Voice of the Street

Soren Baker writes about pop music for Calendar

It's no longer news for a rap album to debut near the top of the pop chart, but it is something to note when the rapper's last name is Rios.

Bronx-bred Christopher Rios, better known to rap fans as Big Punisher, is part of a mostly new group of talented Latino rappers who are eager to gain commercial and creative respect in a genre that has been dominated by African Americans.

Big Punisher's ascent began with his first solo song, "You Ain't a Killer," a standout cut from last year's "Soul in the Hole" soundtrack.

A subsequent guest appearance on the Beatnuts' "Off the Books" single further established Punisher as a force in the hip-hop community. By the time his "I'm Not a Player" single was released last summer, he had become one of the most heralded up-and-coming New York rappers.

Although Latinos were intimately involved in developing the graffiti and breakdancing components of the hip-hop culture in the late '70s and early '80s, few Latino rappers have become hit recording artists.

That's why Big Punisher's debut album, "Capital Punishment," caught the rap industry's eye in early May when it entered the national pop chart at No. 5 (see review, Page 72.)

Among other New York-based Latinos who are making impressive inroads in hip-hop: Fat Joe, a Bronx rapper whose upcoming album features a guest appearance by Puff Daddy, among others; the Beatnuts, a Queens duo best known for last year's club anthem "Off the Books," and Hurricane G, who has gained considerable respect in the field with cameos on albums by such underground hip-hop artists as Redman and the Cocoa Brovaz.

They join a small list of established Latino rappers, most of them from Los Angeles. They include Cypress Hill, Frost (formerly Kid Frost) and Funkdoobiest.

Rios, 26, is obviously pleased with the reaction to his album, which has already sold nearly 450,000 copies, but he resists being the poster boy for a Latino rap movement.

"I don't want to be considered 'the Latino rapper,' " says Rios, whose parents are both Puerto Rican. "I just want to be considered a dope MC. We [Latino rappers] want to be considered [among] the best [rappers]. . . ."

One big difference between his new New York school of Latino rap and the Los Angeles contingent that surfaced nearly a decade ago is the virtual absence of Spanish language in their verses and Latino cultural signatures in their images. Rather than Latino rappers, they are rappers who happen to be Latino.

Big Punisher's generally hard-core lyrics are far removed from, say, Kid Frost's 1990 single "La Raza," which stressed Frost's Mexican heritage. Despite cracking the national Top 50, "La Raza" failed to spur an onslaught of Latino rappers. The obstacles--language and credibility--probably seemed too large.

A key to the success of both Punisher and Cypress Hill is the fact that they had street-level respect and that they didn't make their heritage an overwhelming issue. They focused on making quality hip-hop.

Punisher's album, which was released by Loud Records, may even be a blueprint for other Latinos who want to follow in his rap path.

His lyrics traverse typical rap fare: life on the streets, sexual prowess and braggadocio with only a smidgen of Spanish, a successful formula that Cypress Hill also incorporated on its 1991 debut album, which sold more than 1 million copies.

Punisher doesn't see the lack of Spanish flavoring as a compromise.

"We have our own language," Punisher says of his heritage. "If we didn't have our own language, we would have been rapping [in English] and you would have had a Puerto Rican Nas 10 years ago. We're speaking more English now and the music is more accepted now in the home."

Mellow Man Ace is one veteran rapper who still tries to mix English and Spanish elements, and he realizes it handicaps his commercial potential.

"For Latinos, it's harder to get on [in rap]," says Ace (born Ulpiano Reyes), a 31-year-old native of Cuba whose 1990 single "Mentirosa" was one of the few records to follow up on "La Raza's" success. "What you're trying to accomplish is to speak Spanish in a predominantly English-spoken realm."

Language isn't the only issue that Punisher and the other New Yorkers have wrestled with. There's also the stigma of Gerardo, whose rap novelty "Rico Suave" broke into the Top 10 in 1991. The hapless record made it easy to view other Latino rappers with suspicion, much as Vanilla Ice made the concept of a white rapper laughable.

The climate has changed so much over the last eight years, thanks to Cypress Hill's mix of street-level authenticity and commercial punch, that some African American rappers now freely incorporate some Latino elements in their recordings.

"What You Want," a Top 10 pop single from Puff Daddy protege Mase that has received extensive radio play on urban stations across the country, features several Spanish words. In addition, words such as "papi," a term of affection in the Latino community, frequently pepper rap lyrics.

Punisher feels one reason that Latino rap is taking hold in New York rather than Los Angeles is sociological. Unlike L.A., where African Americans and Latinos tend to live in relative isolation from each other, there is much closer proximity between the races in New York. This increased familiarity not only makes musical assimilation easier for Latino rappers, but also allows them to be more visible in black communities, the tell-tale hip-hop demographic.

"We're not only making good music, but we are bringing races of people together," says Fat Joe, 26, the rapper who first helped establish Big Punisher and co-executive produced his album.

"We're bringing cultures together. People who didn't understand Latinos before might be more interested in finding out more about Latinos [because of Latino hip-hop]."

Fat Joe, whose real name is Joseph Cartagena and whose mother is Puerto Rican and whose father is Cuban, has recorded with LL Cool J. His third album, "Don Cartagena," is scheduled for an August release and will feature guest appearances from rap stars Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon.

Hoping to follow in the footsteps of such super rap associations as the Wu-Tang Clan and Master P's No Limit Records family, Fat Joe's Terror Squad crew, composed of Latinos and blacks, should provide the genre with its first top-tier Latino and black alliance.

"Every one of my artists has his own image of what he's going to do in hip-hop, how he's going to change hip-hop," Fat Joe says. "But at the same time, the lyrical skills are tight and the foundation--which is the streets and the hard-core hip-hop--will always be covered because that's where the love is at."

Like Fat Joe and Big Punisher, Terror Squad members Cuban Link, Triple Seis, Prospect and Armageddon all hail from the Bronx. A Terror Squad album featuring performances from all six members will follow the release of Fat Joe's set.

Now that this new wave of Latino artists has the opportunity to be respected by the extremely fickle hip-hop community, they aren't going to waste it.

"I've been waiting to do this since I was 15 years old," Big Punisher says. "I've just been waiting for my turn."

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