Hip-hop was invented by African American, but it didn’t take Latinos very long to get in on the action. In fact, Latinos have been strong supporters of the hip-hop culture since the late ‘70s, when the first Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, and Sugarhill Gnag singles came out. What is Latin rap? In a nutshell, it’s rap music by Latinos, and that can mean a wide variety of thing. Latin rap can be Puerto Ricans from Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx; it could be Chicanos from East Los Angeles or Cubans from the Little Havana section of Miami. Latin rap can be in English or Spanish–many Latino MCs have been bilingual, although some have opted to rap in either English or Spanish exclusively. Latin rap can be as commercial and pop minded as Gerardo, or it can be the thugged-out gangsta rhymes of Cypress Hill, Mellow Man Ace, Gerardo, among others–have come from the United States. But a Latino rapper certainly doesn’t have to be a United States citizen to have a career; hip-hop is huge all over Latin America as well as in Span, and there have been many non-U.S. rappers who catered to Spanish-speaking countries. An MC who is selling a lot of CDs in Spain, Argentina, or Mexico can easily turn a profit even if he/she ignores the U.S. market.
And for that matter, Latin rap doesn’t have to be in either English or Spanish to be successful. In Brazil–which is the largest country in Latin America and a place where hip-hop is quite popular–the official language is Portuguese, and many Brazillian MCs have rapped in Portuguese exclusively. If English and Spanish are latin rap’s two primary languages, Portuguese is its unofficial third language. There have been rap scenes in all of Brazil’s major cities, including Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and Salvador–and in all of those cities, Brazilian rappers have combined hip-hop with the samba beat. A good example of rap/samba fusion with Portuguese lyrics is “Salvador Astral,” like most Brazilian rap recordings, is little known in North America. Brazilian rappers usually cater to the Brazilian market, and most of them aren’t going to lose any sleep if they aren’t hitting big in the U.S. (or for that matter, the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America).
These days, hip-hop is a huge international phenomenon, and there are rap scenes in countries that range from Japan to Poland to Ireland. But in the beginning, hip-hop only had a small cult folloring–mostly in and around New York. The vast majority of early rappers were African American, and they included pioneers like Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, the Treacherous Three, Kurtis Blow, and Afrika Bambaataa. Most of the people who attended their lat- 70s shows in Manhattan or the Bronx were black–most, but not all. A lot of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans live in the Big Apple’s five boroughs, and young listeners in the Big Apple’s Latino communities proved to be quite receptive to early rap singles like Blow’s “Christmas Rapping” and the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” (both from 1979). The first Latin rap recording came in 1981, when the Mean Machine recorded “Disco Dreams.” That groundbreaking single contained lyrics in both English and Spanish–Puerto Rican-style Spanish, to be exact. Countless Puerto Rican rappers have come along since then, and the most noteworthy have ranged fro the group Mesanjarz of Funk to the Real Roxanne (whose real name is Adelaida Martinez) to female Brooklyn native Hurricane G.
Those who haven’t studied Spanish may have a hard time telling the many different Latino accents apart, but Spanish may have a hard time telling the many different Latino accents apart, but Spanish speakers know that their language is spoken many different ways. Just as the British way of speaking English is much different form the way English is spoken in Georgia or Alabama, a Mexican accent is much different from the Caribbean ways of speaking Spanish that one hears among Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans. And Latin rap has reflected the diversity of the Latino world. While Mesanjarz of Funk and Hurricane G have brought a Nuyorkian perspective to hip-hop and used Puerto Rican slang. Southern California rappers like Kid Frost, tha Mexakinz, lighter Shade of Brown, Proper Dos, Aztlan Nation, Hi-C, and Cypress Hill have brought a Mexican-American or Chicano Flavor to the table. While the first Latino hip-hop heads were Puerto Rican or Dominican, Mexicans weren’t far behind. L.A.’s Kid Frost, who is widely regarded as the first important Chicano MC, started rapping in the early ‘80s–wnd countless Chicano rappers have come along since then. On the West Coast, Chicano rap isn’t just one sound but, rather, a variety of sounds. Chicano rappers have ranged from commercial bubblegum artists to thugged-out gangsta rappers like Cypress Hill, tha Mexakinz, E-Side Ghetto;, and Lil’ Blacky. B ut not all hardcore rap that has come from Chicano MCs is gangsta rap. For example, Kid Frost (whose real name is Arthur Molina Jr.) is a hard-core rapper but not a gangsta rapper.
The most famous Cuban rapper is the L.A.-based Mellow Man Ace, who is best known for his 1989 hit “Mentirosa” (which sampled Santana’s “Evil Ways”). Ace, who was born Ulpiano Sergio Reyez in Cuba but moved to L.A. when he was only four, has rapped with an unmistakable Cuban accent–and the bilingual MC acknowledged his Cuban accent–and the bilingual MC acknowledged his Cuban heritage by calling his first album Escape ftom Havana. Although “Mentirosa” was a smash, Ace’s popularity didn’t last very long Rap audiences (much like urban and dance-pop audiences) can be extremely fickle, and by 1993, the Cubano was without a record deal. After an eight-year absence from the studio, Ace attempted a comeback in 2000 with the excellent From the Darkness into the Light–which, regrettably, didn’t sell and received very little attention.
It is important to know the difference between Latino rappers and Latino dance-pop singers. In the ‘80s, the term “Latin hip-hop’ was coined to describe the Latin-influenced dance-pop of artists like Expose, the Cover Girls, TKA, Nayobe, Nancy Martinez, and Sweet Sensation. A synonym for that style of music is “Latin Freestyle” of simply “Freestyle”, and those terms are preferable to “Latin hip-hop” because Expose and their colleagues are not hip-hoppers or rappers in the true sense–rather, they are dance-pop singers with Latin and hip-hop influences. Latin freestyle, like Hi-NRG and deep house, is basically a form of post-‘70s disco–and there is a major difference between singers like Expose and the Cover Girls and Latino rappers such as Kid Frost, Mellow Man Ace, and Hurricane G.
In the ‘90s. Latin rap became the focus of various compilations. One of the best was Rhino’s 1995 release Latin Lingo:Hip-Hop from the Raza, which has a Mexican orientation. While Cuban rapper Mellow Man Ace’s “Mentirosa” is included, chicano MCs dominate the compilation (which contains some very insightful liner notes by journalist Gabriel Alvarez). Other note worthy Latin rap compilations of the ‘90s include Priority’s Latin Hip-Hop Flava, Moola’s Str8 Up Loco, and Globo’s Rap En Espanol; while Latin Hip-Hop Flava and Str8 Up Loco contain mostly English lyrics, the Globo compilation was aimed at the Latin-American market and spotlights rap recordings that are totally in Spanish.
One of the most famous Latino pop-rappers of all time is Gererdo, who was born in Ecuador. Best known for his early ‘90s hit “Rico Suave,” Gerardo never received much respect from hip-hop’s hardcore (which dismissed him as a Latino equivalent of Vanilla Ice). But then, Gerardo never claimed to be a hardcore rapper or a hip-hop purist–he was always a commercial pop-rapper and never pretended ot be anything else. Gerardo always went after the pop market, and most of the people who bought “Rico Suave” were more likely to be New Kids on the Block fans or Debbie Gibson fans than Ice-T fans.
IN the lat ‘90s and the early 2000s, there was considerable talk of a “Latin explosion” in the non-Latin media. By “Latin explosion,” non-Latin publications were referring to the commercial success that pop singers Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Marc Angthony, and Shakira were enjoing among non-Latin listeners. But truth be told, Latin music was a huge market long before any non-Latin listeners bought Martin’s Livin’la Vida Loca” in 1999–and Latin rap has long been a viable part of the Latin market, Latinos–Mexican, Spanish, Puerto Rican, Cub an, Brazilian, or otherwise–have been rapping for a longtime, and it is a safe bet that they will keep rapping well into the 21st century.