Essay: Latinos and the Gentrification of Hip-Hop
“Appreciate the art that came through Puerto Ricans and Blacks / Speakin’ the facts / the sound is much deeper than wax…” — Common, Like They Used to Say
People devote their lives to it. They believe in its power. And while it has always inspired hatred and backlash from those who don’t comprehend its essence, there’s no question that it’s long invoked a certain brand of fanaticism, too. In that way, you could say hip-hop is one of the most polarizing forms of art.
Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian fame is one of its biggest proponents. But he’s pretty pissed about how things have taken shape. He doesn’t mind speaking on it either, detailing his hang-ups with zeal and unwavering conviction. Jamar, whose music career reached its peak in the 90s, considers himself a purist—a living reminder of hip-hop’s long held traditional values. “I’m that voice of what hip-hop used to be,” he told Leon Neyfakh. His frustrations? The growing presence and acceptance of homosexuality in the music, rappers wearing skirts and chalking it up to self-expression, and, well, white rappers in general. “You know this is a black man’s thing.”
But is it?
While Lord Jamar’s claims can be easily dismissed as petty and antiquated, there’s no denying the resurgence of white rappers on the airwaves over the last decade or so. From the current commercial success of acts like Macklemore and Mac Miller, to the growing notoriety of Yelawolf and Machine Gun Kelly, the evidence of hip-hop’s gentrification is there. Many would consider that a good thing, a healthy progression. Jamar sees it as a “hijacking of the genre.” Then there is the anomaly that is Eminem. But he doesn’t really count. Lord Jamar likes Eminem.
So, was hip-hop, which began as an outlet for creativity and even positive protest, something created by a single group of people? An art form with its roots in funk, rhythm, and soul, hip-hop has forever been understood to be black music. Yet, one cannot deny that Latinos have been there since day one—standing right alongside blacks in the struggle for a voice and a piece of the elusive American dream. That story, however, has in many ways been denied or forgotten. Early films like Wild Style and Beat Street do the work of documenting the unity between blacks and Hispanics from the jump. Breakers like Crazy Legs, Prince Markie Dee of Fat Boys fame, and Tito of the Fearless Four—all Latino—are examples of innovators who helped lay the groundwork. But if you listen to the radio or tune in to relevant music video outlets, you wouldn’t see the proof.
So where are the Latino rappers? Sure, there’s Pitbull, but, dear God, who else? Where is the new generation of Fat Joes and Big Puns?
Remember Chino XL?
Those of who grew up in hip-hop’s Golden Era long for the sensibility of trendsetters like The Beatnuts and Cypress Hill, the ones who represented and brought Latino flavor to the forefront. We can spot some traces today but they’re pretty scarce.
Kid Cudi is part Mexican but it’s hardly common knowledge. The same goes for Fabolous, who is half Dominican, and rapper/producer Swizz Beatz, born to a Puerto Rican mother. Joell Ortiz, the Boricua emcee and 1/4 of the supergroup Slaughterhouse, is among the most talented and lyrically gifted of any ethnicity. Where is his shine?
Tony Touch, an internationally revered DJ and the self-proclaimed “funky bilingual,” is a regular on the club circuit. With plenty of mixtapes, studio albums, and collaborative projects to speak of, he is unquestionably one of the best to ever mesh Spanish and English behind the mic. But despite his uncanny ability and the respect he garnered as an emcee, his focus has always been on the turntables and on bringing artists together on wax for the sole purpose of diversity.
Grammy-nominated producer Rey King, noted for his work with Latin pop and bachata sensation Leslie Grace, is an artist on the come-up. He talks about the overall Americanization of Latinos in the hip-hop industry. “The few Latinos that we have in rap today,” he tells me over the phone, “don’t even speak the language that is native to their parents. There are exceptions, but not many.” This lends to the fact that, out of the small number of Latinos in the spotlight, an even smaller amount are mixing Spanish into their lyrics. It says something about a language that—although it remains the second most spoken in the United States due to immigration and population growth—is being forsaken in many Latin-American households.
Maybe the lack of Latinos in the genre is an issue with deeper roots than we understand. Perhaps industry executives just don’t understand how to put dollars behind a rapper of Latino descent. As it stands, marketing white rappers seems like a fairly easy undertaking, provided there is some talent. White rappers—permit the directness—seem safe, easily digestible for a wider audience. They don’t incite the fear of a Dr. Dre or a 50 Cent, who’ve made millions peddling what some might call violent and misogynistic music. And the truth is, no one expects the man who penned “Thrift Shop”, which Billboard recently recognized as the top-ranking rap song of all time, to be anything other than what he is: talented yes, but no doubt a dispenser of material on the level of comfort food.
There you have it. Pop-rap sells, gangster rap (a term this writer abhors) sells. White rappers sell, black rappers sell.
So where does the brown rapper fit into the mix? The one who is not quite white and not quite black? Consider the aforementioned Cypress Hill. Comprised of B-Real, Sen Dog, and DJ Muggs, the group reached their pinnacle in the 90s. While they certainly cultivated an identity centered on smoking weed, the list of commendable feats is astonishing. Their accomplishments, from chart-topping sales to participating in tours like Woodstock and even headlining Lollapalooza, have cemented them as one of the most important entities in music history. Not only did songs like “Insane in the Brain” become mainstream hits, but Cypress Hill was also the first to have two albums in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 simultaneously. To this day, DJ Muggs unapologetically lighting up a joint during their 1993 SNL performance—a stunt that got them banned from the show—is one of the most memorable moments to ever air on live television. Their penchant for provoking and eliciting reactions through their gritty tunes and charismatic personas is what set Cypress Hill apart. Now, decades removed from their most successful releases, they are still the highest selling Latin rap group of all time.
Leader of the now-defunct Rage Against the Machine, Zach de la Rocha—whose grandfather fought in the Mexican Revolution—paid homage while introducing them in Los Angeles. According to de la Rocha, Cypress Hill was responsible for “setting off a whole other path in hip-hop; bringing the experience of Latinos into the rhyme.”
Though it can be tempting to dismiss Pit Bull as only minimally skilled and watered down, his allure is worth noting. His singles generate millions and, like it or not, practically dominate radio on a consistent basis. Get the bpm’s at or around 135, throw a catchy hook on that piece, and Pitbull—with his trademark Spanglish—will make you dance something stupid. But let’s give him his due. For all of his “Dale!” and “Mr. Worldwide!” he’s managed to strike a chord, exemplifying the young Cuban male in ways no one can bypass or deny. His “inexplicable appeal”, to quote GQ, has proven to be a “reflection of these dire times.” And while he doesn't reflect the thug mentality of Chicano rap legends like Kid Frost and Mellow Man Ace, his Latin Grammys and his partnership with P. Diddy on Bad Boy Latino would suggest that he’s here to stay. For at least a while.
The reality is this: Even with the success of Cypress Hill and Pitbull, there has never been a sizable representation of Latino’s in mainstream hip-hop. There has also never been a clear explanation as to why. It does seem to speak to a more complex matter: the way recording artists as a whole are marketed.
In order to appeal to a certain demographic, business strategies must be put into play. It’s the nature of things, and has been for a very long time. So Richard Valenzuela gets changed to Ritchie Valens and Peter Hernandez becomes Bruno Mars. Spin something the right way and you can control the results. Are you telling me that if Bruno Mars had remained Peter Hernandez he would be the pop sensation he is today? He’d be a star, naturally, but he’d likely have been pegged a Latino artist and wouldn’t enjoy the universal acclaim he does today. Nor would he have hits with the likes of Eminem, Lil Wayne, and Snoop Dogg.
Throw some money behind something and you can achieve any desired outcome. Again, control: it’s precisely what the music industry is built upon. So where are the Latino emcees?
Juan Vidal is a writer and cultural critic from Miami. He tweets at @itsjuanlove.