AUSTIN, TEXAS — Friday night, as rapper Nina Dioz was making her U.S. debut at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, she slammed her microphone down midsong and started yelling expletives at the sound engineer from the stage, telling the crowd, "This place doesn't want me to give you the show you deserve." She had been asking for the bass to be turned up, to no avail.
Nina Dioz, 23, is Mexico's answer to Grammy-nominated powerhouse M.I.A. or the diminutive rapper Lady Sovereign, and like those multiculti acts, she's used her innate grit and fire to carve out a spot in the largely male-dominated world of hip-hop in her native country. Now she plans to bring Mexican hip-hop to the rest of the world.
She's perhaps an unlikely candidate to do so. Standing 5 feet 6, with shoulder-length blond hair and blue eyes, Nina Dioz doesn't fit conventional notions of what a Mexican rap star might look like. The 23-year-old, whose given name is Carla Reyna, says that she's become accustomed to questions about her gender or skin color.
"When I started out, I remember being scared, because it was all guys with looks on their faces like they wanted to kill somebody," she said last month on the set of a video shoot in a tony part of her hometown of Monterrey. "But there are also guys who have respect and see a girl on the scene trying to rap and they support her."
She's definitely getting support from more established artists. Monterrey is home to Control Machete, one of the first Mexican rap groups to enjoy international exposure, and the former members of the now-defunct trio are ardent fans of Nina Dioz's confident, laid-back style. "She's always been very clear about what she wanted to do and doesn't fail," said Pato Machete, a rapper with the group. "She's always moving forward."
It just spoke to her
Hip-hop culture and music grabbed Nina Dioz early: At 8, she took her first toke of marijuana and listened to Cypress Hill at the urging of a cousin (she's since quit smoking the herb).
In her early teens, she began cutting her teeth in Monterrey's hip-hop underground, at spots such as the Roche, where she kicked some of her first freestyle rhymes in the front of the club. She acquired her unusual moniker, which translates to female baby Jesus, after a woman in a cafe shouted it at her.
She hooked up with five other women to form Rimas Femeninas (Female Rhymes) in 2007, a collective of rappers from different parts of Mexico and Latin America, including Afro-Chilean artist Moyenei. The group performed all over Mexico but separated after a year to pursue solo projects.
Nina Dioz released the seven-song EP "Marcapasos" (or "Pacemaker") in 2007. She used it as a calling card, traveling to Mexico City to hand-sell discs at the huge flea market known as El Chopo. One of the tracks found an audience on the city's pop-heavy Reactor 105.7 radio station.
Several months later, "Priefiero el Asfalto," a song from her upcoming debut album, "Nueva Escuela," was featured on the soundtrack to the Mexican box-office sensation "Rudo y Cursi," a comedy starring Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal that played at the Sundance Film Festival in January. (The movie is slated for fall release in the U.S.)
"She can express herself with her lyrics and she controls the mike very well," said Frank "El Medico" Rodriguez, a Miami recording engineer who helped handle production duties on Nina Dioz's upcoming full-length collection, which is due out April 15 on Mexico City-based label Noiselab Records.
Some of the friends she's made in the local hip-hop community helped her land that record deal. Erick Santos, former lead singer of rapcore group La Flor de Lengua -- Monterrey's answer to Rage Against the Machine -- was the first to bring Nina Dioz into the studio. Together, they crafted her radio hit "Cuando, Cuando."
His goal with Nina Dioz was to push Mexican rap forward: "Control Machete created the standard for producing a Spanish-language hip-hop album," he said.
"The problem is that no one paid attention to try and surpass that level of production. Nothing that followed was as good."
Nina Dioz is hoping to fill that void -- and strike a blow for female empowerment at the same time.
"I think now's the time for those women who rap inside their homes to bring it out into the streets and do it for the people," she said. "Women rappers are evolving, and here in Mexico they've been coming up with some interesting styles and ideas. It's cool what's been going on in the last five years."
She's got vigor
Although technical issues plagued Nina Dioz's set at SXSW's Latin showcase, her stage presence showed great promise. The bass thundered through the speakers as she sprinted to the front of the stage and launched into song, her words flying with serious vigor.
Afterward, the local media, including one reporter from Houston, surrounded Nina Dioz, who's next slated to appear in May at Mexico City's largest alternative music fest, Vive Latino.
Perhaps a signal of things to come.
"Carla always has a clear idea of what she wants," Santos said. "If there were more people like Carla here in Mexico, rap would be on a whole other level."