Speak has killed the local independent hip-hop scene in SoCal for at least the last 5 years with a charming and larger than life persona that emanates from his physical presence down to his music. After relocating to Mexico City nearly two years ago, the rapper has recently found himself in a surge of artistic growth thanks to his new surroundings, a newly discovered Latinx following and a collaboration with brilliant Belizean-American indie hip-hop producer Dream Panther (Greg Sheran.) Their new album, fittingly titled SPEAKPANTHER, is a transnational project between Speak and Dream Panther that manages to feel vulnerable yet boastful thanks to Speak's uncanny style of bravado yet heart-baring lyricism and Dream Panther's dreamy yet buoyant production. The Weekly caught up with Speak as he prepares for a hometown show in the U.S with Dream Panther at The Echo this Thursday.
OC Weekly (Denise de la Cruz): How did SPEAKPANTHER come about?
Speak: Panther (Greg) and I have known each other for some time through the LA scene and mutual friend, producer Caleb Stone. On a trip back to the States to perform at last year's Viva Pomona festival, Panther invited me to his new studio space in LA. We had already worked on tracks in the past but we had this crazy idea to just knock out an album in 4 days and put it out. Needless to say, we failed. But we ended up with a couple sketches and rough ideas for a few songs. The vibration was good so we decided to forego a rushed surprise album and give it the proper love and attention
Has it been a challenge collaborating with U.S. based artists like Dream Panther while being based out of CDMX (Mexico City)?
Time constraints and distance were probably the biggest obstacles. Sometimes it felt like we were married. I think being in a band or a collaborative project is a fucked up kind of marriage. I would get booked for a few gigs here and there in the States and in the day or two I had off we would go non-stop, all day session work. We made most of the stuff from scratch on the spot as opposed to already coming in with prepared lyrics and beat. We finished tracks in pieces and I would have to take the skeleton tracks back to Mexico to finish writing and fleshing out the ideas from Mexico.
I love that you sample CDMX tianguis (flea market) vendors throughout the project. The intro to "Howdyyy" gave me chills because it brought me right back to shopping through Tepito with mis tias (my aunts). I feel like there's an effort to capture your new CDMX identity and American identity in this album unlike any other projects before. Can you speak to that?
It was a very natural shift. Everybody knows that I can rap well and I cultivated this wild man reputation but I had to really stop and examine what I was saying in my songs. My humor has always been dark and I’ve always approached politics in a tongue and cheek sort of way. But what was the message? Moving to Mexico, I kind of found a piece of myself that I was missing. Being Mexican-American is totally different from being born and raised in Mexico. I always felt that no matter how much I identified as Mexican and represented, I was never good enough. I would get taunted with “pocho” or “güerro” constantly. The album, for the most part, is my exploration of my own identity and my family history and what that means. It’s not some cheesy, “I returned to the motherland to discover my roots,” type of thing. I’ve always known my family roots. I just wanted to return to the garden from which I came. I just wanted to touch the soil with my own hands.
How does it feel being an American artist in Mexico during these tense political times?
Politics is always a hot topic amongst the people here mainly because for all its beauty, Mexico has a ton of internal problems with classism, poverty, corruption, violence and the list goes on and fucking on. What is happening in the States is disgusting and really adds a new set of problems to the laundry list people are already facing here. I’ve been treated with nothing but kindness and respect. I feel very honored to be given such a strong support system and opportunities here by the hometown creatives, artists and people I encounter every day. It makes my heart heavy because my home country is singling Mexico out and using Mexicans as a scapegoat. Trump played on the fears, ignorance and racism of his constituency and it worked to a T. It’s shameful and something I think about every single day.
On SPEAKPANTHER, I'm hearing a mix of lo-fi melancholy sounds and aggressive in-your-face tracks yet they sync together very well. Why did you and Dream Panther decide to create such an eclectic sounding album?
Panther is a master at creating textures. There is something about the guitars and how he uses echos and empty space that immediately made me recall specific moments. The songs are memories instead of concepts or ideas. They are snapshots of things I saw and experienced first hand. I think it works because the sentiments are honest. Like living in any city, it’s a multi-dimensional experience. The good, the bad, the ugly of it all. The more aggressive tracks are reflections of some of the more jarring and intense moments. “Not From Here” stands out the most to me in that regards. It’s literally about how people who aren’t from here come down to Mexico and get their pockets ran because they lack awareness and think it’s all cute. Tourism and entitlement go hand in hand when people visit Mexico. I’ve seen people get beat up and robbed first hand. Don’t walk around downtown at night speaking loud ass English and taking selfies on your new iPhone, you might not like the results.
What do you want SPEAKPANTHER to ultimately convey to listeners?
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That no matter what kind of blame we put on each other or no matter what type of wall they try to build, we are more alike than different. People are fighting to survive, find happiness, find love and feed their families on both sides. I heard Trump yelling “America first!", humanity should be first...love and understanding for all. I’m talking specifically to the kids of immigrants that feel they don’t belong, the ones that feel like they're torn between two worlds—I am you. You aren’t alone, be strong. And to the people living in Mexico, I am with you. The Mexicans living in the U.S. are with you. Estamos juntos (we are together.)
What can people expect from your upcoming show at The Echo?
SPEAKPANTHER in all its glory. It’s a celebration of unity, diversity and empowerment amongst different scenes and all people. We are honored to share the stage with War of Icaza and Marcy Mane. We are all from different worlds but the message is the same.