Vico C, the Godfather of Spanish-Language Hip-Hop, Talks Scoring Bronx-Set Play ‘La Canción’

Spanish-language hip-hop wouldn’t be what it is today without Vico C. Throughout the mid-80s and 90s, the Puerto Rican artist (née Luis Armando Lozada Cruz) reigned on the island, pioneering the genre known as underground and youth culture at large with smart raps and dramatic music videos. “Underground” music — often consisting of dancehall and U.S. hip-hop samples spliced together — drew its namesake from the informal economy of independent cassette distribution. Though it preceded reggaeton, it eventually formed a critical part of the nascent movement, as scholar Petra R. Rivera-Rideau notes in her book Remixing Reggaeton. Through this alternative economy, Vico C’s music occupied a space within urban neighborhoods that told stories of his life in the barrio, until he left Puerto Rico in the late 90s due to his worsening heroine addiction. He eventually returned to the public eye in 1998 with the Christian rap CD Aquel Que Había Muerto.

As with many artists, his temporary break caused a rift with mainstream audiences, and by the early 2000s, listeners started to see his music as a relic of another generation. Regardless of public perception, Vico C kept creating, producing four studio albums and two live albums since the turn of the century.

His latest feat takes the form of a score for a New York City-based play. Produced by Repertorio Español and directed by Edward Torres, La Canción is a present-day story based in The Bronx and performed in Spanish with English subtitles. It was written by Cándido Tirado, a Bronx native whose story chronicles youth culture and life in the borough. In the play, Rafa, a young hip-hop artist, is haunted by a memory of a song and embarks on a quest to find its author, leading him to discover truths about his origins. The elusive song comes to him in a dream, and the play develops into a larger story about his identity, his family, and his neighborhood. Vico C was brought onto the project to create a full album’s worth of music, ranging from cumbia to bachata to rap — an eclectic collection intended to capture the spirit of Latino communities in the city. The play is part of Vico’s public re-appearance; aside from this theatrical production, he is also in the midst of producing a biopic, expected to premiere next year.

La Canción cast. Photo by Michael Palma Mir
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Before the play premieres on Friday, September 23, Remezcla sat down with Vico C in the same Manhattan attic where he dreamed up the songs for the production. While reminiscing about the past three-and-a-half years, he said, “You can get kind of crazy. The good thing about me is I’m better at the edge.” As he prepares for the premiere, we spoke to him about his creative process and the inspiration to write music for plays, something that seemed far-fetched just a few years ago. He talked about his role in the play, and opened up about why people may be missing his best years as an artist.

On How This Play Will Break Stereotypes in Rap

People are going to get to know me in this play. Many of them don’t know that I make my own music. An urban artist doing arrangements? That isn’t a normal thing for them. People hear Vico C is urban and they might think that all my songs are raps. That’s not the case. If they don’t know, they don’t know, and if they have the stereotype, I don’t blame them. If Chuck D came out with a musical, I’d think it would be a rap play, and if you were to show me an arrangement with violins and stuff I would say, “Chuck D did this?”

Just because it’s a play doesn’t mean it needs to sound like the stereotypical sound of a musical. When we talk about perception – the perception I need people to know is that I’m going to keep on doing projects with music, and I want to be believable so that people believe it when it’s announced.

On the Three-Year-Long Process of Scoring the Play

When we got together, we read the [script] and we chose where there were songs. I had some melodies that I knew I was going to use for something like this, and actually they were the most completed beautiful melodies because I did them in my 40s. I had three or four of them, but they were important because they ended up being the songs of special moments. And that’s why I liked them – I think that those moments gotta have melody. Melody is language.

“You can get kind of crazy. The good thing about me is I’m better at the edge.”

The story is urbano; the music can be described as urban but not from one place. For example, one song has a very South American rhythm. I went to Bolivia once and that was one piece of music that I had with me. I wrote the lyrics for the play but the arrangement was already in my head. So we have South American beats, we have a salsa, ballads, bachata, a rap — you can call it urban because it’s not opera, it’s set in a city. But this is where people are really going to get me out of the stereotype.

On Why These Are His Best Years As a Musician

For the past couple of years, maybe six or seven, I had this problem with my old management and there wasn’t a lot of new music on the radio, so people started coming to their conclusions. “He’s not singing anymore,” [they said], but they don’t really know. When I do this play, people in Puerto Rico may be surprised.

Some Puerto Ricans followed me when they were younger, because I was part of the youth, but they didn’t necessarily keep listening — and those who didn’t missed a lot from me. They missed my development. They missed my best years as a musician. That’s why this play is important to me. I want to rescue that perception from people. You want people to know what you got. I wouldn’t like them to think of me more than I am — that’s uncomfortable. So imagine if they think less? That’s uncomfortable as an artist and as a businessman in music and art.

For every artist it’s like that — as they grow older, they mature. It’s the business that makes people confused by great artists. Barry White, for example. Barry White did five or six records that people just didn’t know about, and they were as great or greater as the ones before, the ones that were hits. So many people only saw Barry White so far. They didn’t see the songs where he was a more complete artist. And that’s basically what happened with me with many Puerto Ricans.

On What He Learned Through This Creative Process

It’s a good thing, having passion, and I want to keep it like that. I learned that it’s a good thing, even though I’m not being paid a fortune, sometimes I feel even better getting less money but doing it with more passion. If I don’t have passion, it takes longer. I need that stimulation when I’m in the studio because I’m doing everything.

La Canción cast. Photo by Michael Palma Mir
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There’s a song in the play – it’s an instrumental. I had never done an instrumental, not even for my projects. Never. So they told me, “This is what they’re going to be doing; they’re going to walk in the Bronx,” and I had to get in it. That’s the one that got me nervous, but they loved it. And that’s when I gained my confidence — when they loved the instrumental. That’s why I’m saying people will look at me for what I am, not what they have in mind — just a hip-hopper.

La Canción premieres Friday, September 23, 2016 at New York City’s Repertorio Español. To purchase tickets, click here.