By MTV Iggy
February 3, 2014
Words by Amaya García
You could argue that Monday is the least “party day” of the week, what with having to get up early for work the next day and dealing with that pesky hangover. This is not so for the San Juan hip-hop scene, which hosts its longest running weekly party every Monday night at La Respuesta in Santurce. The party, hosted by the legendary DJ Velcro officially starts at 10 pm, but, as with most shows in Puerto Rico, the start time is just a suggestion. Everyone knows the party really gets going around midnight when the line outside starts to disappear around the corner and everyone inside looks like they’re dancing to their personal jam. It’s one of those rare nights where you see the space packed with people from all walks of life.
Much like he did with “Hip Hop Vox,” the radio show he produced and co-hosted alongside Angelila Rosa (AKA Gitana) for a decade on Radio Universidad de Puerto Rico, in these nights DJ Velcro spins records of the newest hits mixed in with old school hip-hop, R&B, and some dancehall classics. Among other things, the show (now hosted by Hi-5 and Blen) and the party, have both helped expose different people to the genre and school them in the yawning abyss of differences between hip-hop and reggaeton. “It started as a mellow/lounge-type music night,” explains Velcro. “We used to place cushions on the floor and candles; people could go and relax. Afterwards, when it moved to Café Seda — and then to La Respuesta — it became the hip-hop party that it is now.”
If you’re an outsider, navigating the Puerto Rican hip-hop scene can be a pretty complicated affair: News of shows and mixtapes are circulated mostly within those groups in the know. Nonetheless, Velcro’s night, and its offshoot party “El Triumvirato” with scene veterans DJ Adam and DJ Davey, is a fine place to start. The DJ, who started out in 1999 as an MC when he migrated back from the US, is one of the mainstays of the old school who has witnessed the seachange within the scene since the beginning of the millennium when, he recounts, it was at the height of its productivity and popularity.
With various mixtapes, such as the popular Kelo Kenton series, full-length albums and innovative projects like his live hip-hop band Lado Ve, he’s the perfect artist to hypothesize about what is happening right now in 2014. As he sees it, it’s a rebirth of sorts, fueled in part by the internet. “I’m seeing a new force, new people that want to make things happen, like Santo Rito, Álvaro Díaz and Fuete Billete. I think it’s a different panorama with different opportunities. The drive is the same, but the intentions are different.”
His school of hip-hop — more in line with the conscious rap of KRS-One, Common and Talib Kweli — more or less established a canon still followed by a lot of those in the game today. Artists who have and still are rhyming with a social conscience and an equally important party edge, like SieteNueve, Nébula, Intifada, TekOne, Luis Díaz and Ikol Santiago, not only remain reference points for a younger generation, but have stayed active and highly relevant within the circuit. In Puerto Rico, conscious rap has never left the building. In fact, as in much of South and Central America, it is still as hot as ever, bringing to the forefront important issues like the never-ending political and social unrest.
These artists are also blazing the trail in another arena: connecting the San Juan hip-hop scene with the tight-knit Western circuit. One of them is Ikol Santiago, who recently put together a show with hip-hop talent from the Añasco circuit, such as the incredible freestyler Negro González, and included visual artists, painters, clothes designers like Pícalo and skaters, all of who push the scene forward through their various mediums.
Santiago and González together on stage is a force to be reckoned with. Amidst the sweat caused by the spotlights on them, you hear and feel nothing but a spirit of collaboration and respect for each other’s craft and style.
Formerly from the Absoluto Independiente collective (still functioning as rapper Bebo’s project), González now works with Patrio Ritmo in the West Coast, alongside rapper Chagui Vargas. They play shows along the Northwestern and Southwestern coast in places like the up and coming venue Bembelé, often to a full house. There’s constant recording, in studios like On Q, and homegrown video production projects, mostly revolving around hip hop and skating. This cohesion, along with the commitment from these rappers who are also running community projects, is what is uniting a fragmented scene towards a common goal.
González is involved in Vargas’ Patineteros, a skating organization that, according to their statement, promotes social values through sports, education and culture. “Chagui is a skater,” González explains. “He works at a skate park in Rincón, and he visits schools and gives talks to the kids. Whenever I can, I help him out during the activities and always end up rapping for them. That’s how we take rap to schools and, through hip hop, collaborate with them”.
Seeing people from all different stripes collaborate with each other is not uncommon here. Take, for instance, the masked revolutionary, Recluso. It still baffles me how, in a circuit so small, he’s managed to maintain his identity a secret almost seven years running. He’s an enigmatic character who pulls out inspiration from the unlikeliest of sources, like the Tabla Periódica series, where he created beats inspired by every element that forms the world. He’s also maintained close ties to the independent rock scene, which helped him create Versus, where he reinterprets songs from Fantasmes, Los Vigilantes and Mima, to name a few.
The Río Piedras based collective Santo Rito, formed by Vladi, Skew, Sam Rala and Robertito Chong, form part of the same community as Recluso, which surrounds the University of Puerto Rico. Due to its diversity, it has always been a hot bed for new acts. “We wanted people to feel that, even though we’re from different cities and we have different perspectives, we move in this space, work, play and have made it our home”, says Vladi. They got together partly because of the massive student strike against tuition hikes in 2010 and 2011, and have maintained their stance in creating a balance within their lyrics.
“I think we have to keep this diversity,” says Skew. “If I’m going do party records, than that’s great, but let me put some social content in there. With 16 bars, you can do something super constructive. If you’re gonna talk about weed, you can talk about how unfair it is to get three years in jail for a plant … you know?”
“I think that the rapper can’t distance himself from the people,” reflects Vladi, a current student concentrating on creating rap with themes close to home. “If you’re writing from here, you can write the party rap, but state some problems and give solutions. You have to figure out what’s better: to be heard somewhere else or to be heard by people here? I want to plant that seed. I may not cross over, but I will have played in different communities.”
A big part of the scene is comprised of conscious rappers, but there are also those making music ready-made for a crossover to a more global audience. The jury’s still out on whether it’s in the direction of North American hip hop, like trap and crunk, or its Latin American counterpart. I’m talking about newcomers Álvaro Díaz and Fuete Billete, whose beats and style reflect more of an influence from the newest versions of gangster rap and Southern styles like chopped and screwed.
For rappers like the Santo Rito crew, artists like Pete Rock are important, but the real influences come straight from Latin America, Spain and San Juan. Vladi, for example, cites Puerto Rican rapper Welmo and Chilean rapper Portavoz, while beat maker Sam Rala’s influences range from Cypress Hill to scene native EA Flow. But, whether it be from the Dirty South or Santiago, the fact is that most of the artists feel a closer bond with the Latin American hip-hop movement. Rappers like Santiago, SieteNueve and González are doing their part by collaborating with their counterparts in México, Argentina, Colombia and Spain, like GAS-LAB, Jim B and Bocafloja, among others. All the while, giving spotlight to prime homegrown beatmakers like Yallzee, Cookee and NuffCed.
“It’s very important for us to be connected to what’s going on in Latin America because they’re really watching what we do,” Santiago says. “Part of the reasons why these collaborations need to happen is the chance to get to know each other in person and to feel part of the wider Latin American scene,” he continues.
Much like in the indie rock scene, there are a handful of venues open to booking hip-hop acts regularly, like La Respuesta, El Local and Nuestro Son in Old San Juan, just not as regularly as one might hope. Even so, there’s no stopping Puerto Rican hip-hop artists and their drive to keep the scene up and running, whether on-site through shows and the popularization of mixtapes, on the internet or through community action. Most agree that, while the spirit of collaboration is there, a stronger sense of unity — whether it’s avoiding competing shows on the same night by sharing the bill or just helping a mixtape spread — is the one thing that will help them move forward together. Acceptance is coming slowly, but happening nonetheless, and it’s not very hard to imagine nights like Velcro’s being commonplace again. “I think things are moving really well and I hope that keeps us growing,” says González. “People have started to believe in the scene again.”