In this week's cover story, “Rhymes to Die For,” we gave you the story of Rachel Aboytes, a local rap artist who performed under the stage name La Baby Smiley. In March of this year, Aboytes was murdered in a drive-by shooting in east Denver. Since then, her fame has skyrocketed, and an album of material she recorded before her death has been released (a fact that continues to be controversial among some family members and friends).
Now, many Baby Smiley fans claim that she was one of the best Latina rappers of all time, pointing to her fast-paced rhymes, seamless transitions between English and Spanish, and clever incorporation of old-school pachucos slang in her lyrics.
This is high praise, given the talented company of Latina rappers past and present who have put female-driven hip hop on the map. Even though women are still far outnumbered by male MCs, there are a number of standout female performers who pioneered, or continue to pioneer, Latina rap. Here are some of the most influential:
Nicknamed the “Queen of Spanish Rap,” Puerto Rican artist Marlisa Marrero Vazquez – better known as Lisa M – was the first Latina rapper to achieve wide-scale commercial success upon releasing her 1989 album Tramp. Coupled with high-energy performances that were as much about her dancing as her rapping, audiences marveled at how Lisa M blended rap with pop and merengue at a time when hip-hop was just starting to enter the mainstream. After her second album, titled No Lo Derrumbes, went platinum in 1990, Lisa M had established herself as the first great Latina rapper.
In the United States, it was Jennifer Velarde, or “JV,” who helped pave the way for Latina rappers by being the first Mexican-American woman to release a full-length rap album in 1994. Titled Nayba'hood Queen, the album highlighted JV's experiences living in Downey, California. Notably, JV raps her lyrics in English, which made her songs more accessible to a U.S. market. That year, she became the top-selling female Latin rap artist.
During the mid 1990s, a Chilean hip hop group named Makiza started gaining attention for its hard-hitting political and socially-conscious lyrics. By 1999, Sony Music Entertainment had picked them up and the group sold its way to the top of the Latin American hip hop market. One reason for their success: frontwoman Ana Tijoux.
Originally from Lille, France, Tijoux added sophistication and an extensive vocabulary to her rapping – all in Spanish – that won over critics and fans alike. Since splitting from Makiza to launch her solo career in 2006, Tijoux has continued to put out releases for a global fan base, including her song “1977,” which was prominently featured in an episode of the TV series Breaking Bad.
Around the same time that Ana Tijoux was becoming known in South America, Maria Rodriguez Garrido – stage name “Mala Rodriguez” – was making a name for herself as a rapper in Spain. Growing up in a working class neighborhood of Seville, she got her start performing at various underground hip hop shows while she was still a teenager.
While Rodriguez is not a Latina, we decided to include this Spanish rapper in our list because she won a Latin Grammy, is hugely popular in South and Central America, and has had her music featured in films such as the Mexican hit, Y Tu Mamá También. Her breakout came in 2000, when her debut full-length album, Lujo Ibérico, went gold. By mixing Flamenco with rap, Mala Rodriguez contextualized hip hop for a Spanish market. Since then, she has performed or collaborated with big names like Nelly Furtado, Maroon 5, LMFAO and Bjork.
Angie Martinez is another rapper who utilized collaborations with marquee artists to further her star power. An American of Puerto Rican descent, she was was already well known as a radio host for New York's Hot 97 when she began rapping in 1996 with the encouragement of her friend KRS-One. By 2001 she was already working with Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, and Mary K. Blige – to name a few.
While Martinez's English rhymes tend to be more mainstream than other artists on this list, largely adhering to the conventions of Billboard 100 hip hop and R&B, the rapper is notable nonetheless for the reach of her music. One career highlight came in 1997, when after teaming up with Lil' Kim, Left Eye, Da Brat, and Missy Elliott to record the track “Ladies Night,” the single sold over a million copies and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Among current Mexican-American female rappers, Ms. Krazie has a large and dedicated fan base. Born in Michoacan, Mexico, she later moved to the United States where she released her first album Brown is Beautiful in 2006. Since then, many of her spanglish rap songs, which largely address her heritage and life experiences, have been viewed over a million times on YouTube. She continues to perform across the United States and Mexico. As a popular Chicana rapper, Ms. Krazie was also a major inspiration to Baby Smiley, the focus of our cover story this week.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE...
Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.