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It's Not Just a Translation of Rap

Two artists take rap en espanol into authentic Latin territory. However, getting it heard hasn't been easy.

September 08, 2002|ERNESTO LECHNER

The voice is beginning to sound tense and edgy. It already has a rough quality, with its flamenco tinge and brusque accent, but there's a layer of anger that's new and intimidating, even through a transatlantic phone line. There's no doubt about it: "La Mala" (the Mean One) Rodriguez is losing her patience.

"So what are you saying?" the 23-year-old Spanish rapper snaps at the mention of the myriad heroin references in her profanity-laced rhymes. "Are you asking me if I do drugs? Sure, I've done drugs. Big deal."

With the streetwise flow of a consummate MC, she adds, "El que no fuma, ha fumado o va a fumar." Whoever's not smoking has already smoked or will soon be doing it.

Welcome to the world of Maria Rodriguez Garrido, a.k.a. La Mala, the most explosive, enigmatic and talented rapper in the Latin world. Normally, Americans wouldn't hear much about her, but the Universal Latino label's recent release of her debut album, "Lujo Iberico" (Iberian Luxury), and the Universal-distributed Surco's "Emigrante," the new collection by the revamped and vastly improved Cuban outfit Orishas, has ushered in a new wave of progressive-minded rap en espanol in the United States.

It's about time. Aside from cheesy mergers of hip-hop with merengue by groups such as Proyecto Uno, and the Chicano rap movement, which has more in common with mainstream rap than with Latin music, the presence of Spanish rap in the U.S. has been limited mostly to the punk-rock shenanigans of Molotov, the middle-of-the-road soundscapes of Control Machete, and the funk-friendly jams of Illya Kuryaki & the Valderramas.

Overseas, it's a different story.

In Spain, rap has been growing as an underground genre since 1994, with notable collectives such as Solo Los Solo, 7 Notas 7 Colores and Violadores del Verso. In Latin America, Chile is a rapper's paradise, with outfits such as Tiro de Gracia, Makiza and La Pose Latina releasing essential albums and drawing crowds as large as 5,000 to concerts.

But U.S.-based Latino labels haven't shown any interest in releasing modern rap classics such as Solo Los Solo's "Quimera" or Makiza's "Aerolineas Makiza" in a market dominated by glossy pop and rootsy norteno. The Mexican and Central American immigrants who form the bulk of the Latin music market don't listen to it, so why should a label that's selling a million copies of Los Tucanes de Tijuana put money and energy into rap?

"As long as radio stations refuse to program this kind of material, rap en espanol will never be a commercially viable genre," says Elena Rodrigo, Universal Latino's national marketing manager of alternative product and the person most responsible for getting the Rodriguez album released in the U.S. "Getting [pop-rock singer] Juanes on Latino radio stations was already a feat, and he's extremely commercial. Forget about them playing Orishas or La Mala."

Just as it took Latin American rock a few decades of trial-and-error to find its artistic identity, Spanish rap has struggled to avoid being a mere imitation of its North American counterpart.

That's why "Lujo Iberico" stands as a seminal effort..

Rodriguez doesn't attempt to translate the aesthetic of rap. Rather, she transposes it to the vernacular of the barrios of her hometown, Seville, while adapting it to her persona as a callous, occasionally vicious and always upfront independent woman with nothing to fear.

What she's taken from her favorite MCs such as Snoop Dogg and Nas--the braggadocio, the concept of the opposite sex as mere object of pleasure, the idea of an individual code of ethics that functions within a marginalized world--she's tailored to the richness, humor and irony of the Spanish language.

On "Tambalea," a song about continually gaining and losing control, she displays a remarkable poetic imagination, spitting out a long series of rhymes ending with the "ea" sound (jalea--jam; marea--to get you dizzy; pelea--to fight; menea--to shake; and an expletive or two to boot). The track is intensely sensuous and hypnotic.

Still, La Mala has some growing up to do artistically. At times, the album's production (by Jota Mayuscula and Supernafamacho, former members of Spanish rap collective El Club de los Poetas Violentos) fails to match Rodriguez's brooding delivery. At its best, however, "Lujo Iberico" takes rap en espanol to a new level of maturity and artistic independence.

Unlike Rodriguez, members of the Paris-based Cuban trio Orishas emerge as wide-eyed idealists on "Emigrante," their second album. The recording's beats (courtesy of French producer Niko Noki) are supple and smooth, the melodies instantly hummable, and the rhymes direct and emotional.

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