From the moment rapper Pepper Kilo casually pops the cap off his brown-bagged 40 oz. in the first few frames of Fuete Billete’s “Bien Guillao,” it’s clear you’re watching a different kind of underground rap video. Cue spooky intro. And the beat drops.
Over a strip club-worthy trap track, Fuete Billete raps about culos and cocaine whilst pills are popped, Phillies are sparked, and bills are stacked. To round it all out, an alluring lady twerks in a combination face mask and Puerto Rican flag bikini. Taken in together, it’s hysterically naughty, terribly catchy and blatantly misogynic; an ode to the art of behaving badly.
But it was also confusing. With their weird clothes and super stylized visuals; are these gangsters or hipsters? Or, dios mio, maybe both at once?
Whatever they are, Fuete Billete arrived to shock and awe the Puerto Rico hip-hop landscape with their potty mouth party rap. But they’re not the only ones causing a stir. A new generation of Puerto Rican hip-hop artists is rising and dramatically changing things up. Rappers like Fuete Billete, Alvaro Diaz, Mike Towers, and Jazz Bandana are all different kinds of artists, but what they have in common is that each is breaking the mold for what audiences expect Latin rap to sound like. And it’s working – this new wave is throwing parties, dropping albums, and overall generating more excitement that anything else in Puerto Rico’s underground right now. Welcome to the new Boricua hip-hop.
One of the first things you notice about San Juan is that it’s covered in the most wondrously bitching street art. The graffiti is so good that it almost makes up for the city’s otherwise yawny chain-store blandness. Often, Puerto Rico appears to be one endless Walgreen’s pharmacy. I like to think the graffiti is hip-hop’s way of giving Walgreen’s and its pals a big old middle-finger.
This is especially true in Santurce, the neighborhood the New York Times calls an “arts mecca.” Just past quaint little Old San Juan and glitzy Condado, Santurce is the city’s gritty urban core, its proverbial chicken grease. In recent years, Santurce has become the neighborhood of choice for tattooed young people of good taste, who have opened a few music venues and art galleries and so forth. So far, these islands of hipness co-exist pretty nicely with the Dominican immigrant corner stores that otherwise populate its streets. Santurce is still pretty dangerous, and it’s where all the good music is.
On one such mural-lined Santurce street, behind a door that leads to a music studio, I first meet the dudes behind Fuete Billete. Felix Hilera (rap name Beibi Johnson) and Carlos Santiago (alias Pepper Kilo) are doing what they normally do, which is make jokes and roll up weed. Carlos has a hyperactive demeanor, and wears a bucket hat. Felix is stocky and has a baby face, but carries himself with the edge of somebody who could fuck you up if he wanted to. Both speak English like it’s their first language.
They bounce jokes back and forth off each other like guys who have been doing it for decades, which they are. Carlos and Felix are secretly OGs of Boricua hip-hop past. Long before Fuete Billete, they first started rapping together in the early ‘00s in a conceptual and well-respected rap group called Ciencia Fixion. After a few albums and tours, they drifted apart and got mixed up with other projects. Carlos became the front man in Davila 666, the buzzy Puerto Rican garage-punk band, which quietly broke up in 2013 (“Stupid band shit,” shrugs Carlos). Felix continued to rap solo and with various crews under his former alias Don Severo. About a year ago, the two decided to link up again.
“Me and him, in Spanish, for real for real, you can’t fuck with it,” says Carlos, by way of explanation. “You cannot fuck with that shit.”
There’s a lot of truth to Carlos’ claim. They’re good, and even better together. They’re also ultra-rap nerds – try to ask about their influences and they’ll drop endless names, from little-known West Coast hyphy cats to Dirty South stuff and beyond. Twista, Pusha T, Clipse, Curren$y. They’re students of the craft.
In January, Fuete Billete put all that education to work and dropped Musica de Capsulón (translation: Music for Hotboxing), and there’s no question: Latin hip-hop has never sounded like this before. With production from Jose Rivas (alias Free Bass), it’s made up of menacing trap tracks in the vein of “Bien Guillao,” balanced out with big, club-ready tunes full of pos-vibe synth leads and auto-tuned hooks (see “La Trilla” and title track “Musica De Capsulón”). One stand out is “Una En Un Millón,” built on a sizurpy slowed-down remix of Aaliyah’s “One In A Million” that makes you want to do drugs and cuddle.
And of course, there are all the bad words, which are part of the whole point. The band’s stated mission is “to bring explicit rap back to PR” through “catchy hooks, 808 drums and tales of hustlin’, weed smoking, fucking strippers, and of course, money.”
“There’s too many taboos in Puerto Rico,” explains Felix. “You can’t say ‘ass’ on TV, for example.”
If there’s some grander aesthetic vision to what Fuete is doing, they’re playing a close hand about it. You’re left wondering whether they’re being straight-forward, or if there’s something more nuanced happening. Maybe they’re doing it with a wink, playing exaggerated characters in the service of some subtle commentary– á la Die Antwoord. If so, they’re not trying to own up to it.
“That’s Fuete Billete, it’s just party,” says Carlos. “It’s not intellectual.”
But then, a hint: “You can be intellectual and sound stupid at the same time,” says Felix.
On another night, I drive out to the deep suburbs of San Juan to meet the boy wonder of Puerto Rican hip-hop, Álvaro Díaz.
Alvaro and his crew call themselves La Ciudad. They’re young, well-dressed and convinced they’re going to change rap history. When I arrive at their studio in the deep San Juan suburbs, they’re on break, sharing a blunt under the light tropical rain and making big plans. There’s an album to be finished, streetwear designs to ship off, videos to plot out. Moons to shoot for.
On this night, the team is mixing a one-off track they recorded in Mexico City with a pair of D.F. rappers. “They’re not quite up to the times yet as far as how they’re sitting on the beat, but they’re doing good things,” muses Álvaro. Next to the Mexicans, Álvaro is doing acrobatics. The 23-year-old rapper has undeniable talent. He drops punch line after punch line, with a serpentine flow that consistently surprises the listener.
Álvaro started building that flow the year he got kicked out of his private school for being a slacker. It was the same year that the Eminem movie 8 Mile came out, and Álvaro says that lunchroom cyphers sprung up overnight in imitation of the movie’s battle scenes. He realized he had a knack for it after older kids started asking him to ghost write their rhymes for them. Fast forward a few years, he was meeting with reggaeton producers around the island and shopping for beats, but it wasn’t quite clicking.
Eventually, Álvaro hooked up with producers Young Martino and Caleb Calloway, and a vision was born: to bring Puerto Rican rap in line what was happening on the mainland. Martino is the trap beat master, while Caleb Calloway is a deep house DJ who brings an underground electronic flair to the crew’s tracks. Collectively, they’ve drawn comparisons to A$AP Mob, especially after releasing “SuperXclusivo.” It’s Álvaro’s biggest hit yet, a dirty south-style track full of pitched-down vocals in which he rhymes about (and displays) vintage snapbacks and Fujiwara sneakers (list price: $400).
Then at moments, he has a Drake thing going on (“Chicas De La Isla”). In yet others, a jagged Odd Future sound (“6am”). But Álvaro hopes to get beyond these references. “All the artists I truly admire – MIA, Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar –they didn’t sound like nobody, that’s my main goal,” he says. “The only sound we’re trying to do is the Alvaro Diaz sound.”
Playing through their upcoming album, Hato Rey, the guys are downright giddy. It’s eclectic and really well produced, jumping from Big Sean-style party tracks to trap and indie-inflected electro-rap. “For this one track, we watched the movie Drive on silent and did some 808s and Heartbreaks type shit and came up with this,” says Álvaro. “I wanted to make a cool song in Spanish that you can dedicate to a girl.”
The result is music that sounds like now – music from kids that grew up on the Internet listening to everything and who are unconcerned with the barriers between pop culture and underground music.
The question is – will it work? Conventional industry wisdom in Puerto Rico is that hip-hop is for hobbyists. If you want to put a few rap tracks on your reggaeton album, fine, but don’t expect to have commercial success unless it has a dembow on it. The few successful hip-hop artists that have made it from the island – Tego Calderón, Calle 13, Cosculluela – they all went that route.
“That used to be the formula,” says Álvaro. “Nobody thought the things we’re doing could work. Everyone told me ‘you have to do reggaeton at some point if you want to live off this.’ And we’re going to show it’s not like that.”
“I think people are ready for a change,” he adds, looking ready himself.
These days, you can’t launch a loogie in Puerto Rico without hitting an aspiring reggaeton artist by accident right in the sunglasses. But once upon a time, back when gasolina was something you put in your car and Arcangel was just an X-Man, rap music ruled the roost.
Everyone knows that hip-hop is, literally, a worldwide art form these days. But Puerto Rico has a unique claim on the culture. Boricuas were there from the very start in the South Bronx and Alto Manhattan, running with the very first crews – even if their contribution hasn’t always been recognized. More than any other group in the world, other than African-Americans, Puerto Ricans can rightfully claim hip-hop as their own.
And so just as the guagua aérea has long shuttled people back and forth from NYC and PR, it brought hip-hop records and fashions direct from East Harlem to San Juan. Before the music even touched down elsewhere in Latin America, Puerto Rico was rap crazy.
“It felt new, it was all fresh,” says Andres Ramos, alias Velcro. MC, DJ, radio producer, Harvard graduate – Velcro’s accolades go on, but he’s the closest thing to an official hip-hop ambassador for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The man is almost single-handedly responsible for keeping the underground rap movement alive through the ‘00s, nourishing the scene with a radio show featuring local artists and throwing a regular Monday night party that’s still heavy over a decade since its founding.
Velcro remembers in the late ‘80s that you could watch Yo! MTV Raps and The Box on Puerto Rican TV, and then zap over to local show Viernes de Rap, which put a camera on kids from the caseríos (Puerto Rican housing projects) breakdancing and freestyling. “Back then there weren’t too many faces like me on TV, so I naturally gravitated. They just made it look so cool,” says Velcro.
Early New York acts like Black Sheep and Onyx came down to play shows, and local acts were invited to open. Puerto Rico produced the first person to ever credibly rap in Spanish – Vico C – and some would argue he still holds the rap en español heavyweight title. Rap both local and foreign was on the radio. It ruled the schools both public and private.
By now the rest of the story has been told a trillion times, but in brief: Spanish-language dancehall came down via Afro-Panamanians living in New York, and worked its way into the mix. Puerto Rican artists started switching between Jamaican-derived dembow and NYC boom-bap beats on their tracks, alternating every few bars. The resulting genre was called, at first, rap y reggae. Later it was known as melaza (molasses), and after that, underground. Eventually they started leaving out the hip-hop beats altogether, and voilà: reggaeton was born.
Considering they started out in bed together, hip-hop and reggaeton in Puerto Rico had a very nasty breakup. Reggaeton, of course, left its humble origins as an underground mixtape sound on a little Caribbean island and went on to conquer the Latin mainstream. Rap, meanwhile, retreated to the underground, dug trenches around the perimeter, and planted land mines.
“A lot of people holding onto the project of wielding the hip-hop flag became purists,” says Velcro. “It became a moral thing, too, because reggaeton was for sell-outs. Some rappers said they did reggaeton only because it pays, and the hip-hop people were like ‘eh, that rubs us the wrong way’.”
To get a sense of how far the anti-reggaeton sentiment went: there was even a hip-hop group that called themselves the No Mel Syndicate, as in “no melaza.” “If you ask me personally, too much energy was spent on dissing reggaeton instead of making our own music,” says Velcro. “But on the other hand, the time called for it.”
Some say it’s the lazy cadence of Boricua Spanish, or maybe it’s the inner clave of the Caribbean heartbeat, but Puerto Ricans have always been good at rapping. The rap that came out of PR during late ‘90s/’00s was high-grade weed-smoker, backpacker fare: sumptuous beats that sampled old soul tracks, lots of lyricism and (often) politically conscious rhymes. Siete Nueve was the biggest dude, but there were other prominent acts: Intifada, Tek-One, and, of course, Ciencia Fixion (aka the Fuete Billete guys plus DJ Nature), just to name a tiny few.
But today, exactly one long decade since Daddy Yankee shifted the tilt of the Earth’s axis with his international debut Barrio Fino, it’s a different world out there. It’s popular in Puerto Rico these days to pronounce that “Reggaeton is dead.” Objectively, this is not really true. Reggaeton is booming in places like Colombia and Mexico like never before. And even on the island, it’s still what most people outside of the moneyed San Juan metro area listen to. But for tastemakers in the urban core, reggaeton has become irrelevant. The beat that made millionaires out of a generation of lucky Boricua teenagers has stagnated, looped itself to death. And more and more of its stars are moving towards upbeat tropi-pop, in the spirit of Don Omar’s “Danza Kuduro.”
“These dudes were wearing fitteds and bubble jackets a couple of years ago and now they are in some tropical grandpa clothes. It’s like a joke,” says La Ciudad producer Caleb Calloway.
For the new generation taking up the hip-hop mantle, there’s no need to define themselves in opposition to reggaeton anymore. They are now free to rap about partying and girls over a loud beat that makes people want to dance, and godamnit, they’re going to do just that.
“A lot of people take the hip-hop thing as something that has to be social and political, I respect them, they do what they do,” says Felix, of Fuete Billete. “Us, Alvaro Diaz, Mike Towers – we’re like the secular side of hip-hop. And we’re three entities that have decided to work together to make something happen.”
This time, we’re at a little bar downtown, where Carlos is DJing old garage rock vinyl 45s under the hilarious/offensive alias Spic Jagger. We’re drinking Medalla by the can and Felix is starting to open up a little bit. He’s telling stories about the crazy old days when he and Carlos lived in La Perla, the open-air drug bazaar and slum beneath the walls of Old San Juan. Eventually, he talks a bit about the master plan behind Fuete.
“We were like, ‘Let’s do some exaggerated satire shit,” he says. “Ridiculously misogynistic, ultra capitalist, ultra macho. It’s satire – we’re cynical assholes, we’re tired of bullshit and we don’t give a fuck. Comedy isn’t psychological at all here, we’re trying to raise the bar.”
It’s still a question mark on whether or not Puerto Rico is in on the joke. I spoke with a number people from the island’s music scene (who will remain anonymous) that respect Carlos and Felix as rappers, but were turned off by the music’s vulgarity and disrespect of women.
I also heard other critiques – that artists like Fuete and Álvaro Díaz are pretending to be something they’re not; that they are playing hard for the delight of art-school kids. I don’t really know how any of them grew up and can’t make a judgment on any of that. But it’s clear that in a lot of ways, Fuete’s music is about fantasy – all the fun of drugs and money (and the sex that tends to accompany those other two things), but none of the senseless, systemic violence plaguing Puerto Rico these days, as the island is increasingly used as a transshipment point by drug traffickers moving product north.
Felix doesn’t see why the conversation always goes back to class. “A lot of people come to us putting stuff in a box. ‘Tell me why you do this, this way.’ I’m like, man, I see everybody the same. We got college kids at our shows, street kids, rich kids. Everybody is getting down,” he says.
Besides, Fuete doesn’t mind a few haters – they’re trying to ruffle feathers. (“If you don’t like it, don’t fucking listen to it,” says Felix.) And it looks like they can afford to: they’re still racking up Soundcloud plays by the tens of thousands, getting favorable coverage in the Latin indie press, and winning fans abroad by the bucketload, especially in places like Mexico and Spain.
And there’s signs this Boricua rap movement can grow far beyond the indie/hipster world it’s largely been residing in for the meantime. Álvaro Díaz is working with reggaeton business legend Elías de León of White Lion Records – the man responsible for launching the careers of Tego and Calle 13, among others – for his debut release. Calle 13 frontman Residente has made it clear on twitter that he’s a fan of Álvaro.
“Elías has a record of bringing out these artists and exposing them on the international level, and from what I can tell, he’s extremely excited about the project,” says Angelo Torres, Alvaro’s manager. “He sees this as the next big thing that can revolutionize the Latin industry.”
And it makes sense. Hip-hop isn’t the scrappy street culture it was when it started four decades ago; it’s the most fundamental form of pop music in the US. But nobody has really told this to the Spanish-speaking world yet. Puerto Rico was the first place to start rapping in Spanish the olden days of hip-hop; it’s only fitting for it to be the first place to translate the sounds and values of the new American hip-hop to the Spanish-speaking world. And whether you think it’s a good thing or a crappy one, it is probably going to happen.
“At some point this is going to become a whole movement with different artists from all over the world. I’m pretty sure in less than a year, everything is gonna change,” says Angelo.
Vamos a ver.