Hip-Hop Historian Nelson George: “Latinos Are Essential” to the Creation of The Genre


“Sometimes people tend to think of hip-hop as a African American form of music but the Caribbean influence on hip-hop is massive. And in terms of Latinos, certainly, if you talk to Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, or Afrika Bambaataa or any of the early DJs they all talk about the breakers, who in the ‘70s and ‘80s were mainly Latinos, and keeping them happy on the dance floor. If you talk about some of the famous break crews who really broke through and got known by the early ‘80s, the majority were Latino dancers like Rock Steady Crew’s Crazy Legs. So if the idea of the hip-hop DJ is predicated on keeping dancers dancing, then the Latino aspect is crucial. Their aesthetic, their taste, their ability to dance, all affected what was played and how it was played.

DJ Charlie Chase had people telling him at parties, ‘You can’t play this, this is a black thing.’ He was the DJ of the Cold Crush Brothers, which is one of the best rap groups at all time. If you look at any of the mixtapes that Charlie Chase made, he didn’t just have James Brown, he also dropped in a salsa record. The thing that’s really crucial about that era of hip-hop was that it was so open; it was so democratic. Whatever worked, we tried it. It was very experimental. So he brought to the game, his culture, mixed in with what was emerging in hip-hop culture and made his contribution. Those years the breakers and a guy like Charlie Chase were indispensable.

I remember when Fat Joe came out in 1993, he was able to be Latino, compete on equal footing with the tougher street rappers of the era and bust right out from the Bronx and then you have Big Pun. I think Pun was one of the most gifted in terms of his flow of any MC period. He’s a top 10 MC.

The one MC, white audiences really accepted was B-Real. I think that’s because the aesthetic of what Cypress Hill were able to do because there was a hardness and edgy rock aggressiveness to their music. They were able to go around the prejudice in the black community and sort of became a rock act. They were the one band that was able to balance it and be incredibly successful.

Today, the Latin market has matured. Take a look at Pitbull’s journey; it’s really interesting. First of all, he was in negotiations with [2 Live Crew’s] Luther Campbell and he made a hardcore MC album for his debut. Even though, he had truly lived a lot of that life, there was a little skepticism about him outside of Miami. Then, someone told him, ‘This dance music thing is a monster and Miami is the center of it.’ When he came out with the shades, the white suit and the gloves I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ But he or someone in his camp felt like he was going to be blocked by some of the same things other Latino MCs and he went around that whole racial question and went the dance music route. His success has been unbelievable. He figured out a way to be a global star and who’s mad at him for that?

Latinos are an essential part of the hip-hop narrative. Looking at the The Get Down, one of the main reasons we made the character of Ezekiel Brooks half black, half Latino because we wanted to play on that duality. I grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, who people view it as all black, but we had a lot of Puerto Ricans in the neighborhood. I know Hector Lavoe records as well as I know Teddy Pendergrass records because it was blasting from every window when I was growing up. New York culture of the ‘70s and ‘80s was very much a mix of Southern black, Latino primarily Puerto Rican and Jamaican and those three elements played a huge part the creation of what we call hip-hop.”

Nelson George is a pop culture expert and supervising producer on Netflix’s The Get Down.

By Jesús Triviño