The time is now for Puerto Rico’s grassroots rap scene

Now the mainstream is conquered, what’s coming next from Puerto Rico’s Latin rap underground? Leading figure Yartzi sets the scene.

A report by Rachel Grace Almeida for Red Bull.

In many ways, Puerto Rico is experiencing another musical renaissance. Since 2004, when Daddy Yankee set the world alight with his genre-defining reggaeton hit, Gasolina, the island’s sound has shapeshifted once more. Gasolina was a cultural reset, a song so seismic that it ignited a reggaeton revolution across the world, introducing the groundbreaking genre to the mainstream beyond Latin America.

Fast-forward 16 years and Puerto Rico is seeing a huge moment yet again. After gaining traction on SoundCloud, Puerto Rican rapper-singer Bad Bunny catapulted to worldwide success with his breakthrough single, Soy Peor, in 2016. Following this, he joined rap powerhouses Cardi B and Drake for I Like It and Mia, both tracks charting in the top 10 on the US Billboard Hot 100.

Bad Bunny’s debut album X 100pre won a Latin Grammy for Best Urban Music Album and his next studio album, YHLQMDLG, became the highest-charting all-Spanish album of all time on the US Billboard 200 at No. 2. This year, he made history as the first Latin urban music artist on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

This international visibility – and high acclaim – turned all eyes to the Caribbean island, which is now pretty much synonymous with musical excellence. But there’s a special scene bubbling underneath the surface, one that’s influencing its current superstars and acts as the true bedrock of the island: Latin rap.

Hip-hop en Español isn’t new to Puerto Rico. In fact, it’s historically embedded into the country’s music culture. Though Daddy Yankee rose to fame through reggaeton – he even coined the term in 1994 to describe the new genre that was blossoming around him – he started his career identifying as a rapper.

Heavily influenced by ‘The Father of Latin Hip-Hop’, Nuyorican MC Vico C, Yankee cut his teeth writing thoughtful rhymes inspired by the streets of New York and his hometown, San Juan. He even went on to collaborate with Brooklyn rapper Nas on The Profecy in 1997 before abandoning the traditional framework of hip-hop and finding a new home in reggaeton. Artists like Tego Calderon and Residente, who sprung up around the mid-90s to early 00s and established commercial careers, carried the baton for Puerto Rican rap by synthesising US hip-hop and Caribbean rhythms with Spanish-language rhymes.

A new generation of Puerto Rican rappers is rising and taking over the island’s bustling musical landscape. All varying in sound and style, what these MCs share is their unrelenting commitment to breaking the mould for what audiences expect Latin rap to sound like. And they’re triumphing, with this new school of artists organising rap battles, dropping projects independently, throwing popular parties and generating more buzz than anything else in Puerto Rico’s underground right now.

Artists like YartziOmar GarcíaKenny Wright and Cyborg AOS are leading figures in the scene, working within the more grassroots, DIY circuits to amplify the island’s murky sound. In the past year, there’s been a significant emergence of rap battles popping up all over the country – though Yartzi mentions it’s more typical in the north of the island – which has seen MCs from all corners of the country duel it out freestyle in sweat-filled venues.All trap hi-hats, heavy bass blasts and enough quick-wit and bravado to give you whiplash, these artists are known for their sorcerer-like ability to rile up a crowd. Venues may vary from the back room of local bars and restaurants to makeshift stages in abandoned buildings, but one thing binds them all: a pulsing, relentless energy that’s uniquely Puerto Rican.

When you divide reggaeton and rap, you’re against the heart of the islandYartziYartzi, a rapper from Ponce who was crowned national Red Bull Batalla de los Gallos champion, was first introduced to rap by his older brother when he was only 13. He compares hearing hip-hop for the first time to love at first sight. Intrigued by the mystical world of rap, he began writing his own songs, looking for a local crew that would nurture his talent. Before long he became entangled in the rap battle scene, honing his skills more and more with each show. “Rap is a totally different mindset,” Yartzi explains. “It’s not the same as recording music or writing music – you need to think on the spot, you need mental agility.”This creative dexterity is something he shares with his peers, as their style of hip-hop becomes increasingly popular across the country. “I feel so supported by my local scene now; it gives me strength,” says Yartzi. “But recently the rap battles weren’t something very known here. This scene never relied on support from música urbana but in the past year rap battles have become a bit more mainstream.”

William Manzano Serrano, aka Yartzi, in the studio recording a track for Check Your DMs.
Yartzi in the studio recording a track for Check Your DMs

Despite Latin rap being around since the ’80s – you only have to look back to Nuyorican rap legend Big Pun, a pillar in the rap game who helped put the genre on the map – it’s not something that has always been popular in the Boricuan mainstream. Música urbana – a catch-all term for Latin ‘urban music’ – at times has been levied against Latin rap, despite reggaeton and rap coming from the same stream; the majority of reggaetoneros started off as rappers themselves. “Rap is connected with mainstream music, there’s no way the two can be divided. When you divide reggaeton and rap, you’re against the heart of the island,” Yartzi asserts.

There’s a certain standard in Puerto Rico now. If you come from our island, there’s an expectation that you’re goodYartziNow the world is starting to take notice and attitudes are beginning to shift. “No one knew about us, we’ve been totally under the radar and deep in the underground. Once you uncover this, it’s impossible not to like it. Even if you aren’t a huge rap lover, who doesn’t like to watch two people battle it out?” Yarzi laughs. “This is what we needed – to come out of the underground. Now it’s our time to shine.” What sets Puerto Rico’s budding rap scene apart is the sheer musicality of its creators. Their rhymes are gritty and razor-sharp, buoyed by cheeky, humorous zings that feel specifically Latinx. They glide onto beats effortlessly, always packing a punch and keeping impeccable time. As Yartzi puts it: “This flow is in our blood.”

William Manzano Serrano, aka Yartzi, poses for a portrait during Red Bull Batalla de los Gallos US Finals at Wynwood Factory in Miami, Florida.
Yartzi at the Red Bull Batalla de los Gallos US Finals in Miami

Alongside unbridled talent, Yartzi mentions Daddy Yankee’s mainstream longevity and Bad Bunny’s recent world domination as helping young Puerto Rican rappers to aspire to greatness. This international recognition is setting the bar high. “There’s a certain standard in Puerto Rico now. If you come from our island, there’s an expectation that you’re good. But it’s a double-edged sword because sometimes they expect you to be something you’re not. In most cases, though, it’s been beneficial because people expect great things from you,” he says. “I feel super-proud because ultimately [Daddy Yankee and Bad Bunny] are artists that put our island on the map. The opportunity for me to participate in the US has opened a lot of doors for me. So I hope this opens doors for more Puerto Rican artists to join the international circuit.”Looking forward, the future of Puerto Rican rap is poised to be headed out of the underground and towards a more united front. Yartzi is feeling particularly optimistic. “The responsibility right now is to connect música urbana with the local and national hip-hop scenes. Up until last year, it was so disconnected. We need to be unified in music like we are as Puerto Ricans,” Yartzi smiles. “Make the music you want and say what you want to say. Don’t be swayed by what is expected of you. This is our moment.”

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