When Panamanian hip-hop duo Los Rakas shook the cozy confines of the Flamingo Cantina during South by Southwest this year, it was yet more evidence of the group's increasingly popular live shows, which have earned them love from a wide variety of audiences.
The bilingual MCs, who represent Panama by way of Oakland, rhyme mostly in Spanish and Spanglish over heavy, dancehall- and reggae-infused beats. Their fresh sound with Bay Area hip-hop swagger fueled their breakout year in 2010, when they were the first urban group to win the Discovery Artist award at the Latin Alternative Music Conference in New York City.
Since then, cousins Ricardo Bethancourt (Raka Rich) and Abdull Dominguez (Raka Dun, pronounced "Doon") have begun carving their space across musical genres. By naming themselves Los Rakas, they've taken ownership of a Panamanian slur, "rakataka," which describes someone from the ghetto, and have redefined it, they say, to mean being confident about yourself and proud of where you come from.
Raka Rich and Raka Dun, both 23, grew up listening to merengue, Jamaican reggae, salsa and rock en español in Panamanian neighborhoods, where, they say, everyone knows and helps each other and kids play soccer on the streets. But hip-hop didn't become popular in Panama until the early 2000s. So it was in Oakland, where they moved as teenagers, that they soaked in the West Coast rap that inspired the new beats they are now creating.
Los Rakas' music is now also helping to influence other rappers in Central America who have adopted California-tinged flows. The duo is working on their first album, after a popular EP titled "Chancletas y Camisetas Bordadas" ("Flip-flops and Embroidered Tank Tops"). Los Rakas often sport these Panamanian-style tank tops at their shows.
We caught up with the talented musicians before their return to Austin for a Saturday performance at the Flamingo Cantina.
American-Statesman: You began recording at such a young age, how did you learn about the hip-hop music industry?
Raka Dun: The Bay Area is very pro-youth and has a lot of programs for youth. We took advantage of all them. ... And we started performing.
Raka Rich: We became students of these youth programs and, because a lot of those people are independent entrepreneurs, we asked questions. They taught us pretty much everything we know now (about the music industry). They would help us on the recording side of things, the business and video, visual, promotional and marketing.
Recording is very expensive. Right now we're in a studio, and it costs $60 an hour. A lot of people don't have $60. So these youth programs gave us the time and the space to perfect our craft. Everything we know is from there, and that's why we've been able to be so successful.
Raka Rich, your grandmother is featured in your song "La Chola." How did that happen?
Raka Rich: We come from a background of musical families, including singers. But those are all the old-school people, you know. We're the new generation that's carrying on the torch as far as the musical thing goes.
My grandma doesn't like rap music at all. She don't like reggae, she don't like none of that, but she hopped on the track, no problem. She knew that it would make us happy and was happy to help contribute to the movement. She had the (traditional) sound that we were looking for, and so for her to do that, it was like, "All right, she understands and she's supporting us."
We flew her in from Panama, and she came into the studio to record. It was quick. I told her what to sing, and she memorized it fast. It took her like 10-15 minutes. No lie. She's a pro.
Your lyrics are mostly in Spanish, but also incorporate some Spanglish. Why did you decide to do this?
Raka Rich: We came to the decision naturally. It wasn't something that we really thought about. In all honesty, we just did it. And people liked it.
We listened to a lot of Hispanic music growing up, and sometimes when they tried to flip the English and the Spanish (lyrics) it sounded kind of corny to us and didn't blend in right. So from there, we wanted a different approach in how we created Spanglish music.
We would go into the studio with American rappers in east Oakland and west Oakland and we would hear how melodic it was, how they would use it on hip-hop beats. And we learned how to translate it to Spanish and mix both English and Spanish in a way that's not corny and add street-ness into the Spanglish.
You're starting to get a reputation for your high-energy live performances, like at SXSW. What was that experience like for you guys?
Raka Rich: It was dope. We love performing our songs, especially when the energy is there. Whether you've heard of us or haven't heard of us, we're going to give it 110 percent, so when the crowd is giving us that energy back and feeling the music, then it's going to be insane. And that's the kind of energy we got in Austin.
A lot of your Raka philosophy focuses on staying true to yourself. Is that hard to do in the music industry?
Raka Rich: You know a lot of people would say you should do this and that (with the music). And finally we saw the reason why people liked those raps was because we had an experimental sound that was different. It was dancehall, reggae, hip-hop, English, Spanish.
We tried (at first) to fit into different genres. And finally we said, "You know what? (Expletive) that. We're going to do us; we're going to do Los Rakas. That's who we are, we're rebels." And ever since that we've been doing our own thing, and it's been going very well.
Raka Dun: That's what the Raka movement is about ... to have people feel confident about themselves, their culture, and feel proud about where they are from.
What can we expect from the new album that will be released later this year?
Raka Rich: We've taken our time with these songs. Most are about 3 or 4 years old, and we are adding some new touches and releasing them now. It's not just one kind of style; it's different styles of club music.
A lot of people are going to think we're trying to change our sound, but we're not. If we would have given (this music) to you (earlier), then you wouldn't have understood us. We've been working for years, and little by little people are starting to see that we have different styles. This is the time to show the people that we can also do this kind of music.
Contact Nancy Flores at 912-2559.