Raise the Flag Whether incorporating Hispanic culture in their rhymes or all-out spitting in Spanish, Latino rappers have been leaving their stamp on hip-hop more than ever. Six rising Latino rappers reflect on how heritage informs their music. Interviews: Bianca Torres Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
For so long, Fat Joe and the late Big Pun had to carry the weight. The two rap giants who reigned through the 1990s and 2000s were long considered the faces of Latino hip-hop, as they emblazoned their music and images with their Hispanic heritages. Fat Joe (Cuban and Puerto Rican) has been connecting hip-hop to Hispanic culture ever since his involvement in recruiting features for DJ Playero and Nico Canada’s 1997 Boricua Guerrero: First Combat, a groundbreaking reggaetón/hip-hop crossover project. And Pun, the first solo Latino rapper to release a platinum-certified album (1998’s Capital Punishment), made an everlasting ode to his Puerto Rican heritage with the 2000 track “100%”—it’s posthumous video, shot in Puerto Rico, decked out with the island's flags and imagery.
Yet it seems to be a new day for artists like Fat Joe—as well as other Latino rap stars like Cypress Hill, N.O.R.E., The Beatnuts, Joell Ortiz and Pitbull. While Hispanic rappers were once found few and far between on the mainstream level, their presence in hip-hop has been seen and heard in 2018 more than ever. Cardi B has been loud and proud about her Dominican roots since day one, and embracing them has helped her land her biggest hit yet with the crossover song of the summer, “I Like It,” which features Spanish spittas J Balvin and Bad Bunny. Controversial rapper 6ix9ine, who is Mexican, raps completely in Spanish for his Anuel AA-featured “Bebe.” Colombian rapper Lil Pump jumps on “Arms Around You,” a Spanish collaboration with XXXTentacion, Maluma and Swae Lee. Even non-Hispanic superstars like Drake are out here assimilating—he sings perfect Spanish on Bad Bunny’s “Mia.”
As the Latin trap bonanza runs parallel to hip-hop, rappers of various backgrounds, sounds and localities who rep Hispanic roots are getting their shine on. XXL spoke to six budding Latino artists about how their culture has influenced their music and careers.
My mom and dad divorced, so I was raised in the South as a Black person. If you’ve been to [Dominican Republic], you should know they have a lot of Spanish, dark Dominicans. They be Black as fuck just like me. My dad happened to be a Black Dominican and my mom’s Black. African-Americans and Latinos have it rough in the U.S.—I’m both, so I guess I’m double rough. I guess I’m more looked at as a Black person anyway.
I speak Spanish. I mean, I haven’t really implemented that. Speaking two different languages, I guess it can help you with your vocabulary. It made me think a certain kind of way about shit. If somebody comes and speaks to me in Spanish or like, a fan during my Instagram Live speak to me in Spanish, I’ll just speak Spanish with them. But I just leave it at that. I feel like I’m definitely a voice. The type of shit I’m on, it’s just different for a Dominican artist. I don’t think really that Dominican artists are doing the new wave shit, you know?
You have other races in hip-hop but the Latino [artists] coming in the last year or so—it’s like, a big-ass wave. Everybody is becoming a superstar because there’s so many Spanish speaking countries. Whenever you make a song that every Latino can listen to, it’s just a big-ass song because there is so many people that listen to it. There’s so many Latinos. I’m going to do some Spanish [music] but on some super like, nigga shit. Cardi is Dominican as fuck, right? It makes me happy and shit.
Ethnicity: Mexican Languages Spoken: English, Spanish Hometown: Atlanta Age: 24
[Being Mexican] is an advantage because I gotta take advantage of the things that make me different from everybody. And sometimes, it’s a disadvantage because you just gotta work as hard as the other people. Now, it’s definitely easier but when I first stepped in the game—there was no Hispanics rapping.
I had four brothers and one sister [growing up], but they were from either Mexico or California. I’m the only one from Atlanta, so I guess I was brought up on a lot of ATL artists like T.I., Jeezy, OutKast, Gucci [Mane]. My parents didn’t really listen to music like that. But my dad would be bumping narcocorrido. My mom liked singing, I used to catch her singing a lot of [Michael Jackson] and Selena.
I got a couple of songs in Spanish. I’ve been doing a lot of my style, South rap. I wanna keep adding to my résumé. I wanna be different and do all types of music. I make turn-up music but I like to say something, too. And talk about stuff. There’s a lot of stuff going on. People don’t even know our stories. I started to notice things that’s going on in this world and I wanna speak up about it for the Hispanics.
Ethnicity: Puerto Rican (Mother), African-American (Father) Languages Spoken: English Hometown: Prince George’s County, Md. Age: 21
Growing up, my mom always knew that I was more on the Black side than the Spanish side, just because I didn’t speak Spanish. Whenever I’m around Spanish people, I’m kind of like a fly on the wall. When I started making music, I figured the name Rico Nasty would give a background of who I am. I didn’t want people to [think], "Oh, she’s Puerto Rican, and she didn’t want to tell anybody. She’s ashamed." Because I do take pride in it. I remember growing up, going to New York and the Puerto Rican Day Parade, doing certain shit like that. I have a song called "Rojo"—sometimes I try to incorporate certain words.
I feel like I get a variety of people in my crowd. Because of that, there’s a nice amount of Hispanic people and Latinos that come to my shows. There’s also a really big amount of Black and White people. The rock brings the White people and the hip-hop brings the Black people, but the Spanish people like to dance, so that’s why they come to shows. It’s so fun and it’s so free.
Ethnicity: Puerto Rican Languages Spoken: English, Spanish Hometown: Harlem Age: 26
I am Boricua, baby. Being Puerto Rican adds a really beautiful perspective to my music. It’s played a huge component because I see beyond being Puerto Rican. My mother’s side is Afro-indigenous, so they grew up with African customs and culture. My upbringing integrated an Afro-indigenous identity—very Taino, very Black.
I grew up listening to everything, from classic hip-hop to Puerto Rican/Spanish music [like] salsa, merengue and mambo. Rock ’n’ roll, soul, Motown. La Brujas: a spoken word poet from Def Poetry Jam. I love [Big] Pun but my big reference is Hurricane G, one of the best female rappers from New York in the 1990s. She worked with Method Man and Xzibit and has an iconic album called All Woman. She refers to herself as an Afro-Yoruban priestess. She sings about Yemaya and the West African Yoruban deities. All the things that I talk about in my music is the same thing she talks about.
I think being Latino has helped me, but I’m never marketed as a token Latina. Do I have a privilege? Yes. But I use the opportunities to denounce my privilege and represent people like myself that are not always represented. Because of my intersection, I’m not even as included in the Latino market as you would assume. To be honest, I’ve been more embraced by the pan-African communities. Despite my lyrics, how Puerto Rican I am, a lot of people assume I’m Black and White. People come up to me after a show and go, “I didn’t know you were Puerto Rican. I didn’t know you spoke Spanish.”
Incorporating Puerto Rican culture into my music is all I know. My music is all about the New York Puerto Rican experience, [songs like] "Brujas" or "ABCs of New York." I love all kinds of music, I appreciate everybody in the game, but I can only rap about what I know and what I live: my culture, my customs, my pastimes. I understand that I’ve played a large part in the Latino rap world and it’s something that’s blown up. Hip-hop is a part of our narrative, especially if you’re Caribbean. Dominicans and Puerto Ricans from New York—that’s a part of your narrative regardless. It’s a beautiful intersection.
Ethnicity: Puerto Rican Languages Spoken: English Hometown: West Palm Beach, Fla. Age: 21
I looked up to [Big] Pun a lot. Pun was definitely an inspiration to me. He made me feel like anything was possible in the rap industry. You never see a lot of Latino rappers. You see Fat Joe but Pun really set the standard.
I think the rap community has accepted a lot more Latino rappers. It took a while, but I’m glad everyone’s getting along with each other. Hip-hop isn’t a primary thing for a specific artist or specific people. You don’t gotta look a specific way—you can be Latino and be an artist and it’s OK. It should’ve been like that from the jump. Sometimes, it’s not even about a race thing. It’s just some people of our skin color don’t pop off in certain cities or states. It’s kinda like a culture shock.
I’m proud of the fact that I’m Puerto Rican; if I can speak to other Puerto Ricans that’s an amazing accomplishment. But I wouldn’t say I’m a voice. I don’t put that responsibility on me—that’s not my goal. Nowadays, none of that even matters. I feel like people are just focused on the music. I’m very excited, not even just on a hip-hop scale [but] on a music scale in general. [The Latino music landscape] is the biggest it’s ever been. Especially when you got an artist like Bad Bunny—it’s amazing. And then you got the crossovers: Drake with Bad Bunny. We’re accepted into hip-hop and [hip-hop has] accepted what we do as well.
A lot of people don’t know I’m Spanish until they hear me speaking in Spanish or they see my Spanish flag tattoos. I got a lot of Spanish words in my mouthpiece when I talk to people—that’s what catches a lot of people’s attention. People need to hear the sound of the Spanish culture. There’s a lot of Spanish culture [music] that’s so good right now: Bad Bunny is fire, J Balvin is fire, Lil Pump is fire—I just found out he’s Colombian, so that’s super lit.
Saying raps in Spanish, I didn’t know how to freestyle in Spanish or write or do the right melody, the right swag. But I got some Spanish music in the works. I did it a while ago, it just wasn’t ready. It’s finally sounding how I want it to sound. [I] got this Spanish song with Kap G. I got a couple of ’em in the chamber. We just ready to go crazy.
I definitely have a huge Latin fan base. I got a lot of fans in Mexico and Colombia. My fans beg me to do a show out there, but I’m just waiting for the right time. I’m just putting on for the culture.