"Soarse," as he's known familiarly, is just one of a loose collective of Miami MCs and producers with similar stories. They all record for local label Botanica del Jíbaro, an endeavor spearheaded by 30-year-old graphic designer and artist Steve Castro, who goes by the handle "La Mano Fría" ("the cold hand").
Castro painstakingly designs all of the packaging and merchandise. The music, by Soarse and labelmates like MC Seven Star or the group Climber, is both innovative and old school. You'll never find a pop or R&B hook on a BDJ release, and that's how the artists intend it. Even if it means that they go unappreciated in the city they call home.
Seven, one of the label's best-known artists, might be the current star of a series of magazine ads for a French streetwear brand, but in Miami, he's toiled as a telemarketer. The very name of the label reflects this grassroots ethos, a botanica being the quintessential Latino establishment stocking folk remedies, and jíbaro being a slang term (mostly Puerto Rican) for peasant farmers.
"Botanica del Jíbaro is a vehicle to try to give the people a voice," Castro says via e-mail from Japan, where he spends part of the year. "Most of the crew is of Latin American roots, immigrants. It's only fitting that immigrants, together with children of slaves who built this country, have something to say, as their voice has always been kept quiet and seen as unimportant." Indeed, list the birthplaces of BDJ's artists (or their parents) and the result is an immigrant mosaic: Chile, Colombia, Cuba, and Jamaica, among others.
Castro's earliest engagement with hip-hop was as a teenage graffiti artist. He started "destroying walls, desks, and windows with typography" at age twelve, a pursuit that eventually led him to take up graphic art. A diehard music lover from those early teenage years, he launched his first record label, Beta Bodega Coalition, in 1998, focusing on a style of electronic music then termed "IDM" ("intelligent dance music").
In 2002 Castro organized Infiltrate, a showcase of underground hip-hop and electronic music, coinciding with the annual Winter Music Conference, that was meant to provide an alternative to the slick, spring-break quality of much of the conference. Among the artists on the bill were Soarse, Manuvers, and Mindshift (a.k.a. Jake Jefferson Quintana, one half of the group Climber), who cottoned to the notion of Castro's new label.
Besides being a largely immigrant town, for the past two decades or so, Miami has also been a hip-hop town even if hip-hop has been put through raunchy regional filters. After all, this is the birthplace of booty bass, as executed by Luther Campbell and his 2 Live Crew. The style he pioneered rose to infamy during the Eighties mainly based on its XXX-rated lyrical content.
Today, local heroes include Trick Daddy and his Slip-N-Slide Records crew, with their murky, slang-cloaked tales birthed in the strip clubs and vacant lots of Opa-locka. There are the bilingual party jams from Little Havana, courtesy of Pitbull, along with Rick Ross and his unending hustler's chronicles. And a good chunk of current hip-pop radio hits are churned out by überproducer Scott Storch at North Miami's Hit Factory studios.
BDJ's artists produce music aimed at moving people's minds as well as their bodies. The beats range from golden-age beats liberally doused in funk and soul samples to more electronic explorations into downtempo. Lyrics focus on politics, war, relationships anything, really, that can be discussed intelligently.
Of course, this aesthetic leaves them a bit out of sync with local tastes. And thus, they wind up playing to more appreciative crowds almost everywhere else in the world. "For hip-hop, America is the birthplace, so here the lines are drawn out more, the mental fences are taller," Castro observes. "Other parts of the world seem to have more of an open mind when it comes to anything, including music."
Beta Bodega still functions as something of an umbrella for his various projects, including BDJ and its sister label, Arepaz. It's hard to draw clear lines between the record labels, the artists' various formations, and Castro's side projects, like his T-shirt line, Rice and Beans, based in Tokyo. If that sounds something like a homegrown version of the Wu-Tang Clan, think again. Although BDJ's producers and MCs often collaborate, each is a distinct solo artist.
The label's popularity in Europe, much of it thanks to the Internet, has grown so much that Castro recently established something of a branch office on that continent. The label Project:Mooncircle is run by 24-year-old Gordon Gieseking out of Dresden, Germany.
Gieseking, a DJ, met some of the label's artists in Berlin. He was transfixed by their raw sound and related to their tales of escape from oppression. "I found my life in this music in 1990 as a DJ," he explains. "It came after life had been very hard for me as a kid in the Eighties, because I was born in the ödemocratic republic' of East Germany."
At any one time, it's nearly impossible to find all of the members of the BDJ collective on the same continent. While New Times was researching this article, for example, Castro was in Tokyo. Producer Deviant was in Peru, having just arrived there after a few weeks in Brazil. Soarse and Manuvers had just returned from a recording stint in Chile.
Deviant (real name: Robert Sawyer) is one of the few of this constellation not born to Latin American immigrants (his father is American, his mother Jamaican). But he's long been fascinated by Latin culture and has traveled extensively, researching, as it were, for his ambitious LP, due to drop later this year.
"That album will contain my interpretations of various genres from the Caribbean, Latin American, and Afro-Latin styles and hopefully vocals in English, Spanish, Quechua, and Portuguese," he says. "I also want to complete an album of dub and dub-influenced songs, kind of an ode to my mother's homeland."
In Chile, Soarse and Manuvers laid down the basic tracks for a project called Metralleta, a collaboration with Chilean MC Mustafa Yoda. The lyrics will be entirely in Spanish.
Soarse a native of Medellin, Colombia, who grew up in Miami is also slowly completing his debut, a magnum opus to be called Third World Prophecies. Switching comfortably between English and Spanish as the mood strikes, Soarse layers his metaphorical lyrics over melancholy riffs and laid-back jazz beats.
Unlike nearly all other labels, BDJ doesn't sign artists to contracts. The business arrangement is more informal. "Steve [Castro] is on the tip where it's like, 'If you wanna release something, I believe in your music enough to do it'," Soarse explains. "He pays for the production, pressing, and distribution. He also finds people to fly us out for international shows. That's what Steve is really good at, making connections."
"Most [artists] approach me because they think they have something to say in their music that fits with the label," Castro says. "Miami's underground is small but strong, so once you are in the network, you just connect."
Releases are distributed according to these connections as well and are targeted according to the preferences of various global tastemakers. Some releases are exclusive to one country and will never appear domestically. Stateside, a number of the albums are distributed by Counterflow Recordings, also based in South Florida. They can be ordered online by anyone from Project:Mooncircle's manufacturer.
It's a slow road to superstardom, to say the least. But the members of the BDJ camp don't mind working, even if some of that "work" is the kind that involves punching a clock.
"I love Miami. When people ask me where I'm from, I say Miami," Soarse says. "I'm not gonna lie to you: I would love to sell something in the States. I care about what the people think. But I don't care if Mansion's not booking me. I don't care about that shit. I mean, I would like to sell records, but I'm still going to keep making music that's true to me, regardless."