Festival Nrmal 2012, Part Four: Los Rakas, LA ENTREVISTA

Photos by Luisa Luisa Martinez

Upon recovering from a come down that lasted well over two weeks, it dawned on me that I had a nice stack of interviews in my friend Luisa's iPhone that were just waiting to be transcribed. One such interview happened to involve Raka Rich, who was flying solo in Monterrey on behalf of his main project, Los Rakas, for this year's edition of Festival Nrmal.

After figuring out five minutes into the interview
that the recorder was off, we managed to get a nice flow of conversation going, whereupon I learned everything I wanted to know about the Bay Area act but was afraid to ask (seriously, it took me about 10 minutes to finally muster up the courage to interrupt Rich's FIFA ’12 match). Thanks to Rich for sparing some of his prized XBOX360 time, and to Natalia for setting up this lovely rendez-vous. Oh, and props to Luisa for making me look so smart with those hand gesture shots.

Conejito Colvin: Alright, I’m just gonna put this here and then we can talk.

Raka Rich: Yeah.

CC: So yeah, the "Copita de Champaña" [video], ‘cause I mean, you guys have quite a few videos out there, and I wanted to ask you, for this video, and the other videos that you’ve done, how much goes into it from your guys’ ideas?

RR: Well, a lot.

CC: Would you say it’s like your concept and you just like…

RR: For the most part, yeah, except every video that we’ve done has pretty much been us telling the other directors what we want, you know, and we have a lot to do with that, that’s why we independent so we know how we want to present the world, how we want to present ourselves to the world. The only video we didn’t have a lot of control with is like "Barrio" and "Gangsta," which is our new video.

CC: And what did you think of the result?

RR: Oh man, those are my favorite videos, you know what I’m saying?

CC: (laughing) The ones you had nothing to do with were your favorite videos?

RR: (laughing) Yeah, the ones I had nothing to do with were my favorite videos. It was tight.

CC: But when you do tell people what you want…I mean I can sorta get it cause I’m in an independent band too…

RR: Yeah.

CC: And we manage ourselves, and we give the concept that we want to the directors and we’re always having some kind of say in what we do, 'cause like you said, you want to present yourself in a certain way, and that goes in the music, it goes in the PR, and it goes in the videos, and in everything that you do.

RR: Yeah.

CC: So, what do you think is the...I don’t want to say the concept...but when you participate with these directors, what is it that you wanna, like, maintain there?

RR: Just keep building relationships, man, ‘cause those directors are like top of the line, you know what I’m saying? They do big things, so they gonna keep getting better, and we’re also learning from those kinds of directors, ‘cause we pretty much direct our own videos, so it's like we picking up little things here and there, and that’s important, man, especially in the music industry. You wanna learn as much as you can, so…

CC: If you can do everything…

RR: Especially independently, ‘cause we’re independent, so it has a lot to do with it. You know we don’t have a label behind us [saying], "A'ight this is the director you’re gonna work with, this is the songs, this is the producer." Nah. It's real, everything is real, we have good chemistry with these individuals that we work with.

CC: So you feel that that way it keeps, I don’t know, the idea, the music, more pure…?

RR: Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You know why? It's because when you doin’ it like that there’s no rules, you know? You’re not really thinking about the money, you just thinking with the passion. You love it.

CC: You’re doing it ‘cause you like to do it.

RR: Yeah, these labels look at you more like a dollar sign, and I have nothing against labels, you know what I’m sayin’, if they’re fair…

CC: I mean they’re struggling right now. Like, for example, my friend (who shall remain nameless), they really did change after they signed to a big label, and everything they do now is with some kind of commercial end. I mean they're enjoying it, but at the same time I feel like they feel like, well, you know, "I’m doing this because it makes money, because it's commercial." They don't really have as much control now as they used to when they did it because they liked it.

RR: They gonna tell you everything, man. "Oh no, that’s not the song that we should put out, we should put out this song." I don’t want that problem. I’d rather just stay independent and do what I do and make my own choices, call my shots.

CC: That, that’s cool, I admire that.

RR: Yeah.

CC: That’s the way to go. So tell me a little about the video "Ta Lista," You guys kinda feature this Mexican iconography, you got the Mexican flag and stuff. Is there something, some kind of relation that you guys feel you have with Mexico, or is it just coincidental because you’re in Oakland?

RR: What happened was, we wanted to do a video for ''Ta Lista," and it just happened to be Cinco de Mayo, so we just went and celebrated with our people. Didn’t really have nothing to do with the video, was just something about…like I said earlier, working with record labels, they’re gonna tell you what to do and how to do it, we just did whatever we wanted and just had a good time, man, and that’s the kind of vibe we give out. And Cinco de Mayo, we’re celebrating with the Mexican people, you know what I mean?

CC: I used to live in Oakland, actually. I lived there for the last semester that I was in college. I used to go to Berkeley, so I know you guys play shows there all the time. I got to see you guys at Tormenta [Tropical] once, a little while ago. It was the last time you played at Tormenta. And I know from being in Berkeley, you guys aside from playing a lot of local shows, you play a lot of free shows…

RR: Oh, yeah, yeah!

CC: Going back to that idea of community, like you said you celebrated [Cinco de Mayo] with the Mexican people, would you say that community is like a big role in your music, or not just in your music, but in the way you guys put yourselves out there?

RR: Yes! Yes, because in the community is where we learned how to do this independently. There was a youth center, Youth Uprising, in East Oakland, and it’s a community center, so we went in there and learned how to record and really just got to record our music in the studio and got to develop and evolve. You know, studio time is very expensive. We used to go in there for free, you know what I’m saying, 'cause it was a part of the community, so from there, they’re teaching classes on how to independently sell your music.

CC: So, in the way that you guys have developed, community is like a huge role…

RR: Yeah it’s a huge role in everything we do! We plan on building a youth center eventually for the community.

CC: I was gonna ask you about that. Do you feel that in the future you’d want to do more to give back to the community?

RR: Of course. Yes, I would because it’s like, I’m so grateful for that, why wouldn’t I want to share that with somebody else?

CC: So, do you feel you represent your community in the Bay Area, in Oakland, more so, 'cause you guys also do mentions of Panama and stuff in your music? I mean, how do you feel about that? Just being a Latin artist, do you feel you’re representing the Latin culture or do you feel it’s more of a local thing?

RR: I feel like I’m representing the Afro-Latin culture.

CC: Why?

RR: 'Cause, you know, a lot of Afro-Latinos, you don’t really see them in the mainstream TV or Latin TV, and we come out here to live the American dream, you know, as Latin people, and being in Oakland, being Black, there’s already a lot of Black people. They have erased us, 'cause you know we get their attention. “These are some Black people speaking Spanish!” So, they welcomed us, we one of them. We Black, so, we’ve been able to showcase that with them. And it has grown, you know. Latin people start coming, Filipinos, white people, now we just gotta go touch our Latin folks…

CC: Is that a motivation for playing shows like this one, festivals like this one? Coming out and just being known? 'Cause you guys have gotten a lot of hype in the Latin community, recently. For example, Club Fonograma, which is U.S. blog but geared toward the Latin community, and a lot of people got to know you in recent years from Mexico, and stuff like that. I mean, how do you feel about that?

RR: It feels good! 'Cause you wanna touch the people. That’s a great feeling, man, people recognizing and just liking the music, 'cause that’s what we do it for, for you to like it and hopefully take it to the heart, 'cause we do it from the heart, so that’s how we want people to receive it.

CC: Do you wanna play more shows in Latin America? Like, in Mexico?

RR: Yes! I would because, look, the people we perform for, the majority in the U.S. are English-speaking people, so it's like they just like it because they can feel it. They don’t understand the lyrics, but they can feel the music, so, just imagine if they understood what we were saying. We feel like the Latin people, they need to hear this. 'Cause they will understand it, they will embrace it as well. Our style of music, you know, it’s hip hop, R&B, you don’t really hear that in the Latin gang. I feel like we have that to bring to the table.

CC: Yeah, that’s more American, I think.

RR: More American, yeah. I feel like we can be the ones to break it in to Latin America, you know?

CC: Hip hop and R&B?

RR: Hip hop and R&B.

CC: Cool. You have a solo project too, right?

RR: Yes.

CC: Is that something you do because it's something you can’t do with Los Rakas?

RR: It’s because we’re always in the studio, we got so many songs, like, as Los Rakas. If you listen to the Panabay Twist 1, even though it says Los Rakas, we got songs on there that I’m not even on, or [Dun's] not even on, but we still put it as part of Los Rakas, 'cause it’s just one, you know what I’m saying? And we just have to sometimes just do our own thing, you know?

CC: Yeah.

RR: We started as solo artists, we wasn’t a group, we started as solo artists. Then eventually we became a group. And sometimes...how do I put this? Sometimes you just gotta get it out there yourself, you gotta do your own thing. And, it don’t mean we’re breaking up or nothing, he does his own thing, I do my own thing.

CC: I know what that’s like. My band played this festival last year, but this year it’s only one of my bandmates with a side project. He’s doing it 'cause, like you said, he has to put himself out there, do his own thing.

RR: Yeah yeah yeah.

CC: It’s understandable, especially when you’re a band, sometimes there can be friction, and stuff like that…

RR: Exactly, it’s like some of the greats man, Willie Colón y Rúben Blades, you know. They were a group, they separated, did their own thing as solo artists, then got back together y así. The Willie Colón and Rúben Blades movement continues, even stronger, I think. So it’s even more music, we got so much music we gotta put it out there.

CC: Yeah, I’ve thought about that. It’s stronger because it’s a larger kind of a scene or group of people doing stuff. So, right, you did the Raka Love EP.

RR: Yes.

CC: Do you feel that with every new release you’re doing something different? Like some evolution of the sound that you guys are doing?

RR: Yes, but not intentionally.

CC: It just happens organically.

RR: It just happens, man. This CD Raka Love is more like an R&B CD. We wanted to showcase that 'cause we didn’t showcase that we could do reggaeton. We didn’t done reggaeton, hip hop, we didn’t done R&B, we got some merengue stuff. We just wanna showcase that we can do any genre and make it sound good. There’s a lot of people that can only just do one genre, R&B or reggaeton, and that’s it, that’s all they can do. You put them on a hip hop video, and they gonna be lost. We can do it all.

CC: So how do you feel about the scene right now? I mean I’m vaguely familiar 'cause I’ve played with [Uproot] Andy and Geko [Jones] in New York, in ¡Que Bajo! I know them, I know Tormenta, I saw you guys play there, and there is kinda like a little circuit of like-minded promoters. How do you feel that scene? I mean it used to be a lot stronger than it is now, how do you see that scene now?

RR: How do I seen it now?

CC: Yeah, how do you think, I mean, just like, an assessment of what’s going on?

RR: Well you know, I was in Colombia with Geko a few months ago.

CC: They’re always going down there right? Andy and Geko.

RR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, I mean, I don’t even know what’s going on with that situation over there, but every time I link up with them we have a phenomenal time. Geko is like my brother, he’s a big part of being successful in Latin America I feel, 'cause he has his connections.

CC: And he does both sides, right? He’s got his cult following in the U.S., and he plays and has his following in Colombia and Latin America. That’s pretty cool. I think if you can achieve that I think that it’s pretty cool.

RR: Yeah he’s dope, he’s dope.

CC: So, I mean, anything else that you’d like to add?

RR: Man, just, uh, go to the website.

CC: (laughs) Go to the website.

RR: Check out LosRakas.com and we always got new downloads we got about 80 downloads for free on their they can download, we got the Soy Raka shirts, $7, get it, get it real cheap while it’s for a limited time.

CC: Well, can I ask you really quickly about the free releases? Is that something you do…do you have a position on that? Do you feel like music should be given away?

RR: When you’re starting up as an independent artist you have to give the music away for free.

CC: There’s no choice.

RR: There’s so much music that people don’t wanna give you a chance. They’d rather listen to the stuff that’s on TV they already getting brainwashed with. So I feel that if you give it to them for free they might listen to it. Now if you selling it to them, they’re NOT gonna listen to it, they’re not gonna know who you are.

CC: There’s no chance.

RR: So, independently, yes, I feel like I'll be giving music away for the rest of my life. BUT I will sell some of it. You gotta understand that, independently, it’s not, it’s not…

CC: It’s not sustainable.

RR: It’s not sustainable. I need you to help me out and support the movement so we can keep the movement going.