El Poeta, Smokey and D-Boy don't go out after 10pm anymore. If they did, they say, they'd only get stopped by the cops and sent home. But D-Boy, who wants to be a police officer, says he understands where the cops are coming from. "They're actually making it safer. Without cops, this place would be a mess," he says. "There'd be people dyin' everyday."
Over the years, the three friends living in Santa Rosa's Roseland district found different ways to stay out of gang life. First it was shooting hoops until sunset; for a while, it was playing soccer. And then they discovered hip-hop.
They started writing verses and swapping beats, and everything changed for them in Roseland, the predominantly Latino neighborhood whose younger residents are plagued by prejudices of gang affiliation.
"People say it's bad," says Poeta, 18. "But it's not really that bad, or I would've been dead by now." Poeta was just nine when he witnessed his first stabbing while living on Sunset Avenue, a notoriously bad part of the unincorporated Roseland area. Unknowingly tagging along with a group of older gang members for some basketball, he watched as a knife flashed on the court and felled one of the players. "It traumatized me," he says. "Living in this life, you don't have your days promised."
Poeta's longtime collaborator Smokey, 16, was approached on the street recently by two guys and asked where to get drugs. He shook his head, and the guys moved on, only to turn on him and fire shots from a .22. Smokey dropped to the ground and scrambled away; six shots later, he had escaped. Barely.
"I saw them two weeks ago," Smokey says now. "We were playing soccer outside and they passed by, but we didn't do nothing. We don't wanna get in no trouble."
D-Boy, 18, who often joins Poeta and Smokey, also strives to keep a low profile. "People ask me what my favorite color is, and I say 'red,' they say, 'Oh, you're a Norteño?' You have to be careful about how you dress around here. We shouldn't even be worried about that. I know people say it all the time, but it's just stupid."
Last month, Poeta, Smokey and D-Boy were offered a chance not only to be out past 10pm but to rock the stage at Roseland's annual Cinco de Mayo celebration, rapping about their lives, their neighborhood and their culture in front of thousands. Poeta's eyes light up when he recalls draping a Mexican flag over his shoulders and clutching the mic on that night. "I can still picture the moment when I looked over my right shoulder," he beams, "and I saw all these people raising up their hands and shit, like a big-ass ocean, like a wave, going all the way down."
"It's a feeling," D-Boy adds with a smile, "you can't even describe."
Welcome to Latino hip-hop in Santa Rosa, a story of struggle, music and redemption.
Hip-hop as an art form has almost always been informed by the black experience in America. But in Santa Rosa, where Latinos make up 20 percent of the population and where the area's main Latino neighborhood, Roseland, is still not recognized as part of the Santa Rosa city limits and where more racism is directed at Latinos than any other demographic, it's easy to feel like an outsider. One way to start crawling out is to grab a mic.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Poeta can't be seen through the metal grating of his front door. "Come around to the garage," he says. That's where his recording studio is. Built from cheap particle board and lined with mattress parts that he found in the trash, the booth houses a microphone connected to a mixer and computer, all of which he bought while working three jobs. His first mix-tape CD, Living Like a Poet, came out last year, and through lyrics in both English and Spanish, much of it touches on self-actualization, immigration and the Latino experience at large.
During last month's May 1 march, Poeta encountered a group of Anglo protesters in front of Santa Rosa's City Hall. "I never in my life had seen somebody go against Latinos like that," he says. "I just stayed there, watching them. It impacted me."
Poeta, who comes from an undocumented family, gives his mother money from each paycheck for things like food and laundry detergent, and he lives under constant fear of ICE raids tearing his family apart. So when he took the stage four days after the march, it was with passion that he delivered the lines on "Latinos": "I'm proud of who I am and I'm proud of being here / Pride in my blood, I'm not afraid to show it / I express it through my lyrics, that's why they call me Poet."
"They're taking it as in, like, we broke into their house or something," says Poeta of anti-immigration protesters. "But it's not really their house, you know? Everybody who lives here and who doesn't do bad things should be allowed to be here. I've never done anything bad, I've never gone out shooting people and shit."
This week, Poeta will wear a cap and gown as a graduate of the founding class from Roseland University Prep, with a one-year grant to attend Sonoma State University so he can start paying back his family for the opportunities they gave him by coming to America. He wants to celebrate with a big rap show starring him and his friends as soon as he can raise the money. He can't understand why there are so many empty storefronts right down the street which can't be opened up to throw a community concert.
"Everybody talks about rap being a bad influence," Poeta says, "but we're trying to prove—even though it's just maybe a couple of us that do it—that rap is not just about gangs and violence. It's about whatever we are. What makes us."
Roseland is full of legends. Grandma Bertram is one of them, an old woman who lived just down the street, on West Avenue, and who took care of all the kids in the neighborhood. "She was just a dear lady," says DJ Ignite, sitting at his kitchen table in Rohnert Park. "She would do anything for anybody."
In the mid-'80s, Ignite was a nomad. Having left Mexico after his mother committed suicide when he was five, Ignite then left Los Angeles to live in a crowded motel room on Santa Rosa Avenue with three stepbrothers and a severely alcoholic father, before leaving the motel to—well, it's simple, really: to leave the motel. What he wanted more than anything was to be like Joe Cooley, the DJ he'd hear on the Mack Attack Mixmaster Show on Los Angeles radio station KDAY, which miraculously came in at the motel at 11pm and provided a brief respite from the taunts he'd get at school about cockroaches falling out of his clothes.
When Grandma Bertram caught wind of this, she pulled out her credit card and bought Ignite his first turntables. "She'd say, 'Don't worry, I'm gonna die anyway and my credit can go to hell,'" Ignite recalls. Soon he started DJ-ing parties and hanging out with other breakdancers and rappers. "But in the middle of all that, I was Mexican," he says, "and society wasn't ready for that in hip-hop."
Though there were some early pioneers of Latino hip-hop for Ignite to look up to like Kid Frost, Mellow Man Ace and A Lighter Shade of Brown, Ignite wanted to paint a less gimmicky portrait of La Raza and aim it universally at all people; he became an MC. Before too long, he formed a group called the FunxSoulJaz, and immediately, in 1990, he knew what he was up against.
"I went to go see Leila Steinberg, who managed Tupac," Ignite says. "I was excited, you know, I'm like, 'I want you to hear our new song, it's the FunxSoulJaz. It's Phlex, who's Nicaraguan and white, and Byron, who's black, and me, Mexican. She heard it and she was just like, 'They're not ready for this. This is not where it's at.' It was a real pro-black thing at the time."
The FunxSoulJaz persevered, watching friends like Ray Luv and E-40 get major label deals while making three albums on their own label. Then the group's DJ, Covan (aka DJ Co-V-Co), was shot in the head and killed, along with his cousin, outside a party in Rohnert Park. "That made me say, 'I can do this,'" Ignite says. "'I don't give a fuck if I'm Mexican, I can do this shit.'"
Now one-half of the hip-hop group the Blaxicans with his black childhood friend Capital B, Ignite is 38 and about to become a grandparent. He's also gotten involved with an organization called One Dream, based out of San Rafael's Canal District, which provides support for undocumented children who were brought to America from Mexico with no choice. As hip-hop grows larger and more inclusive than ever, Ignite sees lots of opportunities for young Latino rappers that he didn't have. His son, Tone-E, has started rapping, and Ignite is constantly reminding him to inject life and poetry into his songs, something he watched blossom in, flow from and eventually make a legend of Tupac Shakur.
"No Latino on TV today has done what Tupac has done to me," Ignite says. "When somebody does that, that's when I'll hang up my microphone. Because I'll be content, I'll be like, 'Finally.' That's what I'm working for. To see one of us get to that level."
The house where Big-D and Rikoo live is surrounded by goats and roosters. Deep in Southwest Santa Rosa, the area's so rural that there are no sidewalks. It's a change of neighborhood that the brothers, who used to live in the heart of Roseland, clearly appreciate. "We lived on Sunset for years, and it was all crazy and shit," says Rikoo. "Out here, it's peaceful, you can record better. We like it."
Big-D and Rikoo are Latin Hyper, one of the West Coast's premier reggaeton groups. A contagious blend of hip-hop and reggae dancehall, reggaeton hails from Panama and Puerto Rico and infuses merengue and bachata beats, heavy on the rhythmic triplet. Reggaeton is a more family-friendly style than rap; the music can be furious and thegritos aggressive, but songs about girls outnumber songs about guns.
"I mean, gangs, all that stuff—they don't really mess with reggaeton," says the 24-year-old Rikoo. "It's a totally different thing than rap or hip-hop. So that's one of the reasons I started getting into reggaeton. It's a Latin thing. And when you say 'Latin,' it means my people—everybody."
Rikoo's 21-year-old brother Big-D was a rapper for years before Rikoo got him into reggaeton. Now he speaks of rap like an ex-girlfriend best forgotten, both because it didn't fit him personally and because it meant closed opportunities. "If you go to a school," he says, "and you say, 'I'm gonna do a song,' they'll ask you, 'What kind of song?' And if you tell 'em it's rap, they'll kinda think about it twice, like, 'Uh, it's related to gangs or drugs.' You know?"
Latin Hyper's producer Omar, who used to sell hip-hop beats to Big-D back in Roseland and who's lately picked up reggaeton production with a second-nature expertise, likens the switch to reggaeton as something larger than merely style of music. "You can be rapping for the streets, for the gangs. And after that," he says, "it's like a change in your life."
In a small bedroom taken up almost entirely by three beds, the brothers crank up some new beats from their upcoming album, El Presidente, spontaneously breaking into rapid-fire vocals together. The bedroom light switch is triple-taped in the "on" position with a "DO NOT TURN OFF" sign—it powers the computer and mixer setup. Soon, they'll take turns recording tracks in the closet, where clothes have been displaced for a microphone. Rikoo says he has a new song in the works that he's especially into.
"It's talking about life," he says. "It's talking about hunger in Africa, about the war in Iraq, about communism in Cuba, Venezuela and Korea. It's talking about those different things about the world, how it's fucked up. Why are we suffering? Why are we going through things we shouldn't be going through?"
As one of the few reggaeton groups in the Bay Area with a seemingly endless supply of serious beats and ruling hooks, Latin Hyper has a solid chance at bringing what Miami and New York already know to the West Coast. And even though their entire life is put into their music, they're aware that opportunities for recognition don't come easy. "You gotta fight for it," Rikoo says. "It's tough for everybody, not just us. It's tough."