Latin rappers turning it up by Mario Tarradell

It was the beginning of the '90s. Rap music had already established itself as an artistically and commercially viable genre thanks to fierce MCs such as Run-D.M.C., L.L. Cool J and Public Enemy. The platform and its mike were red-hot and ready for anything.

Enter Gerardo Mejia, who dropped his lastname and filmed his own video for "Rico Suave," a silly but catchy Spanglish ditty where the Ecuador-born rapper rhymes about his manly delights. The song shot to No. 7 on the pop charts. Cuba's Ulpiano Sergio Reyes - better known as Mellow Man Ace - hit it big shortly before Gerardo with "Mentirosa, "an urban lament about a lying vixen. At the same time, Kid Frost, born Arturo Molina Jr. in Los Angeles, was on the map with the brooding "La Raza."

The Latin rap movement had begun.

"It was the right time," says the 35-year-old Mr. Mejia, now an artist and repertoire executive for Interscope Records. "Rap was taking that crossover to the pop world. You were hearing it on radio. With the population of Latinos in the United States, it was only [natural]. I was recording. . . . Then Mellow came out with "Mentirosa.' He had the underground edge. And Frost was getting played more on hip-hop stations."

But the bandana-wearing Gerardo and his bilingual cronies couldn't have predicted the impact and longevity of Latino rappers in both the mainstream and Latin music industries. today, a decade after the Latin rap launch, thestakes are even higher with rap's chart domination.

At the forefront of Latin rap circa 2000 is, of course, the late Christopher Rios, a.k.a. Big Punisher. His death from heart failure Feb. 7 not only left a void in the world of urban rap, but also silenced a 28-year-old promising rapper who had just started to make noise. Big Pun's 1998 debut, the double-platinum Capital Punishment, made him the first Latino solo rapper to sell more than a million albums.

The just-released, highly anticipated follow-up, Yeeeah Baby, debuts at No. 3 on Billboard's pop albums chart this week. Clocking in at almost an hour, the CD showcases Pun's smooth, rapid-fire style, a marvel considering that he reportedly weighed nearly 700 pounds. The first single, "It's So Hard," featuring R&B crooner Donell Jones, is already on R&B radio. Another tune, the percussion-heavy, salsa-tinged "100%," addresses Pun's Puerto Rican heritage with plenty of Latin pride.

Move on over to a Latin station and you might hear cuts from Puerto Rico's Vico C, Panama's El General and New York's Lisa M, who recorded 1999's hard-hitting Y Sobrevivi. The longtime artists are the Latin music industry's biggest success stories in rap. It's quite a feat, actually, considering mainstream Latin music is segmented into three subgenres - pop, regional Mexican and tropical - that leave no room for rap.

Even mainstream rap act Cypress Hill, featuring Mexican-Cuban B-Real (Louis Freese) and Cuban-born Sen Dog (Senen Reyes, brother of Mellow Man Ace), cracked the Latin charts with 1999's Los Grandes Exitos en Espanol. The album contains Spanish-language versions of the group's greatest hits.

"Latino people are great supporters of their kind," says Mr. Mejia. "They want to keep their heroes up there. Cypress Hill has been at it for so many years. Vico has been there for a long time. The album he brought out a couple of years ago is the most uplifting album I've ever heard."

He's referring to 1998's Aquel Que Habia Muerto, an effort inspired by Vico's near-death experience with heroin in 1997 and his eventual rebirth as a Christian. The album popped onto the market after many thought Vico, who had been rapping professionally since he was 17, had hung up his microphone. He recorded five albums for Puerto Rican independent label Prime Records, distributed by BMG U.S. Latin, in the early '90s.

But with a new label, Los Angeles-based EMI Latin, and important messages about his newfound spirituality and the evils of drugs and violence, Muerto sold more than 200,000 copies in the United States.

"Musically, it was a well-made record," says the 28-year-old Vico from his home in Orlando, Fla. "They are songs of hope, songs with solutions. Times change as far as technologically, materially and in fashions, but feelings don't change, emotions don't change. They are all themes that come back to that point, to that human center. They are themes that don't die."

Those themes connected with the masses, as does Latin rap. So much so that even California's lauded reissue label Rhino Records hopped on the bandwagon with two volumes of Latin Lingo: Hip-Hop From La Raza, released in 1995 and 1997.

"Latins, especially Puerto Ricans, are real familiar with what is hot in the United States, especially New York," says Vico. "So automatically what happens in the U.S. comes to Puerto Rico, especially the music. Rap is no exception. Rap is part of a subculture in the United States. And it was born the same way in Puerto Rico. Rap is very catchy and Latins move toward things that are catchy, that are accessible."

More is coming. As Gerardo, Mellow Man Ace and Kid Frost opened doors for Vico C and Big Pun, the arena is now ready for the next act. Cypress Hill's Skull & Bones is set for release May 2. Puerto Rican-Cuban Fat Joe, who served as executive producer of Big Pun's latest album, and posse member Cuban Link will release discs this summer. Vico's follow-up to Aquel Que Habia Muerto, tentatively titled El Super Heroe, should surface by September.

"There are more Latinos under age 18 than there are in any other targeted segment," says Lupe De La Cruz, marketing director for EMI Latin. "They support new music all the time. As long as [rap artists] continue to produce the music that the kids are connected to.

"And you have to acknowledge that there's an audience for the two extremes. We have proven that with Vico that there are people who want the clean lyrics. And if you look at the sales of the ones promoting an urban lifestyle, they are also selling records."

It's all about diversity, a quality Latins embrace every day.

"Even as Latinos we have different taste in Latin music," says Mr. Mejia. "Big Pun is for the hard-edged people. Vico C is for those who want something uplifting. We all have our heroes and we stand behind them."

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