Robertito Chong’s personal story recalls a tale, shared over decades, that goes: A man visits a doctor and claims he’s depressed, wracked by anxiety. The doctor assures him there’s an effective treatment that will make him feel immediately better. “There’s a very popular clown doing a show in town. Go and see him, and you will feel much better about everything.” The patient is unmoved. And just then, he tearfully reveals to the doctor, “That’s the problem. I am that clown.”
Robertito knows he has a reputation of being the “class clown” of the current crop of indie rap artists, a title he shares with a handful of lyricists, from relative newcomers like Skeptic and PJ Sin Suela to bigger names like Guaynaa and Residente, who also dabble in the absurd and comedic as an approach. It’s one Robertito acknowledges he has brought upon himself throughout his career. But for all the jocular bon mots that have made him a fan and peer favorite, he’s recently started grappling with a lingering cloud that casts a pall over his trajectory. “I have my ups. I have a lot of happy moments in my life, and that’s reflected in a lot of my music. But I also carry a lot of existential weight on me,” he tells Remezcla.
He grew up in the Encantada neighborhood of San Juan, “a neighborhood-within-a-neighborhood, a total bubble,” as he describes it. His environment made him a sort of problem child growing up, always getting into trouble and antics that earned him much scolding during his adolescence. “Me and my neighbors, all we did was watch ‘Jackass’ and shit like that, so all of us would just get bored and do mischief. We did everything: throw fire extinguishers in pools, throw eggs at houses on Halloween… I got into a lot of trouble with my parents every summer,” he says.
In his early teens, he channeled that penchant for irreverence into a YouTube channel of his own, called PINGARECORDS, as a riff on Pina Records. Here he and his friends would make parody raps and reggaetón songs rife with juvenile humor. “PINGARECORDS was me trying to channel that [rambunctious] energy, thinking that maybe if I recorded myself [doing skits], it would help control it,” he says. The channel gained a small following, and once he got to high school, he parlayed that attention into his new rapper persona, Robertito Chong.
Naming himself after funnyman and weed maestro Tommy Chong, Robertito used his moniker as an opportunity to highlight his affinity for toking up and its benefits. Once in college, he made friends in music circles, including the trio who would go on to become Los Rivera Destino, and began to dedicate more of his free time to putting out songs that were more traditional hip-hop but still had his comic edge. It wasn’t long before his popularity on and off campus began to rise after trudging through the experience of half-empty venues and giving out free mixtapes at the mall. His first LP, Hipoglucemia, was a word-of-mouth hit that earned him a collaboration with then-upstart Eladio Carrión.
But by 2017, Robertito’s budding ascent had become decidedly less rosy behind the scenes. “In 2017, I was broke. I wasn’t making any money whatsoever from my music, and I’d started experimenting with some drugs… I was prescribed Adderall, which, in turn, made me anxious, so I started buying Klonopin on the side. I found myself asking my parents for money often,” he says. He made the difficult decision to step away from music, much to the dismay of his fanbase. But as he confesses, “I definitely wasn’t in a good place those years, spiritually or emotionally.”
The weight of those heady days has never truly been disclosed publicly until now, but it’s a message he hopes will resonate with the same audience that stuck with him throughout his sabbatical and with new listeners too. Robertito has come to feel the current climate is more “in tune” with artists being open about their mental health struggles, which he feels adds to an overall healthier industry. He’s blunt about the extent of his condition, saying, “My ADHD is so intense, I literally will forget the simplest thing if I don’t write it down. It feels like ‘50 First Dates’ sometimes. Like every day is a whole new reset for me because of my bad memory.”
“I have my ups. I have a lot of happy moments in my life, and that’s reflected in a lot of my music. But I also carry a lot of existential weight on me.”
After dropping out of music, Robertito spent much of the intervening years trying to settle on something that could stabilize him. He began coding remotely and switched to real estate and doing financial advice videos on YouTube a year later, which became popular unto themselves. But something continued to gnaw at him in the back of his mind as he encountered fans who would recognize him and continuously ask about new music. He released a compilation mixtape of unreleased tracks, Domingo de Resurrección, but that was hardly enough to satisfy their demand.
He faced a question that had been looming in the background for over two years: Was it a bigger existential crisis to focus on music or not focus on music? “[Those jobs] didn’t really fill the vacuum in me like music had,” he says. “I started feeling like I wasn’t leaving anything of substance behind in the world. I was helping people, and my services were valuable to them, but I still felt an emptiness inside that I knew only music could fill.”
The global pandemic put things into an even starker perspective, pushing him to make a decision. With enough savings, he decided to step away from his job and return to making music. It was during this time that he recorded his last two EPs, Arrestau and this year’s SOML (read as both a play on “SUMMER” and also an acronym for “STORY OF MY LIFE”). It also put him in the orbit of some acts that grew up with his music, such as Enyel C, who picked up one of those old mixtapes at the mall back in the day. Now they’re collaborators with “Angelito & Robertito,” and Robertito has found himself as a mentor figure to the artist and other up-and-coming acts. “I love helping them and motivating them when I can. I don’t want them to end up taking a break like I did,” he says.
Now with restrictions lifted, he’s sowing the seeds for a robust comeback, taking on more live performances in front of audiences he feels are more receptive than before. “After [the pandemic], I think people started to appreciate more what we have, and that’s resulted in more variety in the music,” he says. “People were cooped up for so long, and now even at the shows, you see more diverse crowds and people dancing and singing along more enthusiastically.”
The positive reception to SOML has lit a fire under him and fed the hunger to keep going the extra mile. He has partners now helping him grow his career, and he’s committed to the work necessary to reach the next level. The story of what he went through to get here, though, is one he won’t soon forget. “I hear [my old albums] and think I was doing good music, but also remember how low I was on the inside. Back then, I was on a lot of creative steroids,” he says with a knowing laugh. Nowadays, he hopes all he needs are the lessons he learned and the healing power of doing what he loves. “Songwriting for me is how I remind myself of who I am,” he says.
His earned confidence is fueling the drive to become an even bigger presence than before, and his new outlook has him more optimistic than ever. “Now I’m gonna be a real artist,” he says with a smile.