Sunday, October 16, 2011

R.A.P. SQUAD-De Este Lado (Craneo Kafe, 2011)

As you probably already know, by reading my posts, I used to be deeply involved in the underground hip-hop scene back home, before I moved to the States. it only took me a few months living in California to become completely disenchanted with the whole state of  hip-hop and eventually detach completely from that scene.
In recent years, however, I was sucked back in. I first met this one mexican guy who's a very active Spanish-language rapper in the bay Area scene and through him I started to become acquainted with everybody else and soon I was getting invited to DJ at pretty much all their gigs. I hadn't suddenly recovered my enthusiasm for hip-hop, and in all honesty, I wasn't a fan of any of the artists in this local scene, but I kept hanging out with them, mainly because of nostalgia. This tiny rap-en-español scene in the SF Bay Area reminded me a lot of the origins of my own scene back in South America in the mid-'90s, when we were just a bunch of kids (99% male) trying to build a scene from scratch, out of absolutely nothing, in an environment that was extremely unwelcoming.
It's all about that Spanish Rap Paradox that I mentioned last year on that controversial post. Rap in Spanish made in the United States is a niche within a niche and has to confront so many negative stereotypes that it's pretty much impossible for a local scene to emerge successfully. Anglo-rap fans don't pay any attention to rap in any other language because (unlike us) they're unable to appreciate music in a language they don't understand. Mainstream latinos look down at rap music with distrust, and automatically associate it with gangs (and sadly, local rappers do very little to break away from this prevalent misconception) and the few Latinos who understand and appreciate real hip-hop are often involved in the Anglo scene so they don't even know there's rap in Spanish going on in their towns.
So if you go to these events where I was invited to DJ and it's usually just a bunch of dudes (with a few girlfriends hanging out on the sides) watching each others perform. One artists goes up on stage, then comes down and becomes the audience for the next artist and so on. They get very little if any fan support.
And it's in that struggle that I find myself reflected because that's the way it used to be for us, back in my hometown, back in 1996 when we were trying to start a scene, even though we were fighting against very different opposing forces and negative stereotypes (mainly because of the overwhelming dominance of rock music).
Anyway, out from this Bay Area rap-en-español scene came R.A.P. Squad, formed by four Mexican immigrants. One of them you're probably familiar with because he was a  guest in my song "Cumbia Nena" included in the Stronghold Sound's Audio Refuge Compilation. He goes by Nes and he's a really cool guy. He pretty much put together this coalition of local rappers, who were all doing their own thing, independently, in the scene and together they made this self-released debut album. Compared to the current most progressive hip-hop artists in Latin America they're still a bit behind, attached to many trite clichés, but this is just a start (not only for them but for their whole scene) and hopefully they won't lose momentum and will keep developing their own style. Check them out and support them by purchasing their album, available in CD format in select record stores throughout the bay and digitally on Amazon and everywhere else.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Quantic Really Digs Colombia

Dj, producer, curator and digger extraordinaire. Quantic is one of the biggest players in current progressive Latin music and he’s not even Latino. Born in the English countryside he made a pretty decent career for the first half of last decade producing soulful downtempo electronica until around 2007 he got suddenly converted into Latinhood. That song, “Mi Swing Es Tropical,” he did in Puerto Rico with Nickodemus and Candela Allstars was a huge breakthrough and pretty much marked the beginning of a whole new phase in his development as an artist, getting immersed in Latin music to the point that he even relocated to Colombia.
Celebrating the recent release of a Best Of Quantic compilation (out on Tru Thoughts), Will Holland, better known  as Quantic, visited San Francisco, CA and there I had the chance to have a little chat backstage right before his show.


- So, how did you first get into Latin music?
- It happened in Puerto Rico. Nickodemus invited me to go there and record with the Candela Allstars. That was the first time I got in touch with (Latin music). I had already a lot of music because I buy records, lots of music. But that was the first time I came in touch with actual musicians and it was cool. It was interesting. But for me its all about records. I’ve always got introduced through digging.

- And digging took you to Colombia, where you ended up staying.
- Yeah. I was really into Ray Pérez y sus Dementes, these records from Venezuela, and also Afredito Linares, from Perú... and all these records, that kind of scene, revolved around Cali. You hear people shouting out in those records about Cali, because Cali was such a spot to go and play in the ‘70s, it was like this big mecca for salsa. And my friend Beto (Soundway Records’ Roberto Gyemant) assured me that there were going to be heavy records and of course they were. It was interesting. It was another world. Coming from a background of looking for funk records, reggae and stuff, it was like a whole new universe, musically, to discover. Sometimes I don’t like the word 'digging' because it implies a certain nostalgia, maybe a separation between the present and the past. I feel that when they look for records, some people, even friends of mine would buy records of some artist, but if that same artist was playing in the street they wouldn’t go and talk to them.

- Maybe not in that sense, but there’s definitely a nostalgic side to your music because you always approach it from a ‘60s and ‘70s aesthetic. That type of sound.
- Oh yeah, definitely. You gotta understand that at that period everything was at its best. It's like with cars, you had a period when the Jaguar and all these cars were the best they could be, you know, they were beautiful, they were hand-designed. And that’s what happened to music too. You had Fender, people making all these amazing instruments, and you had all these young people and out of that came all these styles and I think it was really at the top as far the recording industry could be.

- There was definitely a creative pinnacle happening at that time.
- Yes, totally. But I don’t wanna be nostalgic in the sense that “oh, no today...” Because that’s the other thing, you gotta imagine that today there’s just as many people. They just don’t have that opportunity because in the ‘70s there seemed to be more of an opening for people to get into that industry. While now I see so many talented people that don’t get accepted as a singer-songwirter, whatever, because if they’re not singing like Marc Anthony they’re not gonna get noticed, you know what I mean? Unless you can prove that you have the potential to sell thousands.

- There has been recently a huge shift in interest among diggers and producers toward old Latin music. It wasn’t just you. Do you think it was because they simply ran out of funk and soul break-beats to sample? All those crates have been dug so much that they reached a point where they needed to look somewhere else?  
- I think it basically came to an end and it was also about like, moving forward. There has to be evolution, it can’t just be the same old thing. And also funk and soul really commercialized with Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones, whatever. It became a big thing and a lot of people just got bored of it, “ok, let’s try something else.” For me, personally, you look for breaks so much that you start thinking “what’s a break?” Is it only when it goes like boom-bap? Is that a break? Or could a break be Congolese music? It’s more about rhythm, finding more rhythms, rather than just American funk.

- How about the recent boom of global interest in Colombia? It’s like suddenly, in the last couple of years, the whole world, but particularly Europe and the US, discovered how amazing Colombian music is, after ignoring it for a long time.
- Yeah, I don’t know why that is. I don’t think that they ignored it. From the ‘70s, ‘80s and even into the ‘90s most of Colombian music was really hard to access abroad, except the crossovers like Carlos Vives and the small world music circles. Because that’s another thing, the world music scene never did Latin American music any favors, making it softer and more like para planchar, you know. I think one key thing has been the internet. That’s been amazing for Colombian acts to be able to get out and get the music heard.

- But how about the interest of European record labels in releasing all these reissues of old Colombian music. You’ve been personally involved in curating many of those compilations. And there’s an undeniable specific interest in Colombia, which ten years ago, it wasn't happening, they were maybe focused in Brazil.
- Yes, that’s true. I think that was certainly happening in the UK, this whole big thing for Brazil. Still goes on. Don’t know. Don’t know why it happened. It seemed like the world became ready maybe. Maybe they weren’t ready for it before. Maybe it’s a hearing thing. I had Colombian records maybe seven or eight years ago that I just didn’t understand back then. It didn’t interest me. And now I hear the same thing today, and with a different understanding I can really like it. The human hear- it’s just psychological, you are hearing the same thing but your interpretation changes.

- How do you feel about the whole ñu-cumbia movement?
- I think it’s cool. Like in anything that explodes so quickly there’s a lot of shit and there’s a lot of good stuff as well. There’re a lot of people sampling Andrés Landero, Los Gaiteros. And that’s great. But there’s a whole lot of musicians in Colombia that can still play that style. Colombian folkloric music hasn’t changed, generally speaking it’s pretty much the same thing that it was a hundred years ago, you know, gaitas, cumbias. Also, a lot of the times when I hear the new mash-up things, if the original was so good, why did you need to do that? Why did you need to put a beat to that old record to kind of somehow make it acceptable to the gringos? Why is that? That doesn’t need to happen, people should learn to accept it how it is.

- Do you think there’s a difference between the Colombian music Europeans are interested in, and the Colombian music that Colombians are interested in?
- I think that’s an interesting point, it definitely happens. There’s kind of a wide gap. Let’s face it, just like the British abroad and the Argentineans abroad, there’s people that will only be interested in the famous Argentinean hits that remind them of back home, they’re not interested in something that’s very leftfield. There’s certainly a nostalgia in Colombians and Latinos abroad in general and they wanna hear salsa, they don’t wanna hear these obscure things. It’s the same. Look man, I go to Colombia to buy records and I’m looking for cumbias and rare Fruko records and the salesman is saying to me “look you know this English rock record from the ‘70s?” because they have a big appreciation for British rock from the ‘70s, some that even I never heard about.

- Did it shock you at first, when you got to Colombia, to find out that the average youth down there was more interested in the music coming from Europe and the US rather than cumbia and their own roots?
- Colombians are the first to admit that they value more something that’s coming from the outside in. And when somebody from abroad comes in and plays their music then it puts value on it, there’s this foreign interest in it. It’s a weird phenomenon. It’s definitely a post-colonial phenomenon. You could write a thesis on that.

- I’m of the idea that it was that initial interest of foreigners in cumbia what ignited the whole ñu-cumbia movement coming out of Mexico and Argentina.
- The danger with cumbia is that we have this kind of buzz word, cumbia, cumbia... But there’s a lot of shit that isn’t necessary cumbia. There’s a lot of stuff, like the Argentinean stuff, a lot of it is great, but a lot of just isn’t cumbia. It’s reggae, or dubstep, whatever.

- As long as it has a güiro loop, anything is considered cumbia.
- Exactly. And I think also we have to remember the importance of the African drum patterns. It’s like a language that speaks to those people, and the Costeños in Colombia, they hear that. It’s a pattern that speaks to them. So when they hear cumbia from like Argentina it’s just like they’re mystified. I play that shit to like Aníbal Velázquez and the heavyweight guys from the coast and they are confused. Because the feel is so different.

- But that’s also because cumbia evolved in different directions and assimilated to each country’s local culture in different ways.
- Totally. And that’s beautiful too. That’s lovely. It’s not a bad thing.

- Somebody on my blog left a comment saying that you and Frente Cumbiero were going to work on a project together, recoding at the Discos Fuentes studios in Medellín. I read that and I almost came in my pants.
- Yes, (laughs) we’ve got founding from the British council and it’s still in pre-production what we’re gonna do, but we’re renting Fuentes for like two, three weeks. I’ve been there a lot, it’s cool, they rebuilt the studio in the ‘80s so it’s a little bit different to what it was, but it’s still the same basic concept.

- And I imagine you’re gonna invite some musicians from that era who are still around. Right?
- Yes. Michi Sarmiento. Afredito Linares, Aníbal Velázquez, Pedro Beltrán. The heavyweights. Trying to. Let’s see.

- Are you planning to release this through Tru Thoughts or Soundway?
- Might be for Soundway. We’ve got to see. We’ve got to get it done first. It’s always a gamble when you record. You never know how is it going to work out. Should be good.

- So, you live in Cali, and you’re definitely familiar with the song “Las Caleñas son como las flores,” right? That song pretty much says that women in Cali don’t put out easily, they like to play hard to get. And that’s a pretty well spread preconception about Colombian women in general. Did you experience that yourself or being a foreigner gave you a special pass?
- (Laughs) No comment. No comment. I don’t know if they’re hard to get. I don’t know about that, but they’re certainly beautiful.

- Living in Colombia, do you miss anything from back home? I assume you don’t miss the food.
- Well, you know what? I do. Because that’s a big myth about England. If you go to London, yes, the food is terrible, but I’m from the country and the food is really nice. I have a little cache of English mustard and tea-bags and kind of things that I restock periodically.

- Can you get fish and chips there?
- No. I do my own though.

- I don’t know if you’ve seen it. There’s a Vice TV documentary about how young men in northern Colombia get sexually initiated with female donkeys (because, once again, women play too hard to get). And I always wondered why are there so many cumbia songs about donkeys. Do you think there’s a correlation there?
- I haven’t had a personal insight on that. But I’m sure it goes on man. I was watching the news once and it’s a terribly story about these robbers, ladrones, who robbed a Circus in la costa, in a little town and they stole the sound-system and various other things from the circus and while they were there they took the donkey from the circus and they raped her. And I was thinking, I was watching the news and I was like, “OK, that’s really bad, I’m sorry for the donkey, but fuck, man, how did they know that the donkey was ripe?”

- Because they’re experts! They’ve been fucking donkeys since they were kids.
- I don’t know. I think that’s kind of myth.

- How about the connection between cumbia and donkey fucking?
- I’ve been doing a good job recording with costeños and I have never asked them. And I should maybe not make comment.

- Right, I don’t wanna ruin your reputation, you need to be able to go back and record that album with Frente Cumbiero.
- And they’re gonna say, “hey, what did you say? That we all fuck donkeys?” No. No.