For Mozart la Para, Signing to Roc Nation Latin is a Chance to Burst Out of the Dominican Scene

Photo by Itzel Alejandra Martinez for Remezcla

Everything about Mozart la Para is immaculate. His textured black skinny jeans sit right below his hips, tethered by a shiny Gucci belt. His luxurious mane, which he’s worn in braids and a distinguished bun in the past, sits in a neat, straight ponytail under a corduroy dad cap embroidered with his likeness. Three gold chains lay on his chest, playing tag with the symmetrical lines on his sweater. He is 20 minutes early.

The quotables he spits over the course of his two-hour visit to the Remezcla office are impeccable, too. At one point, he mutters, “Deja tu show de Cristina,” a clapback for the ages. Those kinds of witticisms have catapulted Mozart to the top of the Dominican charts, and earned him the first contract in the Romeo Santos-headed Latin division of Roc Nation. Mozart has a knack for sharp one-liners, which he often delivers over an assortment of street sounds collectively called urbano. He teases out the infectious punchlines and crass humor of dembow – vital elements of the genre – and ushers them into the urbano universe.

With his nasal Dominican drawl, Mozart crafts party songs that burst out of your speakers and bounce between reggae, trap, and dembow riddims. In the Dominican Republic, his songs have broad appeal; they’re radio hits designed for the charts and for intergenerational gozaderas. He has won six Premios Soberanos, the most prestigious awards show on the island. For the most part, that immense popularity has enabled him to dodge many of the critiques that have been leveled at other urbano artists, and especially dembowseros. Like street sounds across the world, conservatives have transformed urbano artists into scapegoats for social ills like violence, drug use, and hedonism, yielding dozens of haughty op-eds, inflammatory radio commentary, and social media maelstroms.

Mozart is perceptive about the hypocrisy and classism rooted in such critiques. “Urbano is where you see the least [amount of] drugs. Salsa artists from before – even merengueros from [back home] – hacían más drogas que el diablo…but they talk so much about it being urbano’s [fault]. It pisses me off when they want to blame urbano, because if I ever put out a song with curse words, they’d critique me. But if I make a clean track, they don’t play it.”

Everything about Mozart la Para is immaculate.

He cultivated that wisdom growing up on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, in the barrios of Los Mina and El Almirante, on a steady diet of El General classics. Mozart started rapping at the age of 12. “I found out that I could freestyle, so I asked for a tape recorder for [Día de los] Reyes.” Those rhymes later made their way to YouTube – though he’s adamant about not being the one who got them there. “I never uploaded a video to YouTube. E’ má’, my cell phone didn’t even have a camera,” he says. In the Dominican Republic’s tight-knit hip-hop scene, he stunned neighbors and friends in freestyle competitions that went down on the block, eventually making it to the finals of Red Bull’s La Batalla de los Gallos several years in a row.

Back on the island, hip-hop continues to fall in a close second to the lucrative power of dembow and tropicalized pop, which consistently garner more radio play. The quisqueyano rap game has its heavies, like Lápiz Conciente, widely considered the father of the genre, though he remains more of a hometown hero than an international hip-hop king. A vibrant new wave of New York-based rappers has reinvigorated the scene, but even then, dembow and pop sell the most records. As Messiah el Artista told Remezcla last year, on Dominican radio, hip-hop still can’t compete with dembow. “Many dembow singers – before doing dembow – were rappers, but there comes a time when they want to take a shortcut, like ‘Coño, let me make dembow to see if I get played.’ What happened to your dream? You shied away from what you believed in.”

Mozart echoes this sentiment; in a 2012 interview, he defiantly told Listin Diario that he “doesn’t make dembow.” Mozart is shrewd about those industry distinctions, showing deference to those who choose to experiment, but underscoring the importance of developing a sound that will separate him from cookie-cutter industry types. “I don’t like to make whatever is trendy,” he affirms. “For example, there are some people who, if someone’s making trap, all of them want to make trap. If a dembow pops off, all of them want to make dembow…though I respect everyone who makes [that], because that’s their choice, and if it’s working for them, then good.”

“Se enfocan en el party. But one day, parties end, you know?”

The quisqueyano rapper is insistent about his versatility, but arguably, his most accomplished work is “Primero Que Kanye,” a jocose and self-assured dose of rap braggadocio that dropped last year. Over producer Light GM’s sinister piano keys, he quips, “No es que tu jeva es fácil. Es que para mi nada es difícil, lo siento por ti.” The song provided us with one of the cheekiest hip-hop flexes in recent memory: “Me llegan los tenis primero que Kanye.” You can almost feel the grin spreading across his lips, a snicker hovering between the bars.

He made the song in one hour, after commenters stormed his Instagram claiming the sneakers Adidas sent him were fake. But the shoes hadn’t dropped yet, and Mozart had to defend himself by proving the company gifted him the kicks early.

Though “Primero Que Kanye” is a trap song, Mozart is quick to point out he has no desire to produce conventional renditions of U.S. hip-hop styles. “‘Primero Que Kanye’ is a trap song, but an original trap song,” he observes. “It’s not like some American [artist] got a hit, and I’m coming to sing it in Spanish. It’s original.” That commitment to innovation is refreshing, as several trap-en-español artists often reproduce the flows and beats of Atlanta stars in their fervor to make a mark on the movement.

Mozart seems poised to transcend the hyperlocal limitations of the Dominican music industry.

With that versatility and the Roc Nation co-sign, Mozart seems poised to transcend the hyperlocal limitations of the Dominican music industry. He celebrates the financial stability that the business provides for aspiring rappers and dembowseros, but admits that publicists and managers have trouble building career longevity in international markets. “At the very least, kids live off of this [music],” he says. “They live in good houses, están bien monta’o…They’re people who work and bring money to their families. But they have to go international.”

In his view, Dominican artists also have a responsibility to universalize their work, or at least envision a future for themselves beyond the expectations many have of quisqueyano artists. “Work hard, and be organized, and have a little bit more of a universal language. There are people from other countries who don’t understand ‘que lo que.’” He cites the local club circuit, often regarded as a financial goldmine and a vital stepping stone in Dominican artists’ careers, as an easy trap. “Se enfocan en el party. But one day, parties end, you know?”

That global ambition radiates on Mozart’s latest single, “Fiesta y Vacilón.” The seamless Light GM production juggles a gossamer dembow riddim, resembling the kind of buoyant dancehall reimagining that made Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” so popular (and palatable to mainstream Anglo audiences). Mozart’s singsongy vocals recount late nights with a lover spent drinking and dancing, the themes of a guaranteed hit. But Mozart makes sure to add some references to Quisqueya, inviting his paramour to join him in Punta Cana, the famed Dominican vacation spot.

The Internet continues to crumble borders and genre boundaries, bringing Dominican dembow and urbano artists’ music to unfamiliar places (like the avant-garde sets of underground club DJs). With a new chart-topper, a Roc Nation contract, and a full-length in the works, Mozart is poised to lead the pack on the international front – Gucci belt, dad hat, and all.