New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter once said, "There may be people who have more talent than you, but there's no excuse for anyone to work harder than you." Laura Stylez is a living embodiment of such philosophy. Growing up between Pac's California love poetics and Nas' New York state of mind, Laura caught the hip-hop bug at an early age and was hell-bent on becoming a "functioning piece of the puzzle." To the Los Angeles native and proud Guatemalan, that meant finding a way to play records for a living. No easy feat for a first-generation Latina from a low-income, working family.
Laura knew nothing about radio when she landed her first gig. Young and stubborn, she lied about her age just to get her first taste behind the board. Her wicked bravery helped her kick in the door, but her moment in production was fleeting. She was back out on less-than-greener pastures in 48 hours, upon her superiors learning her real age. "That was the only radio I did in L.A.," she told VIBE Viva. "But that’s what triggered my obsession."
So what did a hungry 19-year-old do next? She made up in cojones what she lacked in practicality, and booked a one-way ticket to the Big Apple, lofty dreams of finding her seat at the big boys table in tow. "Everyone was like 'You're never going to make it.'"
Today, Laura is a prominent radio personality both in hip-hop and urban Latino. Although her own parental units were doubtful and urged her to pursue something more secure, Laura has her father's discipline to thank, as it prepped her for a dual role in the competitive world of radio.
VIBE Viva: What was it like growing up in your household?
Laura Stylez: My parents came to the United States in the 70s. I grew up in a typical Latino household. One thing that I love about my parents, now, is that they were keen on making me speak either English or Spanish at any given time. The whole spanglish concept was not allowed. It would drive my father insane. He told us ‘You either speak this or you speak that.’ There was no mixing. And it’s so crazy now that I have my show on SiriusXM on Caliente, because the entire thing is in spanglish. I am really glad that [my father] was strict with me in that way, because it made my Spanish so much stronger.
That’s actually pretty genius of him.
Yea. I’d be at the dinner table and it didn’t matter if it was from a magazine or a book, he would make me read a couple paragraphs in Spanish, out loud. I meet people everyday that tell me they can speak Spanish, but can’t read or write it. So, I’m really thankful for his discipline.
You’re Guatemalan, born and bred in Los Angeles. Talk a little bit about the diversity you were exposed to and the hip-hop culture that existed around you…
I grew up listening to salsa and merengue. I ate all kinds of Spanish foods. But my parents were very big on embracing different cultures. That was important in my household. The neighborhood I grew up in was very mixed. It was black, West Indian, Mexican… the list goes on. So, I not only grew up eating arroz con frijoles, but I was also raised on curry chicken, rice and peas -- you know what I mean? My parents were big on experimenting and trying new things. And because I grew up in Los Angeles, I fell in love with hip-hop at a very early age. I listened to Pac just as much as I listened to Nas. And soon, all I wanted to be was a functioning piece of the puzzle.
So radio was going to be your way of playing a role in hip-hop?
What a lot of people don’t know is that I really wanted to be a DJ. That was the first thing I wanted to do. I really wanted to get my hands on some turntables and vinyl. But my dad was like ‘What?!’ He wasn’t going to spend hundreds of dollars on turntables, absolutely not. He wasn’t going to do it. Every piece of vinyl, every song, was like 10 bucks. So that wasn’t happening anytime soon, because you know, I come from a low-middle class household where we struggled and there were priorities in the house and getting me turntables was not one of them.
What about rapping? Did you ever take a stab at writing rhymes?
I tried! [Laughs] That didn't work out […] One day, I remember listening to Nautica de la Cruz on the air, and people like Sway and The Baka Boyz thinking, ‘These people are having the time of their lives playing records for a living? I could do that!’ I knew right away that was my calling. And my first taste was at a local radio station, where I had to lie about my age just to get on. I was working there for like a day and a half, before they found out my real age and kicked me out. [Laughs] That was the only radio I did in L.A. But that’s what triggered my obsession.
Were your dreams nurtured? Were you encouraged to pursue your passion?
I was one of those girls who said ‘I’m going to go chase my dreams.’ No, my parents did not nurture my dreams of becoming a radio personality. They said ‘No way.’ My dad felt I needed something that’s going to be guaranteed. ‘Why don’t you join the army?’ he asked. ‘Why don’t you become a nurse?”
Yea, because to them, that made sense. I remember telling my mom, ‘Ma, this is not what I want to do. I’m going to go to New York.’ I came with one of my girlfriends just to visit. Came here and then went to Miami. And I loved Miami, but I ultimately decided on New York and said to myself I was going to be on the radio if it’s the last thing I do. My mom gave me the go ahead. The worst thing that could happen was that I had to come back home. That was my train of thought. Everyone else was like ‘You’re never going to make it.’
Including your dad?
Yes. He was mad at me when I left. He didn’t believe me. I wasn’t even 21 yet when I left home. But I was determined and stubborn. I ended up staying with friends. Sometimes with people I hardly knew – friends of friends. I even enrolled myself into City College while I did what I had to do. Girl, I had so many jobs. But that’s how I got the interview at my competitor now, Power 105. Through a friend of a friend. That’s where I started, getting coffee and answering phones. I worked with Monie Love, Ed Lover, Star and Buc Wild. I learned everything: how to produce, run a board, run an audio, run a show.
So you weren’t just getting coffee?
No. I mean, I was still doing that. But I was putting in work. My family wasn’t around. I had all the time in the world. I’m the one who took all the shifts that nobody wanted. I remember it was New Years one time and I decided to recorded myself, as if I was on the air. And I was just kept playing it back, over and over again…
And then what happened? Where’d you go from there?
I worked for Univision, for a station called La Calle 105.9, during the whole reggaeton boom. That was quite an experience, because I didn’t know anything about reggaeton. I just knew radio, how to produce a show and speak Spanish. That was a big learning experience for me. And shouts out to DJ Casanova. He really embraced me. Every time I had a question, whether it was about the meaning behind a Puerto Rican word or Tego Calderon’s slang, he would sit there and explain it all to me. He really held my hand, he was amazing. That was the first time I was on the air in New York City. My first big break on the air.
Eventually I left Univision, when the station turned really tropical. Don’t get me wrong, I love merengue and salsa and bachata. But it’s not the lifestyle that I live. And I’m a firm believer in that if I don’t love what I’m doing, I have to let it go. I needed to get back into hip-hop. So after several interviews, I ended up getting a position here at Hot 97, where I got to really grow.
And now you work side by side with two of the biggest male radio personalities. How’s that going?
Well, I’ve been in this industry for 14 or 15 years now, and I’ve worked with just about everybody. I’ve been really fortunate to work with some legends. But I’m still a fan, you know? I am a fan of the culture and of the music. I’ve made a lot of great relationships, [but] working with Ebro and Rosenberg, I can honestly says it’s my favorite show. I really love my job. Yes, my life is different. I wake up at 4:30 every morning, when everyone is still sleeping or just coming home from partying. That means I have to go to bed earlier and take naps in the afternoon, which some people are truly boggled by. Like, no, I can’t do that, I have to take a power nap right now. Think about it, phones have to be recharged, right? If I don’t recharge, I’d be passing out left and right. Not to mention, after a full day here at Hot 97, I have to go to my second job at SiriusXM.
How’s that transition? Because you’re leaving hip-hop and R&B to go to salsa and bachata…
Right, top 40 Latin hits. It’s cool. At first, it was a little tough switching back and forth. But you know what it is? As a professional, you just have to train yourself. Hot 97 is local radio. I’m speaking to people who are in their cars, on their way to work, dropping off their kids at school. It’s very local. I’m giving listeners a heads up about the rainy weather. So we talk about local things. When I go over to SiriusXM, its nationwide. My mindset has to be different. I have to switch gears. I can’t talk about anything local, unless it’s something huge. So I have to remember that I’m catering to people in Arkansas, in Atlanta, in Maine, in Puerto Rico, in Canada and Los Angeles. I have to remember to talk about things that are relevant to everybody.
You mentioned DJ Casanova. Were there any women who partook in your growth, who helped to cultivate you?
There were women who I looked up to. A lot of them were really busy doing their own thing. In the transition from being someone who got the coffee to somebody running a production board or show? Yes. Monie Love and Déjà Vu from WBLS, our sister station. Those women believed in me and were like ‘Here, let me give you a shot at helping me run this.’ But when I moved on to be in radio by myself, I didn’t really work with too many women. It was mostly men.
I will say this, I was embraced by Angie Martinez. Someone who I, of course, looked up to and am fortunate to call my friend and mentor. She really helped me out with making some important decisions in my life, things that I couldn’t really talk to about with the guys. She helped guide me in that way. And she’s awesome for it.
As far as Latinos are concerned -- dead or alive -- who do you look up to?
Frida Kahlo. I love that woman. I just went to her exhibit, up at the Bronx Botanical Garden. The reason I love Frida is because I think it’s amazing how someone at that time was so fearless. I’m a fan of fearless women, period. Not just Latinos. She was just not scared of expressing herself, even through her darkest times. She wasn’t scared. And it was through her art that she relived her traumas, her miscarriage and her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera. To this day, you can read about Frida Kahlo and, as a woman, connect with her. That’s very real for me. That’s what I’m a fan of, fearless women. Because at the time I took a chance in my life, I wanted to connect with women who were also taking chances. She was that for me.
What advice would you give to younger women looking to take a chance in life?
The biggest thing for me is, be very realistic about your dreams. If you believe you can do it and you can make a plan and you can follow that plan – not that it will be easy, but that you can follow it -- do it. It sounds cliché, but if you can believe it, you can do it. You really can. You just have to be honest about who you are and how bad you want it. Do you have the skills or can you develop the skills to do whatever it is?
What legacy do you want to leave behind?
I just want people to know that I had a dream and I made it happen. I was scared, but I was also fearless. Does that make sense? That I was a woman who worked very, very hard in a male-dominated industry. I especially want women to remember that they do not have to do certain things to become famous. They do not have to compromise who they are. We live in an era where a lot of girls measure their worth with popularity. At the end of the day, I’ve turned down roles, I’ve turned down positions, I’ve turned down opportunities where I felt it didn’t represent me. The money would have been great, and maybe a bigger look for me, but I just didn’t feel comfortable doing it. I want the younger women of this generation to take more pride in developing their craft and developing themselves. There are other ways to be beautiful and recognized. I want to be remembered as a strong, hard-working woman who was fearless.