At a broken down building that looks possibly foreclosed or abandoned, a dude in his mid-40s opens the door. He looks tired and has bags under his eyes the size of grapes. Inside his apartment, there’s a poster that describes a variety mushrooms, both of the nutritious and recreational variety. There are half empty glasses sitting around, maybe from a party that never really took off. Then, the first member of Whitest Taino Alive (WTA) walks out and smiles at me.
His name is Haru. To pay the bills, he DJs, but he's best known as one-third of WTA, where he raps under the pseudonym Blon Jovi. He’s got this big brownish beard and isn't exactly petite. We walk together to the studio where I meet Jorge and Cesar, the other two members of the Dominican hip-hop trio.
The studio reeks of yesterday’s hotbox. On top of the
Jorge, the producer, goes by DaBeat Ortiz in WTA. “Yeah, Haru’s a bit older than us. I never listened to Vico C or any shit like that. My beats are more influenced by trap and electronica.”
Cesar has long hair and he wears it in a man-bun. His rap pseudonym is DominiKanye West, and, yes, he has strong opinions about Kanye's new album, The Life Of Pablo. “Track two is the one I love,” he says, before casually singing the hook for "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1."
If you have no clue who Whitest Taino Alive is that’s because they reside in the Dominican Republic and have only recently begun to migrate from one corrupt beachfront property to another, leaving the DR to perform at Florida's Okeechobee Fest. The group hopes to tour throughout Miami after dropping their next EP or album. But, regardless if you know them or not, this band is important, and here is why: The Dominican Republic, like many other Latin countries, has been through economic and political turmoil for endless years. In the face of such turmoil, music can be relegated to an afterthought.
But WTA is an exception, making music that both embraces contemporary tastes and uses its platform to critique the flaws of Dominican Society. “I think our music is a portrait of society, from the point-of-view of the character we made up for our music. But, it
“We get e-mails from random people saying really shitty things to us," Jorge says. "They get mad about the characters we portray in our music.”
There’s a common thread throughout almost all great art: if it isn’t pissing someone off then it probably isn’t very important. “You think about guys like Silvio Rodrigues or Pablo Milanes, and those dudes were behind their guitars, on stage, making a difference,” Haru says. Cesar remains quieter in the back, but adds: “We don’t have rules to the way we write music. Maybe something we write now pisses them off, but later we might write something those same people love. It’s not like we’re trying to do that, but we just write what we feel.”
Haru is passionate about this subject, the controversy his music can cause. "This is what happens here every day, man," he says. "This is what’s wrong with society. We just make light of it. It’s like watching a character in a movie that maybe you relate to, and it pisses you off. There are a lot of people that get mad at our music — that get offended and shit — say we’re emblematic of the problems in the Dominican Republic. It’s funny, man. People are crazy.” Jorge chimes in again: “Besides, society isn’t a reflection of us. It’s the other way around.”
The members of Whitest Taino Alive and the people that e-mail them may stand at odds but they do have one thing in common: the fact that they’re batshit crazy. WTA's music sounds like you're on Ambien listening to a Young Thug track with synths on it. It’s trap but it’s elegant. It’s gangster rap but it’s chillwave. You can blast it and fade into it, or turn it up and let the music swallow you whole. It’s unlike any hip-hop I’ve ever heard, and the backgrounds of the three members might have something to do with it. The three cover a lot of cultural and artistic ground.
The best example of this is Cesar, whose former punk band I used to watch play live growing up in the Dominican Republic. He now has his own solo act, where he performs indie rock, as well as Whitest Taino Alive. “I play every single instrument. In my solo project, I compose the songs and I have a band that performs the music with
Jorge nods and raises his eyebrows.
Haru met Jorge in the electronic music scene. And Cesar rented him a drum set once. "We were just having fun," Haru remembers. "After making the first one we decided to make a second one, and the second one was pretty good. So, we decided to make it a side gig for all of us. We made like five songs and made it our EP.”
Since then Whitest Taino Alive has released two EP’s and a full album, 2014’s Donde Jugaran Los Cueros (its controversial cover photo is of a girl in puma high tops with her underwear around her ankles.) They’ve also toured the world, performing throughout the US and South America.
Sitting in the studio, they begin to roll a joint. The place starts smelling of happiness, and I take that as a sign that music is about to be made.
“You want to hear an unreleased track?” Jorge asks.
Of course I do.
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As the song begins to roar through the speakers, I ask about the benefits they’ve sowed as independent artists struggling to make it, and, now having kind-of-sort-of made it, is it satisfying?
Cesar responds first. “Well, we aren’t rock stars or anything. It’s not like we’re millionaires either. But, I love doing this and I’m not doing it for money or anything.”
“There are maybe a few bucks that come in extra that didn’t before. But, it’s not much," Haru admits. "I get some Whitest Taino money coming in every once in a while. That being said, it really isn’t leaving us, like, big economic benefits.” Jorge interrupts, careful to clarify. “Wait — I’ve definitely seen some benefits of this in my life. This has allowed me to travel all over the world performing music. I’ve been able to live off my music, you know? I’m not rich or anything close to it, but this is what I love to do, and I’m doing it, man.”
The song rolls into its chorus, and it's good. I tell this to the guys, all of who look at me and, in unison, say “Yeah, it is.”