Urban Legends: The Rise of Urban Regional
In case you haven’t heard, there’s a bold new musical hybrid expanding the boundaries of contemporary Latin music and it’s being called everything from Banda Rap to Urban Regional. Waxing classic hip-hop beats and Spanish rhymes over a base of traditional Mexican regional music, this genre-mixing movement is stretching across borders, both geographically and culturally.
Spearheaded by brothers Sergio and Francisco Gómez – better known as Akwid – the Urban Regional sound first generated buzz when Los Angeles radio station KBUE (Que Buena) began playing the duo's single "No Hay Manera” from their Univision debut Proyecto Akwid. Thanks to Pepe Garza, one of the station’s disk jockeys, the song became a hit that was quickly added to other station playlists. The exposure propelled Akwid to the forefront with other artists such as Jae P and David Rolas following suit.
“Spanish rap has been around for many years but it’s always been done over the classic hip-hop beats. The difference now is that we’re now incorporating traditional elements from our culture and making it sound dope,” says Byron Brizuela, president of Brizz Productions, which works with Urban Regional artists. “We all grew up listening to Mexican music at home and listening to hip-hop with our friends,” adds Sergio. “Our music is the inevitable outcome of this fusion between these two different cultures.”
Growing up in the gritty neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles and sporting shaved heads and baggy clothes, Akwid, Rolas and Jae P at first glance seem to fit the profile for troublesome pelones. But this growing collective of artists is “flipping that negative stereotype,” according Francisco. “When people first see us, it’s like, ‘Damn, look at their shaved heads. Look at how they’re dressed. What are they gonna say?’ But once we broke through that barrier with our shows, people realized that it’s okay to come watch us. We ain’t gonna shoot anybody or glamorize drugs. We’re overwhelmed when parents come up to us to say thank you for [making] rap music that their kids can actually listen to.”
At nineteen years old, Jae P is the youngest of the bunch. Yet his hard-hitting Univision debut, Ni De Aqui Ni De Alla, bears an underlying social consciousness that is mature beyond his years. Much in the tradition of Mexican corridos, Jae P’s lyrics address many harsh subjects including the struggles of street life and the life of immigrants, as in the album’s stunningly incisive title track. “My goal is to write songs that are honest and real. I grew up around gangs and I know what it’s like to have pressure from friends and family. But I chose a different way,” he reveals. “I want people to understand our cultura and to realize that it’s not all about ‘I’m gonna kill you’ or ‘I’ve got money.’ We have much more to offer than that.”
Like his musical peers, Rolas refuses to candy coat his lyrical subjects on his Fonovisa Records debut, Nuestra Vida. A gust of Spanish and Spanglish rhymes propelled by a robust fusion of banda, grupero and norteño musical styles, the songs address everything from personal struggles on “Compita Si Se Puede” to life’s poignant humor on “Mi Botella.” “You’ve got to be able to tell a story that people can relate to,” says Rolas. “You can’t just start rapping about stuff that nobody gets. I’m not going to talk about bling-bling and having phat rides and all that bullshit if I ain’t got it. I’ve been poor all my life. I had to work selling oranges when I was thirteen years old so I could help my mom and my pop,” he reveals. “What I write about is very real. And it’s not just about speaking to the Mexican culture. It’s about reaching every other culture so that they can see what we really are about. There is a big stereotype that Mexicans only know how to sell flowers on street corners or wash cars or work at the swap meets. That’s not true.”
This commitment to authenticity and positivity is what sets these artists apart, says Erick Medina, CEO of The Circuit, Inc., an artist management company. “This music is creating a niche within the hip-hop industry that doesn’t succumb to stereotypes. These guys are talking about things that everybody can relate to and they’re doing it without being vulgar or violent.” Moreover, Medina says, the music goes beyond being a ‘black’ thing or a ‘brown thing.’ “It’s amazing to see all the different races coming out to these shows. Even if they don’t understand one word, the audience is able to feel the culture and the passion in the music.”
As Francisco says, “I hope people aren’t getting the impression that we’re trying to drive this music because of our race. That just happens to be a part of it. The bottom line is that in order for music to be successful it’s got to be good. For us to stay around, our music has to get better and has to be able to compete with the major players out there. The reason people are listening to us now is because it’s different and it’s new. But we want to grow and be around a long time.” Brizuela agrees wholeheartedly. “This is not a fad or a trend. People can say that it’s going to come and go just like techno banda did. But this is driven by culture and a way of life.”
Refusing to sacrifice one world for the other, Akwid, David Rolas and Jae P have instead chosen to embrace their cultures. And by doing so, they have transformed the struggle into a celebration. “Sometimes it’s hard as a kid ‘cause you’re embarrassed to say you listen to Mexican music or that your parents speak Spanish,” admits Sergio. “But we’re giving that experience an identity. Poco a poco people have shrugged off la vergüenza.”
“I think that young Latinos finally have someone to look up to who they can truly identify with – artists who look and talk just like they do,” concludes Brizuela. “These artists are making a big difference to show that you don’t have to be ashamed of your heritage. They’re paving the road for what’s to come.”
This article was from the Urban Latino Magazine