Cuba's young pioneers of rap: Producer Pablo Herrera and his younger brother
Cuba's young pioneers of rap: Producer Pablo Herrera and his younger brother
Brett Sokol

Hip-hop and Socialism

Pablo Herrera's home in the Havana neighborhood of Santos Suarez isn't that dissimilar from those of his rap-producer counterparts in the States. A mixing board, synthesizer, speakers, and a scattering of CDs fill a table in one corner of his living room. Underneath lie crates of vinyl, every producer's basic source material for sampling. But if the electronic clutter would look familiar to an American music professional, it would astonish most Cubans.

As Herrera prepares two cups of steaming café con leche, he acknowledges both the equipment's uniqueness and the central role it has helped give him in Cuban hip-hop. Nodding in the direction of the mixing board, he slyly quips to Kulchur: “I'm probably the only person in the whole country with a setup like this.”

After several months of intensive work, the fruits of that home studio -- a gathering spot for Havana's most talented raperos -- are about to pay off. In conjunction with the Cuban state-run record company EGREM and a New York City-based producer, Herrera has assembled a compilation of twelve Cuban rap acts, including Anonimo Consejo, Alto y Bajo, 100%, and Instinto, the last a female trio whose breathless harmonizing and onstage charisma could give TLC a good run for their money. With the compilation's international release date set for early fall, foreign ears are about to hear their first taste of Cuban hip-hop. (Fearing possible prosecution under the American government's Cuba trade embargo, the NYC producer has insisted for the time being on anonymity for both himself and the prominent American independent label that has expressed interest in picking up U.S. distribution rights for the album.)

Don't expect the usual array of Seventies funk grooves on Herrera's rap productions. “I only sample Cuban music, nothing else,” he declares flatly. “There's a huge stock of Cuban classics that's untapped. Why would I want to sample James Brown?”

Instead Herrera has turned to his own collection, from which he mines distinctive breaks: big-band albums from bolero singer Vincentico Valdez, a piano run off Emiliano Salvador's 1979 jazz-fusion outing Nueva Vision, the slinky in-the-pocket rhythm of Los Van Van's 1974 cut “La Habana Joven.” He picks up a beaten copy of an album from Sixties doo-wop group Los Zafiros and says with a smile: “There's a great guitar riff on here.”

Herrera isn't averse to live instrumentation either. For the song he created with the group 100%, he hired the bassist from Chucho Valdés's jazz ensemble, Irakere. There are limits to this approach, however. The stripped-down conga sets that powered American protorappers such as the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron in the late Sixties may seem like an obvious choice for Cuban raperos, but such a neorumba vibe is strictly verboten.

“The youth that listens to hip-hop wants to listen to something that resembles where the music comes from,” he says, referring to the digitized timbre and rat-a-tat-tat drum machines of mainstream American rap. Congueros are not welcome. “If you overdo [the percussion], people say, “That's salsa; I've already had enough of that.'”

Indeed, "we've already had enough salsa" could be el rap's rallying cry. American audiences might still be in their honeymoon phase with son and timba, but for increasing numbers of Cubans (particularly young Afro-Cubans), such music is hopelessly stale; the Buena Vista Social Club is quite literally the soundtrack of their grandparents.

The reasons for this cultural disdain are on full display at Café Cantate Mi Habana, a Vedado nightclub that has become the favored venue for many of the island's most prominent salsa groups. Performing there one evening last month was NG La Banda, whose 1989 debut album En La Calle made them the toast of forward-thinking Cuban-music aficionados worldwide. But while their moniker may still translate as the “New Generation Band,” their actual performance was clear evidence of why the young turks from a decade ago have been superseded.

By 1:30 a.m. NG La Banda's leader, José Luis “Tosco” Cortes, was putting his group through its paces, the horn section blasting away and an electric bassist assuming a busy central position in the mix. Their performance, though, was all flash -- pointless, empty soloing with the kind of showy musicianship that impresses composition students but puts the dance floor to sleep. The American funk and R&B influences that once seemed so fresh (salseros who came of age in the early Eighties still speak of Earth, Wind and Fire in reverent tones) have played themselves out to a logical end.

Even more telling was the audience itself: The admission price ($15 U.S.) ensured that the only native islanders present were privileged ones. In the middle of the set, Tosco suddenly called for a spotlight to play across one long table full of leggy dancers from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. From there he began a global roll call, bellowing out: “Are there any Brazilians in the house?” Receiving a smattering of cheers, he led the band into a faux samba. Argentines, Italians, and Brits all got their due, though the cry of “¿Alemania?” elicited only silence; there were indeed a cluster of German men standing at the club's bar, but they were far too preoccupied with gleefully grinding up against their "dates" for the evening to pay attention to what was happening onstage.

While such cloying overtures to “It's a Small World After All” may be better suited to a bar mitzvah band than a group that cut its teeth playing outdoors in Havana's grittier barrios, catering to foreign tastes (whether musical or carnal) is simply business as usual in the entertainment-based economy of today's Cuba. Still, this rapprochement was coming from a band whose 1995 signature tune, “La Bruja,” brusquely addressed Havana's jineteras, the legions of dollar-hungry Cuban women who aggressively seek out “companionship,” by declaring, “What you are is a witch, a seductress, a witch without feelings.... You think of yourself as the best because you travel in Buena Vista in a tourist taxi.”

Little wonder then that much of Cuba's younger generation has turned its back on salsa's entire milieu and cast its aesthetic gaze northward, voraciously sucking up every facet of a genre they see as free from the taint of tourism: American hip-hop.

CD players are still rare among Cubans. In their place rap fans have set up their own samizdat exchanges, furiously rolling dual cassette players and dubbing copies of the latest American acts. Devotees of el rap living in the eastern Havana suburb of Alamar told Kulchur of occasionally being able to pick up Miami's hip-hop radio station WEDR-FM (99.1) -- a claim that may help explain that area's reputation as a hotbed for Cuban raperos.

All of this raises a question: Given its roots in an ostensibly American art form, just what is it that makes Cuban hip-hop Cuban ?

Back in his living room, Pablo Herrera nods knowingly and laughs, “Sometimes a rapper will say to me: “I want that Snoop Doggy Dogg drumbeat, but I want it to sound Cuban.' So does that mean you have to use claves or a batá?” He shakes his head negatively. “Those are clichés formed by CEOs in record companies in New York. They think that everything that's Latin should sound a certain way, and if you don't sound that way then people won't buy you. It's related to the way corporate powers present hip-hop as a commodity to the world.

“I think in the end, what makes Cuban hip-hop Cuban is that it's being made by Cubans,” he continues. “They're talking about Cuban society from socialist perspectives, from the perspective of people who were born and raised in Cuba during the socialist revolution.”

Yet the way in which many Afro-Cubans have embraced rap -- often as a protest music that is decidedly theirs -- would seem to imply some degree of distance between the architects of the revolution and its supposed beneficiaries. It's certainly instructive that the Cuban government's own reaction to rap has shifted from outright hostility (often shutting down impromptu rap parties) to funding an annual rap festival in Havana, not to mention EGREM sponsoring Herrera's efforts.

“There has been resistance to rap because there's always resistance to new phenomena,” Herrera offers. “What's happened since 1999 is that the minister of culture, [Abel Prieto], has acknowledged hip-hop as part of Cuban culture.” Why then, in spite of official support, do so many raperos sing bitterly about the plight of blacks in Cuba?

"There is racism in Cuba, yes," Herrera sighs, his lips pursing in disapproval. “But it's part of the prejudice that exists throughout the world. Cuban society as it is now is still a young society -- it's only 41 years old. There's still a lot of elements of discrimination of all kinds that need to be eradicated. That goes for religion and sexual orientation as well as race.”

Squirming ever so slightly in his chair, perhaps aware he's in a thorny philosophical spot, Herrera's voice turns quieter, more contemplative. “In a way,” he says, “the government has actually done a great deal to try to understand what's going on, because they know that only by assimilating rap can they make it something that's not antagonistic to the regime or the system. It's in their interest that hip-hop becomes part of the accepted culture.” He pauses and, looking away from Kulchur, adds, "Otherwise it becomes an insurgent movement."


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