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The Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, when New Yorkers took everybody by surprise and turned South Beach into a Cristal-poppin' thong-droppin' playground, four rappers from Washington Heights found themselves stranded on the sidewalk in front of Level alongside hundreds of other frustrated revelers. Funny thing is, hip-hop outfit Fulanito was expected onstage. "We were scheduled to appear," says Elvin "Romeo" Ovalles, shaking his head the following night, "and we couldn't get in."
Never mind that Jay-Z, the rapper currently at the top of the charts, couldn't fight his way through the crowds and into the spotlight for a single one of his three scheduled shows. Never mind even that Mr. Hard-Knock-Life went to number one this time around, backing up R. Kelly on a Latin-flavored joint called "Fiesta." It's a sign of the ever-outsider status of Latins in hip-hop that Fulanito did perform on Friday night -- far from the congregation of the hip-hop nation on the Beach -- at Club Millennium in the Doral.
Ads for the show ran in Spanish on El Zol (WXDJ-FM 95.7), billing Fulanito with Oro Solido and Mambo Nuevo as one of the grandes of merengue. Certainly since 1995 (when Winston de la Rosa invited his father, veteran accordion player Arsenio de la Rosa, to lay tracks for him and his friends to rap over) no group has done more to win pop fans for perico ripiao. This traditional form of merengue, squeezed out of the box at breakneck speed, gives Fulanito's sound an edge that is anything but old-fashioned. There's not even anything particularly old world about it. Although all the members of Fulanito have Dominican parents, the music is hip-hop straight up.
No tag could better suit the group formed by de la Rosa and his partner Rafael Vargas than Fulanito -- whatshisname? Vargas and his associates have been hatching the hottest sounds in hip-hop and house for more than a dozen years while remaining almost anonymous as the source.
The members of Fulanito tell their own version of hip-hop history while sitting in the lobby of the La Quinta Inn waiting for their cue for the Millennium show. It's a familiar tale of rags to almost riches. The group's manager, Edwin Vargas, remembers how his brother started: "He used to make his demos in the kitchen on a regular tape recording, banging on the table for the beats."
"I used to get the reverb and do the vocals in the bathroom," adds rapper Rafael Vargas. "Once I got into high school, I got a job and was able to save up for a Casio RZ1 drum machine -- one of the first sequencer/samplers."
Rafael went in with a friend for a four-track, then took one of his demos to the record store across the street from his high school. The owner, Aldo Marin, had his own label, Cutting Records, and liked Rafael's sound. The first single, he says, "went double lead." But his contribution to a Cutting Records' house compilation, "Do What You Wanna Do," hit big in the clubs. The high schooler began to slip out of his part-time job on the graveyard shift at a printer to perform at clubs like the Tunnel. "I used to tell my boss: “The limo's coming at 2:15. I'll be back by 5:30. The limo would drop me off at work, and I would stay until 8:00 a.m."
Rafael Vargas quit the job soon after, in 1990, when his single "Wiggle It" took off worldwide. Strictly an English-only dance track, the silliness of the title is a second-generation translation of "menealo" -- a common command to dancers writhing to merengue. But merengue was the last thing on the minds of Vargas and his friends in their group 2 in a Room. When Rafael suggested to the Cutting Records owner that the group add Elvin Ovalles, Marin objected. "Don't you think Elvin's too Spanish to be in a hip-hop group?" he asked.
It wasn't until 1994 that the Dominican Yorkers began to think hip-hop and Spanish could go together, when 2 in a Room was asked to lay down vocals for an instrumental club hit from house producer Danny Vargas (no relation to the Fulanito family). "That's when the idea of doing English and Spanish on house music came up," says Edwin Vargas.
The resulting track, "Trago" ("The Drink"), remains the best ever in Latin house and one of the most danceable numbers in house, period. The timing could not have been worse, however. When "Trago" was released in New York City, radio station Hot 97(WQHT-FM 97.1) was in the process of switching from a dance-music format to a hip-hop format. "That was the last song played on 97," laughs Edwin, who remembers one of the programmers complaining, "“I'm trying to get it off, but too many people keep calling." Once the hip-hop format was in place, there was no room left for music in two languages.
In 1996, after 2 in a Room's fortunes waned, Rafael Vargas devoted his energy to side project the 740 Boyz, which hit big in Europe and Asia with the dance track "Shimmy Shake." 740 Boyz toured the world. "Then the thing went bust," says fellow 740 Boy José "Pickles" Fuentes. "Dance music is fast," he laments. "It's like fashion. The DJs direct what's in."
"You gotta constantly change things," says Rafael. "At the same time we were working, a whole new sound developed: merengue house with Proyecto Uno and Ilegales."
Rafael couldn't help but notice the reception of those groups outside the United States. "We would be going into Latin countries, and they were actually doing arenas. We were doing little clubs." He decided to take house even further in a Latin direction, "kind of what we did with 740 and 2 in a Room but in Spanish."
To differentiate themselves from both of those earlier hip-hop-merengue groups, the four-man combined force of 740 Boyz and 2 in a Room added a fifth, Martino "El Bonito" Paredes. The first single from that experiment, "Guallando" ("Grinding"), became a cult hit in the United States. But when Cutting Records licensed it for Latin America, the house-ripiao sold more than any other album in Colombia in 1998, outselling even superstars Carlos Vives and Charlie Zaa.
"One week in Colombia we did 140 interviews!" says Paredes, still shell-shocked.
The second single, "La Novela," catapulted the group to even greater popularity. "We were going every week to Colombia." In 1999 the band spent eleven out of twelve months touring in Latin America. When police attempted to shut down an overcrowded show in Maracaibo, Venezuela, 50,000 rabid fans overpowered the law, and Fulanito went on.
Despite the so-called Latin explosion in the United States, opportunity has been scant for Fulanito to reach a mass public in this country. "There just aren't the outlets," says Paredes. "Radio stations can't play the songs. Even in Miami, it's totally different. It's an uphill battle." Still the struggle seems worthwhile. "We're also opening doors for groups like us, making people more accessible to our sounds," he says.
Recognition is coming slowly. A category for Latin rap was added at the 2001 Grammys, and a Latin hip-hop showcase is planned before the 2001 Latin Grammys. "Live at Jimmy's," the current merengue-charged hit by Angie Martinez with Cuban Link, D'Mingo, and the deceased Big Pun, is one of the songs following Fulanito's work. "That sound," notes Ovalles thoughtfully, "I hope it's embraced. I hope other artists get involved so it will be a bona fide sound. A lot of times people take a sound from another culture as a fad. We're talking about the mainstream, the power people. We're the majority of the minority now. It's time to get our sound across."