The Rap Cartel, World Records and Other Tales From Colombia

ColombiaOne of the few DJs in the Guinness Book of World Records isn't from the Bronx, or LA. He's not from the USA at all. DJ Joyman Vargas hails from the barrio of El Trebol, in Cali, Colombia. Right before Christmas back in 1997, while most of the city was partying to the 4/4 beat that earned Cali the tag, "The Capital of Salsa," DJ Joyman, then 24, was setting the world's record for the most consecutive hours mixing on the radio -- 122, or five full days of spinning records!

Cali is a tropical crossroads, set in a valley. It's always been a stop for traffic travelling to and from Colombia's Pacific Coast, the Andean Mountains to the south, the rest of the country to the east. The coast is a rainy, green Africa redux, populated by the great-grandsons and daughters of slaves. Very rich in animals and plant life, but very poor otherwise. For several decades, hundreds of thousands have fled guns and bombs to arrive on Cali's doorstep and this has made it a city of many hues.

With immigration from the coast came music from the sea. That's how salsa hit the streets here in the 70's (although it survives nowadays as a commercial phenomenon, more than a cultural one). But in the last 10 to 15 years, Hip Hop culture has also hit the streets of Cali. DJ Joyman remembers seeing Beat Street four times in 1984, "I still got the poster right here," he gushed over the phone. He's been hooked since. But there's tons more like him, and rap in particular is spreading fast from the dark-skinned teens of Aguablanca, in Cali, to their fellow, lighter-skinned Colombians up and down this mountainous country.

In what were once wetlands on Cali's southern edge, Aguablanca is one of Latin America's largest "invasion" areas, where people come to squat on the outskirts of cities. About 400,000 people of color from the Pacific coast have settled here, often finding harder times in the city than what they left behind. Since 1994, the Aguablanca Cultural Network has been trying to help by supporting folk dancing groups, modeling schools, salsa bands, and any cultural expression that may help the ghetto youth find alternatives to the streets. Initially funded by an Italian NGO, the Network now depends on state funds and is run by local youth.

They also support about 25 of the area's dozens of rap and b-boy crews, mainly by giving them places to meet. This is no small thing considering that many of their members come from large families crammed into single-floor houses. One of the Network heads is Robinson Ruin, who also belongs to BS, a rap trio with a music video of their own, a status symbol in Colombia's still-young rap scene.

On the day of our interview, Ruiz had called a Network meeting to discuss the first anniversary of a rap-inclusive weekly radio show called "The Zone." Cali, with four radio stations now programming rap, leads the nation; Bogota, the capital, has only two. This in part is because a leading commercial radio station has found that the ratings for their nightly rap show are as high are as for many of their salsa programs. It also helps that two of the four stations are community-run stations, and that "the communities in Cali are listening to rap," according to Niky Cuervo, of the b-boy group, Energy Kings.

As soon as I suggested a spot for taking photos of the 15 kids at the meeting, trouble began. In the cab ride to the interview, I passed a neighborhood barbershop with a Tupac Shakur poster in the window and some funny haircuts painted on the glass, and thought it'd make a cool backdrop to the group of 17 to 23-year-olds. But when I voiced the idea, a guy called "Maligno" got in my face and said, "Some people be sayin' that the barbers be down with Hip Hop because they be doin' the razor cuts, but that ain't necessarily so." Then somebody pointed to stars and stripes on the window and refused to have their pictures taken in front of the American flag. The photographer, Lalo Borja, and I kept moving.

Walking up a side street, I explained how readers in other parts of the world would like to see where they live. "Yeah, you wanna see how poor we are, right?" announced Puto, natted in dreads. "Here you go," he said, pointing to a shack down a dirt road. "I bet you wanna take a picture of us in front of that shack, right?"

This went on for an hour. These kids wanted Lalos photos to show exactly who they were, down to the last detail. And I began to see Hip Hop in Colombia (as it is in many poor parts of the world) as a search for identity by those who have no voice. They speak the "language of the world's ghettos," as 23-year-old rapper and producer Carlos Andrs Pacheco put it later, but in their own urban, South American, Colombian version. This could mean laying the 3-2 salsa clave into a tune, or rapping about ways the cocaine and heroin trade are wreaking havoc on Colombian society.

A few days later, I talked to a rapper named Pacheco. Until recently, he belonged to the Bogota group, Gotas de Rap, or Drops of Rap - one of the few to have two CDs and European tours in their resume.

Pacheco told the story of the Colombia Rap Cartel, a "trade group" he helped start three years ago to help up-and-coming rappers get instruments, studio time, and so on. The effort faltered, because "many of the groups think that when they make a demo tape and play a few concerts, they're going to get rich quick," said Pacheco. "They think they're going to ride in a Cadillac, be like Dr. Dre. They aren't conscious of what rap is really about."

To Pacheco, Hip Hop and rap are about "throwing consciousness out there," about things like the American-inspired "war against drugs" that is being fought on front lines extending from Washington DC and Bogota. "The way I see it," said Pacheco, "we sell cocaine, just like the United States sells arms which also kill people. Both are part of the economy, and it's pretty hard for people in the countryside here to survive on anything else." Through his lyrics, he tries to highlight alternatives for Colombia's urban youth, who "always have that door open to gangs, drugs, prison." He also admitted it isn't easy to talk about these things in a violent country like Colombia. "You have to be careful about how you get the message across and make it almost subliminal," he said.

Most rappers and breakers here speak of two approaches: proposals or protests. Maria Eugenia Barquero is a member of Impacto Latino, one of a growing number of female groups. "We're telling other kids to take up culture, instead of violence and drugs," she said. "We want them to be proud to be Colombian. This is our proposal." Other groups protest against the state, the rich, or the United States.

As for the US gangsta scene, she and most others see this as purely commercial and of little interest. Niky Cuervo spoke for many Hip Hoppers in Cali when he said, "as citizens, we don't live the gangsta experience. We are victims of violence; we don't commit acts of violence. Instead of singing about problems, most of us have decided to look for solutions."

As for being a young female rapper in a country where most beer ads are adorned by buxom blondes in bikinis, Barquero said, "you feel that the other groups and the public are all saying, 'Can she do it?' And then we show them that we can."

The braided 18-year-old Barquero sees herself as a potential ambassador. In the future, she'd like to take her message of non-violence on the road in this country stuck in civil war. But she also sees a major barrier -- money. This is a common obstacle, both because of rap's low record sales in Colombia, and because of the country's general economic crisis, including the highest unemployment rate in the Americas, at 20%.

Luis Felipe Jaramillo has two stories about Hip Hop's slim pickins in Colombia. He works for Discos Fuentes, Medellin Colombia's oldest record company. They produced a rap group two years ago, and didn't agree with the lyrics "attacking the United States and the Spanish conquistadors." So, they released the record under another name: Factory Records.

"We basically wanted to help the groups," said Jaramillo. Only 1,000 copies were printed, but "very few of them sold." So Discos Fuentes is not taking on any rap groups for now, aside from Latinos en la Casa, or Latins in the House, who rap about subjects like Juan Pablo Montoya, the young Colombian who won the Indianapolis 500. They'll produce about 1,500 discs. This would be an unusually low number in the US, but even Gotas de Rap, one of Colombia's most popular groups, has never pressed more than 5,000 CDs.

Orlando Cajamarca is a director who has brought theater to 150,000 kids from Aguablanca during the last 14 years. He is skeptical about rap's future in Colombia, but he points more to culture than money. He traces rap to globalization and cable TV, since "even the poorest slums here have television." He wonders if rap isn't just a passing fad and says leaders are lacking in the Colombian Hip Hop community.

Diego Luis Riasco, 22, may well contradict Cajamarca. He's about to move to New York, where he and Fidel Ortz, 24, will become the first rappers from Colombia to sign a record deal in the US. Together with two other local singers, the four form Club 3D, which sings a fusion of genres. They're recording on the independent label, Asefra Records, with Latin music heavyweight Lucho Cavarcas producing, who's worked with Victor Manuelle and Marc Anthony.

"Here in Colombia, we've always rapped with less technology, but we have our own sound, including the saxophone and clarinet of the Pacific coast, and it's 4/4 rhythms," Riasco says. "These are unique to Colombia and I'd like to include that in the music I make." This rapper says he's clear on the message he wants to rap, against violence and "degrading the image of women." He also feels he has what he calls "a debt to the music of [his] homeland."

As the US' War on Drugs wages on, and the people of Colombia continue to get caught in the political crossfire, it can help to know that the youth in this part of the world are finding space, against the odds, to come together to shape a culture of their own and a language to speak to one another. Only time will tell when this troubled country will start producing more rap cartels, and fewer of the other kind.

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