Photos courtesy of Whitest Taino Alive
In the last decade, hip-hop’s regional and national distinctions have crumbled. From A$AP Rocky's love affair with Southern rap to the worldwide commercial rise of trap music, examples of the internet’s role in generating styles of hip-hop that upend expectations abound. In international hip-hop communities in particular, accelerated online communication has broken down barriers that often delayed the arrival of new sounds.
Enter Whitest Taino Alive. With even a name that riffs on influences as disparate as Norwegian indie rock band The Whitest Boy Alive and the Arawak indigenous group native to the Dominican Republic, the Dominican hip-hop trio perfectly reflects these collapsed boundaries. Comprised of producer DaBeat Ortiz and rappers Jon Blon Jovi and Dominicanye West (a rap name to end all rap names), they’re one of the few voices in independent hip-hop on the island.
While Dominicans worked with Puerto Rican rappers and produced their own music in the DR in the 90s, Dominican artists generally lacked the visibility and infrastructure that Puerto Rico’s scene enjoyed through its connections and resources as a U.S. territory. Today, hip-hop remains a niche genre. Dance-friendly music like merengue and bachata, along with the newer, more electronic genres of reggaeton and dembow, dominate the Dominican market. However, services like Soundcloud offer Whitest Taino Alive the opportunity to cultivate their sound in underground spaces.
DaBeat Ortiz creates tropical, breezy trap beats that evoke avant-garde collective Future Brown while drawing upon cloud rap and the minimalism of Flying Lotus. Top this off with screwed down vocals and a drop that roughly translates to “refined ratchetness” (chopería fina), and you’ve got the recipe for The Most 2015 Sound Ever. It’s also the perfect soundtrack for the group’s funny, free associative lyrics, which are full of sly references in Spanish and English to Dominican and American pop culture. On last year's album ¿Dónde Jugarán Los Cueros?, they cite Sammy Sosa, Yoko Ono, Heisenberg, Chuck Norris, A-Rod—the list goes on and on. They rap “about anything:” driving down Santo Domingo’s boulevards, smoking weed, chilling with leathers (hoes), and drinking mamajuana. They’re fond of “rap game” jokes but with a Dominican flow: “Rap game Junot / I’m not a rapper or a producer / I’m a loser / This is how I lose her.” This is music for nerdy kids who grew up with merengue and a high-speed internet connection (*looks left* *looks right* *whispers* it me).
[Ed. Note: Some parts of this interview have been translated from Spanish.]
Noisey: Tell me about the music you grew up listening to in the Dominican Republic.
DaBeat Ortiz: We all came from very different backgrounds, mainly because of the age difference. He’s [points to Jon Blon Jovi] ten years older than me, and I’m three years older than him [points to Dominicanye West].
Jon Blon Jovi: I’m the old one. I grew up listening to rock, like Rush. A lot of heavy metal too, like Metallica and Anthrax. But also, I grew up in Puerto Rico, so I listened to a lot of hip-hop over there. At that point it was very underground. I was in high school and I started listening to Vico C and stuff like that, which was just starting. You had to find a friend that had a cassette tape of some underground recording of Vico C, and that’s how you would listen to it. I’ve always listened to a lot of hip-hop. Run DMC—like, I’m 42. So I started listening to all this when it came out.
DaBeat Ortiz: In my case, the love for music really started the first time I saw MTV. I know it sounds cheesy, but I remember the video for Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” I was about nine or ten. I got hooked right away. That was even the first album I bought: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the double CD. But I went through a lot of phases. In high school, I used to play drums in a couple of bands: punk, hardcore, post-hardcore. Then I got more into beats and instrumental hip-hop through Prefuse 73, Dabrye, Flying Lotus, that type of sound. Little by little, I got more into a hip-hop sound and all the stuff that’s happening right now.
Did you all grow up in the DR?
Dominicanye West: I grew up here all my life. My mother listened to a lot of merengue and a lot of bolero, a lot of salsa. She’s very Caribbean. My dad loves bachata. But when I was in school I listened to a lot of punk music, a lot of heavy metal. I even played bass in a band, too, of trash metal. After a few years of listening to that music, I started to love hip-hop. I met a bunch of people that started introducing me to hip-hop and then I started rapping in a collective here, and here we are.
Did you go to a lot of live shows and concerts growing up?
Jon Blon Jovi: When I was 12 to about 18, there was a big rock scene here in DR. Also a lot of punk, emo—that sound from the early 2000s. There were a lot of bands like that. We have a hip-hop collective too, but they usually stay on the underground, in another scene. All scenes are very separate here in DR. We have an electronic/rave scene that’s been going on for a few years also. I did see a lot of live shows growing up in Puerto Rico. Because there were a lot of bands that were going there, like REO Speedwagon, Survivor, Def Leppard, a lot of reggae shows.
It was probably because it was easier for the artists to get there. They didn’t need a visa or anything, right?
Jon Blon Jovi: Exactly. I did get to see a lot of live performances there.
Dominicanye West: On my side, I had to travel to see any bands that I really liked. They used to bring really underground punk groups to the Dominican Republic from Puerto Rico. I remember one time they brought a band called Belvedere, from Canada.
You’ve been compared to a lot of acts like Fuëte Billëte and that kind of music coming out of Puerto Rico now. I’m wondering if you feel like you’re part of a new movement of hip-hop coming out of the Caribbean.
DaBeat Ortiz: I think we are, mainly because geographically we’re here. It’s the same approach and sound, in Spanish as well. I really think it does have a certain level of connection, because the approach to the making of the music is pretty much the same. We each talk about certain topics that are from pop culture in our countries, with a contemporary touch in terms of the beats. It’s futuristic music wise, but when it comes down to it, very Dominican in the lyrics.
Jon Blon Jovi: Honestly, they were a big inspiration for what we’re doing. When we first saw the “Bien Guillao” video, we were just starting to make music. It was between listening to Das Racist and the inspiration that came from watching that video. It was so in your face, that Fuëte Billëte video for “Bien Guillao.” We loved it right away. We were like, “This is what we want to do. This is interesting and we could do something along these lines.”
DaBeat Ortiz: I have been trying to do something like this for a while. I’ve been into this band called Chacho Brodas from Spain. They’ve been doing this future trap/hip-hop sound for five or six years. The first time I heard it, I was very intrigued by it because this type of music was only made in the U.S. or in English. When we heard Fuëte Billëte, we got inspired by that too. We even became friends with the Fuëte Billëte guys ‘cause I did a DJ set for them at a party they did here. We hit it off really well.
I played your EP Chopería Fina for my mom, who’s from Santiago, and she thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. What do you think the role of Dominican humor is in your music?
Jon Blon Jovi: Honestly, I consider myself a comedian first. I was always making jokes at the wrong time. I could be at a funeral and I’m going to make a joke. Everybody’s going to look at me like, “What the fuck are you doing?” But Dominicans in general are very funny people. Humor has always been a part of Dominican music. If you listen to merengue from the old school, there was a lot of innuendo. Like if you’ve ever listened to Blas Duran and Conjunto Quisqueya. Even that line from “Poussey”: “pónmelo ahí, te lo voa partí,” that’s a Conjunto Quisqueya line.
DaBeat Ortiz: Even Kinito Mendez, you probably know him. It’s like pure comedy.
I was going to say that the humor really reminds me of Das Racist, in terms of free association and the play on words. Can you talk a little bit about that influence?
Jon Blon Jovi: That’s my favorite band of all time. I love how they sound: like they’re saying a lot of shit, but actually it makes sense when you look into it. It’s like, “what the fuck are these guys talking about?” and then makes so much sense. It’s really funny and catchy. I saw them in New York in 2012. I think it was their last concert before they split. But it’s cool; they keep doing their stuff. The new Heems album is really nice. I love anything that Kool A.D. does.
I think the appeal of your music is that it encourages people to let go of their inhibitions, sexually and politically. But government groups in the DR have censored dembow artists and US performers like Miley Cyrus, whose concert there was banned last year. Can you speak to that?
Jon Blon Jovi: That’s always going to happen. Because it’s radio and they always want to show this perfect image: that nobody swears, that nobody says anything bad, and that everything is so bougie. That’s why we don’t even try to make music for the radio. Fuck that. We’re going straight to the Internet, you know? Let people decide what they want to hear. We haven’t even done any media tours here or anything.
DaBeat Ortiz: The craziest part of all of that is that on the radio here, they actually play the craziest shit. [all laugh] Like, El Mayor Clásico.
Jon Blon Jovi: I love El Mayor!
DaBeat Ortiz: It’s a crazy contradiction. They ban Miley Cyrus for certain stuff, but we got this guy that’s playing that type of music and saying those things? It’s like, “They’re totally Dominican and we get it, so it’s fine.”
Any plans for the rest of 2015?
Jon Blon Jovi: We just got out of a meeting about half an hour ago for a video. Our first video—we haven’t done any. There’s a beach fest called Juanillo Beach Fest. It’s going to be Tego Calderon, Amigos Invisibles, and a lot of DJs, and we’re going to be doing the opening set.
Isabelia Herrera is the whitest Taina alive. Follow her on Twitter.