HAVANA TIMES, March 6 – “Cuban recording companies aren’t interested in hip hop,” asserted Humberto Joel Cabreras Santana, better known in Cuban hip hop circles as Papa Humbertico.
I interviewed him last week at Real 70 Producciones, a studio outfitted with his own resources and makeshift equipment. What’s more, it’s set up in his house, located in the Barreras community of the Guanabacoa municipality, in southeastern Havana.
Entering the world of Cuban hip hop in 1999, at the age of 16, Papa Humbertico had always liked the music of El General and Vico C. He then began listening to US music and also had a cousin who performed break dance. He heard Cuban hip hop for the first time in 1996, at a concert by the group Primera Base.
But when entering hip hop as a professional, he ran into the same difficulty that faces the rest of Cuba’s rappers: the lack of a record label willing to produce their disks. At that time, most of the musicians used backgrounds of American music to make their songs. The musicians who recorded their songs charged a lot and most really had no interest in hip hop.
Papa Humbertico created his own “Real 70 Productions” studio at home using rustic equipment. Some he bought “under the table” and other systems were sent to him by friends from abroad.
In 2001 he recorded his first CD, Hip hop de bajo costo, which was followed by Denuncia Social (2002), Hip-hop Underground (2003), Pluma y micrófono (2005), Rap y activismo (2006), Revolución dentro de la Revolución (2006), Redención (2008) and Luz (2009) with El Discipulo. He also recorded four volumes of the CD collection Sonido turbio with the groups Anonimo Consejo, Hermanos de Causa, Explosion Suprema and others.
In the documentary Real 70, other rappers refer to your Real 70 Producciones studio as the backbone of underground Cuban hip hop.
A lot of them record here. Those who’ve worked with me for a while don’t have to pay; they can come here any time they want. As for the others, I don’t charge them a lot. It’s always at an affordable rate.
In 2000, people said underground hip hop was the kind that dealt with more socially related issues and didn’t fuse with other musical genres, and that commercial hip hop fused with salsa and had lighter songs…
What forces hip hop underground are not the issues dealt with in the songs or whether it fuses with other types of music, but the fact that it’s not marketed, it’s not sold in stores – rappers can’t live off their art. All hip hop in Cuba is underground because no record company will record a hip hop CD.
But you live off your music, from what you make in your studio…
Yes, but it is not official, and I have to come up with everything. I haven’t signed a contract with any record label, no one will produce a disk by me and I’m not known internationally.
That means that being an underground rapper is not something one chooses?
Of course not. What everyone aspires to is creating their music and marketing it without sacrificing the message.
Does a contradiction exist then between the message and the commercialization of work?
Yes. For example, some record companies proposed making a CD by me, but they insisted I change some of the lyrics and remove others. I’ve always said no to that.
Were they national or foreign companies?
That means you’ve been able to record with a recording company, though it’s foreign.
Yes, Real 70 is a documentary and a disk produced by a Spanish recording company, Mixer de Medios. We’ve made other disks with recording labels from that country, compilations by several rappers – hardly ever an artist by themself.
Although they’ve never been seen in Cuba, the videos of the song “El rap es guerra” (with Papa Humbertico, El Discipulo, Anderson and the Aldeanos) and “A O” (featuring the same rappers) were at the top of charts on television in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
In December 2009, I heard the presentation by Papa Humbertico at the Digital Media and Culture Conference organized by the online magazine Esquife.
In contrast to some people who say making music with digital programs is not art, Papa Humbertico thinks these media have made it possible for rappers not to depend on the big record companies for the production of their disks. He also believes they have helped them with the promotion of their music since they can upload their songs onto the Internet.
But the immense majority of people in Cuba don’t have access to the Internet, and there are also an enormous number of people who don’t even have a computer. How can these people access your music?
People pass the CDs around from hand to hand, at hip hop performances and concerts. For example I went all the way to Santiago de Cuba and ran into someone who had a cut I had recorded the previous week. Even vendors who sell music CDs in the street have Cuban hip hop.
A while ago you told me that Cuban record labels aren’t interested in rap, however in 2005 we constantly heard the song “Di que no, que no” (by the group Hoye colorao) on the radio and television. The video was even nominated at the Lucas awards.
Those people aren’t rappers. They made that rap song, but they’re not rappers. It was a song they were committed to make like the one by that other guy (Baby Lores) with a tattoo on his arm who began singing that song.
At the Digital Media and Culture Conference held recently someone mentioned that you had just joined the Cuban Rap Agency but that you denied it in a way I found quite sharp. Is it that you’re not interested in belonging to that agency?
What happened was that I was included among a group of rappers that the Asociación Hermanos Saíz proposed to the agency for admission, but the process still hasn’t concluded. It was supposed that this would help “professionalize” us (with Papa Humbertico making quotation marks in the air with his fingers). When you join the Agency you can get paid for your performances. But for me it’s only another way of controlling us.
Why do you put “professionalize” in quotation marks?
Because I already consider myself a professional.
When you join the Agencia Cubana del Rap, don’t you stop being underground?
No, because you still don’t have a CD.
Why do you think radio and television promote reggaeton much more than hip hop… that you hardly see hip hop on TV and it’s seldom heard on the radio?
The reggaeton is music for having a good time. When you hear reggaeton you don’t think. That’s what interests the government: alcohol and reggaeton.
Couldn’t it be that that hip hop has lost ground in the face of a rhythm that’s livelier and encourages people to dance?
We’ve always been in the same place. Before reggaeton it was salsa, but we were there. I’d even say that we have more of a following now than before.
What do you think of the image of women projected by reggaeton?
Terrible, and it’s something what I don’t agree with.
However, when I began listening to hip hop in 2000, it seemed to me that it too was fairly macho. In the documentary Real 70, one can see that the vision has changed a little.
What do you think that is due to?
Maturity, I suppose. But in any case, women rappers continue taking shots at men and don’t deal with other things and other problems they have that are more important.
I don’t know… the environment, repression, the lack of freedom… there are other things that are also happening.
But you produce CDs by those women…
Well, yes… The one I work with most is Danay. I don’t charge her. I also work with Omega Kilay.
In the documentary you said something that caught my attention. You believe there should be changes in Cuba, but always within the framework of socialism. What are you referring to?
We need true socialism, a system that respects the fundamentals of socialism. What we have is a military dictatorship. Jose Marti said power in a country should be in hands of civil society, not the military. Here they hold up Marti like a model, but they’ve forgotten that detail.
But the fact that power is in the hands of civilians doesn’t guarantee that socialism will exist, or that there will be justice.
That’s true, but I’ve read about socialism, and it’s not what we have here. In any case, I don’t like politics; in fact I’m not a politician.
Papa Humbertico was also basketball player, despite his small stature. Currently he is a member of Logia Caballeros de Luz, the same fraternal lodge to which our “Apostle,” Jose Marti, also belonged. My ignorance made me think it was a religion.
Could you tell me something about your order?
It’s a brotherhood, or a fraternity, like the Freemasons. The fundamental principle is belief in a supreme being, be it Christ, Allah or Obatala. But in the lodge we don’t talk about religion or politics, because those are the first things that divide men.
Here the friend that accompanied me in this second visit intervened and made the point that, notwithstanding, Papa’s songs are quite political.
That’s true, but in the lodge we don’t talk about religion or politics.
There’s something I didn’t ask. Why do they call you Papa Humbertico? Does it have something to do with hip hop?
Absolutely not. I was called that ever since I was a kid.