Cellblock Salsa

Obie Bermudez, Jerry Rivera, and Vico C bring prison consciousness back to Puerto Rican pop

In the heady, right-on Seventies, an article in the magazine ¡P'Alante! (Forward!), published by radical Nuyorican political outfit the Young Lords, once called U.S. prisons "concentration camps" for young black and boricua men. Deep. At that time the stars of the new Nuyorican musical movement known as salsa used to sing a lot about crime and criminals and doing time. But salsa got sappy in the Eighties and songs about street life all but disappeared. Then the prison population in the United States doubled over the past decade, mostly as a result of lengthy mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes -- and a disproportionate number of those incarcerated are poor and African American or Latino.

Maybe that explains the new crop of songs by Puerto Rican artists about prison life. First came the beautiful Obie Bermudez song "Cuatro de Julio" ("Fourth of July") last summer about an inmate imagining a reunion with his lover after being released from prison. Co-written by Bermudez with Ruben Blades, "Fourth of July" harks back to the classic salsa era, when being Puerto Rican in New York meant not only being proud but also being politically conscious and recounting the problems faced every day by el pueblo. (Blades -- author of, among other classics, the down-these-mean-streets anthem "Pedro Navaja" -- is Panamanian, but he used to say back in the day that he was Puerto Rican, too, because salsa is a "Puerto Rican emotion.") "As soon as my brother was arrested, I wanted to write a song about it right away," says Bermudez of his inspiration. "I wanted people to know what it's like to have a brother in jail and how he's feeling and what he's going through."

Bermudez says he turned to Blades for help in finishing the song. "He came up with the chorus and put the Ruben stamp on it," the singer says, smiling. Blades also helped the younger songwriter connect his brother's prison experience to the earlier exploitation of young men of color during the Atlantic slave trade. In popular Caribbean history, the rumba -- and specifically the sensual guaguancó -- is believed to be a dance enslaved Africans performed with hips and spine because their feet were shackled together. "Fourth of July" opens with a guaguancó, then builds into an ecstatic burst of West African percussion and gospel-style vocal rapture. "Musically, it's very soothing," Bermudez points out. "It's a story about freedom."

A few months after Bermudez released "Fourth of July" on his album Confesiones, baby-faced hunk Jerry Rivera put out a tribute album, Canto a Mi Idolo, Frankie Ruiz(I Sing to My Idol, Frankie Ruiz). One of the biggest stars of the Eighties' sensual salsa, the sweet-throated Ruiz nevertheless shared a taste for hard drugs with many of his Seventies macho elders, which led to his conviction for crack possession in 1988 and a fourteen-month stint in federal prison in Orlando. "For me it was a big shock to hear that he had been arrested," says Rivera, a high school Frankie fanatic at the time.

The younger salsero chose Ruiz's 1992 postrelease hit "Mi Libertad" ("My Liberty") as the first single from his Ruiz tribute and filmed the video in a federal prison in Puerto Rico. Rivera has been in jail before to visit friends he grew up with, but he was still intimidated when the video shoot took him inside the cells. "When you look out the window, there's absolutely no way to get out," he recalls with a shudder. "Wearing the uniform, with all these enormous guards around; psychologically you're an inmate."

There's nothing in his straight-up remake of "Mi Libertad," though, that conveys the edge that hard living and hard time eventually put in Ruiz's voice. Rivera's crystal-clear sweetness sounds incongruous, coming off as more of a Christmas carol than a jail lament. An effort to rough up the track -- and to appeal to the recently discovered mass audience for Puerto Rican rap and reggaetón -- by inviting veteran island rapper Voltio to lay down a few rhymes doesn't just come off as corny; the pair don't even sound like they're delivering the same song. Voltio raps; Rivera sings. Repeat. Repeat. Track out. It might have been a better idea -- Nat "King" Cole necrophiliac style -- just to have Voltio rap over Ruiz's original track.

"For me, Frankie Ruiz was more believable," observes Vico C, the undisputed pioneer of Puerto Rican rap, about Rivera's remake. "If a person is going to record, it should be someone who's lived the experience, especially something as specific as being in prison. Voltio does know what he's talking about, so the song worked better for him."

Vico C knows what he's talking about too. Like Ruiz, the rapper did time on charges of drug possession. He's also pissed; as in, yeah, I did drugs and so do plenty of other people, so why am I in jail? When he ended up doing six months in Orlando at the beginning of 2003 for breaking parole, he was pissed off enough to write his tenth and best album, En Honor a la Verdad (In Honor of the Truth).

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