A History of Havana's Best Rappers & MCs
A lineage of the best Cuban rappers and MCs to come out of the island nation's capital city.
This article was previously published in Spanish on the Urban Afro-Cuban blog and Habana Hiphop, a new web space devoted to hip-hop culture in Havana.
A bit of context for those who may not be familiar with hip-hop in Cuba: my original article started out directly discussing the name of a classic rap song by Havana rapper Joel Pando (El Pionero) and then went to trace other male rappers who after him have held the sceptre, all in varying degrees, as priests of Havana’s rap scene.
But there's an issue of gender regarding this present article that we should discuss first. Rap in Havana has never been a male-only thing. There's an equally strong line of women MCs like Magia López, Mariana Moracén, and Odaymara Cuesta, who have set local trends and hold their own Havana rap matriarchies. It would require another article to cover everything that can be said in that direction. Although I would love to, I don't think it is my place to write about it, and that is not the subject of this article.
Having said the above, I feel slightly at peace with some of the gender issues that may underlie my focus on male rappers from Havana. Note too, that, throughout these ideas, I will be avoiding phrases such as Cuban rap, and Cuban Hiphop and only use them where necessary.
In Havana, many of us have referred to rap from the capital as rap cubano to indirectly usher a stand from which to represent our place along with other expressions of Caribbean or global hip-hop. We've also had to validate the emergence of domestic rap to ourselves, to our parents, to our friends, and to the cultural authorities who perceived us as a non-traditional, and, at times, ideologically unnatural expression of Cubanness.
I believe that many times, when we declared: Si, hay rap en Cuba. Nosotros somos el rap cubano (Yes. There is rap in Cuba. We are Cuban rap), we may have been meaning to say: Yes, there is rap in Havana.
We're part of Havana’s rap scene. Such local or creolized claims to ownership over a style of rap are commonplace to hip-hop culture within and beyond its US borders. Consider too, the circumstances whereby our city and what we do in the capital tend to be understood as representative of all of Cuba. Recent national rap phenomena like DJ Jigüe’s Guámpara Music and the AfroRazones album should surely make us question such mindset. Jigüe may operate from Havana but, ask him, he represents Santiago de Cuba to the fullest.
In any case, this article is about rap from Havana, and about those male rappers that I consider have been and are the best to do it.
Havana’s most recent lineage of gifted MCs began with Joel Pando, El Pionero back in 1996. Pando was a founding member and the leader of Amenaza, who were Havana’s first-ever and most popular rap group until 1998 when they dismantled. Two of Amenaza ex-members would form Orishas in Paris in 1999, but Havana’s utmost rhyme master was not one of them.
Here is a bit of history. The actual title of the song I would like to share with you is "Pa 'Las Villas" ("On Our Way to Las Villas," a province of Cuba) and not "Pásame el Tabaco y Ron" ("Pass Me the Cigar and Rum") as many may know it. "Pa 'Las Villas" is a great example of Pando's gift as an innate MC. Back in 1996, his identity prototype as an MC was practically new to mid-90s Havana. He denoted a consciousness shift in the social mindset of Havana’s youth.
The rise of Havana’s MCs is mostly associated with Cuba’s enduring economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union and global socialism. Through the unprecedented and demanding practicalities of the crisis, the ability to rap amongst mostly black youth became the widespread form of cultural and social participation in Havana.
From the early 1990s onwards, the lasting hardships of the crisis gave our precarious social awareness the edge to understand and to speak to each other about how our experiences resonated with the experiences of other equally proletarian, black, Latino, and Caribbean youth beyond Cuban borders. Foreign and local hip-hop conveying that message was everywhere in Havana. We had turned into citizens with well-defined musical articulations. I'll spare the academic references.
Those who have followed rap in Havana closely know that leadership or lack of it has been one of its major complications. Pando left Cuba in January 1998.
Edrey Riverí held Havana’s rap scepter with his version of "La Revolución del Cuerpo" ("The Revolution of the Body"), among other songs he released later. This track must be understood as one of the most important manifestos of Havana’s urban Afro-Cuban spirit, at least as one that other urban Afro-Cubans can relate to.
Edrey’s ability to mix rap with the swagger and voice timbre of a gifted rumba singer is quite unique in Havana. Although two of the verses you’ll hear him deliver were written by Ulises Quiñones (Rafael Reyes) I believe his style in this particular track is worthy of consideration; because, beyond any possible commentary, it's a gateway to a specific type of black experience in Havana that must be highlighted.
Next up is Daniel Rivalta, also known as Papo Record. This live version of "En Esta Vida No Hay" ("In this Lifetime There Isn’t") is a jewel. In 1999, Papo Record became Havana’s first solo rap artist. To take on such position by choice in an era when most rap groups had 3 or more members is something that must be respected. Add to this his agile lyrics about life as a youth in Cerro, one of Havana’s poorest neighborhoods. Papo changed the game, Cabiosile (2005), his first album became the first-ever rap album by a solo hip-hop artist to win a Cubadisco award, Cuba’s equivalent to the Grammys.
We should take a short detour now to comment on the work of Leandro Medina Fellove, El Insurrecto (The Insurgent). Papo Record introduced him to me as one of the hungriest, tightest MCs from Papo’s area, El Canal del Cerro. If the municipality of Cerro is one of the poorest in Havana, then El Canal (the channel) is one Cerro’s poorest areas. Insurrecto has always been in a league of his own in Havana; mainly, because he has been one of the most charismatic solo MCs to emerge once Papo Record had pushed that door open. Back around 2001, at Café Cantante, one of Havana’s most historically relevant hip-hop venues, Insurrecto would be that rapper on stage, on a crazy beat making everyone go: Asere, quien es el chamaco ese? (bro, who’s that kid?)
Crucially, under his other alias, El Bolígrafo de la República (The Nation’s Pen), Insurrecto was one of the growing number of Havana MCs who parted ways with full-time hip-hop rapping to embrace other more locally-compromised rapping and lyrical content styles. In that direction, it would be significant to mention Havana star wordsmiths El Mola, El Micha, the late Elvis Manuel, Chocolate and El Yonki, to mention just a few. The word that is obviously missing here is reggaeton. Though this is not the context and I will not dwell much further on the subject of reggaeton MCs, when providing an encompassing vision of the range of styles and verbal service Havana MCs cover; we have to take their work into account. The massive divide there is between hip-hop MCs and reggaeton MCs should not be there, at least not in Havana. A lot of what reggaeton MCs do and rap about does fall under what some researchers have called the politics of dancing, and is sometimes as socially and culturally pertinent as hip-hop emceeing.
Now, let’s get back to where we were.
Out of the generation that followed those great rappers of the late 1990s, the members of the La Comisión Depuradora collective were the most prominent. Aldo Rodríguez, Al2, El Aldeano of Los Aldeanos stands out as the most accomplished and most prolific of them, with over thirty albums written and produced between 2003 and 2016. Although "Chie Chie" is one of his oldest songs, it has always been my favorite. In it, Al2 mixes several rhyme types with incredible dexterity and strong punch lines. He even uses native Cuban idioms.
Beyond the usually very political content of his songs, his style has become highly influential amongst today’s younger Havana rappers. I once heard that it was Charlie Mucha Rima who taught him the style he later perfected. Al2’s style pushed most of the city’s MCs to polish their rhymes and rap delivery metrics. It may be fair to say that second to Pando, Al2 has been Havana’s all-time most influential rhyme master. Al2 is not black skinned, he can easily pass as ‘white’ in Havana and quite likely anywhere else in Cuba. Through his raceless experience as a ‘white’ Cuban, Al2 may hold the very key to what many call rap cubano. Any other instance where MCs are obviously light-skinned, dark-skinned, or simply black, to me classify as Afro-Cuban rap. Most, if not all of Havana’s old-school rap, for example, was pushed forth by Afro-Cuban rappers from Havana.
Rxnde (pronounced Randy) is yet another very relevant rap star from Havana. As a member of rap duo Los Paisanos, Rxnde and Mr. Huevo, his partner in rhymes, emerged from Havana’s Buena Vista area in 2003. I remember that his mother, whom I had met through other friends, once told me her son really liked rap; she asked me if I could help him. I gave him a beat that he used in his first demo, but I was not really paying attention. To my detriment, and quite likely because it was not really up to me to support him back then, like many other rappers from Havana, Rxnde made himself. Today, with the stature of MCs like Chile’s Jonas Sanche or Venezuela’s late Canserbero, he is arguably one of the most respected MCs in the Spanish language. Rxnde shines independently from Barcelona to Caracas and México City, and from Havana to Santiago de Chile and Mar del Plata.
Bárbaro, El Urbano Vargas
In the post-Aldeanos era, El Urbano, Vargas came up to remind us of what Cuban rap is. Here I mean Cuban as in Cuban Spanish. It's not necessarily, nor essentially only a tool of political resistance. Cuban rap is also a resource for cultural emancipation. If we only ever use it as a political tool, our social actions will inevitably always be simply reactive. However, if we were to focus on MCing as a tool for cultural growth and emancipation, our results may turn out to be more natural, sovereign, and sustainable. I don't mean we that we shouldn't pay attention to what affects us politically. Rather, that we should use the culture and the instruction hip-hop affords us as the territory from which we operate and as our way to the recovery of our memory. El Urbano, to me, was the first black/Afro-Cuban MC, circa 2010, who showcased that mentality in Havana. His music felt like he was saying: I do it because I got it, and it fits me well.
Dasari Kumar Mora is one of the hardest-working Afro-Cuban rappers I know. In a somewhat empiric way, Kumar has been exploring and cultivating the fusion between his vision of Hiphop, with roots and Afro-Cuban music. Kumar’s natural inclination to jazz has led him to extensive fusion explorations with African rhythms, from Fela Kuti’s afrobeat to Mulatu Astatke’s Ethio-jazz. He was the first to traverse with complete ease the distance between Havana’s underground rap scene and Havana’s alternative music scene. From Familia’s Cuba Represent to Interactivo, and Mate, Sublevao-Beat is a mature musical phenomenon. Universal Music Spain licensed Película de Barrio in 2008; and Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura Presents project picked him up for its Worldwide Awards in 2009. Check out his brand-new project: Afrikun.
Al2, Rxnde, and Kumar, as rap artists who migrated from Cuba, basically walked the same path Pando initiated when he moved to Norway in 1998. They have all been prophets in Cuba and elsewhere.
Yimi Konclaze, who emerged from the streets of Old Havana as Minister of Rhymes, holds the throne in Havana today. He was already killing it back in 1999 when Papo Record released "En Mi Zona No Hay Miedo" ("There’s No Fear In My Area"). After creating and polishing his own style, Yimi has been so influential that even huge local reggaeton artists have bitten his lyrics for their own songs.
During the prodigious, or Golden Decade of Havana rap, also known as La Vieja Escuela (1995-2005), an artist’s live set was his/her most important asset. They had to ‘break’ the stage to earn the audience’s respect. Yimi’s video is an example of someone who can master the stage. Check out two of Yimi’s recent classics "Guararey" and "La Década Prodigiosa" ("A Prodigious Decade").
Of course, all these comments are only my opinion. There are a few other male rappers from Havana that we may need to mention. However, those on this list are to me Havana’s main game-changers. Combined, they cover Havana’s main spectrum of rap styles and sub-currents. If we ever were to discuss any other MC, we may need to do so using other categories. Other categories, for example, may require we ask ourselves which is Havana’s most influential rap duo. Or, which of Havana’s rap groups is the champion of political, or commercial lyrics, but then again when we say political or commercial, do we mean Afro-Cuban type raps or Cuban ones? I have many names on the tip of my tongue.