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The Rap Scene's Spanish Flavors

By Ed Morales

March 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Newsday Inc. All Rights Reserved.

IF YOU'VE SEEN "Wild Style," Charlie Ahearn's classic 1982 documentary on hip-hop, you know that rapper Charlie Chase (Carlos Mandes) of Cold Crush Brothers is Latino. And even though graffiti artist Lee Quiones and several of the break dancers featured in the film also are Latino, the 20-odd-year history of hip-hop has yielded few Latino stars.

Most Latino rappers have preferred to avoid the language of their ancestors. ("I don't make rap in Spanish," Fat Joe Cartagena says on his Web site. "I'm just a rapper that happens to be Spanish.") Many, like Queens natives The Beatnuts, and a slew of West Coast acts such as Kid Frost and A Lighter Shade of Brown, have been overlooked. And, though the recently released movie "Scratch" mentions that DJ Rob Swift (Rob Aguilar) of the X-ecutioners is of Colombian background, as a turntablist he speaks a non-verbal language.

Loud Records has released a compilation of Beatnuts tracks,"Classic Nuts Vol. 1," which demonstrates why the duo of Psycho Les and Junkyard JuJu (Lester Fernandez and Jerry Tineo) has been such an underground hip-hop favorite. While their only overt Spanglish foray is "Se Acabo," set to the tune of a famous La Lupe torch song, it's the jazzy bass break beat that drives "Props Over Here" and that nails down the Beatnuts' place in hip-hop lore. Tolerance for thuggish lyrics is necessary to appreciate their early hit, "Off the Books," which features the late Big Pun and Cuban Linx, both Latinos.

The story of how rap spread to Latin America and took on a Spanish- language flavor began in California. When L.A.-based Cypress Hill made its debut in 1991, it became the first mainstream hip-hop success to flaunt its Latin-ness with songs such as "Latin Lingo." Cypress Hill rapper Sen Dog's brother, who goes by the name of Mellow Man Ace, scored with a single titled "Mentirosa." Cypress Hill's affinity with Latino listeners spurred the group to release in 1999 "Los Grandes Exitos en Espaol," an entire album of Spanish-language versions of its songs. That album featured a collaboration with rapper Fermin Caballero of the Monterrey, Mexico-based crew Control Machete.

Control Machete, most famous for the song "Si, Seor," which made a big splash in January as the soundtrack for a popular Super Bowl commercial featuring a Mexican-American break dancer, is just the tip of the iceberg of a growing rap en Espaol phenomenon. The current issue of the excellent bilingual Latin alternative magazine La Banda Elastica (, or Box 2608, West Covina, Calif. 91793) features a special report on the scene. Though most of the mag is in Spanish, there are shortened English-language summaries of its various sections. The rap en Espaol section has reports from Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil (where it's "rap" in Portuguese).

According to La Banda writer Juan Data, rap en Espaol is nurturing a return to the older values of hip-hop, something also chronicled in "Scratch." A new school of rap began in Spain in 1994, when a new label called Yo Gano released an album by CPV (Violent Poets Club) titled "Madrid Zona Bruta." Groups such as VKR (The Real Believers of the Hiphop Religion), Slo Los Solos and Geronacin followed suit, choosing philosophy and politics over gangsta as their subject matter. Further reaction against commercial hip-hop can be found in Mexico, where Cabelleros del Plan G state that "Chicano gangster rappers don't represent us."

A similar story can be found in Puerto Rico. A new generation of acts with names such as El Sindicato, Enemigo and Shanghai Assassinz provides an alternative to the well-known and quite earnest Vico C. Old-school MCs try to survive in a scene where local promoters lean heavily toward mixing hip-hop with merengue and reggae rhythms to form the mindless party genre called reggaethon.

Latin rap is also spreading from Argentina, where rappers are often engaged in experimental projects with electronica and dance music, to Uruguay, which is just beginning to emerge from a period of chronic Chicano imitations, to Brazil, which has one of the most dynamic and rhythmically spectacular rap scenes on the planet.

Hip-hop and Latin music are increasingly fusing together - last year, Fulanito's "Americanizao" and A.B. Quintanilla and the Kumbia Kings' "Shhhhh" mixed up break beats with merengue and cumbia. Afrika Bambaataa, a founding father of hip-hop, may not have been able to conceive of the exotic lyrics and Afro-Latin percussion on Sindicato Argentino de Hiphop's "Un Paso a la Eternidad" or Obsesin's "Un Montnde Cosas," from Argentina and Cuba, respectively. But he knew back in the early '80s that when South Bronx rappers dropped rhymes over rhythm tracks provided by Germany's Kraftwerk on "Planet Rock," something truly universal was going to happen.

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