(Note: This post was originally published on Oct. 1st, 2012 and has been revised slightly since)
As Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15th – Oct. 15th) reaches its midway point, it’s fitting to recognize the influence of Latinos on Hip Hop culture. In no way meant to discredit or minimize African American influence on Hip Hop’s roots and subsequent rise to Pop culture prominence, it’s important to also acknowledge the significance and roles of Hispanic Americans in such. The purpose of this blog is to in some small way capture just that.
Rap’s origins are debatable; some go as far back as thousands of years, citing West African griots who rhythmically told stories over drums and simple handmade instruments as the earliest examples of Rap. Others point to African American slaves incorporating call and response technique (a fixture of early Rap music that’s still utilized today) at church congregations as the birth of Rap’s form. Many even credit Muhammad Ali as the first rapper because he used pre-fight poetry to psych out his opponents and predict his victories; rhyming to intimidate the competition in a battle; sounds like Hip Hop, no?
While all valid points, for the purpose of this piece we’ll go with a more current time-frame; the 1970s and 80s. Rap music and Hip Hop culture as it exists today was birthed by young people living in poor, urban communities in New York. Block parties, breakdancing, graffiti, Adidas sweats and shell toe sneakers, B-Boys, Kangol hats, thick gold chains, battle rapping, iambic pentameter rhymes over heavy drum kits, turntablism, and scratching all came to fruition as staples of early Hip Hop culture in the 70s and early 80s in New York’s boroughs. It was at this point that the movement began to steadily spread across the country and eventually evolve into the force we know today.
My larger point in pointing this out is that while it’s undeniable that African American culture drove this movement, it’s also undeniable that Latinos lived in these same burroughs where Rap music and Hip Hop culture came to be. As such, Latinos participated in the movement; and not just by partying to and purchasing the music. Hispanic Americans were some of the earliest B-Boys, DJs, break-dancers, and emcees. As the music continued to grow into the 90s and beyond, Latino participation not only diversified its style, it helped expand Hip Hop culture and grow the business of Rap. The emergence of Reggaeton (stylistically and lyrically rooted in Hip Hop; a blog for another day) as an international musical force and the meteoric rise of Pitbull (1st heard on LIl’ Jon’s 2002 release ‘Kings of Crunk’) speak to these points.
As the title of Ice T’s Hip Hop documentary, ‘Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap’ suggests, the beauty of Hip Hop is that it pulls from many different styles, sounds, cultures, and influences to literally create something powerful out of thin air. That said, the following is a by no means exhaustive list of artists, dancers, groups, producers, and players in Hip Hop with Hispanic roots, with some accompanying fun facts and personal thoughts where applicable. My hope is that at least a few out there will learn something, listen to some new tunes, gain a new found sense of pride in their heritage, and look at Hip Hop through a much wider lens.
DJ Disco Wiz (Puerto Rican American) – is credited as being the 1st Latino Hip-Hop DJ. Partnered w/ the legendary Grandmaster Caz (aka DJ Cassanoval Fly), Wiz was known for his aggressive battle style of DJing. Wiz is also credited for being the 1st DJ to make a ‘mixed plate’ in 1977 when he combined sound bites, special effects, and paused beats, something that no one had done before that time.
DJ Charlie Chase (Puerto Rican American) – co-founder of ‘The World Famouse Cold Crush Brothers’, the first Rap group signed by CBS Records. Charlie got his first movie roll playing himself in the first Hip Hop movie ever made, the cult hit ‘Wild Style’ – a must-see for any Hip Hop purist.
Prince Markie Dee (Puerto Rican American) – lead emcee of the legendary ‘Fat Boys’ (originally known as ‘The Disco 3′) who would go on to write and produce hits for such artists as Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Craig Mack, Destiny’s Child, Shabba Ranks, Marc Anthony, and Lisa Stanfield. On a personal notes, the Fat Boys were my first favorite Rap group (since supplanted by Bone Thugs & Harmony), and despite my playing their tapes and watching their videos growing up I never made the connection that Prince Markie Dee was Hispanic until the late 90s – go figure. I was fortunate enough to see them at a concert that featured the likes of Run DMC, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, and Public Enemy back in the late 80s and despite their hefty body types, they brought the house down. Do yourself a favor an check out their music if you’re not familiar with it; the beats are funky, the rhymes are a bit more advanced than you’d expect for an 80s group, and Buffy, the Human Beatbox is simply amazing to hear.
Kid Frost (Mexican American) – dropped ‘Hispanic Causing Panic’ in 1990, firmly and forever entrenching a West Coast Latino presence in Hip Hop. The title of his lead single alone, ‘La Raza’ left no doubt that Frost wasn’t just a Latino making Rap music, but an artist using Rap music to represent and offer a Latino perspective to Hip Hop’s landscape. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frost_(rapper)
Cypress Hill (Mexican American / Cuban descent) – building on the foundation that Kid Frost layed, Cypress Hill, hailing from South Gate, CA was the first Latino Hip Hop group to go both platinum and multi-platinum. To date they’ve sold over 18 million records world-wide. I had the pleasure of seeing them perform circa 2006 and people went nuts when they came out for their set. On the strength of great music as well as being avid proponents of a certain <cough> plant, these guys have built very strong and well-deserved cult-following. (http://www.lyricsfreak.com/c/cypress+hill/biography.html)
Johnny J (Mexican descent) – tragically committed suicide on Oct. 3rd, 2008 while serving a DUI sentence at The Twins Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, CA, but left a very impressive legacy and body of work before his death. Johnny J was a multi-platinum producer and song-writer who is best known for his productions credits on Tupac Shakur’s ‘All Eyez On Me’ and ‘Me Against The World’. He also produced many of the original versions of tracks that were later remixed on several posthumous Tupac releases. His first major production hit was Candyman’s platinum R&B smash ‘Knockin’ Boots’ (love that song) and he also worked with Bizzy Bone on his ‘Heavenz Movie’ album. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_%22J%22)
Terror Squad (Puerto Rican American, Puerto Rican descent, Cuban descent) – originally comprised of lead emcees Fat Joe and Big Punisher, along w/ Cuban Link, Triple Seis, Prospect, & Armageddon debuted as a group on Fat Joe’s 1998 release ‘Don Cartagena’ and dropped ‘The Album’ in 1999. The death of Big Pun and internal issues would see the group disband and experience several reincarnations over the coming years, but at day’s end they established a very strong Latino presence in Hip Hop that through Big Pun’s legacy and Fat Joe’s body of work (still putting out music to this day) will continue for years to come.
Admittedly a bit biased, amongst Latino circles many consider Big Pun the greatest rapper of all time, or at minimum the greatest lyricist of all time (I personally fall into the greatest lyricist of all time camp). That said and for what it’s worth, mainly due to Pun’s small body of work and the fact that Fat Joe paved the way for Pun with his 1993 (and very slept-on) release ‘Represent’ and his classic (and also heavily slept-on) 1996 follow-up ‘Jealous One’s Envy’, I’ve always considered Joe to be the most important and prominent member of the Terror Squad. I take a lot of flack for this amongst both Latino and non-Latino Hip Hop circles (because everyone loves Big Pun), but I stick to my guns. Do yourself a favor and give ‘Jealous One’s Envy’ a listen if you’ve never heard it – it’s a must-hear for anyone that considers themself a True School Hip Hop fan. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terror_Squad_(group)
This list can go on for quite some time, as we’ve barely scratched the surface of Latin Hip Hop / Latin Reggae / Reggaeton. There’s also a lot that can be said of Latino involvement and influence in not only early Hip Hop breakdancing, but future Hip Hop dance as well (think Crazy Legs of the ‘Rock Steady Crew’ and Jennifer Lopez during her ‘Fly Girl’ years on ‘In Living Color’ – both Puerto Rican from the Bronx). That said, here are few other vital moments and names to consider:
Noreaga’s (aka N.O.R.E – who’s half Puerto Rican) 2004 track, ‘Oye Mi Canto’ with Tego Calderon and Nina Sky is the first mainstream Hip Hop / Reggaeton collaboration. It popularized Reggaeton as a crossover genre into both the US and international markets, and also lay the groundwork for future Hip Hop / Reggaeton collaborations such as Wisin Y Yandel’s 2010 joint effort with 50 Cent and T. Pain, ‘No Dejemos Que Se Apague‘.
Old School Latin Hip Hop / Latin Reggae (Reggaeton’s early years) artists such as Vico C, Gerardo, and Lisa M. helped lay the tracks for the Tego’s, Don Omar’s, and Daddy Yankees of the world. And not to be outdone, Chino XL (half Puerto Rican) and Immortal Technique (half Peruvian) have been putting out a powerful, intellectual, and politically conscious brand of Hip Hop for quite some time. Check them out when you get the chance.
To conclude, Viva La Raza and Long Live Hip Hop – juntos, ’till the end of time.
‘Second to none. ‘Cuz Latins going platinum was destined to come.’
– Big Pun from ‘You Came Up’