March 24, 2014
By Marjua Estevez
From popping and locking on fractured blocks to rapping on bludgeoned street corners to tagging up abandoned buildings, Hip-Hop’s pioneers were as diverse as these stylistic elements. It was a vibrant culture that was birthed from the marginalized sector of society and served as a voice for the voiceless.
Yet despite the fundamental role that Puerto Ricans and other Afro-Caribbean people played in the genre’s creation, Latinos are more often than not left out of the dialogue that explores the very origin of rap music.
VIBE sat down with key producer Daisy Rosario from NPR’s Latino USA to talk more about a new two-part podcast episode that chronicles the influence of Latinos in Hip-Hop—from its humble beginning as a collaboration between African-Americans and Hispanic communities in the Bronx to its evolution as a popular genre across the U.S.
VIBE: There is so much that Latino USA is bringing up in conversation, from immigration to the prison landscape. What has now inspired you to talk about Hip-Hop?
Daisy Rosario: With the show, we cover lots of different issues. But the Latino experience in the United States in and of itself is wildly diverse. You can see that reflected at our office and even gather where our musical influences come from. For example, I’m the resident Nuyorican and for me, Hip-Hop is something I love so much.
People will hear in the episode that my own mother was one of those b-girls, battling in the streets when she was younger. Those are the stories I grew up with. Which is very different than, say, my coworker who is of Mexican descent and from Texas. You can just feel the diversification and we just want to show how diverse that experience is.
Why do you think Latinos are often left out of the conversation when discussing the origins of Hip Hop?
I think it’s a complicated conversation and we try to get into that in the show itself. If you don’t know what it was like growing up in New York, particularly during that era, how much neighborhoods and people are just on top of each other – you know, if you’re coming from a place where people are more spread out – you might not get how much Latinos really were part of it. Especially as rap music became more popular and part of this larger culture where there are fewer MCs that were Latino. But if you factor in the other parts of the Hip-Hop culture, if you factor in the dancing, the graffiti etc. etc., you’ll learn Latinos were very much present. You might not truly understand it if you don’t have that context of New York.
I noticed that even with being a New Yorker and living in L.A. for a while, people would be surprised that I loved Hip-Hop as much as I did. But this was my normal. The music that a lot of Latinos based there grew up listening to was stuff that I didn’t even know as much, because there wasn’t even Salsa out there. In New York, it’s Salsa we’re listening to. So it really varies from place to place, but people need to simplify narratives to be able to tell them.
DJ Charlie Chase once expressed feeling unwelcome by the Hip-Hop community. He was told that is was a Black thing and that Hispanics were not accepted in rap. Considering that being Black and Latino are not mutually exclusive, how does that statement make you feel?
You know, he did bring that up. It’s one of those things where I believe it happened, but it doesn’t change my understanding of some of what’s going on. He goes into it a little bit more of what was meant by that in the first episode. One of the things he mentioned was that it wasn’t just coming from one side. On one end, the younger Black people he knew were like “oh, what are you doing this for?” and on the other end, his older family members were like “well, that’s not Salsa.” So he describes it as something that came from both ends and from different age groups.
We talk more about that in the show and, yes, mention that being Black and Latino are not mutually exclusive. And that it is a complicated situation, because I think once you get into the larger mainstream conversation, there is a very U.S. tendency to just think black or white.
So how much of a role does race play in this particular conversation?
It can get very confusing when you try and get into the complexity of what all that really means. We had less than an hour when you factor in the breaks, so what I tried to do was find a mix of people who were on the ground, whose names were familiar and not so familiar and let them tell their own stories. One thing that happens a lot, especially when you’re talking about whether it’s Black culture or Latino culture, is that other people are always eager to tell the stories for us. And even as somebody who identifies as a Hip-Hop head and a Nuyrorican and all those things, I don’t want to try and tell someone else’s story. I want to give them the opportunity to tell their story themselves. You hear that in this episode; different people’s perspectives from different aspects of the culture.
How did you go about choosing whom to speak with for part one of the series? Which rappers, DJs, breakdancers etc. did you include?
Graffiti art pioneer Lee Quinoñes, DJ Charlie Chase from the Cold Crush Brothers, Devastating Tito of the Fearless Four, original b-boy Richard Santiago aka Break Easy and more. We reached out and had conversations with so many people. For us, it was a mix of not just those who were available, but those who were eager and interested to talk about this era of Hip-Hop. These people are often contacted to only talk about this time and not everyone is going to want to rehash that. We were in touch with quite a few people, did tons of research and read a lot of stuff [laughs].
The other thing is, we wanted to also talk to people whose lives are still affected by Hip-Hop. Not people who once did this and now sit at home and reflect about it; people who are still today involved in some way. Someone like Lee Quiñones, this amazing graffiti artist who is now active in the fine arts world. I wanted this to be something where you can see that these pioneers didn’t just leave all this behind.
What was the single most ah ha moment for you throughout the making of this?
In a personal sense, it was a very good reminder that me being Puerto Rican from New York is a real thing, we are a type of people with a shared history. These guys were naming things that I maybe hadn’t heard as much in years. I haven’t been around extended family as much because I moved around some. So just hearing little things like “it’s not the electric slide, it’s the bus stop” felt super familiar. These were things I hadn’t heard since I was a kid.
The other thing was just being forced to think about the specifics of how these people were using this ingenuity when they had absolutely nothing. You know? You might get an understanding when you look at pictures of how poor New York was, but to really get to see the clear line in their stories of how they went from watching Kung-Fu movies to creating these dances, was to really understand how these kids were digesting these things. They didn’t have smart phones, they didn’t have computers, they were literally just spending hours in the street or in abandon buildings, practicing. They were pulling inspiration from every single aspect of their lives. I think that really seeing just how much inspiration people were pulling from literally anything they can get their hands on, was the thing that was most, not surprising, but just wow.
Hip-hop went from being a “voice” for the disenfranchised to this global entity that now everyone partakes in. It’s no longer just for the heads; it’s a part of popular culture. Do you think it turning into a billion dollar industry has hindered its foundation, the very one that we’re exploring now?
I think, like many things, it makes the history a little more complicated to talk about. But you have the fans that make the effort to listen to not only the mainstream artists. And I think that as long as that’s happening, these stories will continue to exist. Or you have the publications, like you guys, who are making sure that people know what rappers besides Kanye and Jay Z are doing.
But it is complicated to tell some of those stories because, again, you can’t explain in five minutes that there were Blacks and Latinos in the streets of New York and then by such and such year you have Public Enemy. It’s just a really difficult thing to unpack and will often get simplified in the process. It’s complicated, but the people who love it will make sure to love it and voice what they want to hear more of.
Who would you say is the face of Latino rap today?
Man, that’s hard to say. One person we spoke to was Bodega Bamz and we had such a blast with him. He’s definitely an emerging face and maybe depending on what stations you’re listening to, he might be the face. But I don’t think there is one massive face.
In the larger context, Big Pun is still being talked about. People of the culture are still pulling from the back and throwing his name around, and he’s been gone for some time now.
What can people expect from the second segment?
The second episode will permeate the rest of the country. When starting with the genre’s origin, we definitely spend a lot of time in New York City. So we’re going to go more into the rest of the country and we’re also going to look at what happens to Latinos as Hip-Hop itself does go more mainstream.
What do you want the public to walk away with, what do you hope this series accomplishes?
Not only for there to be a reminder that Latinos were there when this all started, but for people to accept that complexity. I think there is amazing stuff happening all around the world, but especially in the U.S. Thanks in huge part to the Internet, we’re having these incredible conversations. Some of them are failing and some are doing better than others. But people are really trying to have conversations about race and ethnicity and what all that really means. It’s not easy, but I appreciate that people are trying. I hope that people will see this as something that is giving to that conversation as well.
Latinos aren’t a race, we could be Black or we could be white. Some people don’t identify as either one. So, if we’re going to have this conversation, let’s be willing to accept all this complexity.