Before Drake Loved Dancehall, Los Rakas Made Dembow and Hip-Hop Fusion Cool

Photo by Itzel Alejandra Martinez for Remezcla

For 10 years, Los Rakas have put their hearts into the hustle. Back in 2006, the Panamanian cousins dropped mixtapes left and right, fine-tuning their brand of sunny, reggae-bred hip-hop. They released their debut EP Chancletas Y Camisetas Bordada in 2011, which mashed together bilingual rhymes, Jersey club, boom bap beats, and dembow riddims. It’s an eight-track collection of bubbly, hyperactive party songs that pioneered the new normal: genre-bending Caribbean beats with a foot aquí y allá. These days, mainstream rappers (case in point: Drake) are parroting those globe-trotting rhythms to great success, so we decided to catch up with the duo at SXSW and reflect on their influence.

In person, they’re effervescent, and radiate an energy that most industry veterans can no longer claim. Though they’ve been at it for a decade, Los Rakas continue to enjoy a cult following, but that under-the-radar fame hasn’t stopped them from booking a performance at the White House at the end of the month. On April 30, Los Rakas will perform at the Brioxy Summit for Young Innovators of Color. For two kids from Oakland, this invitation is a level of recognition that’s long overdue, and one that often isn’t granted to two Afro-Latinos who immigrated to Oakland in their teens.

At SXSW, we caught up with the cousins to reflect on their decade-long career and upcoming album. Here’s what the hometown heroes had to say about innovation, dedication, and turning up.

Thumbnail photo by Itzel Alejandra Martinez for Remezcla