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You simply cannot discuss the evolution of hip hop and not include the Latin-American influence. Fat Joe, NORE, Snow tha Product and Spiff TV shined a light on the cultural diversity within the genre in the “Leading the Latin Culture” panel at REVOLT Summit x AT&T in Los Angeles.
The Boogie Down Bronx borough of New York City is called “The Mecca” of hip hop and rapper Fat Joe had a front-row seat to the show from the very beginning. The Puerto Rican/Cuban rapper served the panel as an all-knowing griot. As he recalls it, blacks and Latinos created hip hop together.
At first, Latinos were more so support to the early rap groups than the star. There are many reports that the group didn’t feel completely welcomed in the space. That is until Devastating Tito from the Fearless Four was heard spitting in “Spanglish,” and Ruby Dee of the Romantic Five was sneaking the beat from “Tú Coqueta” into his DJ sets. These acts of cultural pride and strong self-identity in the late 1970s helped to carve a space for Nuyoricans in hip hop.
Fat Joe, inspired and undeterred, said he always knew he belonged when he started rapping in 1992. “From day one. From the break dancers. The Charlie Chase, Crazy Legs, and all that,” he stated. “Through them, hip hop was birthed through the blacks and the Latinos. I just knew I had something to say. I knew that I was no different than any black guy or any Latino guy, and I knew that I was going to come with the real. I knew they would embrace me.”
The Latino rap pioneer added, “I will rep the people who love hip hop, but just don’t have a voice right now.”
Today, Latinos definitely found their voice in the space with smash records like Cardi B’s 2018 Grammy-nominated “I Like It” sampled by Pete Rodriguez “I Like It Like That,” and put an entire Spanish verse from Bad Bunny on a mainstream hit also featuring J. Balvin. Billboard listed the record by a Dominican, a Columbian and two Puerto Ricans as the No. 1 song of the year after it topped the charts for 51 weeks straight.
DJ Khaled’s 2019 banger “You Say” is another great example. The first 34 seconds puts La India’s “No Me Conviene” on full display right before the hook is sang by Jeremih, and has features from Meek Mill, J. Balvin and Lil Baby.
In fact, Khaled inspired Fat Joe’s current single “Yes.” On a flight back from the late Kim Porter’s funeral, the producer asked Fat Joe if he had heard Meek Mill’s “Uptown Vibes,” which also flips a traditional Latin song. Khaled told him, “You know if Fat Joe did that, it would be no. 1 in America.”
Joe took that idea and ran with it. He said he couldn’t imagine using a sample from another other Latin artist than his idol Hector Lavoe. “We went and got that ‘Juanito Alimaña’. We wanted it to be club-friendly, and the [record] is blowing up,” he admitted.
The rapper credits features from Cardi B and Anuel AA in part for the success of “Yes.” “I have been doing this so long, it’s an honor for me. They like the two hottest. He’s destroying all the Reggaeton and Trap Latino, and she’s destroying the charts,” he said. The music video gained 50 million views in only two weeks proving DJ Khaled right.
Growing up, Spiff TV found it difficult to embrace his Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage through playing music Salsa or Merengue because it wasn’t accepted in his community until he heard the first mainstream Reggaeton record, NORE’s “Oye Mi Canto.” The hit featuring Daddy Yankee was the first Spanish record to play on MTV, BET and reach No. 1 on radio.
The “Drink Champs” podcast host recalled: “I’d see [the song heating up] and I went to DJs like DJ Enuff and DJ Camillo, and I’d be like, ‘Yo! We Latino. Why you not playing the music that I love in Puerto Rico? Why [are] we not playing the music that I love in Honduras? Why [are] we not playing that [music] here? And I’m black as hell to these guys, so they looking at me like, ‘Coco la calmate.’ They didn’t know that I was more Spanish than them.”
The then-President of Def Jam, which was NORE’s label, didn’t initially believe in the record and warned him against releasing it. Even Fat Joe thought NORE’s move to Reggaeton music was a bad idea. He said: “He was really premature. I was trying to preserve the fact that they got this real legacy— this real underground, hip hop legacy and telling him as a brother.”
NORE, who neither identifies as black or Puerto Rican, instead he prefers to embrace both sides as an Afro-Latino, and decided to take the chance and literally parade his Latino pride with the hit written for the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York that year. He said he wrote the song as a tribute to his greatest Latino influence, Big Pun, who had died five years earlier. “I really put my whole career on the line because there is nothing more gorgeous than watching a Latina woman dance to Reggaeton,” NORE said.
Spiff also recalled an underground mixtape called Boricua Guerrero featuring early Reggaeton artists. Little did he know, Joe actually put together this first-of-its-kind mixtape in 1997. “Boricua Guerrero was the first time rappers and Reggaetoneros did a project together. The Boricuas from Puerto Rico… They came to New York and I took them to Nas and every other [rapper] that was on [it], and that’s how that project went down.”
Spiff added: “When I die, they [are] going to tell you all of that. When I die, they gon’ be like, ‘He did this. He did that.’”
Despite this progress, West Coast rapper Snow tha Product feels Mexicans, certainly Mexican women, are still underrepresented in hip hop. “Considering the fact that we have someone like Trump in office, and immigration is in the forefront of the conversation, I’m actually amazed that there [aren’t] more Mexicans having the spotlight on them. I think it’s because a lot of baggage comes with it. Half my family could get deported if I speak about them, so it’s kind of difficult,” he stated.
Snow tha Product also aired a few other gripes with the industry, as it relates to being a Mexican artist. She revealed that she left her label because she feels they didn’t know how to properly market her.
She said they would tell her: “You speak Spanish. You must be just like the Puerto Rican artists. Let’s do what they do.”
Snow went on to say that Mexican artists don’t collaborate in the same way Puerto Rican or Dominican artists will.
“There’s a lot of Mexican-American artists that we’re all not collaborating because we’re all scared,” she added. “We all want to be the one to raise the flag and the one thing that I can say about Puerto Rican artists is that they all collaborate with each other. Dominican artists have all collaborated with each other. There’s a lot of love.”
Joe added context by drawing a contrast between his experience growing up in New York from what he’s seen of Los Angeles. He said, “Whenever I would try to chill with the Mexican artists, they would get mad that the black people embraced me in New York.”
Joe continued: “When there is a Mexican artist that makes music for black people, Mexican, Chinese people, gay, lesbian; the Mexican rapper is going to be the biggest rapper on the planet earth. Once they get across that and just make music for everybody, the numbers are there, baby.”
Joe recalled going to a radio conference with program directors and advocating for the Latino listener. He said he kept hearing over and over about “black radio.” He felt the urge to remind them: “We keep calling it ‘black radio’, but you do know 40 percent of your listeners are Latino? And you do realize when your No. 1 DJs go in the club that night, they got to play hip hop and Spanish Trap. So, don’t ignore the fact that you got these listeners tuning in.”
Where Snow tha Product said she would like to see more Mexicans leverage hip hop in order to push back on immigration — at a time when terror and racism is rampant — Latinos overall have yet again proven valuable cultural contributions, and have added “mucho sabor” to the culture from the very start.