Sonic Sunset: The Sound of Southwest Hip-Hop

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by Kimi Eisele

Desert landscapes, migration stories, and a little bit of inner city. That’s one way to describe the hip-hop of the region. But not the only way.

This weekend the fourth annual Tucson Hip-Hop Festival brings together artists from across the Southwestern U.S. and Northern Mexico to showcase the distinct and diverse styles of the region. Over 150 artists will present the four pillars of hip-hop: deejaying, emceeing, breakdancing, and graffiti arts.

A person with light skin and short dark hair is eye-level with a turn table.
Deejaying at Tucson Hip Hop Festival 2017. Photo by Julius Schlosberg

But is there distinct borderlands hip-hop style?

Festival organizers Jocelyn Valencia and Pike Romero say yes but that it’s still coalescing.

Each artist interprets this place and its history uniquely, Valencia says. She hears the influence of the border in artists like Bara Molina RV, who is Arizona-born but was raised in Sonora, Mexico–“There’s Spanish and English in his music.” Other artists like Rey, DJQ, and Mike Chekc$, represent neighborhood histories from the Southside and West side of Tucson.

“I would hope that our festival would help push that specific identity,” said Romero, who started the Festival in 2015. “I think within three years it will be a strong sound,” he said.

A person performing at the hip hop festival. People stand behind the MC.
Tucson Hip Hop Festival 2017. Photo by Julius Schlosberg

But vocalist Lando Chill says there’s definitely a Southwestern style of hip-hop, both in sound and content.

As an outsider—Chill came to Tucson in 2010 from Chicago—he acknowledges that it might be easier for him to hear a distinct regional sound. “I moved from a black, urban space and transitioned to a slower, but very rich and proud culture here.”

Chill says there are sonic signifiers, including Spanish and indigenous languages, indigenous chants, drum circles, or the guitarrón, a bass guitar used in mariachi music.

“There’s a desert airiness, soft muted drums, electric guitar with an echo pedal. It’s like you can’t pinpoint where the notes change,” Chill says, “It all melts together. It’s like a sonic sunset.”

But that’s not all. That “airiness” juxtaposes with something more concrete and exact, “a drum circle, the heartbeat of what this land represents,” Chill says. “It’s a yin and yang.”

A black and white photo of Lando Chill, a young African American person with long dreads and a black shirt.
Lando Chill. Taylor Noel Photography

Indeed, hip-hop’s roots have been in the struggle of African Americans, particularly in the inner cities of North America. But as demographics shift and change, more artists share different experiences from elsewhere.

Alex Nava, author of In Search of Soul: Hip Hop, Literature, and Religion, who teaches classes on hip-hop in the University of Arizona’s Africana Studies Program, says Latino hip-hop artists in the U.S. have brought specific struggles to the artform. The Milwaukee-based Kinto Sol, whose members are originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, along with East LA’s Ozomatli, for example, started doing this in the late 1990s, making way for younger artists to follow, he says.

Deejay and poet Enrique García Naranjo, aka DJQ, says there’s always a tension between representing “what your city sounds like and what the current trends are.” He says hip-hop in the Southwest, and Tucson in particular, is influenced by styles from the North American South and West coast.

A black and white photo of DJQ's face, a person with short curly hair, thick eyebrows, and a mustache.
DJQ. Photo by Maxwell Gay

Growing up in Tucson, DJQ and his friends started sampling the oldies music they heard in low-rider car culture, such as 1950s doo wop and 1960s soul music, he said. “We used the hip-hop tradition of taking what is around you and since we didn’t play any instruments we put those oldies in our beat programs to see what we could come out with.”

They ended up playing those oldies at a slower pace, “reminiscent of what Tucson feels like on a summer night,” he says.

DJQ also acknowledged cultural and geographical influences in his and others’ work. “A lot of us are in between cultures. We’re children of migrants, so we are influenced by cumbia, reggaeton, and other Spanish-language music,” he says.

For DJQ, hip-hop is a platform for “the poetics of representation” and stories of struggle. He says he and his crew have used the music to share their experiences growing up in the region and the impact that political decisions such SB1070, school-to-prison pipelines, and the criminalization of migrants and drugs, have had on them and their peers.

“We try to tell people the conditions of our reality here. It’s helpful to do that through a poem or rap, whether that reality is pleasant or honoring or romanticizing or stale or painful. It’s about pride, but also it’s a way to process those things.”

A photo of a Black person with short dreads on a mic on Stage with facs below them.
Tucson Hip Hop Festival 2017. Photo by Julius Schlosberg

Chill says it’s this kind of content that helps signify a Southwest style. “It’s really the struggle of the La Raza that makes SW music truly hold its own. Hip-hop is a struggle music, that’s what makes it authentic.”

Chill’s track “People Are Evil,” from the album The Boy Who Spoke to the Wind, illustrates this: “All of my people are evil, they say we are thugs and they call us illegal, our money means nothing our words are deceitful, our bodies by laying at foots of cathedrals.”

Nava says there are distinct accents and themes among rappers in Mexico and Latin America that differ from those in North America.

One distinct marker of Latin American hip-hop is the inclusion of indigenous struggle. The singer Mare, a Zapotec artist from Oaxaca who has given an important visibility to indigenous women, for example. “She is a remarkable woman, an artist who really represents the people of Southern Mexico and the voice of their struggle,” Nava says.

In North America, the rapper Supaman, who is Apsáalooke (Crow Nation) from Montana, has brought indigenous culture into hip-hop. “He incorporates fancy dancing dance, indigenous language, and a deep spiritual vision,” Nava says.

An aerosol mural depicting an Indigenous person with dark hair tied back. It reads, "rezmo"
Aerosol art by Rezmo. Photo courtesy of Rezmo

A young generation of indigenous artists will share their art and culture at the Tucson Hip-Hop Festival.

One of them is Rezmo, a female graffiti artist living on the Salt River-Maricopa Indian Community near Scottsdale. Navajo and Aztec, Rezmo says she uses uses paint to tell stories of her heritage and spread a positive message. “I use a lot of symbols from my culture. When I was growing up on the Reservation, most of the graffiti art was gang tags. There wasn’t a lot of cultural awareness and positivity.”

While she usually paints in downtown Phoenix and on reservation, she’ll be painting live on outdoor temporary walls during the Festival with the all-indigenous aerosol art crew, Neoglyphix. The collective has nearly 20 members, all indigenous artists from Arizona, California, New Mexico, and elsewhere. The artists work together to create murals, educate young people, and share cultural traditions, Rezmo says. “We try to help people get back to their roots. We’re kind of like the carriers of tradition and art and we express that through spray paint.”

On Saturday, February 24, these writers will share the space with other regional performers as well as a national headliner, rapper Bun B, formerly of the southern rap duo UnderGround Kingz or UGK.

Main stage performances happen at 191 Toole, but the event will spill out onto Toole Avenue, and the adjacent parking lot with stages for deejays and rappers, breakdancing areas, and graffiti walls. An all-day cypher or open mic will take place in the warehouse basement.

A breakdancer performing in a cypher.
Breakdancing at the Tucson Hip-Hop Festival 2017. Photo by Julius Schlosberg

In addition to the performances, the Loft Cinema will show three documentaries about hip-hop and a series of panel lectures will give artists a chance to share knowledge and learn from specialists about building a brand, podcasting, using Bandcamp, writing press releases, and more.

“Since its start in the 1970s, hip-hop has been the medium for younger generations to express their grievances and hopes and protests and hopes and protests against the state of the world,” Nava says.

And at the Tucson Hip-Hop Festival, they’ll do it with their own Southwestern style.


The Tucson Hip-Hop Festival takes place Saturday, Feb. 24 in downtown Tucson. More details are here.

Alex Nava’s book, In Search of Soul: Hip-Hop, Literature, and Religion, explores the meaning of “soul” in sacred and profane incarnations, from its biblical origins to its central place in the rich traditions of black and Latin history.

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