Johnny Colón and Mathew Ramirez Warren on How Boogaloo Paved the Way for Hip-Hop and Punk

Before hip-hop and punk, there was boogaloo – a quintessentially New York rhythm that defined a generation. Boogaloo was a sound that collided Afro-Cuban rhythms like mambo and cha cha with homegrown blues and R&B. It was a sound forged by Puerto Rican New Yorkers and their African-American neighbors, a sound that cast off genre boundaries in favor of something that spoke to New York’s Puerto Rican teens, who were one of the first generations to experience the bicultural realities of U.S. Latinidad. Much the way that hip-hop en español does today, boogaloo captured the spirit of youth culture, taking a popular mainstream style and setting it to a rhythm that made sense to Latino New York.

By the late 1960s, younger boogaloo musicians saw their music squashed by salsa’s heavy hitters. The new generation often lacked the resources and technical training of their salsa counterparts, and would play clubs for far less than the more established artists like Tito Puente. As boogaloo practitioners lost out to the bulldozing force of Fania Records, the sound fell out of favor to the crystallizing salsa movement.

We Like It Like That, a 2015 documentary directed by Mathew Ramirez Warren, sets out to capture the monumental force of boogaloo in 1960s New York. Through oral history, archival footage, and interviews with iconic artists like Johnny Colón, Joe Bataan, and Richie Ray, Ramirez Warren paints a vivid portrait of how the movement changed the lives of a generation of Puerto Rican teenagers. With the film heading to iTunes and Amazon next week, we decided to catch up with Colón and Ramirez Warren to reflect on the film’s significance, and how boogaloo speaks to youth culture today.

Johnny Colón on boogaloo as an American story

People are trying to do something and they take whatever in their environment proposes or exposes them to, and you work with it. It’s a New York experience, certainly, but it’s the American experience, because it’s in America. Although the Puerto Rican experience predominates the story in terms of the kids who were involved in it, it’s the descendents of Puerto Ricans born in New York, so they’re Americans. And they were American citizens to begin with, because Puerto Ricans are American citizens. So it’s the American experience all around. The whole struggle, the whole process.

Johnny Colón
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Johnny Colón on how boogaloo musicians’ technical inexperience made the music stronger

When you have nothing, or you don’t have a structure that’s imposed upon you, then you’re coming from nothing, so there’s all kinds of possibilities…You come from your heart and you come from your own musical experience. Music has some structure in it, so you go in with some structure – it may not have been to the extent of the guys that were in their 30s and 40s honing their skills in the business they’ve studied for many, many years, but there’s still something to it.

“The real thing is the music, the real thing is your passion.”

To that extent it was a more organic kind of experience… If it sounded good to you and it moved the people around you, you said, “Hey, this is alright…” Other people in boogaloo, they were doing stuff like [mimics timbal] – playing it more like American style booglaoo. We didn’t do that. We kept that Latin influence going because that’s what we knew; that’s where we came from. That was in the barrio. We may not have known what we were doing but that’s what we did. That was the heart. We called it sabor of the people.

Johnny Colon on the advice he’d give to kids making genre bending music

If they don’t understand, that’s too bad. Go with your heart, go with your passion, and go for it. Many years ago – I was about 16 years old then – there was a place called the Yorkville Casino on East 86th street…there was a musician that I knew and had a lot of respect for – a guy named Charlie Palmieri, who was Eddie Palmieri’s older brother…I went to see him at the Casino because I wanted his advice. I was 16 years old and I had my little band. I was getting all kinds of comments: “Nah, don’t do that,” or “No, you’re not going to make it.” So I went to see him and I asked him, “Palmieri, what do you think?” And he said, “Do you like it, kid?” And I said, “Yeah, I love it.” And he said, “Is that your passion, man?” And I said, “Yeah, it is.” He said, “Then go for it, there’s plenty of room for everybody.”

The real thing is the music, the real thing is your passion. The only thing that really counts is making yourself happy and making other people happy and creating something that lasts. At least for recording purposes and for history – something that people will always go for, that they’ll always remember. That’s all that counts.

Mathew Ramirez Warren on the one thing people need to know about We Like it Like That

This music is an important reflection on the Latino-American experience, and I think it’s a story that you don’t have to be Latino to relate to…This story is about a community that needed to determine their own identity, and the music that they made and they appreciated was a big part of that moment – of taking pride in who you are, taking pride in your culture, but also taking an identity that reflected who you are at that moment, what your surroundings are, and what your community is all about.

Mathew Ramirez Warren on how he stayed true to the story of boogaloo

I made it clear what my intentions are. If you’re a documentary filmmaker and you know the story you want to tell before you actually go out and talk to your subjects, you’re not doing it right. The subjects tell you what the story is going to be, through speaking with them, through understanding their experiences. All I wanted to do was create a vehicle for them to tell their story.

People now, after having made the film will say, “Oh you’re an expert in Latin boogaloo, and you’re the guy to talk to about this.” But I always frame things like, “I wasn’t there.” My knowledge and my expertise comes from speaking to the people who were there.

Mathew Ramirez Warren on how boogaloo preceded hip-hop and punk music’s impact on youth culture

I often refer to those artists (the artists in my film and the artists in the Latin boogaloo era) as the punk rock artists of Latin music. In the same way that punk musicians weren’t necessarily the best, most musically trained musicians, but were really just about playing with passion and energy – otherwise everything else be damned – that was the same approach that these young teenage boogaloo artists took at the time.

Before them, it was almost unheard of for a young Latino musician to say, “I’m going to start my own band.” There had been sort of a hierarchy that you had to follow. Some of the musicians told me about this, where, maybe you get lucky and you get to play with Tito Puente for 10 years, and then after that, maybe it’s okay for you to start your own band. But these guys broke the mold. They said, “We’re going to do it our way, we’re going to do our own sound, and you know, we don’t claim to be as musically skilled as someone like Tito Puente, but that’s okay. We’re making music for ourselves and for our community.” I think that same approach was the same thing in punk music.

“I often refer to those artists as the punk rock artists of Latin music.”

Culturally, boogaloo can 100 percent be seen as a predecessor of the early hip-hop movement. You had young people of color of little means, without a whole lot of musical training, coming together to make music to stay out of trouble, to do something positive to express themselves. That’s exactly what you have happen about 10 years later with early hip-hop…Latin boogaloo was important in that it was an expression of a marginalized community and it became a voice for that community in much the same way that hip-hop would do that and continues to do that.

Mathew Ramirez Warren on whether boogaloo could develop in the gentrification age

I hope it could happen. We can’t say who the communities are and what it would sound like, but New York, while it has changed, and it’s not like the New York I grew up in and it’s definitely not like the New York where Latin boogaloo was created, we do have such a rich mixture of cultures.

I hope that that tradition of creating innovative styles that reflect the melting pot [continues], because that’s really the value of New York…Whether some people want to admit it or not, that’s our biggest asset as a society, is that we’re able to take the best of every culture and fuse it in our own ways and to our art to create a new thing.

We Like it Like That is available via VOD on iTunes and Amazon now. The soundtrack for We Like it Like That is out now on Spotify, Amazon, and Apple Music via Fania Records.