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As hip-hop turns 50, reflecting on the role Latin artists played

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: Fifty years ago today, DJ Kool Herc hosted a dance party in the Bronx called Back to School Jam. Admission, 25 cents for the ladies, 50 for the fellas. Now, little did they know that pocket change bought them tickets to history. August 11, 1973, is now regarded as the birth of hip-hop. Of course, African Americans created the art form, but Latinos have played an essential historic role in the birth and evolution of hip-hop. Joining us to discuss are Felix Contreras of the NPR music podcast Alt.Latino and his former co-host, Jasmine Garsd. Jasmine, let's start with you here. Just how important is the role of Latinos in terms of the beginning of hip-hop?

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: You just cannot talk about the origins of hip-hop without talking about Latinos. Hip-hop is born in New York. Furthermore, it's born in the Bronx. So it brings this amazing mix of African American culture and various Caribbean and Latino cultures. So from the very beginning, you're talking about Ruby Dee from the seminal group Fantastic Five, DJ Disco Wiz, and later on, Kid Frost from LA and Mellow Man Ace. He's known as the godfather of Latin rap. He's Cuban American, also from California. Here's the 1989 song "Mentirosa."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MENTIROSA")

MELLOW MAN ACE: (Rapping) Check this out, baby, tenemos tremendo lio. Last night, you didn't go a la casa de tu tio. Resulta ser, hey, you were at a party, higher than the sky, emborrachada de Bacardi.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Did I hear you rapping on that in the background there, A?

MARTÍNEZ: I might have been.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: That song by Mellow Man Ace, too, was so fun because that was one of the first times that I could kind of express myself, my culture, my language in English and Spanish to some of my friends. So I was working in a department store. And I used to rap that song to all my friends, who were just so amazed to hear rap in Spanish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MENTIROSA")

MELLOW MAN ACE: (Rapping) And, please, por favor, tell me la verdad because I really need to know. Yeah, necesito entender.

GARSD: Yeah. Well, by the '90s, you have an explosion of artists, like Cypress Hill, N.O.R.E., Big Pun, Hurricane G - we lost her last year.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Felix, hip-hop has had a worldwide reach. I mean, did hip-hop change at all when it actually reached Latin America, the Caribbean and South America beyond just the language?

CONTRERAS: You know, where the impact was felt was in the rhythms - OK? - because what happened is, underneath - you know, you have people beatboxing and stuff here in the United States. But what happened in Latin America is that they started adding rhythms and traditions from the Afro-Caribbean, from the Andean and everywhere in between.

MARTÍNEZ: I know you featured a lot of these artists on your podcast. Felix, who has stood out to you?

CONTRERAS: One of the first artists that I ever interviewed, a hip-hop artist, was a young woman named Ana Tijoux. She's from Chile. And I was fascinated by the way she played with language and the way she played with rhythm. Here's her track, "1997."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1997")

ANA TIJOUX: (Rapping in Spanish).

GARSD: It's so - like, can I just say, it's, like, so amazing what she does with the words. Like, she turns them into, like, plastic or something. It's just - she really uses her voice and her words as an instrument in itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1997")

TIJOUX: (Rapping in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: One of the other groups that became very, very influential in Latin music and also in Latin hip-hop was Calle 13. And we interviewed them very, very early on. And they became, like, the biggest Latin Grammy winner. There's so many different awards, accolades, influences. One of the tracks that they released just before the two brothers split up and went their separate ways was a track called "Latinoamerica." And I've always felt like it's, like, the definitive statement on Latin American history, politics, sensibilities.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LATINOAMERICA")

CALLE 13: (Rapping in Spanish).

MARTÍNEZ: Jasmine what have been your favorite interviews on Alt.Latino?

GARSD: I think one of the interviews that I hold closest to my heart is Puerto Rican rapper Tego Calderon. He's really, you know, one of the founding fathers of reggaeton, which is this genre that blends elements of hip-hop and Caribbean beats. And I traveled to Puerto Rico. And we spent a lot of time at his house talking about his love of reggaeton, about politics, about being a Black Puerto Rican and how, a lot of times, reggaeton and the general Latin music industry overlooks its own Black roots.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOIZA")

TEGO CALDERON: (Rapping in Spanish).

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Jasmine, so we're hearing a lot of muchachos.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTÍNEZ: Tell me about the role of Latinas in this genre.

GARSD: Yeah, I think, just like hip-hop in the United States and just like, honestly, any musical genre, it has struggled with misogyny. But it's just filled with brilliant female pioneers. And I don't think I could not mention Puerto Rico's iconic Ivy Queen. She's, like, the mother of Puerto Rican reggaeton, an amazing rapper.

CONTRERAS: And before we play this track - it's a track called "Quiero Bailar." And it is saying that, yeah, we're going to be in a club. It's from her perspective, from a female dance perspective, right? We're going to be in a club. We're going to dance. We're going to get very, very suggestive. It's going to get very hot and steamy. But it doesn't mean I want to go home, in bed with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUIERO BAILAR")

IVY QUEEN: (Rapping in Spanish).

GARSD: This song is just so ahead of its time. This song came out in the early 2000s, and I've listened to it a gazillion times. But just listening to it again right now, I'm thinking, Ivy Queen was really ahead of her time in singing about, you know, I want to be free. I want to dance. That doesn't mean anything. I don't owe you anything with my body.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Jasmine Garsd and Felix Contreras. Their latest episode of the podcast Alt.Latino looks back at how they've covered hip-hop en Espanol over the years, including their interview with Bad Bunny. And that's at nprmusic.org. Thanks, you two.

CONTRERAS: Thank you.

GARSD: Thanks for having us. This was so much fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUIERO BAILAR")

QUEEN: (Rapping in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.
Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.