Latinos rarely receive credit for all they've brought to the rap game. After all, it was primarily Puerto Ricans who authored those boogaloo break-dance moves in the Bronx. And what would Cali hip-hop be without the laid-back style of Chicano cholos and their "low lows"?
Currently, a contingent of local Latino rap artists is pushing hard for recognition. Its members are on the Thizz Latin label, an imprint of Mac Dre's Thizz Entertainment group. Only a year old, Thizz Latin is the brainchild of Julio "Gold Toes" Sanchez, a Chicano MC and hip-hop impresario hell-bent on highlighting the diversity of the hyphy movement.
To the Mission District native, San Francisco is practically synonymous with diversity. "I'm a San Franciscan to the heart," Sanchez says. "I'm a melting pot within my mind and in my soul."
On this hot Mission afternoon, he rolls up in his cream-colored Cadillac to tell me the Peruvian joint where we planned to meet is closed. Instead, he takes me to a Chinese restaurant where the Asian immigrant owners greet him by first name. To some, Sanchez could be imposing, with his brawny build, shaved head, and fiery demeanor. To the restaurant's proprietors, he's just a neighborhood kid.
Sanchez is using his community-bridging skills and street hustle to build a wide audience for his label's pan-Latin roster of rappers, including Mr. Kee, Tito B, Freddy Chingaz, and Louie Loc, who are of Cuban, Mexican, Salvadoran, and Nicaraguan descent, respectively. "We can go to Hunters Point and have it rocking. We can go to the Mission and have it rocking. We can go to Union Street, and we can have it crackin' off the hook. We could go to Chinatown, and they're gonna love us."
One of Thizz Latin's premier artists, Chicano MC Jimmy Roses, opened the "Super Hyphy 18" concert recently in Santa Rosa. Minutes into his set, he made the remarkably mixed crowd of more than a thousand move with his feel-good anthem "Who Rock the Party," an ebullient track that received some airplay on local radio and galvanized what Sanchez calls the Latin hyphy movement.
Movement building, however, has been impeded by the peculiar racial politics of local commercial radio. Although Thizz Latin artists have garnered a few spins, radio play in the Bay largely eludes them, despite the fact that several of the imprint's releases have sold more than 20,000 units. The explanation given by DJs and programmers? They're not black enough for hip-hop and R&B stations, and they're not Latin enough for the Hispanic format. In Sanchez's words, "We're everywhere but the motherfucking radio!"
The situation mirrors the marginal, neither-here-nor-there position of US Latinos, who comprise the nation's largest minority yet rarely receive recognition in the mainstream media. The music industry in particular can't seem to wrap its brain around the biculturalism of urban Latino youth, many of whom grew up listening to traditional Latin sounds yet are utterly immersed in hip-hop.
Thizz Latin beatmaker Ivan "Baby Boss" Martinez, a rising star at 18, is a perfect example of this. The Mexican American college freshman explains, "Whenever we're with our families, we're bumpin' banda. We're playing mariachi in the car. But when I'm with my clique, it's just hip-hop and reggaetón."
Martinez's dexterity in mixing multiple genres impressed "ShoBoy" Edgar, a popular DJ on fledgling KWZ, 100.7 FM ("La Kalle"). The reggaetón-heavy station, which specifically targets urban Latino youths, hired Martinez to produce a few commercials but seldom plays Thizz Latin tracks ostensibly because they're in English.
Even more galling to Sanchez is the lack of local hip-hop and R&B radio support, considering that both KMEL, 106.1 FM, and KYLD, 94.9 FM (Wild), regularly sponsor events such as Carnaval in the Mexican American community and even farm their DJs out for private quinceañera parties. Still, they refuse to put Latin rap on regular rotation. At press time, KMEL and KYLD representatives had not responded to requests for comment.
Interestingly, Thizz Latin MCs get more love in other regions, including central California and the Southwest, where they play to crowds as large as 5,000. The hip-hop hotbed of Houston is especially amenable to Latin rap so much so that local players have begun to migrate there. Vallejo rapper Baby Bash moved to H-Town years ago and subsequently struck gold in record sales. San Jose's Upstairs Records, home of SoCal Chicano-rap phenom Lil Rob, recently set up shop there.
Even Sanchez, a die-hard San Franciscan, feels the pull southward. He lived in Houston for a time and built strong connections there with top Chicano talent Chingo Bling and South Park Mexican, who both appear on Thizz Latin releases. So does Baby Bash, who recently paired up with Sanchez on "Thick ''N Juicy," a seductive track on Sanchez's solo debut, Gold Toes Presents: The Gold Rush, set for a Sept. 18 release.
Something of a slow jam, "Thick 'N Juicy" differs from Thizz Latin's more hardcore hyphy output. The imprint's vaguely thuggish brand of rap is offered as another excuse by radio programmers for why it doesn't get played. But that argument doesn't hold water considering both KMEL and La Kalle play classic gangsta rap by the likes of Snoop Dogg and 2Pac.
There are obviously racialized assumptions being made about what a real Latino is and what true hip-hop is. This rigid logic pushes Latino rappers into a broadcast border zone as migrant wanderers looking for a place to settle on the radio dial. Hopefully, they'll find a home once Latinos gain a stronger foothold in the media.