Foundations & Migrations, Joy & Resistance

How interdependent Black and Latinx communities and heritages created hip-hop culture and reggaeton.

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Legendary b-boy Richard Colón, a.k.a. Crazy Legs, in 2017. Credit: Brad Barket/Getty Images.

The year is 1983. Hip-hop culture has reached Japan, and the legendary crew the Cold Crush Brothers hit the stage as part of a promotional tour for the groundbreaking film Wild Style. DJ Charlie Chase spins, searching for the most extended break he can find. As he slows down the b-boy anthem “It’s Just Begun” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch, highlighting the drums and timbales on the record, he infuses the percussion found in Orquesta Sublime’s “Coqueta,” creating a perfect blend of funk and salsa. A few feet away, a “cypher” expands. Breaking in the middle is the Rock Steady Crew.

Chase, a Puerto Rican tastemaker and founding Cold Crush Brothers member, played an immense role in laying the foundation for Latinos in hip-hop. A bicultural product of the times, Chase was able to seamlessly transition from being a musician, playing merengue and salsa and other music in live bands, to spinning records as a hip-hop DJ. “When I started DJing, it was easy for me to like what I saw when I first heard hip-hop, because it was using the elements of everything else I knew about,” Chase says today.

DJ Charlie Chase poses below a back-in-the-day shot of himself at the hip-hop photo exhibit Yes Yes Y’all, at the Deitch Projects gallery in Brooklyn in 2002. Credit: Mychal Watts/WireImage.

Because of their shared lived experiences in the U.S., Black and Latinx youth have continually informed local cultures and trends that later make their way into the mainstream media. The global intersection is significant: Hip-hop and reggaeton have proven time and time again that, as art forms and multibillion-dollar industries, they have the power to influence politically and socially. These styles have in fact become a world stage on which African descendants can proclaim their political and economic rights.

The rise and development of hip-hop evolved from the struggles and hardships experienced by Black Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Puerto Ricans in the 1970s, all communities united by the South Bronx’s low economic and social conditions. Hip-hop would eventually spark waves of consciousness that transcended their regional origins, molding such Black Latin rappers as La Sista, Tego Calderón, Vakero and ChocQuibTown.

The African diaspora birthed a series of transnational genres interconnected through their foundations and migrations — and by their ability to serve as both acts of joy and resistance. “Music traces our map of roots and routes, parallels and commonalities; music serves as a guide to understanding colonialism, slavery and marronage in the Caribbean,” says Bárbara I. Abadía-Rexach, an Afro-Puerto Rican journalist and social anthropologist. She further explains that when listening to Puerto Rican bomba, Dominican palo, Cuban rumba and other Afro-Caribbean rhythms, it’s impossible to miss the similarities. These roots are also present in the non-Spanish-speaking islands of the Caribbean, helping to define calypso and Jamaican mento, for example, which inspired reggae and dancehall (which in turn became a bedrock for hip-hop). 

Hip-hop’s founding trio shares these Afro-Caribbean diasporic roots. Jamaican-born Kool Herc pioneered DJing percussion breaks. Influenced by Herc, Jamaican and Barbadian Afrika Bambaataa contributed to the culture as one of the originators of breakbeat DJing and drum loops. Barbadian Grandmaster Flash further evolved DJing with revolutionary cutting, scratching and mixing techniques. Contributing as dancers, DJs and more — among the most important early graffiti artists is Lady Pink (a.k.a. Sandra Fabara), an Ecuadorian-American — the Latinx presence existed throughout hip-hop’s formative years and beyond.

At the Latino Hip-Hop Summit in the Bronx in 2004, Crazy Legs (left) and Tego Calderón participate in a panel discussion. Credit: Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images.

“Hip-hop culture was a for-us-by-us kind of thing,” says the legendary b-boy Richard Colón, best known by his stage name, Crazy Legs. As a member of the Rock Steady Crew, he propelled b-boy culture internationally. Breaking, as found in all diasporic dance styles, requires instinctively reacting to rhythm and drums. Puerto Ricans such as Crazy Legs implemented and reinvented footwork by incorporating stylistic movements they grew up seeing in Black Latino genres like salsa. “The ‘top rock’ that we [breakers] do, that also comes from Puerto Ricans,” he adds. “We did steps that had mambo and had a different presentation.”

In the ’90s, a Dominican and Puerto Rican duo named G-Bo the Pro & DJ Rei Double R reshaped New York’s mixtape scene, creating what purists of the era consider the most exceptional blended tape productions. “We introduced this machine called 4-track. … We use that same technology [in a different way than] it was supposed to be used,” explains G-Bo, whose real name is Gil Vazquez. The 4-track was initially utilized to create demos. Incorporating the machine to mix, produce and shape the sonics of a tape innovated the scene, and the techniques the duo refined would become a blueprint for DJs to come. 

G-Bo, who also immersed himself in the art and b-boy scene, recalls when Latinx rappers were separated from hip-hop. “This country is Black and white, I think, in terms of what labels were looking for at the time; they weren’t checking Latino rappers,” he says, mentioning acts like TKA, who were street rappers but were convinced to sign to a label in the mid-1980s as artists working in the Latin freestyle genre. “White people didn’t know what to do with us,” Crazy Legs adds.

Nevertheless, that dualism opened the door for bilingual contributions. Known as “The Godfather of Latin Rap,” Mellow Man Ace released “Mentirosa” in 1990, making the guayabera-wearing Afro-Cuban rapper the first Latino with a bilingual hit single. With his brother Sen Dog he also co-founded one of the first bilingual hip-hop acts, which went on to become Cypress Hill. A hugely influential group, they would inspire artists across a range of genres, from alternative rock and hardcore rap to prominent Latin hip-hop artists like Control Machete and Daddy Yankee.

Mellow Man Ace in Southern California in 2018. Credit: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images.

As the culture evolved, rappers continually voiced civil-rights issues, planting Black consciousness throughout the diaspora. While political artists like Chuck D and KRS-One became educators of Black history, similar resistance acts transpired in other communities. “Black and African diasporic music has been a political tool, a freedom tool to teach us resistance and the power and value of our ancestry,” Abadía-Rexach says.

As the epicenter of these movements, Jamaican migration and hip-hop culture ignited today’s reggaeton, Panamanian plena and Dominican dembow. Reggaeton has in recent decades developed into a global phenomenon, though that explosion has already resulted in the whitening of the sound. “I consider reggaeton to be the manifestation of the whitening of perreo,” says the reggaeton historian Katelina Eccleston. “Perreo is political, because of elements that you see that tie into race, identity politics … Reggaeton has transformed to be club music — to be acceptable, to be respectful, to be catchy.”

Reggaeton’s popularization in the early 2000s pushed Afro-Puerto Rican rapper N.O.R.E. to the forefront after he released “Oye Mi Canto” in 2004. The track’s success played a crucial role in the crossover of the genre. Similarly, today rapper Cardi B has used her platform and creative liberty to incorporate the many sounds of her Caribbean heritage while also rapping in Spanglish and Spanish. 

Cardi has also thrived in a space that is Black, with regard to both visibility and the music itself. “Black women in reggaeton on a grand scale don’t exist — that is where the Latin music industry needs to begin. In comparison to hip-hop, Black women have no influence. It’s not until recently that there is an abundance in music videos, and ‘abundance’ is used generously because there aren’t that many,” Eccleston says.

“In comparison, hip-hop cultivates, nurtures and invites Black women to create and influence culture. Although hip-hop has a lot of growth to do in regards to protecting and nurturing darker-skinned Black women, Black women have been able to have powerful careers,” she adds.

As Afro-Puerto Ricans like the duo LDA, O.G. Black, Angel Doze and Glory obtained local success, Tego Calderón impacted music internationally. Inspired by American hip-hop artists, he used his music to educate the masses on the tense relationship between race and society in Puerto Rico. “The miseducation and misrepresentation in the media, etc., contributes to perpetuate the idea of ‘mestizaje’ and the great Puerto Rican family, the notion that we all live in harmony and that there’s no racism here,” Abadía-Rexach says. “That is extremely dangerous, because it left Black people from history and kept them in marginalized spaces covered with poverty, state violence and other precarities and inequalities.” Calderón’s 2002 debut album, El Abayarde, an essential reggaeton album, honors his Afro-diasporic roots and prioritizes his Blackness over his Puerto Rican national identity.

“Musically I feel [El Abayarde] opened many doors and changed the stereotype of the formula that existed,” says the Puerto Rican musician Rafa Pabön. This past June, in the wake of the national uprising demanding justice for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Pabön dropped “Sin Aire” — which translates to “Without Air” — a lyrical cry of frustration and outrage over police brutality. “My purpose in this is to leave a legacy, and that my music educates,” he says. “Music becomes history; 20 years from now, a kid will open a book and know about what exactly happened.”

“If we expand to the African continent, the results show us that we can’t negate or erase our Black history,” Abadía-Rexach says. As the world continues to unpack anti-Blackness and the realization that the Latinx community is not a monolith — not to mention the fact that these heritages have provided popular music’s most crucial foundations — it’s essential to embrace the few Black artists working to reclaim a space in the Latin music industry. Collectively, non-Black artists should question their society, the words they use and how the wealth earned in a space with little Black representation can assist those fighting discrimination, racism and displacement. 

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