The first things I notice about Cuban hip-hop MC Don Dinero are the long multicolored collares hanging down over his white tee. The beads are artifacts of Dinero's faith, a form of worship known as Santería, which fuses aspects of Catholicism with African religions such as Yor¬bá. It ain't the sort of bling I'm used to, but Dinero isn't your average rapper.
"Spirituality is me," Dinero declares. "It's my essence."
And while hip-hop stars have a certain tendency to embrace the idea of religion without actually being particularly religious, Dinero does appear genuine about his faith. Apollo Kid's spies relate seeing Dinero perform at the Mun2's decadent preparty for this past April's Latin Billboard Awards. As the revelers sipped cocktails and flirted with one another, Dinero was on the side of the stage, garbed in his beads and leading his crew through an extended prayer session.
This isn't the sort of behavior you would imagine from someone who dubs himself Don Dinero. But it is indicative of his attempts to connect with his Cuban roots. On his major-label debut, Ahore Que Si, Dinero raps almost entirely in Spanish. This isn't because he has to (Dinero sounds just as good in English), but rather targeting the Latin audience is all a part of Dinero's grand strategy. "I'm going to build my foundation off the Latin audience," he says.
But the bilingual angle isn't the only thing that distinguishes Dinero. He is well into his thirties and has been rapping since he was an eight-year-old living in Manhattan's Washington Heights. The experience and self-confidence that come with it are evident throughout our interview: Dinero carries himself with a sense of poise I rarely encounter when interviewing younger MCs.
And this focus and self-determination have meant everything to Dinero's career. After driving down numerous major-label dead ends over the past few years (Dinero makes the somewhat dubious claim that "after Big Pun died, the Latin market dried up"), he took matters into his own hands and in 1999 launched the independent label Last Laugh Records with his brother Oscar Guitan. And in January 2002, Dinero and his entire family relocated to Miami, a move he views as vital to his career and as a means of further connecting with his roots.
"By moving to Miami, I've gotten a lot closer to my culture as a Cuban," Dinero claims. "The atmosphere in Miami has influenced me in every way imaginable, and you can hear that on the CD."
That may be true, but Ahore Que Si also clearly reflects his NYC roots. Songs such as the album's first single, "Arte de la Calle," reverberate with the traditionalist, sample-based boom bap snap that dominated the genre throughout the Nineties. Elsewhere the album's title track opts for the more menacing sounds of recent hip-hop, using the same big bass, austere synth stabs, and handclaps that characterize such hits as Fat Joe's "Lean Back" and Ja Rule's "New York." And though the sound of the album is at times generic, the CD distinguishes itself in other ways. For one, Dinero's religious convictions are prominent throughout the disc, from the artwork in the liner notes to the album's intro, which is chanted by a Santería priest and is a tribute to Dinero's guardian angel.
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It's the sort of borderless cultural and sonic amalgamation that's increasingly defining hip-hop, particularly in Miami. Perhaps Dinero puts it best in a line from "Arte de la Calle": "Hip-hop is a religion and not a language."
Indulge me for a moment, please. Think back over the past year or so and remember the music that has stuck with you ... the bees in your sonic bonnet, so to speak. Maybe it's hip-hop anthems such as the Ying Yang Twins' "Wait" or 50 Cent's "Just a Lil Bit." Or perhaps it's reggaeton tracks such as Daddy Yankee's ubiquitous "Gasolina." And if you're an indie kid, maybe M.I.A.'s raison d'être "Galang" rocked your world. But do you notice what they have in common? You got it: They're all singles.
So why is it that all we seem to review in alt-weekly land is albums? I couldn't answer that question, so I decided to refine the formula a bit. Don't worry; your album reviews will still be there, but they will be supplemented by a singles section. I've assembled some of the nation's best pop music writers, who provide entertaining and insightful commentary about some of the most popular songs on the radio and in the clubs. The concentration will be on hip-hop, R&B, and pop, but we'll throw in the occasional wildcard from time to time. If you care to check it out, it'll be right under the album review section. And if you're a local artist, send your wares to the Miami New Times compound. And Apollo Kid will do his best to ensure that no one chucks your disc into the recycling bin.