So...what's up with the lion?
Oh, the lion. (pleasantly surprised) So, the reason the EP is called The Blue Lion— it's really an identity piece. It's an identity that I'm claiming; I'm calling myself the Blue Lion. The reason why is because I feel my identity represents two cities — not just Chicago — Puerto Rico is part of that identity. But more specifically, if I'm going to use cities, instead of saying the United States and Puerto Rico — because my experience isn't the whole United States — it's really focused in the city of Chicago. And when I used to live in Puerto Rico, or visit Puerto Rico, my experience wasn't the entire island; it was the city of Ponce. Hence, one of the tracks: Ponce Blues. The first track is, you could say, why the EP is called The Blue Lion. Because it's: Ponce - blues. Ponce & Chicago. The blues, I feel, is synonymous with Chicago.
So, though you might think of the color blue when thinking of The Blue Lion, I'm kinda playing with
the word. It comes from the bluesy voice that I have; the blues from Chicago that has influenced me
as a city. So, that's the blue part. The lion part is Ponce. So, originally, the lion is on the Ponce flag; it's symbolized everywhere in the city of Ponce; Ponce de León. So, it's just a name, at first, but then
the city incorporated his name, de León, to the symbolism of a lion. That's why the lion symbol. It's a shout out to Puerto Rico, Ponce, and then a connection with Chicago.
Is that where you where born?
I was born in Chicago. My Mom and Dad where born in Ponce.
Did you start with music early on? Or was there a defining moment where you realized:
"This is it. This is me."
So, I feel that music has always been a journey. My parents would tell me how when I was able to grab sticks, I would always bang on stuff. I would grab the pots and pans and just start smacking them. I don't remember that...they also told me that when I was a kid, they bought me a Toys R Us drum set...I don't remember that, either. I must of been really young. When I used to go to church when I was younger, the band was, to me, the main event. I always wanted to jump on stage with them. So at the age of five, they had this little conga and they would let me play on stage with them — with this little conga — but I was always off to the side, out of site, on stage. So I kinda just learned how to play instruments on my own by watching the band. The band at church was predominantly Puerto Rican, so they played a lot of son, salsa, Jíbaro music — music very much from the countryside of Puerto Rico. So I grew up on that; I always saw that. It was a lot of fun. As those youth started to slowly leave the church, there were vacancies for musicians. At about the age of 20, I stepped up to be a church musician. I started with congas because that was my strong suit, but eventually I moved on to drums, timbales...my friends and I would literally rotate each song and take turns playing different instruments. But it wasn't until production...I started doing my own production around 16, 17, 18 (years old). I started doing a lot more hip-hop beats. But a lot of my musicality came from my church beginnings. So getting to do production made it much easier. Around 18 is when I started recording music more on the professional side and then I started doing ciphers and shows left and right all over: Cicero, Berwyn, Chicago, the suburbs...I was doing rap and reggaeton when I first started off in the public realm. Before that I was singing in church; I was playing music and producing for rappers; but eventually, when I wanted to become the artist around 18, I went by the stage name R-Life. I was a rapper and I was doing reggaeton. Somewhere down the line, I felt like music wasn't actually going to put food on the table so I kinda backed out of music and there was always this pull, this tugging between education and music — which was fine — I feel like my experiences in education have helped build my lyricism in music. It wasn't until I was at NIU in 2013, I put together a duo, a hip-hop duo, a conscious hip-hop duo called Cosmic Casa. It was at that point where, though I was still in school and I was getting close to the ending of my schooling, it was at that point I figured there was a niche for socially conscious commentary in music; I was mostly the singer. This other friend of mine — his name is Pepe Carmona — he was the rapper of the group. Ben Antunez was the engineer. We put together a mixtape which includes the song Forward in it as my solo song. It was at that point we started opening up for Bocafloja, Michael Reyes, La Tere...so, some of the names were veterans in the City of Chicago's hip-hop scene were in control, and for them to have given us the opportunity to open for them was a blessing. We started doing shows at Northwestern, NIU, Northeastern...we started doing a lot more university shows. It was at that point where I was like — yo, there's some money to be made in this; there's actually a market for it; there's actually people that want this. Not only do I want to stay close to the realm of social justice commentary in my music, I just wanna do music. And so, around last year, Pepe and I split up the group Cosmic Casa so we could pursue our own solo careers. Also, projects that we've wanted to pursue, but never felt confident enough to pursue...I think it was October of 2014, when Cosmic Casa dropped their mix tape and also split, that I started Lester Rey. I came up with the moniker Lester Rey, and all of 2015 was about producing this genre: boogaloo urbano. So I still feel like I'm new to the music scene. I've been doing music for a really long time which is probably the reason why I can do it so well. But as far as the product — Lester Rey — boogaloo urbano is an idea that's always been brewing in my mind; and now I'm ready to launch it. Which I did, last Saturday. (Laughs) You were there...
Yeah! (Laughs) Tell us about...
I gave you the long answer, my bad. (Laughs)
(Laughing) Yeah, you see me going down my notes...
Yeah...you were going down checking off, "He answered that question; and he answered this question..."
That's good, let's expand that a little more and look at a defining moment.
Yeah. I was 17 and I met a rapper by the name of Half Star, I don't think he's rapping anymore. But, he
was producing and studying out of Columbia College. I was only 17 and he was in college. He took an
interest in my musicality; my ability to play so many instruments. As a producer, I think he was attracted to that. He helped me produce my very first reggaeton song. So it was an experience I'll never forget. He took me to his crib. He showed me his keyboard, his monitors, his programs...I was so new to that world and it blew my mind. I was just like, "Woa. This sounds badass. I didn't know you could do all this on just one computer. All the instruments I could play I could imitate on a MIDI keyboard. That's what caused me to gravitate more towards production, and just music in general. I felt like, in order to be successful in the music business, you do have to know how to do a lot of things on your own. Adding production under my belt rather than just being a musician or singer definitely made me feel much more confident. Just before I was 18 and I started becoming this hip hop artist, at about 17 I realized, "I can really do this." This is not something that's just a hobby anymore. This is not something that I just do for fun. I can actually do it and do it really well.
Let's talk about this new genre that you are creating — What is it called?
Yeah...it's called boogaloo urbano. When I was in college, I was far from church, so I really couldn't play. The hip-hop scenes on college campuses are very very, very small. You have to be willing to drive two hours to the city, or three hours to other campuses; or something like that. When you're a student, you are poor and can't really do that. So, there was a jazz ensemble at Harper Community College — I was doing hip-hop and I was doing ciphers at the time — but it wasn't a Latin jazz ensemble. So, I asked the instructor if it would be cool for me to just bring the congas and jam with them. He said, "Yeah", and he was down with it. So, it was at about 18-19 that I was playing congas with the jazz ensemble. I was the only Latino, (chuckles) in the jazz ensemble, as well. When I went to NIU, they actually had a Latin jazz ensemble, and an Afro-Cuban ensemble. So, I learned a lot of songs from the Orishas, and some songs from Lukume culture — old, ancient languages — stuff like that. And then, with the Latin jazz ensemble, I wasn't just playing the congas, I was the lead singer for some of the songs. But many of the songs didn't even have a singer, they were just instrumentals. It was an experience that definitely help build my resume toward singing with the Latin jazz group here in Chicago called Son Bayu, they were a Puerto Rican Latin Jazz group. Pete "Conga" Vale was the congero; from Dos Santos.
He used to play congas with Son Bayú, that's how I met Pete. Ponch was the leader of the group. He was the keyboard player. But, I was still in college and it was kinda difficult to be very committed to a Latin Jazz group in Chicago while I was still in college. But, once I graduated from college I was able to...well, that Latin jazz group didn't exist anymore...but there was this other group called Contra Banda — they're still active; I'm still their singer. I'm like their second or third tier singer, so whenever they need a singer they hit me up, but I haven't gigged with them for a couple months. So, Latin jazz has been a part of me and is very much alive. I feel like, the Latin jazz kept me close to the salsa that I used to listen to when I was younger; that my mom used to play in the house; that my dad used to listen to. My dad was born in Ponce, but moved to New York at a really young age. So his musical influence was funk, rock, James Brown, to the Beetles. My mom's musical influence, living in Puerto Rico all her life, was Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, Celia Cruz...here in Chicago, Chicago has influenced me in a very different way. When I came across boogaloo, it was because of my dad. My dad showed me I Like it Like That, by Pete Rodrigues, that's an old song and everybody kinda knew it in the Latin community; it had been around for a while. Tito Nieves brought it back in the 90's. So boogaloo was something that always was in the back of my mind but never something I truly understood. So I looked it up a little more and when I found out that it was a Black & Brown style of music that combined funk and cha-cha-cha, I was like "Yo! This is so Chicago. This is so me, just so...what I want to do. This definitely defines the music my father grew up with, with the music that my mom grew up with. This 1960's boogaloo is bad-ass. I love it." I started listening to it all the time in the car — from Ray Barreto, Mongo Santamaria — I became a huge fanatic of this genre and I was surprised that it didn't have more of a presence in Latin music. Then I read into that and found out the record labels hid it and just kinda destroyed the music as it was coming about. Also, it was an English genre that had proceeded salsa. So it was really funny to me that Puerto Ricans were doing English based music before they did Spanish based music — in New York. So I thought that was just tripped out. They kinda forced Puerto Ricans to become this Spanish based community, which
in turn, separated the Black & Brown community in New York. I have nothing against Spanish based
music. My music's in Spanish. I love the Spanish language. If anything, I feel that in America, we should know more than just one language just like every other country. But, I just found it interesting that Puerto Ricans were making music in both English and Spanish with the Black community in New York. Now, I have no problem with boogaloo from the 1960's. It's just we're not living in the 1960's anymore, and I love vintage music a lot, but the urbano comes from the experience — the current urban experience we are living today. You see, the word urban is more of a current, working class experience. you can't say urban and talk about the 60's. The urban is current. Urban is what's happening in the streets today. So, I threw urbano for a couple of reasons: In the 1960's Black & Brown music came together and it was funk & soul with cha-cha-ha & rumba; genres that were extremely popular in the 40's and 50's leading up to the 60's. Today, in 2016, I feel that Black & Brown genres are still influenced by those genres; and we have reggaeton as a modern, predominantly Brown genre. I feel reggaeton is a genre you find labeled under urbano or hip hop, urban rap, or something like that. Hip Hop is definitely labeled under urban. So, the influences of Black & Brown music today have been urban music. That's where the urbano part comes from. It's still boogaloo because it takes its chops from the 1960's cha-cha-cha. The rumba, the cha-cha-cha, the Afro-Latin music is very much alive in boogaloo urbano, but it expands into a more modern generation of...a more modern funk...a neo-soul. A lot of people don't know what Boogaloo is, so when I'm trying to explain what kind of artist I am, and I'm saying it in a one word or two word thing, I just tell them I'm a neo-soul Latin artist. That kinda helps them, it gets them to: "it's like modern soul with Latin stuff — cool." That's like a fast way to explain it. Or, I say Latin alternative; tropical bass because it has that bass that keeps pumpin' throughout. Also, urbano music usually has a lot of drum and bass influences. So, boogaloo urbano has drum and bass more in the forefront than boogaloo used to. boogaloo used to be way more on the clave and the trumpets and stuff. This genre is more on the bass and drums to allow the lyricist to flow; so that he can actually rap. So it's a genre that hasn't really been in existence for too long. I just am trying to create it; coin the term. Since it's new, I have to use other words such as neo-soul, Latin, tropical bass, Latin alternative...but I have the hopes that maybe this is a genre that people can seek and that it moves beyond the Latino community and actually be seen as a Black & Brown music because that's where the roots come from.
Well said. You saw me quietly clapping, there.
You hit some important points; and the way you laid it out, it seems pretty straight forward. But, when you're creating something new like this, there are always challenges...
What were the challenges in creating the boogaloo urbano concept? Was it something you struggled with? How did that play out?
One of the concepts is: This is Chicago right now; it's not New York. Boogaloo itself is from New York, but I wanted boogaloo urbano to come from Chicago. So where, in New York you have more of funk & Soul mixed with Latin, I felt that in Chicago — what's going on right now — you have Bomba from the Puerto Rican community making noise in Humboldt Park and El Paseo. You have blues defining Chicago music; though blues isn't always mixed into boogaloo. There are old school boogaloo tracks that actually have some blues in it like Mongo Santamaria and others...there's a song actually called Boogaloo Blues. So, one of the concepts is Chicago but I couldn't get too far away from the boogaloo concept because then I've created something else. If it's too bass and drum heavy, then it's salsa, hip-hop, or Latin hip-hop. If it's too rhythmic, then it's just boogaloo — why am I trying to rename it? You know — especially when it's that English-Spanish language switch. That's really what kept boogaloo — boogaloo. Some tracks sound like salsa; other boogaloo songs sound like boleros. So within boogaloo, there are different styles & tempos — but what makes it boogaloo was switching of the Spanish & English — those chords that were more funky, those brass lines weren't Latin — they were more American thrown onto Latin. So, that's what kept the genre alive and kept people calling it boogaloo. The concept — see, I've always been doing fusion; even when I was 18. I was making beats combining bachata with hip-hop, or reggaeton with cumbia before it was super popular to do those types of things; I was already messing around with it. I had told my friend that I had come up with the tribal rhythm — before tribal became famous. I actually still have the track. I made it in 2007 — and I'm sure the tribal guys had put it together way before '07 — I'm not trying to say I coined or created the genre — but, by fusing different genres I created so many different rhythms that sounded really cool. But, with boogaloo, I felt the message was really important. I didn't want to get stuck where I was just doing social commentary because I love to make people dance. Boogaloo in itself was social justice; in itself was a healing experience of dancing. Where the lyrics don't always have to be political. It could be shake your body, move and dance. So, one of the things I wanted to do was create a genre where I could switch from a love song to a dance song to a political song. Kinda like some of the current hip-hop artist like Kendrick (Lamar) where they can create their love songs — they can create their political songs. So, those are some of the concepts I needed to keep alive. At the end of the day, I wasn't creating a new genre for Chicago. I was creating something that I could fit into — that felt comfortable for me — that was healing for me. I was thinking about me first because music has always been an outlet for me to express any pain — to express any hardship in life. It's always been geared toward my healing and my sanity before the masses. But, I'm not the only one going through the things I go through so it has that power to heal other communities. Another thing is I definitely wanted it to be a Black & Brown sound. But I also know that today's communities aren't as segregated like they used to be — like they were in the 60's — so I wanted it to also be inclusive of electronic sounds and sounds that are more modern that you actually hear in hip-hop — that you can hear in reggaeton. Even though you have this Black & Brown genre, you have collaborations with so many people in so many countries. So, a genre that could be accepted by so many people of various backgrounds: these were some of the crucial things that I wanted to begin with before I even started to write lyrics. The terminology wasn't even boogaloo urbano to start. It was like blue boogaloo; or, I was just gonna stick with boogaloo and just make it modern. Electo-boogaloo! (laughs) Another term I shot out. The guy whose helping me, Ben Antunez the engineer, we talked about how urbano was a perfect word to describe the situation of Black & Brown communities and their current story. So we thought, "Urbano...that's a perfect term to use." That's how we came up with boogaloo urbano. But the music had to stick around cha-cha-cha & funk; somewhere in the genre we had to stick around those realms and if we did move past it, it still needed to combine Black & Brown sounds. So the EP I just released, Ponce Blues, is bomba & blues. That's never been done before. The guy that plays the bomba — he's a bomba master, an elder; his name is Jorge Emmanuelli Náter — we combined an African-Puerto Rican genre with blues. The 2nd track, Andar, is definitely more of an homage to boogaloo. The bass and drums are much heavier plus that cha-cha-cha, but slower; bolero style. Then you have the jazz trumpet toward the end. But it keeps that bass and drum alive like you see in hip-hop. One of the last tracks, Bougie Bella, definitely sounds more salsa, more reggaeton — much more lively. I think one sounds much more like old school boogaloo — except for the reggaeton drum playing on top of the track the whole way. So, I thought it was important for me to define boogaloo with these five tracks and show how varied it can be and also show the common consistencies within these five tracks. And I think the common thing is to keep that hip-hop bass & drum alive; but it must maintain that Latin root to it. Then you can always add something else like a funky riff or some kind of genre that's American, African, or Caribbean. So, originally it was Afro-Caribbean people and African-American people trying to bridge a gap. They've always been trying to bridge a gap: The Harlem Renaissance, boogaloo, and hip-hop have brought together different communities that I feel were heavily influenced by African culture. So, I always say boogaloo was the attempt by two African diasporas coming together. Then the record labels killed it in the 60's and then it was successful with hip-hop. Hip-hop actually brought together Dominicans & Haitians with the African-Americans in New York. So, I see a need for boogaloo urbano today with Not1More — the deportations that are going on; and the Black Lives Matter movement with the insane amount of police brutality injustices. I feel that, although this can definitely be addressed in hip-hop, there needs to be a genre that combines both groups in a place of healing — I think the dance floor is a perfect place to connect.
With these powerful concepts in place, it seems like doing benefit performances are critical. Have you done any benefits?
Yeah! I did one in December. It was to raise scholarship funds for undocumented students. I did one for Enlace; Sabor Latino. Harper College — they invite me every year. I've kept that connection with them and told them that no matter how big I get, I will always do that show for free because it raises money — it's a really good cause. Wow, let's see — too much to list. (We laugh) I did a benefit to raise lawyer fees for families that were facing deportations. Most of the stuff I do is for undocumented communities. I'm always around and I'm really passionate about immigration reform and the rights of undocumented students. It's something I've been working on since 2007 with The Dream Act. Even though it didn't pass, I was really active in organizing with students at Harper College; also at NIU. I feel like I've been around more Mexican & Central American friends than my own Puerto Rican people, that's just how gentrification works in Chicago — though I'm very passionate about Oscar Lopez Rivera being freed from prison and many of the issues in the Puerto Rican community, and I myself am 100% Puerto Rican — I usually find myself organizing and working more toward undocumented students rights. People have told me that doesn't benefit Puerto Ricans, specifically...but I feel that if we're all Latinos — all brothers & sisters going through the same struggle — then we should struggle together. We should all support each other because it's not just a Mexican issue — it's a bigger Latino issue. And really...it's not just a Latino issue, either. So, that's why I work more toward undocumented student rights.
What can we look for in the next two years?
The next two years? Wow. Nobody has ever asked me that, at all. That's a good question. Everybody usually asks just about the next year. (We laugh) I do have a two-year plan. I actually have a three-year plan! But everyone always asks about the first year, so...
Well, then...tell us about the three-year. (Excited)
Okay...the first year is all about promoting the brand: Lester Rey. It's just to get my name out there nationwide — to build more of a presence — also here in the city. Before I can build a name for myself nationwide, I have to get the love and support from my friends here in the city, first. So I dropped an EP at the beginning of the year...this whole next year will be collaborations, projects, and shows. But more importantly, I'm releasing five music videos — a music video for each song on the EP. I don't want it to become a forgotten product. I definitely want to continuously push the EP. I think it's a very good product. I think it's very much a description of what boogaloo urbano is, and so, before I can really push boogaloo urbano, I feel the best way to do that is with the EP; and to promote myself though the EP. I finally have more music out there now. It used to be just the one single — Andar. Now, there's four more songs so when people want to know more about my style, the type of music that I do, there's five songs that help you get an idea of what that is. People are very visual. People love music videos. The chances of them listening to your music goes way up when there's a video to it. Toward the end of the year, maybe the buzz from January will die down; even though there will be five music videos in circulation. So, I'm not dropping them at the same time. At this point I want to start reaching out to DJs that I've met over the past year from Puerto Rico, California, Canada...I want to reach out to these DJs to see if they will do some remixes to these songs — to breath new life and have multiple versions of these songs. All of this and I'll also probably drop a single — a new single — this year. But all of this will be in the two-year plan — effort, for the actual album which will be 2017. Some people will think I'm dropping an album in the Spring or Summer after the EP...but I think that's too soon. I don't think I will have maximized the potential of the EP. So I think a full year of doing shows all over the nation, making connections, really building that brand and solidifying it so when the album comes out it's actually 100% guaranteed to be a success; not something I have to continuously push. It will be something people will waiting for. So, that's kinda the two-year plan. Three-year plan is to try and create a collective around boogaloo urbano. I don't want to be the only boogaloo urbano artist, so I will definitely be looking into more production. I work out of Olín Studios and I want to create a team of Chicago musicians in the Latin Alternative scene who are very attracted to boogaloo urbano. So, after the album, that's where I'm headed towards — (quickly tosses in with a coy smile) while I'm working on the 2nd album.
"Aiiight, let's do this"
Favorite artist of the
instrument you play:
If you were to take
on a new instrument:
Puerto Rican Guitar
Favorite genre other than the
one you play:
Favorite dish from
A country you've
not visited but
would like to:
Favorite Chicago Band:
Bomba con Buya
Favorite thing to
"A wise man can learn more from a
foolish question than a fool
can learn from a wise answer."