Hip Hop Roots: Interview with Raquel Rivera (print edition)


Editors note: Raquel Rivera’s groundbreaking book New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone is of the first works that seriously studies the impact of Latinos on hip hop music and culture and conversely of hip hop on Latinos.

The book is currently being translated to Spanish by Laura Pérez, who previously translated some of Rivera’s earlier work on rap music and cultural politics in Puerto Rico. The Spanish translation will be published by next year.

She is currently working with writer and visual artist Tanya Torres on a collection of essays inspired by New York Puerto Rican artists and cultural workers, tentatively titled De un Pájaro Las Dos Patas y Otros Ensayos or Two Feet of the Same Bird and Other Essays. The aim is to do a version in Spanish and one in English.

Rivera is a professor at Hunter College in New York. She recently received a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship to research and write about women in traditional Puerto Rican and Dominican music, and is a performer with Yaya, a NYC-based collective of women dedicated to cultivating Puerto Rican bomba and Dominican salves.

PA: In your groundbreaking study, New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone, you look at the underestimated influence of Puerto Ricans on Hip Hop music and culture. What is the biggest influence Nuyoricans had on the origins of hip hop?

RR: In terms of the artforms, New York Puerto Ricans were particularly influential in the dance aspect of hip hop. But they were also influential in its musical and visual art aspects, not to mention the overall cultural scene. Without New York Puerto Ricans, hip hop as we know it simply would not exist. The same goes for other ethnic groups present in large numbers in hip hop throughout its initial decade. Without African Americans or Jamaicans, hip hop as we know it would also not exist. (By the way, salsa without African American musical and cultural influences would not be salsa. And Puerto Rican bomba, hailed by purists as one of the most 'authentically' Puerto Rican music genres, would not be bomba as we know it without the influx of Haitians into 19th Century Puerto Rico.)

The majority of South Bronx residents in the 1970s were Puerto Rican (back then the New York Latino population was overwhelmingly Puerto Rican). And young Puerto Ricans, especially, interacted closely with other people from the Caribbean and African Americans. So its no surprise that, in ethnic terms, hip hop is a shared space. All throughout the city, there was a climate of close interaction between these groups.

And hip hop was not the first cultural scene where this was the case. These groups had been cultural collaborators all throughout the earlier 20th Century, as manifested in music genres like boogaloo, Latin Soul, doo wop, R & B and jazz, in other artistic realms, in political struggles and in sports, just to mention a few examples. Hip hop is heir to all those shared cultural and political spaces between Puerto Ricans, other Latinos, other people from the Caribbean and African Americans.

PA: Who are some of the early Puerto Rican artists and musicians in hip hop?

RR: Just to mention a few of the better-known ones of the 70s and early 80s: DJ Charlie Chase of The Cold Crush Brothers; Rubie Dee and Prince Whipper Whip of the Fantastic Five; OC and Tito of the Fearless Four; most of the Rock Steady Crew and the New York City Breakers.

A few important Puerto Rican artists clearly had a key role in the formation and development of hip hop. To what extent has hip hop been embraced by Puerto Rican public? Will hip hop ever compete with salsa let’s say as a popular music of Puerto Ricans?

Hip hop is (and has long been) the music of choice for huge sectors of the Puerto Rican population, particularly young people. Hip hop is an important cultural source for the rap/reggae hybrid known as reggaetón, which rose to fame in the 1990s and is currently the most popular music among young Puerto Ricans inside and outside of Puerto Rico. Salsa has already been overshadowed by reggaetón in terms of its popularity among young Puerto Ricans.

PA: Why has the influence of Puerto Ricans on hip hop been so often overlooked and overshadowed in the public eye by the African American role in hip hop?

RR: The reasons are interrelated and there have been many. But there is one overriding reason above all others: We are all so used to accepting myths of cultural purity and ethnic separation, that its hard to see the truth even when its standing right in front of you. Ethnic groups have a history of struggle over 'cultural property' and this is no different. Take for example the longstanding argument among those that proclaim salsa to be 'really' Puerto Rican, or 'really' Cuban, or 'really' Latin American, or 'really' US Latino.

PA: Is there a difference in hip hop made by Blacks and Latinos or are Latin (specifically Puerto Rican) hip hoppers simply making 'standard' hip hop?

RR: Sometimes there is a difference, sometimes there isn’t. Puerto Ricans make all kinds of hip hop, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in both, from the most musically 'standard' to the kind that incorporates plena, salsa and bomba.

PA: Has there been a reciprocal impact of hip hop on Latin music in the US or in Puerto Rico? In other words, has hip hop had an impact on Salsa, merengue, etc.?

RR: Absolutely. Even before rap music was commercially recorded in 1979, it was already having an impact on the music produced by Latinos. Cuban legend La Lupe recorded a song called 'SoulSalsa' where she raps, and that was before 1979. She was living in the South Bronx back then (what a surprise). Sunshine Logroño was rapping on Puerto Rican TV in the 1980s. Some of the most popular Puerto Rican salsa, merengue and pop artists have recorded songs with rap artists or incorporated elements of hip hop into their music.

PA: What ways do Latin stereotypes permeate hip hop? Are Latin women reduced to video ho 'mamis'? How do Fat Joe and Big Pun and others play into these stereotypes and crass multiculturalism?

RR: Stereotypes permeate commercial hip hop music, generally speaking. African American men and women get stereotyped. Its no surprise that the same thing gets done to Latinas as 'video ho mamis.' Its also no surprise that Latino artists have it done to them and/or do it to themselves. The market in general (since this goes way beyond hip hop) usually thrives on selling stereotypes.

PA: You note that Puerto Ricans and Blacks in New York often faced the same socio-economic conditions in which hip hop emerged. How have New York’s resource and political struggles between Blacks and Puerto Ricans shaped or been played out in hip hop (if the have)?

RR: Hip hop has been a space of both cooperation and conflict between African Americans and Puerto Ricans. Some of the conflicts between both groups have been played out within hip hop, but some of the points of commonalty and solidarity have been proposed from within hip hop and then spread out to the larger cultural and political realm. So it has gone both ways.