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"Hip Hop," The Encyclopedia of Latin American Popular Music Greenwood / ABC-Clio LLC Publi

Latin American hip-hop, a recent addition to transnational Latin popular musics (e.g., salsa, merengue, samba), has been influential as a subculture since the early 1980s, predominantly among dispossessed youth. Rapping has been incorporated into Cuban salsa and timba, and given rise to fusions like reggaetón, Dominican merenrap, Colombian cumbia-rap, and Brazilian embolada-rap and samba-rap.

Although hip-hop has come to be regarded as “a black music,” its Latin roots are too frequently overlooked. Born in New York’s South Bronx neighborhood in the early 1970s, hip-hop’s early vanguard—poorer African-American and Puerto Rican youths—put aside gang enmity to initiate the artistic elements that have come to be associated with the world of hip-hop: spray-painted graffiti murals on subway trains and the fascia of overpasses; breakdancing (b-boying/b-girling, “popping”); MC-ing (rapping); DJ-ing (“scratching,” “sampling,” et al.). “Puerto rocks,” Nuyorican youth involved in hip-hop’s nascence, were innovators of the iconic graffiti and breakdancing of early hip-hop culture. Crazy Legs and the Rock Steady Crew, but one example of Latin hip-hoppers who rose to international prominence, were featured in hip-hop films Wild-Style, Breakin’, and Beat Street.

Hip-hop vocabulary, attitudes and fashions serve as important identity markers for many Latin American youth, especially in locales like Cuba where the scarcity of spray-cans and sound-system paraphernalia severely deterred the development of graffiti and DJ-ing capabilities. Similar to the rock, heavy metal and folk music genres that permeated Latin America markets, certain features of North American rap music and hip-hop culture have been adopted by Latin American raperos/as (rappers), while others had found little favor. Rap-recording labels are found in most metropolitan areas, where rap is also featured on radio stations and television shows. Vibrant Latin hip-hop scenes—“Latin Rap,” “Chicano Rap,” or “Urban Regional”—can be found in Miami, New York, Los Angeles, and cities in the southwestern United States, and have led to the inclusion of Latin hip-hop as a category of the Latin Grammy Awards (2001).


The regional distinctiveness of the various forms of rap music in Latin America area are often circumscribed by the use of local vernacular and popular genres as well as resident musical traditions and their instruments (e.g., trés, guitarrón, conga, batá, et al.). Some Chilean rappers, for example, recycle nueva canción lyrics and samples; rap cubano cites nationalist poetry over samples of timba, nueva trova, son, and rumba. The first mainstream Spanish-language rapper, the Puerto Rican Vico C who was known for his 1989 hit “La Recta Final,” incorporated Dominican merengue into New York hip-hop beats in the early 1990s. And, Brazilian, Venezuelan and Cuban rap are as likely to reference African-derived religious traditions such as Candomblé and Santería as they are Christianity.

Rap music has been effectively available in Latin America through the sale of commercial and pirated CDs since the 1990s. Major influences for early Latin American rappers include: Cypress Hill, a United States rap group featuring Spanish-speaking members Sen Dog and B-Real; Cuban-American Mellow Man Ace (brother of Sen Dog); Puerto Rico’s Latin Empire and Vico C; Public Enemy; Salt n’ Pepa and TLC (for Latina raperas); various North American gangsta, political and Latino rappers, and reggaetón artists. Molotov and Caló, two early Mexican rap groups, were influenced by Chicano-American rapper Kid “El Jefe” Frost, whose 1990 album Hispanic Causing Panic promoted nationalist Chicano pride, the Caló dialect (Hispanicized American English), Pachuco aesthetics, and the return of Aztlán.


As early as 1982, hip-hop emerged in the urban barrios (neighborhoods) of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Colombia, and Venezuela, which were often overcrowded and impoverished. North American hip-hop films and rap music, such as Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rappers Delight,” inspired small communities of Latin American youth to embrace hip-hop’s new forms of artistic production. In Caracas, Perucho Conde remixed Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” into “La Cotorra Criolla,” while Frost, an Argentine MC, spearheaded the Sindicato Argentino del Hip Hop (Argentine Hip Hop Syndicate) in Moron, a city west of Buenos Aires. In 1984, a lively hip-hop scene exploded in the barrio Las Cruces of Bogota, Colombia, with rap group La Etnnia and breakdancing-graffiti group, New Rapper Breaker; Colombian hip-hop soon migrated to Cali, Medellín and Baranquilla. By 1984, De Kiruza released the first Chilean rap album, and within four years, hip-hop was flourishing with rap groups such as Panteras Negras and Los Marginales.

By 1988, Cuban rap groups appeared in Alamar, a marginalized Havana suburb, after a popular breakdancing movement was formed in underground gatherings (bonches) in the earlier part of the decade. Brazil’s hip-hop movement, born in São Paulo favelas (slums), emerged in the early 1980s, coinciding with the end of Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship (1964-1985). Hip-hop had reached Rio de Janeiro by 1992 with Gabriel o Pensador’s Tô Feliz, Matei o Presidente (I’m Glad, I’ve Killed the President), a rap song addressing the corruption scandals, resignation and impeachment of former president Fernando Collor de Melo.

Both Havana and Caracas hosted their first rap festivals in 1995, the same year that hip-hop culture ostensibly materialized in Uruguay and Mexico City (before spreading to Guadalajara, Durango and Guadeloupe). The presence of hip-hop could be felt throughout South and Central America and the Caribbean by the late 1990s.


Latin American hip-hop culture and regional rap subgenres are often delineated on a continuum of commercial and underground styles and social themes. Rap lyrics are likely to address issues of identity, violence, racism, gang warfare, drug trade, social inequality, political marginalization, imperialism, globalization, poverty, marginalization and homelessness, though with varying objectives. In Cuba, Argentina, Chile and Brazil, raperas (female rappers) such as Mágia and Las Krudas (Cuba), and Cris (Somos Nós A Justiça, Brazil) use the medium to denounce sexism, machismo and biological determinism. The rap lyrics of Tina, a São Paulo hip-hop, funk and R’n’B artist, promote an inspiring Christian message popular among young, Afro-Brazilian women.


Irrespective of stylistic distinctions, this music has empowered marginalized youth, providing a medium to address their disaffection. For this reason, Latin American hip-hop has been compared to the nueva canción movement of the 1960s. This is especially true in Chile, as well as Cuba. And, some Latin American hip-hop movements have gone on to attain state and non-governmental support for their social activism. Near Calí, Colombia, the Aguablanca Cultural Network has provided a neutral space for twenty-five rap and breakdancing groups since 1994. In Cuba, rap cubano was formerly acknowledged by the State in 1998, constituting an unofficial dialogue with the government to address issues of racism, sexism, prostitution and police violence (Fernandes and Stanyek 2007). In 2002, the Cuban government founded the Agencia Cubana de Rap (Cuban Rap Agency), a state-run recording studio, label and magazine devoted to hip-hop.


Many Latin American youth afflicted by urban decay and gun violence are drawn to North American gangsta rap music, in spite of its superficial and commercial character. The hit song “Diário de um Detento” (A Convict’s Diary), by São Paulo rappers Racionais MC’s, details a convict’s daily routine in prison and sold the most copies of any independently released record in Brazil. The video, featuring clips from inside São Paulo’s infamous Candiru prison, won the MTV Brazil Video of the Year (1998). In countries like Cuba, however, gangsta rap is criticized for its violence and explicit U.S. American content.


Rap, like commercial salsa, tends to hypersexualize both men and women. Latin Rap’s early mega-hits, “Rico-Suave” (1991) and “Mentirosa” (1989), explicitly detailed themes of womanizing and the stereotype of the scornful, lying woman, while early reggaetón delivered even more explicitly sexist lyrics: El General’s “Tu Pum Pum” (1991), a notable example, made unambiguous references to women’s buttocks. While some female rappers accept this sexualized image, other Latin American raperas demand an end to such treatment.


Due to the association between rap and African-American culture, Latin American hip-hop has undoubtedly provided many Afro-Latins with a means to proudly endorse their African heritage. Like the Brazil’s samba schools and blocos afros, São Paulo’s Movimiento Hip-hop Organizado (Hip-hop Movement Organization) acts as an Afro-Brazilian community and educational center (Fernandes and Stanyek 2007). Since 1998, rap cubano has been involved with the annual Black August concerts. Inspired by North America’s Black Power Movement and icons like Malcolm X, these concerts have encouraged an “Africanized” identity, which many rappers endorse through their lyrics or Africanesque sartorial flair. Conversely, numerous North American Latin rappers contest such overt African pronouncements, defending their own “brown pride” and tackling exclusion from the increasing dominance of African Americans in the hip-hop arena.

Further Reading

Diccionario de Hip-Hop y Rap Afrolatinos. Coordinado por Zona de Obras. Madrid: SGAE, 2002.

Fernandes, Sujatha and Jason Stanyek. “Hip-Hop and the Black Public Spheres in Cuba, Venezuela and Brazil.” In Beyond Slavery: The Multilayered Legacy of Africans in Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Darién J. Davis. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007, 199-222.

Forman, Murray and Mark Anthony Neal, eds. That’s the Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Perkins, William Eric, ed. Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Rivera, Raquel Z. 2003. New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Further Resources

From Mambo to Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale, directed by Henry Chalfant. 58 mins. DVD. 2006. “latin rap,”,,

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