Interview: Los Rakas

February 25, 2011

Rico and Dun of Los Rakas are 23 and 24. For the last four years they've matured together, emulating and playing with sounds from their native Panama, dancehall radio and the fallen Bay Area hyphy movement to make their best go at borderless and almost genreless jams. We talked to the boys about working and touring hard, why their aunt doesn't totally love their music and what kind of Cali weed is best for songwriting and push ups.

How’d the show go last night? It went late but you look decently fresh this morning—
Rico: The last time we played in New York was almost a year ago when we were here for L.A.M.C. the Latin Alternative conference. There was a lot of love at that show but this was one different, went off out the fluke. We put it together real fast because Mala Rodriguez’ visa didn’t come through and we had to switch the date. We thought maybe people wouldn’t show up since she wasn’t coming but they turned out, it was packed, people were singing the songs.
Dun: Last year we were her for seven days and played six out of the seven. On the day off we woke up very early and did the “Kalle” video. I always wanted to do a video in New York and it just happened.

L.A.M.C. was a big moment, you won the Discovery Award. What’s happened since then?
Dun: We got a lot done, the team's getting bigger so we’re moving faster.
Rico: We’ve just kept trying to capitalize on every moment. We just finished a tour that was big for us because we’re Latin artists and we were performing in Spanish. We were doing shows with The Grouch, Brother Ali and Eligh. They rap in English and their crowd is mostly white. But the audiences accepted us just fine.
Dun: It was a big tour, like a month.
Rico: We rented our own van cause we smoke, and The Grouch, Brother Ali and Eligh them dudes you know, they’re older so they’re a bit more disciplined.
Dun: Been there, done that.
Rico: But we’re new to it so—
Dun: We were behind them just following them. We played in Arizona and we got caught with weed, too. We got arrested but everything’s cool now. I don't have to go back to court and all that. We’re taking it step by step—
Rico: Trying to make that fan base so our music can live forever.

What show went best?
Dun: Portland! It had a lot of energy, it was crazy. It was split, lots of young kids over here and then older guys over there.
Rico: The whole thing was jumping. Every show we did was fun but they really wanted to party.

Because no one there has a job! You guys met close to there, in San Francisco.
Dun: No Oakland, we’re from Oakland. We met in East Oakland.

How old were you?
Rico: We were like 16, 17?
Dun: I went to Oakland High and Rico went to school in another city.
Rico: We’re cousins, we met at our aunties house.
Dun: After I came from Panama, everybody came to the house.

How old were you when you moved?
Dun: I was 14.
Rico: I was 12.

When was the last time you went back for a visit?
Rico: I was there like over two years ago. It’s been a while.
Dun: I haven’t been able to go back yet.

That’s too bad because you’re huge there.
Rico: Yeah! I would go back to Panama, back and forth promoting our music. In Panama we listen to everything. We listen to Haitian music, salsa, merengue, bachata, reggae. What we do is more hip hop— it’s reggae as well, but a lot of people wouldn’t accept it because hip hop isn’t big in Panama yet.
Dun: Our auntie is back to Panama now, she doesn’t really talk about our music.
Rico: But hip-hop got kinda big when 50 Cent came out. Then last year, I was listening to internet radio and Panamania DJ’s were playing New Boys. I heard someone rapping Spanish over a jerk beat and I’m like what the fuck is this? Jerking comes from turfing in Oakland, from the whole Hyphy movement. That’s part of our culture, where we come from, so I was like, “we gotta do something to give these dudes” down there. “Soy Raka”—that’s how that was born. We released it, we did the video, everything was done real quick. After that, everybody in Panama was just feeling us, you know But you know we have been the face of hip-hop in Panama; we’re opening the doors. Now there are a lot more artists that are doing hip-hop.
DunDun: They’re always be like “man when I saw you, you inspired me” Some don’t say it like that—
Rico: Because of the male ego.
Dun: But you know, we can hear it.

The hyphy movement held a lot of promise then created a lot of disappointment in the Bay. It seems like no one wants to be associated with the term, but that no matter how projects evolve, there’s still a hyphy energy in the area.
Dun: Because hyphy wasn’t just the music it was the movement— the turfing, the big ass glasses, the sideshows. You still see a lot of dudes turfing on the corner and that energy. But the music—
Rico: Things evolve, the same as they do in mainstream hip hop. Everyone wants to do something different and we have people like Drake and J.Cole that are making the music different.

What’s different about the project you’re working on for late-spring?
Rico: The last two CD’s we put out were mixtapes with a little bit of original music. But we’re working on a new EP with more original beats. We decided to call is Chancletas y Camisetas Bordada because that’s what we wear in Panama— tank tops with a little bit of stitching on it with some strings. We wanna show the world where we come from.
Dun: Y’all gonna love the cover! It was drawn by our dude from Mexico.

So you have a big Mexican-American fan base?
Rico: We have a lot of Mexican fans here in the Bay, but the latin stations there don’t support us. The hip hop stations play us because they feel like we’re the next thing, that we can put out. In Spanish nobody's done what we've done and maybe nobody’s gonna do it because what we do is such a coincidence, the result of where we’ve been. In Panama and then in Oakland—we interact with Black Americans and Mexican Americans and learn their cultures.

Do you have your Oakland citizenship cards? Like, weed cards?
Dun: Yeah right here.

You played Cypress Hill’s Smoke Out Festival. Who had the best weed?
Rico: We did!

What’s the best weed in California right now? Wiz Khalifa’s making a pretty strong case for OG Kush.
Rico: I love Power Plant.
Dun: Power Plant is the best.
Rico: I love the kush and the purple. But Power Plant has me all mellow, ready to write music- but still gives me enough energy to hit some push ups.
DunDun: Yeah I don’t like purple.
Rico: Different strokes for different folks.

In California now, you have groups like Odd Future where a whole heap of kids are doing their own thing within the context of a team unit, and you have guys like Lil B who are super-networked but have fiercely individual personalities. There aren’t a lot of straight duos. You’ve worked together for four years. Do you still like that one-to-one collaboration?
Rico: We’re brothers, man
Dun: We understand each other without having to talk.
Rico: That’s my soul mate. Real talk, We get each other. We argue, we get into it but at the end of the day we have the same goal. If we have a problem we speak on it. Like, “dude I didn’t like the way you did that!” And, “you know what like, I’m sorry man.” A lot of groups don’t have that communication or understanding.

Interview: Los Rakas