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Hip-hop, rap & reggaeton

Hip-hop, rap & reggaeton

Hip–hop & rap
Hip–hop beats first trickled into Cuba in the early 90´s via crackly US radio transmissions, picked up in coastal regions outside of the capital like Alamar and in provinces such as Guantánamo. And then it came pounding in via other musicians and by young walkman–listening, CD–playing, ipod–wearing foreign students and tourists who hooked up, in various ways, with Cuban youth. Rap, Cuban–style, is now very much part of the islands musical culture. In the early days it was met with a deal of resistance but was slowly embraced, and it is thanks to the movement that many previously taboo topics have been, and still are, more freely aired and debated. Still, some say it´s lost its momentum, had its heyday, been co–opted, that so many groups have left the island, and so what´s left?

So what is left? Yes, the present–day movement, say rappers, is limited—there´s a great lack of resources and venues—but it´s still pretty vibrant and one of its great strengths has been, for the most part, its conscious insistence on not mimicking the more commercial, more negative US styles. The idea of disrespecting women, lauding materialism, glorifying violence or expressing homophobia is not the idea at all. These young, mainly black Cuban youth, whatever their beliefs, seem to be more looking for any way possible, directly or not, to speak about things that touch them most—racism, sexism, peace, the environment, sexuality, poverty and social inequalities. We are, one prominent rapper told me, peaceful and positive—but we´re also the insistent voice of youth and its resistance.

At the beginning of the 1990´s Cubans were listening to a style close in sound to reggae but with no particular name, and as sung by Panamanian Vico C. It´s not clear if this music originated in Puerto Rico or Panama. But what we now call reggaeton burst onto the Cuban scene in about 2000 and can be said to be more aggressive, sexually overt, formulaic and danceable than the early 90´s stuff. Love it or hate it—and very many do—it´s become one of the most popular beats in Latin America today and is fast spreading worldwide. But the use of reggaeton has another face. Only this week (May 2007), after furious complaints, the Spanish airline, Iberia, were forced to pull a reggaeton TV animation advert which showed young, bikini–clad Cuban women of mixed descent, bottle–feeding a “baby” tourist as he sings “feed me mulattas—come on little mama, take me to my cot.” Despite this, there are four Cuban groups that are particularly popular and must be mentioned.

Cuban reggae is, perhaps, surprising, given its location so near to Jamaica and the Caribbean, a very small scene indeed, especially in the capital. The majority of Rastas and reggae musicians are in the eastern part of the island where, historically, there was substantial Jamaican migration and where, today, there is still a considerable Caribbean influence. However, in Cuba in general, reggae is a tiny movement and the lack of good instruments along with the general lack of connection to this music, all serve to reinforce this.

Still, two groups are well worth a mention—Paso Firme and Remanente. Paso Firme are what might be called reggae fusion and, being without a label, they produce their own music. They do, however, have a recording which was licensed in Europe but not distributed on the island. We hear that both Remanente and Paso Firme participated in the celebrated film Habana Blues.


In the context of Cuban rap, women have generally been introduced into the genre by a male artist who´s functioned as a kind of support, a guide into the hip–hop world. Then came Las Krudas—MC Wanda, MC Olivia (“Pelusa”) and MC Odaymara (“Pasita”). Two women of color and one white, outspoken, openly lesbian, proudly fat, they exploded onto the scene with their direct, sometimes very humorous lyrics, which dealt specifically with their sexuality, feminism, race and the environment.
They began as part of Tropazancos Cubensi—a giant, stilt–walking, community–based group working in Old Havana, whilst developing their own work. At first Las Krudas were pretty much distanced by some in the rap community, but Las K´s energy, persistence and humour slowly won through and they began to attract a large and sympathetic following which continued right up until they left for the US, in 2006. There, they hooked up with DJ Leydys and MC Marjorie and continued a project begun in Cuba, OMEGA KILAY. They are presently touring in California.


This stunningly innovative outfit is probably the most internationally–known of all Afro–Cuban hip–hop groups and began life as a trio—Amenaza—with members Pando, Yotuel and el Ruso—the latter two going on to form the original Orishas. Their first explosive album success, A Lo Cubano, was released in 2000 after their move to France (now in Spain) and after hooking up with young Cuban singer, Roldán. This album won them well–deserved fame, a Latin Grammy, and they went on to produce two more fine albums—Emigrante—and the excellent El Kilo. Musically and commercially, they have, perhaps like no other before or since, very successfully and melodiously mixed rap with funk and traditional Cuban beats (especially son, timba, funk, guanguancó and Afro–Cuban), and their lyrics—a mix, often searching but always constructive—mostly deal with every–day social issues and street life. Despite living in Europe, they have kept very well in touch with what´s happening on the island and this can be heard—”eso que suena cubano”—both musically and thematically, throughout their work. Many would say that if there is only one album in the hip–hop genre that you buy, it has to be one of theirs. Whatever, we most recommend their first, A Lo Cubano.


Though Doble Filo also work a lot with musical fusion, they are undoubtedly closer to the US rap model than Obsesión. Like the great majority of Cuban rappers, their lyrics deal with important and controversial social issues, and this duo particularly focuses on personal and racial themes. Along with many other Cuban rappers, and with their own very limited resources, Irak Sáenz and DJ Edgaro only have their music recorded in demo–form. They have also been part, with Obsesión, of La FabriK—an ongoing neighborhood umbrella project for rappers who want to contribute to their own communities. This project has been very successful in bringing the two groups together and in creating a space and opportunity for many other artists and interested individuals. What fans say marks out Doble Filo from the rest are their outspoken lyrics which directly express many of the issues that particularly face young, black Cuban youth today.


With no formal musical training, CUBANITO 2002—aka Flipper, MC White and the Doctor—have had tremendous success, even gaining some international recognition, with their very first album. They too, started out in rap and also switched, for commercial reasons, to reggaeton. With German management, they toured in Brazil, then later in Germany, Holland and Italy where they are now contracted to appear each year. They´ve shared the stage with Don Omar, Latin Peace and Victor Manuel and right now fans say they seem to be moving more towards timba and R & B styles.


A partnership—both in their work and personal life—MC Magia and Alexei (“El tipo este”) have dedicated more than 10 years to this, their musical baby. For them, rap is a means to an end—a way to talk about every–day issues such as their neighborhood, every–day struggles, feminism, racism, love and humour. What makes their music so special for their public is their particular mix of lyrical pop–rock, jazz and other Afro–Cuban and international styles, and that they have carved out their own voice which doesn´t mimic a US one. It´s a very Cuban thing—sometimes using well–known national poets, street language and often, traditional instruments. Obsesión have produced one album—Un montón de cosas—with the EGREM label and another—La Fabrik—which came out of an independent community project and features various guests along with friends and rappers such as Doble Filo. Despite difficulties, they have managed to achieve fame both within the Cuban hip–hop community and abroad—performing and traveling overseas—and also been acknowledged by such key publications as Billboard magazine.


Formed in 1999—then named 100% Original—Oggere is a rap–fusion crew, mixing funk, pilón, mambo and timba, who had tremendous success with their first performances and are presently recording their first album (with Asere Productions). This album, which includes such personalities as Haydée Milanes, Robertón (Van Van), Oscar Valdés (Diákara) and some of the younger prize–winning JoJazz competitors, is one of the very few rap albums made with live musicians as opposed to the usual sequenced productions. Everyone seems to really rate this band.


Formally a hip–hop duo—Jorge and Eduardo—they became very well–known as singers of a famous Cuban TV programme but then, reading all the commercial signs, changed track and moved into reggaeton. They now have a DJ plus a singer, a number of hits, get daily radio play and also feature with salsa orchestras such as Charanga Habanera and hot singers such as Haila María Mompié.


To understand this group you need to know something about Alamar. It´s a coastal neighborhood to the east of Havana, mainly full of 70´s style, utility apartment blocks and its great significance to the rap movement is to do with its geographical position. The majority black population is mainly from the eastern part of the island—with its Caribbean influences, and furthermore, its coastal position allows easier access to radio signals from both the Caribbean and the US. In this context, with all its particularities, come groups like Explosión Suprema. Their shows and recordings are very strong and questioning, and they bark, shout and growl their lyrics to hardcore backgrounds. In their latest demo, they mix styles—underground, with classic rap, Latin jazz and Cuban timba, and in each new production, attempt to create something new in style, sound or lyrics. In March (2007), their most recent recording—La Injusticia Tiembla—won the Cuerda Viva award for best independent hip–hop album in Cuba.


Anonimo Consejo are MC Sekou and MC Kokino and, along with Obsesión, are presently one of the more popular rap outfits in Cuba today. Although they work very well together, they are completely different personalities both on stage—in the way they express their music—and in real life. Despite their obvious differences and their more introverted and serious approach, they have what is a deep connection and this transmits itself strongly to their loyal and enthusiastic audience. Their lyrics deal with the usual contemporary, social themes as well as more controversial ones such as prostitution and their delivery is often poetic. Interestingly, and unlike many other rappers, Anónimo Consejo´s main musical influences are reggae and other Caribbean styles.


The term “free hop” was coined by this innovative 10–piece band, founded in 1999 by its director Lester Martínez, along with Telmary Díaz and the two accompanying MC´s, Leonardo Pérez (El Crema) and José Luis Borges (El Papo). They mix the international sounds of rap, reggae, drum & bass, hip–hop and funk with the more traditional Cuban styles of son montuno, mambo and rumba and it comes out as something all their own. Their name, Free Hole Negro, word–plays with both the energy produced by black holes in space and by the black beans (frijoles) which are placed, almost every day, on almost every Cuban table. They were a well–loved underground group who found international recognition after appearing in the 2005 Benito Zambrano´s film, Habana Blues, and then went on to record their first album, Superfinos Negros with Warner. They have also played and recorded with many Cuban luminaries such as Chucho Valdés, Tata Guines, Changuito, Sintésis, X Alfonso, and with other international artists such as the Roots and Ojos de Brujo. Now, very rarely performing on the island, they are mainly touring and recording.


Baby Lores and Insurrecto started out life as independent rappers—Baby Lores as part of rap group Cubanos en la Red, and Insurrecto winning a prize in one of the island´s national rap festivals. Insurrecto was said to be one of the finest rappers around but he, like many others, made the commercial move to reggaeton. For a very brief time, they joined together as Clan 537, which was formed with the backing of Italian impresario Adriano Totta and then, with just one hit—”La Caperucita Roja”—they took off, appearing on TV, radio, live shows and in many and various video clips. Then, strangely, they changed their name to Baby Lores and Insurrecto but have retained the same level of prominence and success, and currently (May, 2007) they have a number of hit songs playing on national radio.


Former rappers who turned to reggaeton very early on, this small outfit—one DJ and two reggaetoneros—are very popular and well–known on the island and tend to play in small, more intimate venues. They´ve had various hits, play regular live concerts and are constantly played on national radio and TV. Here´s a measure of their present popularity: Yesterday I walked into my small, neighborhood, El Rápido supermarket to find a woman in her late 60´s and all the staff winding, grinding and singing along to their latest single. That´s your local supermarket and that´s Gente de Zona for you.


With their very radical, more extreme underground message, this group of young rappers is unaffiliated and therefore has pretty limited opportunities to play or record. Their demos pass by hand and in this way they´ve achieved a certain notoriety and fame within the hip–hop community.

February 2010

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