In an abandoned candy factory in New York, rap music blares as graffiti artists cover the walls with colorful, almost intelligible, designs. It’s February, the 4,000-square-foot-room is cold and the smell of fresh paint is overwhelming, but so is the sense of anticipation. This is where brothers Rodrigo, aka RodStarz, and Gonzalo “G1” Venegas, who make up the hip-hop group Rebel Diaz, are creating a place where they hope to revive the mobilizing power of New York hip-hop.
“With the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective we want to politicize people organically. We want to do it internally. We want to do it in the ‘hood’,” said RodStarz, sitting comfortably in the collective’s fully equipped recording studio, which was a forgotten run-down space just a couple years earlier. “Everything around me screams for change. I live where the water sometimes doesn’t come out hot because there’s no heat, or shit doesn’t get fixed. You got to deal with landlords. You’ve got to deal with drugs. You’ve got to deal with prostitution.” He added: “These conditions in 2011 haven’t changed in the South Bronx.”
What has changed is hip-hop. Hip-hop started in the Bronx in the 1970’s as an artistic response to poverty and racism stemming from the repression of African-American communities in urban America. Artists like DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa were revolutionizing their communities by promoting creative rivalries instead of violent ones. But today, the fire that inspired the social movement has faded to a flicker.
In the current hip-hop market, unless you stick a social message to a danceable beat it’s difficult to create a buzz around political rap. Rebel Diaz understands that not everyone wants to think critically when they listen to hip-hop. But when playlists from major radio stations like New York’s, “Hot 97,” 97.1 FM, feature the same high profile artists week after week – Kanye West, Drake, Jay-Z and Rihanna — there’s only so much attention a new artist can garner, let alone a “socially conscious” one. Indeed, mainstream hip-hop has turned into hip-pop.
The Venegas brothers, who moved to the Bronx from Chicago in 2005, don’t look like your average hip-hop stars. RodStarz, 30, has long black hair kept in cornrows that end mid-way down his back and an impish smile and a childlike demeanor. G1, 26, is slightly more subdued. He wears a baseball hat over his short spiked hair and Ray Ban sunglasses. There are no jewel encrusted necklaces, no fancy shoes, no pretension. If there’s a division between those who use hip-hop to achieve fame, and those who use it as a means of revolutionizing entrenched power structures, Rebel Diaz is passionately leading the latter.
As children of Chilean political activists imprisoned under General Augusto Pinochet, RodStarz and G1 were likely destined to take part in social movements. Their bilingual rap lyrics and message of change have landed them concert tours throughout North America, South America and Europe. Last year, the brothers had a successful tour in Canada. Last month, they finished their European tour, which ended in London on June 17th. While on the road they released a track every week from their new album, “Radical Dilemma,” on their website Warrior Wednesdayz, with more songs still to come.
Hip-hop culture exists in many styles the world over. But the birthplace has maintained a distinct aesthetic. New York City rap is renowned for its lyrical quality. It’s about being witty, using syntax, vernacular language and syllable wordplay. And it’s inherently about sending a social message, stemming back to the genre’s roots in poor communities of 1970’s New York. In rap circles it’s often called boom-bap.
“[Boom-bap] has darker heavier bass instrumentals and almost melodic flow in the delivery of the rhymes,” said Noah Friedman, marketing director of the legendary New York label, Duck Down Records. “The content is more about the everyday struggle or description of what life might be like, life that’s not founded in accessories or products.”
Priorities shifted in the late 1990’s because of larger changes in the music industry. These were triggered by the broad popularity of hip-hop and, later, free music downloading and artist promotion on the Internet. In hip-hop, as in other musical genres, the industry scrambled to stay relevant. So when lyrical boom-bap New York rap became less profitable around 2007, labels, promoters and artists started to look elsewhere for commercial success.
Today, the business side of hip-hop, the industry, is largely focused on Atlanta, “The A.” Here a tight knit community of rappers, DJs, promoters and record labels have propelled numerous hip-hop artists to fame. The hip-hop scene in “The A” is extremely accessible, and it’s turning Atlanta into the Nashville of hip-hop music. Still, the Venegas brothers are confident that New York’s young hip-hop talent can make it on home turf.
On November 12, 1974, Afrika Bambaataa coined the term “hip-hop” to describe the cultural movement that was forming around four central elements: DJing, MCing, break-dancing and graffiti. Bambaataa also added a fifth element: knowledge, which is meant to hold all of the other elements together by encouraging understanding within oneself and between all members of the hip-hop community.
The Rebel Diaz Arts Collective is proof that Bambaataa’s fifth element is alive and well in New York City. Now that the smell of paint has escaped through cracks in the decorated walls and creaky floors, the loft is a place where hip-hop culture can thrive in its many forms, including visual and musical expressions against oppression.
There are currently 20 official members of the collective, and they must show a commitment to caring for the space, supporting the Bronx community and political education. The educational component is carried out through workshops, multi-media training and artistic performances. Last year, for instance, Rebel Diaz put on a number of shows at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit with rising stars YC the Cynic and Kalae All Day.
For the rappers involved, the facility is also a training ground. RodStarz and G1 teach young MCs how to craft their lyrics, help them record songs and give impressive live performances by practicing on the stage in the center of the loft.
“The arts collective operates like a label’s artist development program,” said RodStarz of artists and repertoire agents, “A & R,” who used to nurture talent. “Labels may be skimping back on A & R because of larger shifts in the music industry, but in New York you see community groups filling the void and getting involved.”
Rebel Diaz admits it’s hard to keep the center running. They’ve received funding from the Union Square Award and the company Citgo, but Rebel Diaz covers much of the cost. And when they perform they’re often asked to play for free because they’re, “down with the movement,” said RodStarz. Sometimes they have to choose between their livelihoods and the needs of the collective. But in the end, they are committed to the hip-hop community. “It has to do with us as artists taking responsibility,” said G1, “because no one is going to do it for us.”
They also see this as work that will far outlast their impact as a New York City based hip-hop group. “I look at the position we’re in as a blessing as far as longevity is concerned,” said RodStarz. “There’s hip-hop artists that can come out now and be hot and have a hot single on the radio. But what’s the substance behind it? I feel that as long as people continue to be oppressed, which is happening all over the world, Rebel Diaz is going to remain relevant because we’re going to keep addressing those issues.”