“It wouldn’t be LA without Mexicans,” Tupac Shakur famously rapped on “To Live And Die In L.A.” One of the most popular singles from his quadruple platinum The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory album under the Makaveli moniker, the late rap star highlighted a sizable, significant and often overlooked segment of the rap fanbase back in 1996.
Indeed, Chicano artists and fans have had a steady role in the creation, performance, and growth of rap, both in California and around the world. Twelve years before Tupac delivered his Los Angeles love letter, Kid Frost was emerging in Southern California’s electro-rap scene with songs such as “Rough Cut” (which features scratches from a pre-N.W.A DJ Yella), “Commando Rock,” and “Terminator.”
Los Angeles shifted away from electrobeat songs over the next few years, thanks in large part to KDAY. Operating at 1580 on the AM dial, the radio station’s signal wasn’t strong and wasn’t always reliable, but music director Greg Mack changed the channel from an unfocused urban format to rap all day, every day in the mid-1980s, making it the first 24-hour rap radio station in the country.
KDAY boasted on-air talent such as Russ Parr and Mack. It also employed The Mixmasters, arguably the greatest collection of DJs on the radio of all time. Dr. Dre headlined the collective but became too busy to continue his work with the station, so Mack hired new waves of talent, including two Mexican-American turntablists, Julio G and DJ Ralph M.
“KDAY was the seed that helped me grow,” says DJ Ralph M, who would go on to be a member of the group Funkdoobiest. “I was listening to KDAY and developing that ear for music.”
Dr. Dre’s departure from another one of his endeavors also opened the doors for another talented Mexican-American DJ. Steve Yano orchestrated the Roadium mixtapes and with Dr. Dre’s departure handed the responsibility to Tony A, an immensely talented turntable technician who took over the series and released more than 30 mixtapes that featured material from dozens of artists, including DJ Quik, 2nd II None, AMG, and Hi-C. With the latter, he also released and produced the majority of the acclaimed Hi-C Featuring Tony A LP in 1991.
There was a good reason Dr. Dre left KDAY and the Roadium mixtape scene. The Compton rapper-DJ-producer was focusing on his work with the emerging Ruthless Records. Label head Eazy-E acknowledged Mexicans multiple times in his breakthrough group’s early material. On N.W.A’s “8 Ball,” for instance, Eazy-E rapped in 1987 about a Mexican almost hitting his car and shouts out Mexican-American N.W.A. and the Posse member Krazy D, who co-wrote N.W.A’s “Panic Zone” with Dr. Dre and Arabian Prince. On “Dopeman,” Krazy D ends the song by threatening to shoot and kill Eazy-E’s dopeman if his sister dies because of the drugs Eazy-E sold her.
As Los Angeles-area rap exploded, Kid Frost enjoyed the biggest hit of his career in 1990 with his “La Raza” single. (In 1995, Frost signed with Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records and released two LPs via the imprint.)
Around the same time, two independent Mexican rap groups started gaining traction. A Lighter Shade of Brown broke through with “On A Sunday Afternoon,” while Vallejo, California’s N2Deep hit it big in 1992 with its “Back To The Hotel” single, which went gold, as did its LP of the same name.
In between them, Cypress Hill broke through with frontman B-Real, whose father is Mexican. Like Frost, Cypress Hill (which also features Cuban-American rapper Sen Dog) promoted its heritage on such early songs as “Latin Lingo” and “Tres Equis,” releasing the former as a single. The group also struck platinum in 1999 with its Los Grandes Exitos En Español album of Spanish versions of their popular songs.
Cypress Hill’s success was different than any other Hispanic rap act that preceeded it. The trio of B-Real, Sen-Dog, and DJ Muggs was signed to Ruffhouse Records, a Columbia Records subsidiary that was also enjoying success with Tim Dog and about to with Kris Kross. For the first time, a rap group with a Chicano frontman was on a big-time rap label with major-label backing that could help get it on national radio and video outlets on a sustained basis. Cypress Hill delivered on its end, releasing a string of hit songs and albums throughout the 1990s. Today, the California trio stands as one of the most acclaimed and best-selling rap groups of all time, with album sales in excess of 9 million units.
The Cypress Hill explosion opened doors for other Chicano rappers. Lil Rob started making a name for himself in the San Diego area in 1992, while Tha Mexakinz emerged out of Long Beach in 1993. Eazy-E protégés Brownside released its “Gang Related” single on Ruthless Records in 1994 and producer Johnny “J” evolved from working with Candyman and others to teaming with Tupac and Thug Life. Johnny “J” produced 11 tracks on Tupac’s All Eyez On Me LP in 1996, including the title track and the hit single “How Do U Want It.”
Around the same time, South Park Mexican started making noise in Houston and throughout the Southwestern part of the United States. Cypress Hill’s Sen Dog executive-produced Delinquent Habits’ eponymous debut album in 1996, while B-Real teamed with Los Angeles rappers Sick Jacken and Big Duke for Psycho Realm, which released its self-titled debut album in 1997.
In the early 2000s, Chingo Bling emerged as a Mexican-American rapper with a sense of humor and a penchant for controversy. Dropping mixtapes and building buzz for his proper debut, The Tamale Kingpin, Bling became notorious after dropping his second album, They Can't Deport Us All. Released at the height of anti-immigration hysteria, it put Bling squarely in the middle of a national debate and highlighted how Hip-Hop continues to give voice to those fighting for their piece of the American Dream.
Chicano rappers have continued making major inroads, including hitmaking Baby Bash, cannabis trailblazer Berner, tongue-twisting female artist Snow Tha Product, and YG collaborator Sad Boy, among many others. Sick Jacken also teamed with Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs for the stellar Legend Of the Mask & The Assassin LP in 2007.
Tupac Shakur was right when he rapped, “It wouldn’t be LA without Mexicans.” Rap wouldn’t be the same, either.