Latinz Goin’ Platinum: 20 Years After Big Pun’s Death, NYC’s Latin Rap Legacy Is Still Felt

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla

Latinxs are more visible in American hip-hop than ever before, but yet still so obscured. Despite being part of this music from the very beginning, from the first Kool Herc party in the Bronx, Latinxs are still treated as second-class citizens in a genre we not only helped birth but have participated in as artists, managers, label team members and listeners. Latinz Goin Platinum is here to highlight our successes, past and present, as we build towards rap’s future, uncovering histories hidden in plain sight and identifying the Latinxs currently active in hip-hop.

“Everybody’s checkin’ for Pun, second to none
‘Cause Latins goin’ platinum was destined to come.”
-Big Pun, “You Came Up” (1998)

As Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz took the field at Yankee Stadium in their video for “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)”, the unmistakable sound of salsa accompanied them. Though the iconic introductory tones of Jerry Rivera’s 1992 classic “Amores Como El Nuestro” eventually became synonymous with Shakira’s 2006 worldbeating smash hit “Hips Don’t Lie” with Wyclef Jean, back in 1997 they perfectly suited the music video’s Bronx environs, a reflection of the borough’s unique Hispanic/Latinx demographic majority. Sure enough, just a minute into the clip, the Fugee can be found seated in the bleachers with Big Punisher and Fat Joe, another nod to the cultural reality of this moment in rap history.

But if it wasn’t for the Bronx, this rap shit probably never would be goin on,” Tariq famously rapped on the hook, a celebration of what had led to that crucial moment in the genre’s evolution. Less than two miles walk away from the ballpark was hip-hop’s birthplace, the site of DJ Kool Herc’s 1973 Back To School Jam that brought long factionalized and fiercely territorial Black and Latinx gang members together with other uptown youths and neighborhood denizens. While Big Pun was just a toddler at the time of that seminal event, growing up in the South Bronx in its wake served as a sort of aftershock that ultimately led to his own place in rap’s pantheon.

Few lovers of the game need much convincing of Pun’s greatness as an emcee, his name a mainstay of any serious G.O.A.T debate. “Still Not A Player” remains a staple of hip-hop radio and its contemporary streaming playlist equivalents, not to mention its vaunted status as a beloved boriqua anthem. Furthermore, his 1998 Capital Punishment LP will forever hold the distinction of the first ever solo rap album to earn RIAA platinum certification, a domestic sales threshold that its posthumously-released follow up Yeeeah Baby would too reach in October of 2017.

Still, some 20 years after Pun’s tragic and untimely passing, his legacy and that of Latinx rappers from his city feels somewhat muted by the culture. Indeed, in the broader conversation about hip-hop, Latinxs are too often treated effectively as second-class citizens in a genre they undeniably helped to create, to nurture at nearly every stage of its development and growth and continue to play pivotal roles in. While nobody in their right mind would dare downplay hip-hop’s Blackness, today’s Latinx hip-hop artists are afforded a kind of novelty status by an industry where, by comparison, white acts like G-Eazy and Post Malone get pop star ministrations.

Part of the problem is a failure to adequately link or credit Pun with what’s happening now in New York hip-hop. In late January of this year at midtown Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall, his fellow Terror Squad alums Fat Joe and Remy Ma performed a tribute set to their departed friend at an anniversary concert for Loud Records, the label that released Capital Punishment. It was a meaningful homage, replete with appearances by Pun’s former collaborators including The Beatnuts and The LOX. Absent from the mic during this throwback performance was anyone from the current generation of uptown Latinxs in rap, a missed opportunity to say the least and an indication of the perils faced by survivors gatekeeping for those who are no longer with us.

They certainly had plenty of folks to choose from. If you pull back the proverbial veil, it’s fairly obvious to see Pun’s influence in today’s New York talent pool. Wiki and Young M.A. keep that same Nuyorican energy in their bars, even if they’re not constantly flag waving or otherwise signaling their Latinidad. The same goes for artists like the late Brooklyn drill rapper Pop Smoke, of Afro-Panamian descent, or indie puertorriqueña Princess Nokia. Spanish Harlemite and TANBOYS don Bodega Bamz leaves no ambiguity about his place in Pun’s legacy, as evidenced by inclusive projects like Strictly 4 My P.A.P.I.Z. And once you factor in locally sourced urbano acts like Chucky73, Lito Kirino and Tali Goya, who primarily or exclusively rap in Spanish, the contemporary candidates grow exponentially.

The most successful NYC-born Latinx rap artist of our times, Cardi B belonged there, though her appearance fee might’ve been too costly for the Loud show. Proud of where she comes from, she hasn’t lost any of her Highbridge sensibilities even as she makes broadly appealing pop hits with the likes of Bruno Mars or Maroon 5. Back when her breakthrough single “Bodak Yellow” warranted a Spanish-language remix, she didn’t turn to Bad Bunny or Ozuna for verses. Instead, she tapped fellow Dominican-American rapper Messiah El Artista for this bilingual version. And she remains culturally tethered to her roots in the city, even after purchasing a multimillion dollar Atlanta mansion with her husband Offset. Last year, Cardi featured on Fat Joe’s “Yes” (also with Anuel AA), and was seated directly next to him during an episode of Netlfix’s hip-hop competition series Rhythm + Flow when she praised Pun’s confidence while critiquing a contestant.

Then, of course, there’s Chris Rivers. Pun’s literal progeny lost his father at the age of six, and when he began rapping himself went by the name Baby Pun. He’s been upfront with claims of abuse he experienced as a child, and even the elder rapper’s biggest fans ought to contend with that darker side of his life. Though Rivers’ solo career may not be as celebrated as his Dad’s was, he continues to drop quality rap albums for labels like the highly respected indie Mello Music Group, and his dedication to the craft earns him a level of respect beyond patriarchal nepotism.

Ultimately, Pun’s legacy can’t solely be about him and his contributions alone. Though some would defensively disagree, there’s both a place for celebrating his classics and a place for discussing his flaws and sins. What Pun accomplished after his lifetime was an imposing presence in his absence, a Latinx foothold in New York hip-hop that has since been filled by many others with a similar heritage. If it wasn’t for him, we might not have seen the Latinx rap excellence that bursts from all five boroughs today.