Welcome to VICE Sports Q&A, where we talk to authors, directors, and other interesting people about interesting sports things. Think of it as a podcast, only with words on a screen instead of noises in your earbuds.This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
This is the first in a series of conversations I'm hoping to have with wrestlers and musicians exploring the inexorable links between the two art forms. We're starting off with Konnan.
Konnan is a legend in the wrestling industry for a multitude of reasons. He first rose to prominence in the early '90s in Mexico. During a five-year run, the Cuban-American would become one of the biggest stars the wrestling-crazed country ever produced.
He also wrestled for every major American company throughout the '90s, as well—most famously for WCW during wrestling's late-90s boom in popularity. Bringing elements of a tough Miami upbringing to his on-screen persona, he helped bring a sense of realism to the comic world of the Hulk Hogan era of wrestling.
Since the mid 2000s he has worked on and off camera in Mexico for Asistencia Asesoria y Administracion as a booker and as a character. He's also a co-host of the popular MLW podcast. Each week on the show he talks about wrestling, politics, pop culture and music in the same brash style that made him so popular speaking on the microphone during his in-ring days.
More than just a fan of music, though, he released rap records in Mexico as well as recording several of his memorable entrance themes. We sat down with Konnan to talk about his near big break in rap with one of its most famous southern moguls, teaming in the ring with another one, as well as the other music heroes he met in and through the squared circle. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
VICE Sports: What kind of music did you grow up with?
Konnan: I grew up in Miami in a part called Carol City. It's mostly a black, Jamaican and Latino neighbourhood. So music was all around me. From James Brown to Parliament to Celia Cruz to Bob Marley to everything in between. I grew up with a lot of good music. My parents being Cuban and Puerto Rican, they liked salsa and merengue music so I was listening to that stuff. But at the same time I was listening to the early ages of hip-hop, and how that developed, so I was around a lot of music my whole life. Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, we'd have dance contests and people would win for being the best dancer, and I'd go out through the little cape and I'd put on a show. If I lost, I'd be pissed! I just grew up with music all around me, you know?
You talk about being into early rap music and that's something that's very synonymous with yourself as far as the wrestling character, especially in America. When did rap first enter your life and what were some of the early rappers you gravitated toward?
I loved Public Enemy because you could tell that they were influenced by the Black Panther movement, by Malcolm X, you know, and they just had those bomb beats by Hank Shocklee and they had a militant message. And then of course Flava Flav was in there as the hype man just clowning it up, and gave a little bit of funniness to the S1Ws who were these marching soldiers. I loved Public Enemy, they really resonated with me. But going backwards, hip-hop talked to me. You know, we were talking about stuff that was happening around where I grew up.
For example, you loved punk rock and you grew up around punk rock—I could never understand punk rock but at the same time it's kind of funny because hip-hop was a lot of anger and you guys had a lot of anger, but I think it was more like the way you guys dealt with white anger and maybe the way I dealt with Latin anger were two different things. It almost seems like most white guys hated their parents and we just hated the cops—we were afraid of our parents. I'd be afraid that when 911 first came out—I was afraid if I picked up the phone my dad might be on the other side. Nobody called 911 where I grew up. But, anyway, hip-hop was just something that, especially in Miami—Miami was infiltrated with New Yorkers year-round, half of it because of the weather in the summer, they'd come down and chill; a lot of New Yorkers had business in Miami, so you know we were really influenced by all the dances, all the rappers and everything that was happening in New York, and that's where it all started.
So I guess you kind of gravitated toward rap music from that point on?
Right, and then when we went to high school, they had people breakdancing and into the Adidas tracksuits. I liked the whole gaudiness of it: the chains, the bucket hat, the sneakers, the b-boy style. I just liked all that shit and that's what people around me were listening to, what they were wearing and what they were dancing like. I was just basically influenced by my surroundings.
You're kind of the first guy in wrestling, certainly mainstream on Canadian TV, at least, that was engaged with rap in a very serious way. There were certainly other people who involved rap in their wrestling persona, but more in a tongue-in-cheek way. What was the reaction like in the locker room toward rap music?
They didn't like it, you know, there were a lot of racial comments made toward that type of music, but I always considered the source. I always said to myself, 'You know, these guys are from the south, they probably went to school where all whites went to one, all blacks went to another. I'm sure they're still getting over the shock that Tiger Woods is better than any white golfer.' You know, that's how it was back then. They were kind of a little bit narrow minded when it comes to that. Right now, we're living in a multi-ethnic world, with so many mixed marriages and so many things that are crossing the boundaries that just weren't accepted then. They didn't have gay marriage in their day. So I just always considered the source, bro.
At a certain point, though, there were actual rappers in the locker room, as well. Was Master P in the locker room with you guys and was he part of it, or was he kept in a separate area as a celebrity?
He had his own, all the big stars had their own dressing rooms, but he was cool. He would come into the locker room with his brother Silkk The Shocker. I'm going to tell you something about Master P—when I sat down with him he was explaining to me everything he was doing. When you hear him talk he sounds very ghetto but that motherfucker is one of the smartest people I've ever met. All you've got to do is go to any ghetto in the U.S. or Canada and you'll see what great hustlers those motherfuckers are. You know, he sat down with me and was explaining how he didn't really care about all the big chains and big cars and all that. He was going to start investing. He had a Footlocker deal; he'd invested in real estate; he had a phone sex company; he was making his own movies; he had a jewellery line, and an energy drink. I mean, he did a deal that I'm almost positive they'll never sign again—with Priority records—that he'd retained 100 percent ownership of the master recordings, and he would get like 80 percent of the record sales with Priority getting 15 percent.
Bro, he went on to make hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars off this deal and I don't think they've ever done a deal like that since. He would put No Limit out there, like, how now you might have Bad Boy records or Death Row—he was doing that before they were. He was No Limit. Like back then you would get a CD with like 12-15 songs—he would put 20 songs on there. So you would be getting more bang for your buck, you know? He would go out and give out his records to people with good sound systems and they would just bump it all over the hood! His music was real ghetto but it crossed over. He went platinum many times. I think what I took from him more than anything was how business savvy he was.
[daily_motion src='//www.dailymotion.com/embed/video/x81nq4' width='480' height='270']
It was his cousin that was a wrestler?
His cousin was Swoll. These guys were all from the hood in New Orleans that were his boys/bodyguards.
I think it was Swoll who got a contract out of it, too?
Yeah, I think Swoll got a contract and then another guy, I think his name was 4x4 or something—that was how he was built: short, stocky, wide. Motherfucker looked like he could have been a centre on a football team, you know? He just hung out with a rough set, that's who he grew up with. But, yeah, one of them wrestled for a while. He wasn't good at all because he never really trained, You know, they just put him in there and had him do easy big man moves, like clothesline and body slam, that most people could probably do. It was limited to that.
I imagine there was a little bit of "patronage" involved in him getting that contract?
Well, yeah! You know, nepotism and cronyism and dirty bullshit in this industry.
It's funny, because Master P played for the Raptors, which is the team, years later, that Drake reps. But that's not your only connection to Drake because you were discovered as a rapper by the same guy that put Drake on in the beginning—James Prince, right?
I didn't know that!
Yeah, he has some role behind the scenes, apparently. His son told Lil Wayne to give Drake a look and check out the demo.
He's awesome, man. He's the guy that put the Ghetto Boys on. Basically what happened was, I had done these two rap videos in WCW, and he must have been watching WCW. He got a hold of me and flew me out to his studios in Houston. He really liked what I was about, and he liked my swag and all that, and he actually told me—I didn't even know that you could do this in the music industry back then—but this is how much faith he had in me: He said, "I'm going to buy the first 500,000 copies of your album, so you can go gold in the first week and start an incredible buzz." That's how much he believed in me! He said, "You pick any producer you want, and I'll have him produce your shit!" So he really must, especially back then in '97, when not even Eric Bischoff or Vince McMahon got it, he understood how important the Latino demo was, especially living in Houston. So he wanted a guy for the Latino audience.
At that time I was really butting heads with Eric Bischoff, the head of WCW. We didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things including him taking Rey Mysterio's mask off, and I told him I wanted to do this deal with him, and he said, "Absolutely, we're going to be working with Tommy Boy." And I just thought at that time Tommy Boy had a weak roster as far as hip-hop and I was a huge fan of the Ghetto Boys and wanted to do something. I knew that [Prince] understood my gimmick and he could make it flourish more than Tommy Boy could. Tommy Boy only wanted to do a song with me and that was it—this guy wanted to push me as an artist.
You had music come out in Mexico prior to that?
Yeah, that music was a little bit more poppy and I don't think that was something [Prince] would be into if he heard it. I think he heard my stuff that I did with WCW which was more of West Coast, Latino gangster-style-type music.
Did you ever want to pursue that more seriously as a career?
As a rapper? Yeah, but I mean you have that one shot. It would have been incredible because you know the rush you get as the singer of a band, that's what you are right?
Oh yeah I'm the singer, the one with all the looks and talent [laughs]
Right! So you know how it is being a frontman for a band—that energy that you get from the people. That fucking rush you get when they sing along with you. So for me, even when I would go out there and people would cheer, it was a rush. I love that feedback from the fans. So when I have done rap events and gigs, because I was doing them, obviously parlaying what I did with WCW and doing some shows, I'm already a ham by nature. I love to entertain, as I told you the story of me in the dance contests with the cape at my family functions, and so me singing, and people singing my songs, yeah I would have loved to have done that. But I can say I dabbled in it a little bit and had fun with it, and who knows, maybe in the future I might produce some people. I'll always have some sort of relationship with rap and hip-hop music.
You could have been what Drake is for Canadian hip-hop for Latino hip-hop if Eric Bishoff hadn't fucked it up!
Yeah, who knows, I know I would have put 100 percent into it. Yeah, he did fuck it up.
I was going to say, though, you kind of got to experience what it's like to be a rock star/rap star, because I think being a wrestler is kind of like being a rock star crossed with being a superhero in some people's eyes.
When the product is hot, yes! You know, to me, it's not a sport. So when they say it's a sport, it isn't, or when they say it's sports entertainment that's a little bit closer, but I just think its entertainment. Just like a movie or a mini-series, it's just entertainment. And there are people that like that genre—just like Marvel has its universe, WWE has its universe. Wrestling is its own little universe with its own language and its own fans and it is what it is.
Well, there are definitely rock stars that are gravitating toward wrestling constantly. Back to WCW, I've got to ask you about KISS and the KISS Demon. Did you have any interaction with KISS?
I saw them backstage at Las Vegas at MGM. It must have been a pay-per-view that they did. I remember when I was a little kid I did like KISS a lot. I remember actually for Halloween dressing up as Ace Frehley! But when I finally did see Kiss, the two things I do remember about them was what incredibly over-top platforms they were wearing—it was ridiculous! I don't even think a woman could walk in them, much less a man. And here's the other thing that struck me—they look really old without makeup! I was like 'Jesus Christ, thank God for makeup.' You know, thank God for the makeup and the light switch.
They were kind of gone pretty quick, but the Demon, he stuck around, right? Dale Torborg.
Yeah, Dale Torborg was a nice guy. What was that other gimmick he did, not the demon?
He was a baseball player, right?
Yeah, he was there for a little bit, but I think once they took away KISS, it kind of really hampered that whole thing.
They weren't the only ones wearing makeup in WCW because also the Misfits were wrestling with your long-time friend Vampiro. What's your recollection of the Misfits in WCW?
Again, since I wasn't really a Misfits fan I didn't really pay much attention to them. I mean, a lot of people are huge Misfits fans and they would have been talking their ear off, but to me I really didn't know who they were. The coolest thing to me was their makeup. It was white and grey, fucking really cool. I'd never seen makeup that cool, like how well they did it, how well they looked. I really liked it.
They were around a second, right?
Well, yeah, anyways those guys were there, I didn't really pay much attention, like when ICP came, they also came with Vampiro, because he likes that type of music. When ICP came I didn't know who the fuck they were. They were actually pretty funny guys, pretty cool guys, I liked them a lot. It was just funny to me—I didn't know which one of them or both were afraid of flying, and they were in this humongous windbag-type things. One of them was kind of good—the skinny guy? I don't know which one he is. He was kind of good.
What's the worst reaction you've seen from a crowd to a band? Because KISS actually had a legendarily bad reception with WCW fans.
They pretty much don't like anybody! I will tell you that Master P didn't go over particularly well in some cities, they let him have it. But I mean it can't get any worse than getting booed if they don't like you. It's very rare when they will applaud a musical act. You know who did do well, and maybe because Hunter was a friend of theirs and he knew how to present them, but Motorhead—they always did it right.
I guess that's it—if it makes sense for the wrestler to have that musical tie in it can work with the audience. Enough wrestling fans have great taste in music as illustrated by the person I wanted to talk about: Bob Mould. It's funny because on your podcast I hear you guys talk about him and say like, "Yeah I hear that guy is kind of famous in music." To people like me he is a legend! Even to the Foo Fighters he is a huge legend. He's also the biggest wrestling fan I've met in music, and you've worked with him, right?
Everything is relative. Guys to you that I would be like 'Oh my God, I can't believe it' and vice versa. So when I say that, it isn't in a disrespectful manner. Even like the Misfits, I know they have lots of fans because I've gone to stores and they have Misfits paraphernalia. I didn't work too much with him. I just saw him backstage. He was always very quiet, we never really talked much or anything like that. He never told me any storylines I was going to be a part of, we didn't really have much interaction, so I can't expand too much on Bob Mould. He was there and I did see him.
He still watches today. He watches Lucha Underground and Triple A, all the products still.
That's incredible because he must be in his mid 50s?
He still tours and he has a great new record that just came out. It's funny because you look at the Misfits and you're like 'OK, it makes sense that they'd be into wrestling, it's a natural thing.' But if you tell most fans of punk music that Bob Mould wrote for WCW, especially a fan of wrestling, their mind is blown!
Was Husker Du the group he was famous for being in?
Yeah, and his own solo career, he wrote the theme for the Daily Show, too!
When I was reading up on Husker Du today, this stuck out, because I liked this band a lot: they influenced Nirvana.
Yeah, huge influence.
I mean, for me, could you hear a little bit of Husker Du in Nirvana?
Definitely, the melody is definitely the influence Husker Du had. Husker Du and this band from Portland, this goes back to wrestling weirdly. The Wipers were a band who were around in the early days and Kurt would go and watch them. And when you hear some of the Wipers music, you're like, 'Oh, that's where Nirvana got it from, that's the big influence.'
So would you say Grunge is kind of an offshoot of punk rock, like maybe House is to Disco?
One hundred percent. All the big Grunge bands have ties back to punk. But the weird thing about this guy Greg Sage from the Wipers is that the first record he ever played on was for that wrestler Beauregarde, who wrestled in Texas and also in Portland. He put out a psychedelic rock record in 1971 or something and heard this guy Greg Sage playing guitar at a practice space and said, 'You've got to play guitar in my band!'
Let me ask you one more question about punk-rock music: did it start in the UK or in the US?
It started, weirdly, in America, Canada and Australia all around the same time, around 1973. All these bands pop up all over the place. A few of them were in correspondence with one another through fanzines, early rock 'n roll zines, as pen pals. That's kind of where it starts to me. In New York, this fanzine started called "punk" would write about the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, and those were kind of the first wave of punk bands from New York. And there's this band the Dictators from New York that was also part of that first wave, and they were obsessed with wrestling.
Wow, that's pretty cool. Let me ask you another question: just like in rap, you have your genres—did punk rock have its own different genres? Like when the Sex Pistols came out were they making a different type of punk rock or was it maybe their look was different from everyone else's?
That's the thing about punk rock, like hip-hop: sonically, Husker Du sounds nothing like the Sex Pistols, who sound nothing like the Ramones who sound nothing like Blondie, and yet all of them were at one point punk bands.
[laughs] That's the thing, Damian, you're a huge music head. Your life is all music and so is mine, I love music and it's fucking incredible! But I gravitate more to hip-hop.
I remember Vampiro on your show gave the weirdest history of punk rock I've ever heard so I'm glad I can clarify that with you [laughs].
Well, a weird explanation from a weirdo makes sense! [laughs]
Well, before we finish talking about music, I wanted to hit on LAX and the theme song for LAX. You talk a lot about Public Enemy and nowhere is that influence more apparent for you than with LAX.
That's exactly where it came from. I love a lot of the great civil rights leaders, and their militancy, and I looked at some of the Latino activists. I started LAX (Latin Americans Exchange) and basically the whole crux of the group was: if you weren't Latino you couldn't be with us. We were kind of reverse racist: just like whites hated minorities, we were Latinos that hated anything that wasn't Latino.
I mean, you say it's reverse racist, but to me, they make you guys into the bad guys. Nothing you were saying was ever untrue.
Yeah, that was the thing. I mean, my promos were always different from anyone else. I never wanted to do a wrestling promo like, 'I want to retire you, you'll never come back.' I always wanted to do promos that made you think, and that was the main thing. Like one time, I said a thing that we also got a lot of flack from the Orlando police department for. I said, 'I'm just with the Orlando police department, I shoot first and ask questions later.' Which is something we're dealing with right now in 2016 and I said that back in 2006, you know? So, just a lot of issues, a lot of things that I actually felt. I would say how in TNA racial minorities don't matter—that was something I actually felt. They were always like, 'Wow, your promo it feels so real.' And I thought to myself, 'Well, yeah, because they are real!'
I guess depending on which side of the fence you put yourself politically would depend on how you'd see that character, that whole storyline. It always felt weird to look at you as being the bad guy.
Right. I mean, I was fighting against all the things that were true in the wrestling industry and in society—mainly racism. A lot of it was just predicated on that, and I mean we're still living in a racist world. When you look at the US right now—17 percent is Latino, 12 percent is black, and let's say another 5 percent is other. At the end of the day, 70 percent of the rest of the US is still white Anglo-Saxon. You've got to figure: how much of that 70 percent agrees with a lot of the rhetoric that [Donald] Trump is spewing? How many of them are progressive and see it for what it is? How many are just following a lot of his ignorance, you know?
Do you think there's a place for a progressive wrestling company?
That's the problem—there are no Latino agents, Latino producers or any Latinos in positions of power. It's the same for minorities in general. Once somebody runs a company, let's say he's openly gay for example, and underneath him he's got an African American, a Latino and Anglo-Saxon. Just a composite of what your demographic is, they're not all white. But it's been run by the same guy: Vince McMahon, a 70-year-old white billionaire. Do you think he really has a lot of interaction with poor people, Latinos, blacks, Samoans? Probably not! So, you know, like Dixie Carter (TNA Owner), she comes from a millionaire family from Dallas, Texas. It will happen.
It makes sense that it should happen, because if you look at the numbers of people that watch the show, a sizeable percentage of the audience are radicalized people.
Well, especially in certain markets! There are a lot of markets where we have the biggest viewer share, and a lot of markets for where we may not be the highest viewer share, but we buy a lot of merchandise, and we go to shows and we watch the show. Why isn't there anybody representing us, you know? We all want to get behind somebody we can identify with, not all of us identify with a white Anglo-Saxon guy. We have more than enough of them on the screen in movies, TV, wrestling and everything.