Latinos in Hip Hop to Reggaeton

Latin Beat Magazine, March, 2005 by Melissa Castillo-Garstow

For the past year, reggaeton has bumped and grinded its way to the forefront of Latin music--pushing aside traditional favorites such as salsa and pop to become the most popular Latin style in the country. Daddy Yankee started off 2005 at the top of Billboard's ranking of Latin albums, beating out international superstars Juanes and Luis Miguel, among other Latin music staples. In hip hop, this summer's anthem came from New York via Puerto Rican MC Fat Joe with Lean Back. At the same time, Cuban American rapper Pitbull of Miami brought Spanglish rap to the masses, and in California, Chicano acts like Akwid, Jae-P and Baby Bash have been selling unprecedented numbers of CDs with lyrics in both languages. Even rap and urban groups from Mexico, such as Control Machete and Molotov, are moving more than 100,000 albums in the U.S.

Clearly, the world of hip hop is changing, not just in the underground scene where this type of diversity and Latino contribution have been recognized for years, but in the popular conscience and the mass media.

"The Latin Hip Hop community is becoming stronger and stronger," said producer and DJ Tony Touch, a member of the New York scene since the 90s. "That's the direction it [hip hop] is going in ... the Hispanic community in the U.S. is growing and more Latinos are listening to hip hop now, especially reggaeton--we kind of got the best of both worlds."

These two worlds were recognized for the first time by the Hip Hop Summit Action Network (an organization which unites artists at conferences held around the country in order to use hip hop as a positive influence for social change) which in July organized the first conference focused on Latino artists. "We've always had Latino artists in some of the other summits," said Dr. Benjamin Chavis, President and CEO of the Network. "But this year wanted to recognize and to celebrate the evolution of hip hop within Latino culture."

Nevertheless, for many Latin musicians, it is still an uphill battle to become known by a more diverse public and to be recognized as artists and not just as a Latino act.

"I'm not a Latin rapper," Pitbull said. "I'm a rapper who's Latin." Raquel Rivera, author of the book "New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone" adds: "There are artists that like to stress their Latino identity and others that hate to stress and those artists are often criticized for not being proud ... but an artist is an artist ... You don't have to advertise your identity in every lyric and you don't have to rhyme in Spanish ... The Latino experience is just as much in English or in Spanglish as it is in Spanish."

A Long History

"First of all, Latinos have been in the hip hop scene since day one," emphasized Tony Touch. From the earliest days, hip hop has not just been about music, but also included other cultural expressions of the neighborhoods of origin such as graffiti art, break dance, and the DJ mix tape scene. Those early stages of development took place primarily within the Puerto Rican and African American communities of the South Bronx, where those two cultures lived and worked together.

"These two groups have a history of political and musical interactions," said Rivera in stressing the importance of these interactions in the Bronx to the growth of hip hop and the key role played by Puerto Ricans. "Hip hop was not the first time--African Americans and Puerto Ricans have a history of living together, dating each other, working together." Additionally, at that time in the '70s, Puerto Ricans were the largest Latino population in New York and the majority in those crucial South Bronx neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, according to Rivera, the collaboration of Jamaicans, African Americans and Latinos was normal and instrumental to this cultural development.

"When you said blacks, you automatically meant to include Puerto Ricans," said hip hop historian and journalist Davey D. "I always thought of them as side by side."

In this environment, as described in Rivera's book, Puerto Ricans focused mainly on the dance aspect, while the majority of DJs were Jamaican and the MCs were black. This division of roles, though by no means strict, is what Rivera believes led to the association of hip hop with the African American culture.

"Outside of New York City, even when there was a large Puerto Rican population, for example like Boston, African Americans and Puerto Ricans didn't interact in the same way as they did in New York," Rivera said. "They were really not proclaiming their ethnicity at that time--it didn't make sense for their reality and their neighborhood." At the same time the shared African heritage and physical similarities of many Puerto Ricans and African Americans further confused those unfamiliar with these communities. "People really have a tough time getting their head around the fact that many Puerto Ricans and African Americans look alike," Rivera explained.

Still, even in the '70s, Latinos were active participants in all aspects of hip hop. In 1972, Hugo Martinez created the United Graffiti Artists, a coalition of the best subway artists, and displayed their artwork in galleries throughout New York. A few years later, Cuban DJ Disco Whiz and Puerto Rican DJ Charlie Chase of the Cold Crush Brothers, made a name for themselves in the hip hop world. In 1977, Joseph Torres started the legendary break dance group, The Rock Steady Crew, a group full of Puerto Rican talent. By 1981, The Mean Machine was producing rhymes in both Spanish and English. Also in those years, Vico C was exporting and popularizing hip hop in Puerto Rico.

"There's always been a presence, particularly in b-boy and graffiti," said Tony Touch, who is about to release his follow up CD to The Peace Maker, in which he mixes the music of Ruben Blades, P. Diddy, Fat Joe, Snoop Dogg and Method Man. But in other aspects of hip hop, the recognition has taken much longer. "Most of the record labels--that's [black MC] what they were looking for... there was a lot of resistance and a lot of Latinos probably got discouraged," Tony Touch said. At the same time, he adds, many Latinos also felt resistance from their own. "People would say, 'that's musica morena, why are you doing musica morena?' You would get some of that from Latinos who listen more to salsa and merengue. They'd say 'you're trying to be black' but we're not trying to be black."

Mellow Man Ace, who was able to make both West Coast and Latino rap popular in the '90s, said that besides these prejudices, in those earlier days, record companies just weren't interested in rap in Spanish. "The hardest part in the early '90s and late '80s was that the record companies didn't want to hear anything in Spanish."

Despite these obstacles, Latino artists continued to produce their music and other art forms, and by the end of the '90s their effort finally began to produce real results. Mellow Man Ace and Kid Frost on the west coast opened the doors with their respective hits Mentirosa and La Raza. Soon after, Rico Suave, a Spanglish rap by Ecuadorian Gerardo Mejia climbed the pop charts all the way to number 7. In 1993, Flow Joe by Fat Joe reached the top Billboard Rap rankings only to be followed by other hit songs from the Beatnuts, Cuban Link, Norega and Cypress Hill. But Latin hip hop really showed its strength and staying power when the late Big Pun became the first Latino to go platinum with his 1997 debut Capital Punishment (the album actually ended up going double platinum).

"Latinos were the hottest trend," said Rivera of the late '90s. "It was really the first time that the mass media picked up on this trend. Suddenly, in '98 and '99, Big Pun becomes the hottest thing and is on every track and video. The topics and experience began to include Spanish and that was really something new in terms of the way Latino music was being marketed. Before, it was not being considered legitimate and that was broken."

Davey D agreed. "It's only maybe in the past five years that there has been a real push to recognize the contributions of Puerto Ricans and (other) Latinos in hip hop," he said.

A Shift in Prominence

With the growing popularity of reggaeton, however, hip hop faces the addition of a new chapter to its history. Reggaeton represents a style of hip hop where Latinos, not on]y participate, but are without a doubt the creators and representatives. "There is a growing recognition that reggaeton is one of the fastest growing segments of hip hop," said Dr. Chavis.

Latinos in Hip Hop to Reggaeton - Part II

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