Masters of the Digital Divide: The Past and Future of Hip Hop in Cuba

Hip hop lives in Havana. On late weekend nights, the sound of stereo systems may surprise you. Salsa, bolero and rumba can blend with the steady bass of the most up to date Hip hop tracks. It can also ease into old school Hip hop beat that could take any Hip hop lover back to the golden days. In Cuba, Hip hop music has played a particularly integral role in the shaping of a youth subculture. Hip hop music sprouted in the days of the ‘special period’ of Cuba. After the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1989, Cuba would never be the same.

Economic hardship drove youth to search for new ways of self-expression. For some young Cubans, the struggles expressed by African American Hip hop artists connected to the marginalization that blacks in Cuba would experience in the 90’s as the economic disparity and the lack of equal opportunities made it more obvious that the racial problem in Cuba were no longer something that could be concealed. Hip-hop would provide a voice to the voiceless. In Cuba, Hip hop has served as an informant for the youth.  Long before social media, cell phones, and email, music was a critical way to share new thoughts and ideas.

In a now rapidly changing country, these technologies are only recently penetrating a culture that never had open access to these technologies, even just a generation ago. The limitations of internet access and news outside of Cuba has inspired youth to find new channels to acquire information, without the technology of some of their global counterparts. The existence of Hip hop in Cuba is a testament to the innovations of youth who are curious to learn more about themselves and their social conditions through music.

Hip hop has provided an opportunity for youth to tap into global conversations concerning social issues around the world. The methods of which Hip hop music entered Cuba were entirely informal. In a park in Central Havana, I met a young aspiring Hip hop artist who appreciatively told me that Hip hop music taught him the history that he did not learn in school. Some may argue of the lack of positive messages for youth in Hip hop, but real fans of Hip hop would counter that Hip hop in Cuba has long had a relationship with themes of social justice.
One summer afternoon in Havana, I had the opportunity to better understand the history of Hip hop in Cuba, and to discuss what the future holds for Hip hop in a time of rapid change. I interviewed two Cuban Hip hop artists from two very different time periods in Cuban Hip hop. The conversation started with Alexey ‘El Tipo Este’ of Obsesión, one of Cuba’s first and most revered Hip hop groups. For the past twenty years, Obsesión, which is now composed of El Tipo Este and Magia Lopez, have created socially conscious Hip hop that touches various themes of culture, history, politics and everyday life in Cuba. Joining in on the Hip hop conversation, is newcomer, Karlito PandP. Karlito PandP is a 26-year-old Hip Hop artist from Havana who is getting some attention from his latest LP Blue Flow which was released in 2014. The two artists openly discuss their experiences and their passion for Hip Hop music.

How would you describe the Hip hop scene when you first started?

Alexey El Tipo Este:  When I first started listening, I didn’t know that what I was listening to was Hip hop music. I only knew that is was a music that I was dancing and listening to day and night at parties. I would go to a lot of parties, at people’s houses, in parks in many different places. There were cyphers, there was a lot during these times.  I learned to break dance at these parties. The first Hip Hop Festival in Cuba was in 1995. In the first festival I was teaching a dance choreography with a group called Malcolm Malcolm. During this time, at the very start, I felt that there was a large sentiment of unification among Hip hop listeners. I think that people were learning though the music about the significance of what it meant to be black and I think that that influenced us a lot in our lives in Cuba. The songs that we wrote unified us because it helped us to create a common idea of blackness. We did not have before, and when you recognize another person as your equal, and someone like you, that is something beautiful.  And of course, there were many contractions in hip hop too. I can’t say that everything was beautiful, but when we began to confront these issues in Hip hop, we began to take save hip hop and to take care of hip hop and make it our own.

How did you find hip-hop music from the U.S in Cuba, during the early days?

Alexey El Tipo Este:  There were different ways that I looked for music from the U.S. There were Cuban sailors that were coming from different countries, and they were bringing in influences from those different countries. They were also bringing in music. I bought my first Hip hop cassette from a sailor; it was a Public Enemy cassette. The first feeling I had to listen to Public Enemy was that someone was trying to use music to try and escape something. That they were hungry and I felt that it was something that was also my experience. At first I couldn’t understand why people were talking so much on a record, because I didn’t understand the style of rap. I didn’t understand why they weren’t singing, and why they were talking instead but later I understood that this was what was called ‘rapping’ and it was a form of self-expression. I also used to climb on my roof with my radio to listen to Hip hop music. If you pointed the antennae in the right way, you could catch the signal of the radio stations in Miami, and I did that a lot. That’s how I learned about Hip hop.

Would you say that Hip hop in Cuba has changed?

Alexey El Tipo Este:  I think that right now, we are missing a common goal, or a movement in the music because aside from the fact that everyone has his or her own dreams and individual wants, there should be a collective goal. I think that doors are closed when are missing this common goal as a collective. I also think that we are missing a self-critical element. I think that the Hip hop groups now are less preoccupied with being different. I remember before, when I first listened to a new Hip hop group, I felt like I was listening to things that were completely different from anything else that was happening at the time. This applies to groups in both Cuban and the U.S.  It is also important to note that back then, there were many more women in Hip hop. To say this is important because this brought an important balance to Hip hop that we do not have now. I believe that women have so many more reasons to speak out than men have.

Who are the artists that inspired you?

Alexey El Tipo Este:  What inspired me first was Motown music. Artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Miracles, Four Tops, Ike & Tina Turner, Jackson 5, The Supremes. And also artists like Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Etta James. This music had an influence on me more than anything. And then there were other artists, old school hip hop artists like KRS One, Public Enemy, Digital Underground, Vico C from Puerto Rico, A Menace (a Hip hop group from Cuba) Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Mary J Blige, Death Squad, EPMD, Curtis Blow, Special D. Hip Hop music from Puerto Rico had a big influence on me, it was really impactful music.

How has technology and the creation of your music changed?

Alexey El Tipo Este:  Obsesión was one of the first hip hop groups to record a record in Cuba. The first tracks that we recorded were actually in a storage freezer in a store, like where you store ice.  I knew this guy who was a sound technician and he told me that he liked our music and that he would help us put some songs on a cassette. There wasn’t any other place to record at the time. There just wasn’t.  The sound was good in the freezer, but it was hard because you could only record one song at a time and it was so cold, and our teeth would start chattering and everything (laughs) and then we had to keep checking and making sure that his boss at the store didn’t know what we were doing. (Laughs) but we recorded, and we were one of the first.  

After talking with Alexey, I started my conversation with Karlito PandP.

As a new artist, how would you describe the Hip hop scene in Cuba now?
Karlito PandP: There are many problems in Hip hop now. There are a lot of things that are happening that are just bad for Hip hop. For one, some things are just different now. Like having a performance isn’t like it was before when Alexey first started. Now it is hard to secure a space to have a show and it’s really bad when you can have a thousand views on Youtube and then 8 people come to your show. People do not come out and show support like they used to. The idea of supporting one another has changed.

Who are your major influences?

Karlito PandP: Music from Puerto Rico, Spain and from the U.S are big influences for me.  I also listen to Hip hop music from France and Venezuela. When I started learning about Hip-hop, I started to listen to Maestro from Puerto Rico, and from Spain Tote King and from the United States I remember listening to 50 Cent and most of all I remember his story. I remember the impact that his story had in Cuba when he first came out.  We felt like we could relate to him. I listened to artists like Eminem, DMX. I remember when I had the first CD that Pitbull came out with. It was a lot different from the music that he makes now, but I will always remember his first album. These are just some of the artists that I listened to when I first started to know Hip hop and then I began to study Hip hop in general, and I listened to a lot of old school. I began to study it and really understand it.

How do you search for music in Cuba?

Karlito PandP:  I search for a lot of music online (laughs.) But, this is Cuba, it isn’t easy. Imagine downloading a song here. I download songs from a whole bunch of different sites, but it takes so long to download one song without interruption. So many things can happen to get in the way of your download. For example, one full song could take 12 hours to download. One time it took me two weeks to try and download an album. Two weeks, and I was so happy to have it.  To be able to download something without interruption here is a real problem.

What is the technical process of making Hip-hop music in Cuba and how do you get your music out there?

Karlito PandP:  When I first started trying to make my own music I was using ProTools. I didn’t have any way or anyone to learn from. When I first started making music it was really bad, the sound and everything was horrible but I had to learn some way. Recording sound in Cuba really is not easy. There are so many sounds that you have to deal with that can make good sound impossible. For example like people yelling when they are selling things in the street (laughs) like right now!  The cars passing by, there is constant interruption. I had to learn that it is better to have a medium quality microphone here than one that is to have a really high quality microphone that can for example capture the sound of a fly on the wall because then you will be able to pick up all the sounds there are in Cuba. If you cannot afford a studio with padded walls and all of these things to keep out sound then, you just can’t do it.  You just can’t record.

Do you predict that there will be any change in the outlook of your career with the recent changes in U.S and Cuba relations?

Karlito PandP: I think that if we had access to things like iTunes and Spotify or more access to things like Youtube then of course, we can put our music out there more. But this does not necessarily mean the changes that come will be good for everybody. Even if these things come to Cuba, not everyone will still have the access to use them. Not everyone has access to computers for example, to upload and to share their songs. These are things to think about. You can have the ability to do something here, but if you don’t have the resource to do this something, then simply, you can’t.


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