In depth interview with the MC Olmeca before his DC debut
In preparation for his upcoming shows in DC, I had the pleasure to catch up with Olmeca, a Los Angeles based MC, producer and activist. We talked about his music, passion and embracing the multicultural experience of being brown in the US. Academics, activists and every day people appreciate Olmeca’s political, social and economic analysis told through stories, while music enthusiasts and hip-hop lovers alike value the production quality, beats and flawless bilingual lyrical delivery. Get hyped, and don’t miss out on seeing this amazing artist next week in DC for three shows!
KH: Tell me about your upcoming shows in DC:
We’re on a national tour right now, just finished up with the SXSW festival and the Southwest of the US, which includes Tijuana. The tour is finishing in the east coast, with shows in Connecticut, New York, possibly Philly and three shows in DC. I’m really excited, this is my first time on the East Coast just to perform. I’ve been here before but for speaking tours, actions and marches with various organizations and other things, but I’m excited to just be performing this time.
KH: Though you are a vet in the LA hip-hop scene, did your music always have the personal connection of telling your stories, and the stories of oppressed people?
Not necessarily. When I started as an MC, I was a battle rapper. Battle rapping is more about how dope you are and how much you can crush the next MC. It was never really fulfilling and was too much about the ego. Eventually my rapping just came down to myself; what goes on around me and my own personal experiences. My music is not what I would necessarily call political, its music depicting reality. Things that me, my family and people around me go through every day that I believe can be changed and need to be addressed.
KH: After touring extensively in the US and abroad, do you find people connect easily to your music and message, despite language barriers, socioeconomic and racial differences?
I feel that they do connect, and a key part of my music and shows is breaking down barriers like race and class. I toured in Spain and London and its funny because in the US there is a perception that if you go to Spain you’ve “made it” or you’re a really important person. The reality is that Europe has its own set of issues. For example in Spain, there is an economic crisis with a high percentage of unemployment and a large amount of immigrants from Morocco and North Africa. London too, and we took the time to explain what the music was about. The multicultural experience of being a brown person in the US is something we should embrace and look at as advantageous, and I think this idea translated in Europe.
KH: Do you view music as an effective vehicle to fuel resistance, revolution and change on a global level?
Yes, definitely. We don’t have “leaders” like we had in the past. The last type of leader we had was Subcomandante Marcos, and even he spoke against this traditional type of leadership. We don’t think about participation and struggle in the same sense that we’re waiting for a leader to get us there. Artists tend to bridge this gap and have the capacity to bring people together from division and isolation created by politics. When we look deeply into what music has done in the past, with amazing artists like Nina Simone and Amparo Ochoa for example, their music had a much deeper and broader impact because of the content. They were singing about people and experiences. It isn’t about conviction or an artist convincing people of something, it’s about telling a story and bringing people on a journey. It’s less about revolution and just pro humanity.
KH: Your latest album, Brown is Beautiful, is a celebration of history, culture and really shows the beauty of the struggle while previous albums were a bit more combative. Brown is Beautiful also seems like something much larger, like a campaign. Was that intentional?
It was definitely intentional. Touring gives us a chance to feel out and get a sense of where our people are at in the US, and this album is a reflection of that. It’s a sentiment that we want to empower ourselves and be assertive about our identity. Whenever you say ‘immigrant’ in this country people only think about Mexico, but in reality our culture and traditions are much more than just one thing; they are forever beautiful and thriving. The album really captures and celebrates that. I also wanted the album to be a way for young people to know where they come from and know the struggles and sacrifices their parents made to come to this country. More than that, I want to instill that we have a rightful place in the US or any society BECAUSE of who we are, where we come from and the color of our skin. As far as the sound, I’m really happy and comfortable with this album; it’s a reflection of all the sounds I had imagined.
KH: Your songs are often a mix of hip-hop with other styles and genres, such as cumbia, vallenato and tribal influences. What genres or artists are some of the major influences in your writing and style?
Nina Simone and Mercedes Sosa are always there, and DJ Shadow in terms of production. I’m also very influenced by Tropa Vallenata, Los Bukis, Bronco, cumbia that my dad used to play, Nas and the Fugees. I feel like you can’t limit yourself to one style of music and be that exclusionary. Something that we did that has never really been done before is combine hip-hop with jarocho, even incorporating the cajon and charango in some songs. I also started working with a new group of producers out of Corpus Christi, TX who are really doing their own new thing down there. They mixing cumbia and dub step, electronic, cumbia trap. They aren’t just sampling, but are actually starting from the bottom and taking those specific instruments and sounds piece by piece to fit within the electronic or dub step. It’s exciting to see new styles of music being created.
KH: I love your collaborations with other artists, especially with emerging female artists such as La Marisoul from La Santa Cecilia and Irene Diaz. Do you have future collaborations in the works with these artists or others?
Nah, Marisoul and Irene are too big for me now! I can’t collaborate with them anymore, they don’t answer my phone calls (laughs). I loved collaborating with them, and also Mayra Fernandez, a musician from Chicago on the track “Hasta Que Te Encontre.” I’m always on the hunt for new people to collaborate with, folks who will add texture to my music. I look for other musicians, not necessarily MC’s. I’m working now with Marisa Rondstadt on some collaboration.
KH: Since this is your first time coming to the East Coast to perform, what can someone who has never seen you live before or heard your music expect from your live performances?
Expect a lot of energy, expect hip-hop cultural based music, or if you want to call it world music. Expect a demographic that’s nothing short of multi colored, multi racial and with varied gender identities. When I first started, my shows attracted straight up hip hop heads. They are still there, but the demographic has changed a lot. You’ll find them in the back bobbing their heads, and you’re also going to find punks, girls looking cute and trying to have a good time or guys just having a few drinks. You'll find a hip hop head and a hipster standing next to each other, wearing the same skinny jeans. I take so much pride in the fact that so many different kinds of people feel safe to come to my shows and do their own thing.
KH: What is one of your favorite songs to perform?
“Por El Suelo.” It’s very danceable, its trap and cumbia all in one, and gets everyone moving.
Olmeca's DC show schedule:
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Olmeca @ Haydees
3102 Mt Pleasant St. NW, Washington DC 20010
Set 6:00PM, Entrance $5, all ages
Saturday March 29, 2014
Brown is Beautiful @ American University
4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington DC 20016
Set 6:00PM, all ages
For more information visit: http://www.olmecaone.com
Sunday March 30th, 2014
SOA Watch Concert @ Acre 121
1400 Irving St. NW, Washington DC 20010
Set 8:00PM, all ages