Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Tempo of Puerto Pobre: contemporary thoughts on the island and its music

Christopher Feliciano

Photo by Nemodori

Puerto Rico was once proud of its agriculture, hard work, and cultural pride. The island’s agricultural decline has been replaced by island tourism —an industry that hides poverty existing in San Juan’s outskirts. In my opinion, further examples of a decline in Puerto Rican cultural pride include reports of islanders who concentrate on wrecking their houses to receive FEMA aid for hurricanes that never touch their homes, incidents involving the sexual harassment of parade participants during the annual New York City Puerto Rican Parade and the self-hatred perpetuating Puerto Rico’s streets to become more violent than ever. With great disdain, I now consider the land I truly call home Puerto Pobre.

I was born of Puerto Rican parents and raised in Texas. Jim Crow ripped part of my soul and the void was filled by music which brought the fire to forge me together again. In 2001, while attending a military cadet school I would start out my days shouting loudly “Soy un narcohampon de la area sur traficante de kilates,” as the shaving cream fell off my face with every grito. I was reciting not the lyrics but the mix of pain and coraje that came out of the artist’s mouth. There is something powerful about finding someone who parallels your struggles and ambitions; it’s the basis of creating friendships. I’m speaking of an artist named Tempo who is alive but no longer with us.

David Sanchez Badillo, also known by his stage name Tempo, is inarguably considered the boss of Puerto Rican Hip-Hop. Many contemporary artists in both reggaeton and Spanish hip-hop reference his name in their songs. By the time he was 11 years old, Tempo was writing his first lyrics while living in New York City. He moved to Puerto Rico in his teens and began to produce music with DJ Playero in the group “Escuadron del Panico.” During this time, Tempo first encountered the now mainstream reggaeton artist Daddy Yankee during his inaugural lyrical battle; Tempo easily demolished him. Word spread of Tempo’s reputation as a young artist with a quick-witted tongue, due in part to the success of his Playero underground mixtapes.

His albums “New Game” and “Exitos” attained gold status — a monumental feat, considering that his exposure was limited only to the island and select continental cities with heavy a Puerto Rican influence. He helped create “Buddha’s Family,” a music industry recording company of rappers who concentrated on street grit themes rather than pariseo (party) themes. In the mid-90s, the genre now known as reggaeton was purely in its hip-hop infancy of Melaza or Da’Underground due to initial public perception of the music. Many in Puerto Rico viewed Melaza as a growing cancer, which was quickly killing the influences of popular genres like salsa and meringue. The reggaeton name officially characterized the genre as it gained mainstream success — most notably with Daddy Yankee’s 2004 hit “Gasolina.” While the reggaeton duo Wisin y Yandel fed you energy to dance, Tempo delivered the Taíno warrior spirit.

Tempo not only created his lyrics and the meaning behind his songs, he felt them. He knew that he was the chosen voice for the people and this identity fit perfectly with his chosen stage name. His songs Amen and Inocente express support for the poor to become rich and address the disparity between both economic classes. Hip-hop is often labeled as a disrespectful music genre, full of gangsters, swindlers, and sexists. For Tempo, the authenticity of culture comes from the poor. He felt he did not have to fix his grammar or wear a suit to be respected. Tempo’s voice coincided with the momentum of reggaeton’s growing popularity at a time when Puerto Rico desperately needed it.

In September 2002, Tempo was incarcerated on a 24-year sentence for counts of trafficking heroin, cocaine, and an exaggerated number of weapons. Did that get your attention? In reality, his conviction was based on circumstantial evidence. The true clues surrounding his incarceration lie in the song “Narcochampon,” in which Tempo’s ironic lyrics expose the most crooked institution on the island: the law. He goes on an unapologetic lyrical massacre of the judges who received bribes and subsequently went to prison (substantial evidence existed in those cases). In one of his legendary lines from that song, he describes in explicit detail what the judge can do to Tempo’s pant zipper. Media attention surrounding the case has left the judicial system in even more disarray since the incarceration in Puerto Pobre of a true musical revolutionary under nebulous charges.

If Tempo would have simply rhymed about guns, grills, and girls, he would have been dust in the wind. Now, he is a living time capsule of the rage and movement that Puerto Rico once needed in its steep decline. The lesson at hand is that Tempo’s authenticity has pioneered a forum exposing Puerto Pobre’s cultural injustices. Let’s hope the tempo in our hearts keeps beating.

Christopher Feliciano
is a Texan Puerto Rican
and guest contributor
for La Bloga


msedano said...

If ever a column called out for em pee three links, here it is. Nicely done, Christopher. And welcome to La Bloga.


Vonique L. Dixson said...

This article is like a mixture between an information filled story from NPR, and a raw evaluation of a true lyricist of my generation. I have looked for to this kind of journalism for some time now and look forward to reading more from the writer.

Thank you

Anonymous said...

I have read many of columns concerning the plight of this genre of music, I personnaly don't like it, but we have to credit it's creativity, and support this art which I come to understand as what some people call "CALLE POETRY" set to music,this is a fact and the truth is delivered thru this medium. You can't blame the youth, you need to blame the Puerto Rican society as a whole, why for the Machismo taught to our kids projects the need of to forge ahead do what you need to do, and Screw the world.