Latinos In Hip Hop: How Psycho Realm & Others Transcend Racial Barriers
Exclusive: Latinos have been present since Hip Hop's inception but have they always been fully respected? A look at Psycho Realm's journey and how Latin American emcees can transcend color lines.
Latinos in Los Angeles know Placita Olvera. Others may know it as Olvera Street, a small plaza in downtown Los Angeles. Under the blazing California rays, crowds of onlookers surround Aztec dancers. Folks passing by stop to take pictures as dancers stomp on the cracked cement, remembering ancestors of yesterday. This is Los Angeles. It may not be referenced much in Rap records about the West, but the Hip Hop spirit lives out here too.
In 1993, a little known duo, Psycho Realm (formed by Sick Jacken and Big Duke) was performing here. Like with the Aztec dancers, folks taking pictures surrounded the group. One of those people in attendance was B-Real. At this time, B-Real was on top of the world (or "hill"), serving as an inspirational light source to many Latino emcees. While several wanted to be down with Real, he saw something in Psycho that made him want to be down with the Realm. It all started in this small placita.
“Placita Olvera is Placita Olvera, you know? It’s downtown L.A. and it’s full of Mexican culture and tradition. Everything is just sabor a México,” Sick Jacken says, transitioning from English to Spanish with ease. “It was the location that they chose for a benefit concert called ‘End Barrio Warfare’…That’s where B-Real saw us perform for the first time.”
That meeting meant wonders for Psycho Realm’s journey. For any Latino in Hip Hop, Cypress Hill symbolized an important and uncommon mainstream presence in the culture. In the early '90s, it was rare to see a Mexican (or Cuban, for that matter) achieve great heights of fame within the genre. B-Real and Sen Dog broke through a barrier in that regard, catapulting to superstar status with influential hits like, “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” “Hand on the Pump,” and “Insane in the Brain.” Growing up in Los Angeles, these were songs that inspired many young Latinos to pick up a pen. That type of influential impact was not lost on Jacken the day they met.
“[Cypress Hill was] a group that we looked up to because B-Real was half-Mexican,” he explains. “When you’re a Mexican, anybody that’s Mexican, you support and attach yourself to it. They made us believe that we could do something in the Hip Hop scene that was quality, that was real Hip Hop and that was a real part of the culture.”
Inspired by this, Psycho Realm set out on a mission to do what Cypress did for them, inspire others. With B-Real officially cosigning/joining the group, Jacken and Duke began making more news, opening a few more doors than before. But while some doors opened, some were slammed shut. As with many Latino emcees, they faced skepticism on arrival based on preconceived notions. That was nothing new to the group who faced the same sort of scrutiny at Los Angeles’ storied Good Life Café, where they were able to win over those who originally doubted.
“Being from Pico Union [in Los Angeles], we dressed in Dickies and white t-shirts. That’s not how everybody dressed at The Good Life. We stood out,” Jacken says, recalling the group’s early days. “I guess the surprise came when they thought we were gonna do some Cholo Rap or I guess people had low expectations of what we were gonna do. So, it made it easy for us to go on stage and perform. Their reaction came because we could actually rap on the same level that they were rapping. On a creative level too, there was something different about what we did.”
Something different set them apart. That same quality allowed for their growth in the industry. They released 1997’s The Psycho Realm to some acclaim and notoriety; not knowing tragedy would soon follow.
Psycho Realm Overcomes Tragedy, Duke Being Shot & Paralyzed
“I always wondered what death would be like
Especially when Duke died and came back
And said he didn’t see light.”
-Sick Jacken, “Land of the Shadows”
In 1999, as the group was on the rise, Duke was shot in the neck. He was said to be stopping a fight in the lot of a Tommy’s Burger stand in Los Angeles when one instant changed his life forever. The incident would leave Duke paralyzed from the neck down. This tragic scene, alluded to in the video for “Land of the Shadows,” became a turning point for the group, one that nearly made Jacken drop his mic for good.
“It’s something that I started doing with my brother so the fact that he got shot, I kind of did get lost for a minute,” he admits. “But, I remember when he got back to his senses, he kind of slowed me down. He told me, ‘Man, we still have music recorded. You still gotta do this. You can’t let this die out. You gotta keep this going.’ That’s when we put out War Story: Book 1 and Book 2, after he was shot.”
The shooting that could have ended it all became a strong moment of realization for Jacken. He pushed on, carrying Duke’s work and advice with him through tours around the world. As Jacken notes, the two still work closely with his brother remaining a valuable member of the group.
“My brother’s still there,” he adds with a genuine sense of pride in his voice. “In spirit and in the background behind the curtains, he still helps out with a lot of things. It just makes me happy, man. I always try to show him through film or whatnot how much the people still remember him and support him. They all admire what he did and what he left behind. He put a lot of work into this, man. For him, it’s gotta feel good that people still appreciate and respect him for all these years.”
After those early years, the Psycho Realm name remains strong in and out of the Pico Union district of Los Angeles. Their logo, the gas mask, is still a powerful symbol of the crew’s success, tatted on bodies in and out of the Placita Olvera area.
“Anywhere in the world that I’ve gone,” Jacken shares, “I’ve seen a gas mask or I’ve seen a Psycho Realm tattoo.” Shortly after the interview, a fan walks up to Jacken with Psycho Realm inspired ink on his leg.
Psycho Realm’s Global Reach, Ability To Unify
When Jacken says “anywhere in the world,” he emphasizes the significance of the group’s reach that extends beyond the Latino community, something many Latinos have sometimes struggled to attain. However, other emcees have shown that they could do this also. When Big Pun crushed the scene, for instance, he brought a Latino sound that has influenced several others to this day, including Termanology, Nino Bless, Fashawn and Joell Ortiz but he also brought a sound that would become respected by all races, well after his untimely passing. Chino XL, Funkdoobiest, Kid Frost, The Beatnuts, Immortal Technique and others have also been Latino emcees to make waves in the game. Artists like these have no doubt inspired emcees like Doomtree’s Mike Mictlan, Emilio Rojas, upstarts Scheme, Trew Uno and countless others while simultaneously reaching fans of other races. Pitbull’s rise to chart topping success is also hard to ignore, bringing Spanish and English rhymes to the masses from the islas to Ibiza. During a 2006 interview with NPR, Pitbull explained his success as one meant to unify.
“That’s the best part of this music thing,” Pitbull shared in the interview. “Somehow, I’ve stumbled across a movement where I’m allowed to unify people…I think that’s what’s going to be bigger than my music.”
That’s a similar sentiment heard when Jacken refers to the whole world as one “barrio.” He speaks about how the music has allowed fans to come together at shows peacefully, even if they are of different races or if represent rival crews or neighborhoods.
“The message we put out is that of unity within the community,” Jacken says. “A lot of people heard it and it hit home. So, you go to a Psycho Realm concert and in L.A. you see people from different neighborhoods but it’s always peaceful. Even if there’s neighborhoods that don’t always get along, it’s always peaceful because people respect the message. I’m glad that the message cut through and that it’s helped people change their lives in a positive way. That’s something we’ve wanted to accomplish from the beginning.”
This ability to unite the neighborhoods has not only been an important aspect of Psycho Realm’s trajectory, it has also been a valuable part of Hip Hop’s story.
Hip Hop’s Latino Influence From The Start
Latinos have been essential to the foundation of Hip Hop from the jump. In his acclaimed book, Hip Hop America, author Nelson George writes about how the Latino presence has been an important one for the culture since it began.
“The B-boys – the dancers, graffiti writers, the kids just hanging out – who carried the Hip Hop attitude forth were reacting to Disco, to Funk, and to the chaotic world of New York City in the ‘70s,” George writes. “These B-boys (and girls) were mostly Black and Hispanic. They were Hip Hop’s first generation.”
Since Hip Hop’s first generation, the Latino voice has remained present in all elements of Hip Hop. Deejays like Tony Touch and Bobbito Garcia have been important to the culture, while b-boys like Crazy Legs have also been inspirational figures for many. The Latino voice has been spun on vinyl, expressed over cardboard and linoleum and sprayed on walls. Graffiti writers like Lee Quinones and Futura have shown that the Latino voice can be a strong one, written on the walls of Hip Hop.
A current example of the Latino voice will be heard on Psycho Realm Presents: Sick Jacken & Cynic: Terror Tapes 2 as the camp releases its latest effort. Recently, Psycho Realm’s Sick Jacken and his partner in rhyme Cynic sat down with HipHopDX to discuss what it means to be a Latino emcee trying to unify more than just Latino fans. Jacken shared his experiences, his obstacles and his hopes to unify all people through music. This only served to show how a place like Placita Olvera, rich in Latino culture, could also be the starting point for music that could influence different parts of the world, beyond any color lines, racial differences or language barriers.
Psycho Realm Speaks On Being Latino Artists & Overcoming Stereotypes
HipHopDX: Coming up as Latinos within Hip Hop, did you look at it as a hurdle or as an opportunity?
Sick Jacken: I look at it as a double-edged sword. It’s something where they definitely try to put you in a box. They stereotype you. Back in the day, when we did The Good Life [Café], we walked in there in Dickies and white t-shirts, and everybody looked at us like [makes a dismissive face]. Everybody in there had a backpack on and aside from Of Mexican Descent; we were the only other Mexicans there, me and Duke. It ain’t till you start rapping that you gain their respect. That’s how it happens. At the same time, the plus is the impact that you have because they doubt you initially. Also, everybody else kind of looks the same in the Rap game so you stand out because you are different. So, if you have some skill, it helps you rise above that much more in the Hip Hop community.
DX: You said “they try to stereotype you.” You said that with a bit of a smile. What kind of things have people done to stereotype you guys?
Sick Jacken: Yeah, well, they think that when you rap you’re going to say “holmes” and “esé” a lot. You know what I mean? [Smiling] They think you’re gonna have an accent. You know what I mean? I don’t know what they think. It’s kind of funny because in certain situations, they’ll look at you. They’ll look at you up and down and they’ll kind of giggle a little bit like 12-year-old girls but then they see you on stage and their jaws drop. That’s how you overcome the hurdle.
DX: Now, we can’t say you’re the first to ever do it as Latinos. Who were some of the Latino emcees that you looked up to?
Sick Jacken: Not because they brought us out but Cypress Hill was definitely one of the crews. We knew B-Real was half Mexican and that was enough for us to go off. We knew he was the only one who was part Mexican so that was dope. We were already kind of going in that direction. We weren’t ever doing the Cholo Rap but when they came out, it was like, “That’s the shit. It’s possible to do that and still break through the industry.” At that time, we didn’t know the industry because we were young and we were just kids rapping in the street but that gives you inspiration like, “Man, I could really do it.”
Psycho Realm On Race, Nationality & Global Presence
DX: Does this topic ever come up or is this something that’s never discussed?
Sick Jacken: It’s never discussed but it always comes up in different ways. [People will say] “Damn, homie, you’re the dopest Mexican rapper out there and shit.” It’s like, why can’t I just be a good emcee?
Cynic: Yeah, or they’ll say, “In your lane, you guys are killing it.” In our lane? What do you mean in our lane?
DX: What goes through your head when you hear that?
Sick Jacken: That I’ll murder a lot of motherfuckers of any race when it comes to emceeing. But it’s cool. They can call me the best Mexican rapper there is. I’ll take that. Any compliment, I ain’t gonna fight but it’s just funny that that’s the way they put it. But a lot of the emcees we come across are comrades. These are allies so they know what we do and what we’re capable of. They give us the same respect as we give to them. It’s just mainly people that don’t know, I guess, that say that.
DX: Let’s talk about your global presence. You guys have a strong presence in Los Angeles, being from here, but you’re also going into different continents, too. What has it been like to see so many people around the world, not just Latinos, gravitate to your music?
Sick Jacken: The Latino fan-base is heavy. I think it’s because of the same reason that we were heavy on Cypress Hill’s music. It’s because we always support our people. But homie, I could go to Russia. I could go to Germany. You’ll find Mexicans all over the world but anywhere in the world that I’ve gone, I’ve seen a gas mask or I’ve seen a Psycho Realm tattoo. A lot of people can’t say that. So, the accomplishments are there. I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished. The music that my brother, myself, Cynic and the rest of the crew has done, I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. No one can take that away with their stereotyping because I think we’ve accomplished more than a lot of people.
Psycho Realm On Gas Mask Logo Fan Tattoos, “El Mundo Es Un Barrio”
DX: You mention the fact that you can see your gas mask logo around the world. You’re also reaching younger audiences with your music. What does that say to you about what your music has done for race relations amongst your fans and what it’s done for the younger generation?
Sick Jacken: It tells me that music is universal. It’ll bring people together. It also lets me know that our music is transcending generations. That’s a good thing because it means we’re gonna last a little longer. The way that these Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin tapes get passed down from older brother to younger brother, from dad to son, I think the same thing is happening with our music. That’s cool because it shows that it’s growing.
DX: Seeing the Psycho Realm tattoo is a testament to how much you may have impacted lives. That has to speak to you.
Sick Jacken: It means a lot to me when people do that, when people carry the symbol like that. Every time I see one, I try to take a picture of it to keep them all in a file to document it. One day maybe I could put them up so fans across the globe can see that they share something in common. But everywhere in the world that we’ve gone we’ve seen those tattoos. It’s a trip, man, that people put it on their bodies, that it means that much to them that they’re willing to put the logo on them. It makes for a good tattoo piece too, you know what I mean?
DX: One song that often comes up when we talk about global presence is “El Mundo Es Un Barrio” [roughly translated: The World is One Hood]. On the track, you show you’re able to spit in Spanish also, not just in English.
Sick Jacken: Yeah, man. I’m glad my parents forced me to speak Spanish at the house. Actually, when I was a kid, and I think for most of us [this is true], I started talking in nothing but Spanish. I didn’t learn English till I got to school. I was in ESL classes, English as a Second Language. I excelled in the language arts real quick but I always kept the Spanish. My parents used to tell me, “When you’re at the house, you speak Spanish. You can talk in English to all your friends.” That helped me to continue to use the language and still be somewhat fluent in Spanish. To be able to use that now that I’m creating music, it opens up a whole different world to me. It’s like entering through a different door and you’ve got this whole room to play in and paint in and it’s cool.
DX: Speaking of your parents, what was their initial reaction to Hip Hop? Were they already in tune with the culture? Did they not know much about the culture? Were they against it or supportive?
Sick Jacken: I think they liked it because we got into Hip Hop instead of gangs. It was cool. It wasn’t until we actually started taking it serious enough to where we wanted it to be a career that my dad started stepping up. He’d say, “Why don’t you become an engineer better? You’re good at math. Why don’t you study a profession? Music is not guaranteed. It’s a hard industry to get into. You should do something that’s more secure. Use your intelligence to do something more secure.” But we were already hooked, man. We wanted to do it. So, I think it wasn’t until it started happening, when he started seeing stuff happen with the music thing, he kind of got behind it.
DX: He recognized what was taking place?
Sick Jacken: Yeah. Like every parent, you want to see your kid be all right. When you leave this earth, you want to make sure they’ll be cool, set and they’re gonna be all right. Once he saw we made something happen with this music, he felt a little bit more at ease. He still would’ve preferred for me to be an engineer, I think.
DX: Really? Even though you’re traveling the world with this?
Sick Jacken: That’s what I told him. He used to tell me and my brother why couldn’t we be more like our neighbors. They went to Harvard and UCLA but you know, I think we’re doing all right.
DX: Maybe not Harvard, but you’ve been around the world. There’s a different learning experience there.
Sick Jacken: We’re doing our thing, man. With this job, we get to see the world. We get to meet people. We get to see and experience cultures firsthand. It’s a blessing to be able to do this and to be able to do this as a career.
DX: Colleges can’t always provide that kind of an education.
Sick Jacken: Nah. I went to college for a couple years. I had a scholarship. I chose to go to a community college though because I wanted to pursue the Rap thing. I was also using that money to take care of my daughter at the time. I was 19 with a baby so I was taking care of my old lady and my kid. That’s why I went to school. While I was in school, I was taking classes like piano, script-writing and poetry and things that were gonna help me with my music, which is what I really wanted to do.
DX: Coming from the Pico Union district, being Latino and having a different perspective on things because you’re coming from a different place than many other rappers, how do you think that creates a unique lane for you guys?
Sick Jacken: I think that’s exactly what it does. It creates a lane for us that not too many people drive on or can be on. That’s what makes us unique. That’s what makes what we do special. We have a different perspective, a different angle. One thing we always said was, “We don’t want to be in the mix, doing what everyone else is doing. We want to be on the outskirts, doing our own little thing, having our own little powwows.” That’s what we created. Sometimes it affects us because we’re not part of the industry so we get left out of certain things, when people get mentioned or acknowledged or have events going on. But for the most part, I think it’s a positive thing because it allows us to be on our own and not be compared with anyone else.
DX: You just said you get left out sometimes. Why do you feel that is? When you performed at Paid Dues, you guys had one of the biggest turnouts of the afternoon. It was hard to even enter the area where you were performing.
Sick Jacken: I think because we’re not right there in the mix or trying to rub elbows. I can’t really call it, man. We just do our own thing, stick to ourselves and do what we do. Some people work with us. Some people that didn’t work with us before are starting to work with us now. I don’t know. People think we’re a certain way. You know, we’re not around so people don’t really know us. They see the music. They see the crowds. They probably get an impression of us. But once they meet us and work with us, it’s a whole different thing. A lot of that is starting to turn around now. Promoters and people that didn’t work with us before are starting to work with us now.
DX: What do you think created that change? People just getting to know you?
Sick Jacken: That and this being undeniable. Like you said, when you go to Paid Dues and can barely get through the bunker where we’re performing, you gotta be blind to not see that. That and our track record of dealing with people, never kicking up dust in our business relationships. I think all of that made people feel a little more at ease. Of course, always, when people think they’re gonna make money with you, they’re gonna approach you.