, a group named Mean Machine even paid homage to its Latino roots by recording their self-titled single, the first rap song recorded entirely in Spanish.
As hip-hop, primarily Rap music, gained in recognition and began its spread across the country, the mainstream media began their usual practice of affixing their own neat labels to phenomena they couldn’t—or didn’t care to—understand. Before long, Latinos were rarely mentioned in discussions of hip-hop, unless of course, for the patronizing acknowledgements of their contributions to breaking and graffiti writing.
And as often happens when outsiders with above average power and influence stake a claim in an indigenous culture, history was re-written to the point where even the subjects of that history forgot reality and accepted the infiltrators’ versions of truth. Latinos were relegated to the ranks of consumers, not creators, of the artform, and even that title was later stripped away when mountain-climbing guitar players at record companies decided that Latinos do not buy or even listen to hip-hop.
Worse still, younger Black kids who didn’t realize they were witnessing false hip-hop history in the making, looked upon any Latino kids who just happened to be lyrically or turntablistically adept as bizarre anomalies, wandering ronin of some sort who were not accepted by their own and therefore sought to find a home in hip-hop.
Big Pun, an artist on Loud Records who has become one of the most anticipated MCs after appearances with Fat Joe, the Beatnuts and his own promotional singles, “You Ain’t A Killa” and “I’m Not A Playa,” recalls the times when his worth as an artist was based not on its own merits, but on the fact that he’s Puerto Rican.
“In the beginning it was like that,” he says. “People would say, ‘he’s nice… For a Puerto Rican.’ After I went through [Fat Joe’s single] ‘Firewater’ and ‘You Ain’t A Killa,’ people were like, ‘Oh, he’s niiice.’”
Fat Joe, of Puerto Rican/Cuban lineage, adds that even when the general consensus towards his own ability to rock mics was positive, record label heads told him that he’d be too difficult to market.
“When I first came out, I felt like being Latino was an obstacle,” he admits, “even though I looked upon me being Latino as an advantage because we’re bilingual, meaning we have two audiences checking for us: the hip-hop niggas and the Spanish niggas who wanna represent for the patria. But the label niggas—even those who were Black—was like, ‘Yo, you dope, money, and I know your crew is hot, but you’re Puerto Rican. And Puerto Ricans ain’t for hip-hop. It’s a Black thing.’ That shit was fuckin’ my head up.”
With parents, older relatives and even contemporaries who never became involved with hip-hop castigating them for listening to “that jungle music” (never mind that Salsa, Merengue, and damn near all other forms of Latino music and rhythms have their origins in Africa), Latino heads now also had to prove themselves to their long-time comrades, the same Black kids with who they fought the same daily wars against the many ills of a second-class existence, side by side in the same ghetto trenches.
By the time Colón returned to Hispaniola—present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic—almost a year later, all 39 of his men had been killed for looting the native settlements and raping the women. The Spaniards, as those 39 sailors had proved to be their idea all along, put their campaign of total subjugation and domination in full effect across the islands. And although the Arawak tribes—particularly the proud Carib, a fierce, cannibalistic group—fought bravely, they were no match for the Spaniards’ advanced weapons and war-making technology.
In their unquenchable thirst for gold and silver, the Spaniards eventually overran virtually all of the Caribbean, down into South America, up into the lower parts of North America and across to Mexico and Central America, finally running out of land at the Pacific Ocean.
In time, because of the inhumane work conditions and their lack of immunity against diseases brought to their lands by the Spanish, the Arawak began dying off at a genocidal rate. The Spaniards, having already been importing African slaves to work in Europe, began replacing the natives with the Africans, and before long, despite “official” attitudes against it, miscegenation occurred, resulting in a conglomeration of appearances, practices and philosophies.
Thus began the cataclysmic relationship among the Spanish, the Africans and the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. It is this relationship between the conquerors, the conquered and the forcefully imported labor that has produced the entirely new, distinct, hybrid cultures, nationalities and ethnicities that collectively make up the Latino people.
Already feeling the sting from accusations that they had somehow abandoned their native cultures, Latinos equated the Blacks’ excluding them from the hip-hop fold with betrayal. Indeed, quite a few Latinos, particularly those from the East Coast, abandoned Rap music altogether for the uptempo dance grooves of club music—or “freestyle,” as it was more popularly known.
Ironically, most freestyle songs used the Planet Rock drum pattern as their basis. And almost as a reminder that the Latino/Black relationship was a stronger bond than previously suspected, some even dubbed the sound “Latin Hip-Hop.”
Those Latinos who remained faithful to the beats and rhymes made do with what was available for aural consumption. Rap was rap, after all, and whether or not an artist was Latino didn’t matter to them. Perhaps because of a greater awareness of the inherent multi-culturalism of the US, but more than likely because the masses simply could not front on the distinct flavors that Latinos added to the hip-hop barbecue, the tide slowly ebbed and more Latino rappers appeared in the wake.
This time, however, it wasn’t the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York who would storm the beachhead. Instead, two artists from Los Angeles, Mellow Man Ace, a Cuban rapper who dropped a club-friendly, yet blazing single named “Mentirosa” and Frost, a Mexican brother who released the anthemic “La Raza” in honor of Mexicans in L.A. and Latinos everywhere, forced people to notice that Latinos were most definitely a part of hip-hop.
A major turning point came in 1991, when a three-man group, also from L.A., made their cannabis-scented debut into the hip-hop consciousness. When word spread beyond their hometown that two of the members were Latino—one a Cuban and the other Mexican—Latinos across the atlas lost their minds. Better still, Black kids—and white kids, for that matter—did too, and Cypress Hill racked up platinum sales for both albums that followed their self-titled first.
Centuries after Hernando Cortés, and 550 other Spaniards landed at the Gulf of Mexico in 1519 and eventually wrestled Tenochtitlan (present day Mexico City) from the Aztecs, Mexicans living in what later became the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California suddenly found themselves foreigners in a land they had been occupying for generations.
The United States, in accordance with the Manifest Destiny-fever that was sweeping the ever-growing countryside, flexed its imperial might and wrestled the above mentioned territories from Mexico. Virtually overnight, what used to be routine travel from one village to another became a trek across an international border, replete with anti-Mexican sentiment on the northern side of the dividing line.
Beginning in 1910, the tension was augmented when the Mexican Revolution caused thousands of political refugees to flee their war-torn country and seek subsistence in the US. In Los Angeles particularly, the urban economy thrived because of this incoming wave of cheap, unskilled laborers, and by 1925, L.A. had the largest population of Mexicans outside of Mexico City.
As could be expected, this new group faced ill feelings and discrimination not only from the white Americans (more commonly known as “Anglos”), but from those Mexican-Americans who’d made their homes in the States before they even were states. Slowly but surely, however, this last group would eventually predominate, and in present day Los Angeles, despite the subtle and not-so-subtle governmental attempts to supress it, one can’t ignore the overwhelming influence of La Raza.
“Out here,” says Julio G, the Mexican/Puerto Rican DJ on L.A.’s 92.3 The Beat, “Mexicans go through our own struggle. We’re right next to Mexico. We’ve got problems with the government, the police. We’ve got the gangs… People want to scream out.”
Offering his opinion of why more militant Latino rappers have come from the West Coast than the East, he doesn’t downplay the existence of similar problems that Latinos in other parts of the country are faced with. And as usually happens whenever different groups in the “minority” don’t recognize the value in combining forces, relations between Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles are always tense.
“East Los doesn’t really mix with the Blacks,” he says. “A lot of that mentality comes from jail, where it’s automatically segregated, and I don’t want to say that it’s only East L.A. that thinks like that because people think like that all over. But in South Central, it’s different. It’s like a middle ground. You’ve got your Blacks and Latinos in the same community. I’m not trying to make it sound like there’s a race war going on. There’s not. But out here, Mexicans don’t get confused with Blacks. Out there [New York], Puerto Ricans and Blacks are kind of the same mix.”
Widely respected by listeners of both Aztec and African descent, Julio has the ears of the streets tuned in to his #1 rated show every night from 6 to 10, faithfully. And he uses that power to ease some of the tension by bringing about more awareness and understanding between Blacks and Latinos about their respective cultures.
“As a Latino, I want to grow,” he declares. “And I want my people to grow with me. I work at a Black radio station, but since I came in, I’ve done my own shit. I’ll speak Spanish on the air, but I’ve had Tony Muhammad, the Nation of Islam’s Los Angeles minister on the show. I’ve had Rakim on the show talking about the Five Percent. I want to learn about other cultures, so everybody can grow with me.”
When the major media announced last November that the Latino population in the United States now constitutes the largest “minority” in the country, they did so twelve years ahead of schedule. Earlier predictions, based on immigration and childbirth rates, targeted 2010 as the year when the descendants of the African-Arawak-Aztec-Carib-Inca-Maya-Mayari-Pueblo-Siboney-Spaniard-Taino-Yaqui mixture would represent the second largest group in America.
That fact alone is enough proof that the Latino influence on all aspects of cultura Americana—including the one which began when some Black and Latino kids in the Bronx took all their angst and flipped it into new styles of music, dance, art, fashion and writing—will continue to grow and reflect our population numbers. In so doing, Latinos in the US add a little more sabor to an already flavorful pot, thereby re-creating ourselves and our hybrid culture.
Nowadays, one doesn’t need to search too hard to find Latinos—and Latino-isms—in hip-hop. Not only have artists like Fat Joe, Cypress Hill, The Beatnuts and Big Pun gained accolades for their work, but Black artists are finally doing more to acknowledge the Latino presence, as well. From Raekwon’s prolific crime tales chock full o’ Columbians and Dominicans to Puffy’s recent “Señorita” to the Coco Brovas’ “Spanish Harlem,” more and more non-Latinos are giving props to their Spanish-speaking brethren.
Interestingly enough, what may have once been considered a hindrance to a promising career in Rap music is now a boon. Artists like Noreaga, AZ, and Royal Flush—a Puerto Rican, a Dominican and a Cuban who were not readily recognized as Latino—re-affirm their roots proudly, joining others like A.L.T., Power Rule, Funkdoobiest, A Lighter Shade of Brown and Hurricane G, among many others, in the ranks of Latino MCs.
But it doesn’t end there. The top-rated hip-hop radio shows in the two largest markets in the country, New York and Los Angeles, feature DJs Angie Martinez, a Butta Pecan Rican, and Julio G, respectively. The man largely responsible for the successes of Lil’ Kim and Junior M.A.F.I.A. is Lance “Un” Rivera, owner of Undeas and Untertainment Records and a Puerto Rock to the fullest. In all aspects of hip-hop music, whether it be as fans, performers, artists, executives or personalities, Latinos are making their presence felt.
“Number one,” says Tony Touch, a Puerto Rican mix-tape DJ widely known for the Spanish idioms and slang that pepper his tapes, when asked why there’s a re-emergence of all things Latino within Rap, “we’re some fly people, yo. Latinos just got flavor, duke, all around the globe. From our music, to our food, to our women, we just got mad soul in us. And number two is because we’ve always been here, bro. They can’t front on us.”
Nor can anyone front on five hundred years of different peoples clashing, co-existing, co-operating and finally combining. History has taught us that a positive end sometimes outweighs a negative means. Remember, lo que no mata, engorda*.
This is by no means an attempt to absolve the Spanish of their crimes against the indigenous Americans and the Africans, but if not for that fateful day in October of 1492, we would never have gotten to hear Wyclef’s rendition of “Guantanamera” while eating fajitas at a barbecue and sippin’ on a Rum and Coke.
*What doesn’t kill you, will make you fat.
Special thanks to Ivan “DJ Doc” Rodriguez, Gabriel Alvarez and Rigo Morales, for their valuable help and insight.
**originally published many, many moons ago (February 1998), while toiling away on the plantation.**