“A lot of people ask me why I don’t rap in English,” the 25-year-old rapper Álvaro Díaz tells me. “But it’s like, I don’t want to rap in English. I rap in Spanish, because I’m from Puerto Rico.” We’re sitting on the malecón in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, a few hours before Díaz is set to perform at the Isle of Light festival. A malecón is essentially a wall overlooking the ocean, and as Díaz and I speak we often pause to take in the considerable beauty around us. Though he’d like to cross over to America, he wants to do it on his terms—he doesn’t want to be seen as a novelty act because of the fact that he raps in Spanish, and he doesn’t want to switch his style up to appeal to anything other than his own artistic vision. So he’s banking on the fact that he can make genuine fans, one at a time, and earn his way into the American hip-hop establishment, just as he’s won acceptance in Puerto Rico’s reggaeton-heavy rap scene. He asks me, “You think that can work? A Spanish-language rapper?”
In many ways, it’s less of a matter of if Díaz will have his moment in America, but when. For one, the 25-year-old rapper is already something of a sensation in his native Puerto Rico. His music—a unique combination of intricate Spanish-language raps over imaginative beats that draw influence from everything from golden-age hip-hop to avant-garde club music—routinely earn hundreds of thousands of plays on YouTube and Soundcloud. His music videos are professional and polished, showcasing Díaz’s streetwear-dipped style and fierce ties to his roots in San Juan’s Hato Rey neighborhood. They’re also—and this is important—really fucking good. Consider “SuperXclusivo,” in which Díaz raps in abandoned San Juan buildings over a hyperspace trap beat that resembles Kanye West’s “Mercy,” or “Groupie Love,” something of an inversion of Rihanna’s “BBHMM” clip in which Díaz is kidnapped by women he thought wanted to take a selfie with him. It feels like only a matter of time before someone in America takes notice. Indeed, earlier this week Ebro Darden of the venerable New York rap station Hot 97 tweeted, “Talk to me about Álvaro Diaz… Poppin?” Díaz’s rabid fans found the tweet and began responding en masse with the same basic message: that yes, Ebro, Álvaro Díaz is in fact extremely poppin’.
In order to understand what makes Díaz so unique, it’s worth providing a bit of context. Puerto Rico is “reggaeton island,” as Díaz explains, and for years it has lacked a cohesive hip-hop scene. It’s also a place where the urban music scene has largely been governed by a tight-knit set of managers, DJs, and shadowy figures Díaz refers to as “padrinos,” whose co-signs are essential for any new artist who wants to break into the mainstream. In his early days, Díaz says, “I was recording hip-hop and everybody would tell me, ‘It sounds good, but you’ve got no chance. Nobody’s going to listen to you here.”
Rather than switch his style up or wait for what he calls a “cosign that never appeared,” Díaz took matters into his own hands. He and a few friends formed a collective called LV CIUDVD, and essentially took the fashion-forward art-rap sensibilities of A$AP Mob and welded them to the DIY, scene-making spirit of Ian MacKaye’s Dischord records. The existence of LV CIUDVD allowed its members to largely bypass the island’s rigid music industry, forming a production house, clothing label, and branding agency—essentially the infrastructure for a DIY hip-hop scene that until they’d come along just didn’t exist. As Díaz puts it, “We made our own videos, our own beats, and we made ourselves famous.”
Soon, his track “Chica de la Isla” began to make waves locally, and more successes quickly followed. “When we started releasing singles on Soundcloud, and it was a dream for a song to hit 10,000 plays,” he says. “Now my songs hit like 500,000 plays.”
Though Díaz already has a mixtape and an EP under his belt, he says he’s still working on perfecting his sound. He says one of his main challenges is convincing the often stubborn Puerto Rican music community to follow along with him. “Puerto Rico is a lot of years behind the States in terms of sound,” he says. “They’re like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you rapping with AutoTune?’ They don’t know that we can be influenced by American music and still create our own sound.” Still, Díaz could care less about whether reggaetoneros (reggaeton artists) accept him. “I don’t listen to reggaeton,” he says. “Only hip-hop.”
Besides, as his recent tracks such as “Medusa,” “La Pistola de tu Papa,” and “B.Y.A.”—produced by LV CIUDVD’s Young Martino and Lara Project,—which Complex is debuting below—show, Díaz is coming into his own as an artist, transcending his influences and forging a style that establishes him as an influence unto himself. “I want to be that guy,” he says, where “if you hear some music from someone you can say, ‘Oh, he sounds like Álvaro Díaz.’”
A teenage fan of artists such as Kanye West and Dipset, Díaz’s formative years were spent working in Treats, the first streetwear store in Puerto Rico. It’s there he got into Kid Cudi—a major influence—whose A Kid Named Cudi mixtape came packed in a box of clothes sent by 10.Deep. “I discovered Kid Cudi before he got big, and I feel like I was part of his rise,” he says, and he wants to give his fans the same feeling. “The cool thing about doing our own videos and mastering our own songs is that people who heard me from day one are still with me, and they feel like we’re all making it.”
As tough a sell as a Spanish-language rapper might be, Díaz has the expanding tastes of rap fans on his side. “People are into how much your music sounds like you,” he says, and he’s right. Often those with true impact and staying power in hip-hop are disparate artists such as Odd Future, Drake, or Chief Keef, who introduce new styles, influences, and aesthetics to hip-hop, infiltrating its mainstream and effectively changing it from the inside by sheer force of originality. “That’s what I’m trying to do,” Díaz says. “I don’t know what the vibe is in America, but I have esperanza”—he pauses, then translates for me—“hope.” Díaz’s debut album Diaz Buenos, Diaz Malos, drops in May.
Can you give me a bit of background information on yourself?
I’m from a place in San Juan called Hato Rey. All the banks are there—it’s like Wall Street but in Puerto Rico. It’s a middle class place where you’re too poor to be rich, and too rich to be poor. But the government doesn’t help you, so it’s a struggle.
How’d you get into hip-hop?
I always loved hip-hop. I fell in love with hip-hop with I think Eminem. I was into pop-punk bands when I was little because in Puerto Rico what you see on TV is the only thing you can hear because there wasn’t any internet. I didn’t have a big brother or anything could introduce me to good music, so I just had MTV. I remember these TV shows that play music videos, and they used to put Eminem along with Blink 182. My mom didn’t let me have Eminem CDs so I had to bootleg them.
Around the time that 8 Mile came out, I got expelled from school. So I started going to a new school, where we had an hour for lunch and kids would freestyle at breaks. I was new so I was too afraid to be in the rap battles, so I started ghostwriting for one of the kids in the class. Then I just started doing all the battles and got a bootleg recording program—think it was Acid Pro—and started recording my classmates. That was my high school days: music. Then I got to college and studied advertising.
Puerto Rico is a huge reggaeton market. How were you getting your hip-hop before the internet?
I had a cousin who used to bring me DJ Whoo Kid’s G-Unit Radio mixtapes, and I was like the cool kid in school because I had those tapes. I was also a super Kanye fan. I remember MTV doing a documentary on how he made Late Registration—every day after school I would watch it, just thinking that that was the shit I wanted to do. And then when I was 18, I started working at this store called Treats. It was like the original streetwear store in Puerto Rico. That’s when I learned about Complex and started reading it every month. It’s also how I discovered Kid Cudi—His Kid Named Cudi mixtape came to the store in a 10.Deep box one day.
What’s your relationship to the Puerto Rican reggaeton scene like?
People who listen to me talk think I’m a reggaetonero because we came from the same place. Right now in Puerto Rico, everybody is doing what we were doing three years ago. All the reggaetoneros are doing trap. It’s scary in a way because they have all these co-signs and followers, and they can steal my style.
Part of being an underground artist is that you have to exist in opposition to something, but if the thing you’re in opposition steals your style, you’d just have to start again.
Yeah, we were prepared for it. I’m going to release my debut album in May, and I’ve got a cool sound. I didn’t want to do the same thing I’d been doing before because people are going to get tired of it. What I learned from the master—Kanye—is he switches it up and then blows you away.
Tell me about LV CIUDVD.
We’re all from San Juan, and we’re a bunch of producers, rappers, video producers and artists just looking for the chance to expose our talent. The problem in Puerto Rico is that there might be a guy who does dope beats but he doesn’t want to collaborate with nobody. He’s like, “Gimme $500.” But nobody who can really shine on those beats is going to pay $500 at that moment because maybe he doesn’t have the money. So we created this crew where everybody helps each other. I’m going to do the dope rap, but Young Martino is going to do the dope beat, and someone else is going to do the dope video. We don’t depend on nobody. We do our own shit.
What do you talk about in your lyrics?
I like to talk about my mom. I’m a single mother’s son and my mom still has two jobs. I want to buy her a fancy house and a car. My main goal right now is to be able to say, “Mom, you don’t have to work no more.” I’ve got love songs like “La Pistola de tu Papa” and “Elvira Hancock” that sound gangster, cool, not cheesy. The wordplay is I think what people like about me.
I try to make people think, even if I’m saying stupid shit. “Medusa” references Bad Boys, and has metaphors about Greek mythology. I’m not trying to be a super smart rapper because I don’t think that’s hard to do. I want [you to] understand my music and enjoy it too, and have it sound genuine and cool.
Talking about fly shit and trying to sound good over a beat is a totally valid way to make music, but you say that you want to both sound good and have substance behind it.
What rappers do in Puerto Rico is that they’ll do a Mambo or reggaeton song to get on the radio. They’re don’t care. They’re hustlers, and I respect that because you don’t know what kind of struggles they’ve had and they need the money, but that’s not artistry. If you do that, it’s OK, but you’re a hustler, not an artist.