Friday, February 8, 2008

"Guadalajara hip-hop artist keeps it clean"

(Published February 9, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

A long time ago in a land far away—the early ’90s in South Central Los Angeles—a raucous, marginalized, graffiti-painting, marijuana-smoking, break-dancing youth movement was born, enjoyed an unprecedented commercial success without having to soften its rowdy image, and soon scattered its influence down south of the border like wildfire.

It was the birth of Latin hip-hop, and its newly minted Mexican stars largely went underground, straying from their chicano counterparts’ notoriety while managing to maintain a precarious popularity to this day.

But it never really stuck in Guadalajara. There have been swells of recognition in Monterrey as well as in Mexico City, where hip-hop artists now can be found on stage at least once a week. Perhaps the more conservative Tapatios were never ready for anything more rebellious than mariachi or the brass blitzkrieg that is banda.

There is one man, at least, who remembers otherwise. Skool 77, a.k.a. Pablo Sergio, is probably the most celebrated rap artist, or “urban poet” as he calls himself, to emerge from Guadalajara. Back in the day when hip-hop started to catch on in Mexico, Skool claims he had no talent for break-dancing but loved to sing and write music, and soon fell into the scene.

“Here in Guadalajara there was a dance program on television, ‘Bailando y Ganando,’ and that’s where the rap community of those times got together,” Skool reminisces over a cappuccino. “It was on Saturday at noon, and after the show was over everyone would go to a nightclub and keep going.”

For a rapper known to don a red and black lucha libre mask onstage and who has a music video on YouTube featuring a graffiti artist spraying his image onto a wall, Skool is surprisingly baby-faced and has kind, dark eyes that don’t hold their gaze long. His rap style isn’t particularly aggressive, but it sounds like you might get some spittle thrown your way if you were to step too close.

Skool is what one might call saintly in the world of rap. He preaches purely non-violent social and political messages, and lives by the clean principles he sets. “No soy gangster, no soy hardcore,” he spouts in one song.

“The important thing is to set an example,” he contends. “At a concert I can’t tell young people to not use drugs, and then go snort cocaine backstage later. I think we are far from that.”

But how far away does that depart from the original art? What would Cypress Hill be, for example, without its psychedelic swampiness and parodied drive-by shootings, sounds wholly created under the influence of illegal substances, born from poverty and race riots?

“I think that in the beginning of hip-hop in the black community in the Bronx, they had a hard time trying to get heard,” Skool responds. “Initially it was a rebellious movement that tried to tell people, we’re different, and we’re trying to do something important. Later, I don’t know what happened to hip-hop, who bought it or who finished off its truth.”

Skool is in the midst of his own evolutionary period: last Saturday he released his final album, “Hasta Luego,” before taking a break in his career that may become permanent. On the same day the album dropped, he performed in Mexico City along with several other national groups, one from Spain, and special guest Guru, an artist originally from Boston considered to be a pioneer in the Jazz hip-hop crossover.

After 12 years of making music, Skool confides that the time has come to work on other, more personal goals, to take some time to clear his mind. The result is an admittedly less vigorous sound, a little softer around the edges. “Hasta Luego” might just be the perfect ending, though.

While an earlier album, “Sesiones Abstractas,” sounds like he might have collaborated with Beck circa “Midnight Vultures”—frenetic, electrified and funky fresh—the goodbye disc has a decidedly R&B vibe. Keyboards are focal and the bass beats groovily paced.

There’s even a bonus track called “Cancion de cuna” (“Lullaby”), which samples an acoustic rendition of “The itsy bitsy spider” over what sounds like a synthesized rubber band. The lyrics imagine a conversation between a new dad and his young child, lamenting the inevitable loss of purity: “You still don’t know about war, you still don’t know about obstacles, you still don’t know why innocent people die in prison.”

Skool isn’t leaving the Latin hip-hop scene quite yet—he’s the star of a new radio program on channel Rock Radiante 1480 AM. “Perros de reserva” (“Reservoir Dogs”) is a chance for Skool to showcase what’s new in the world of Mexican and international rap, with a little rock thrown into the mix. He’s excited about the recognition Latin hip-hop is receiving as of late, while the big-money U.S. industry appears to be in decline.

“For us it doesn’t make a good impression that people of color are talking about women, mansions, cars and champagne, because we don’t live that reality,” Skool says. “I have a reality. I have a job at a company, I see how the workers suffer with low wages, and I see all the garbage that the media feeds us.”

Skool wrote a song a few years ago called “Hip-hop in black and white.” It’s jazzy, beginning with a throwback sax riff backed by a suave piano. The song alludes to simpler times in Mexico’s history: “black and white like a Cantiflas or Santo movie…like photos of Zapata or of Villa.” Colors, for Skool, are red like a bull’s blood or yellow like sensationalist journalism; they separate us into political affiliations and social castes.

Whether or not the “good old days” really were so great, hip-hop in black and white is exactly what Skool’s career has been—a desire to return to the romanticism, the idealism that started long ago with some fed-up young renegades in L.A.