Cellblock Salsa

Obie Bermudez, Jerry Rivera, and Vico C bring an unfiltered prison consciousness back to Puerto Rican pop

In the heady, right-on 1970s, an article in the magazine P'Alante!, published by radical Nuyorican political outfit the Young Lords, once called U.S. prisons "concentration camps" for young black and boricua men. Deep.

At that time, the stars of the new Nuyorican musical movement known as salsa sang about crime and criminals and doing time. In the '80s, though, salsa got sappy and songs about street life all but disappeared. Then, wouldn't you know it, the prison population in the United States doubled over the past decade, mostly as a result of lengthy mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes -- a disproportionate number of those incarcerated being poor and African-American or Latino.

Maybe that explains a renewed crop of songs by Puerto Rican artists about prison life. First came the beautiful Obie Bermudez song "Cuatro de Julio (Fourth of July)" last summer about an inmate imagining a reunion with his lover after being released from prison. Co-written by Bermudez with genre legend Rubén Blades, the song harks back to classic salsa, when being Puerto Rican in New York meant not only being proud but also being politically conscious and recounting the problems faced every day by el pueblo. (Blades is Panamanian, but he used to say back in the day that he was Puerto Rican, too, because salsa is a "Puerto Rican emotion.")

"As soon as my brother was arrested, I wanted to write a song about it right away," says Bermudez of his inspiration. "I wanted people to know what it's like to have a brother in jail and how he's feeling and what he's going through."

Bermudez says he turned to Blades for help in finishing the song. "He came up with the chorus and put the Rubén stamp on it," the singer says, smiling. Blades also helped the younger songwriter connect his brother's prison experience to the earlier exploitation of young men of color during the Atlantic slave trade.

In popular Caribbean history, the rumba -- and specifically the sensual guaguancó -- is believed to be a dance enslaved Africans performed with hips and spine because their feet were shackled. "Fourth of July" opens with a guaguancó, then builds into an ecstatic burst of West African percussion and gospel-style vocal rapture.

"Musically, it's very soothing," Bermudez points out. "It's a story about freedom."

A few months after Bermudez released "Fourth of July" on his album Confesiones, baby-faced hunk Jerry Rivera put out a tribute album, Canto a Mi Idolo, Frankie Ruiz. One of the biggest stars of the sensual salsa era of the '80s, the sweet-throated Ruiz nevertheless shared a taste for hard drugs with many of his macho elders, which led to his conviction for crack possession in 1988 and a 14-month stint in federal prison in Orlando.

"For me it was a big shock to hear that he had been arrested," says Rivera, a high school Frankie fanatic at the time.

The younger salsero chose Ruiz's 1992 post-release hit "Mi Libertad" as the first single from his Ruiz tribute and filmed the video in a federal prison in Puerto Rico. Rivera has been in jail before to visit friends he grew up with, but still, he was intimidated when the video shoot took him inside the cells.

"When you look out the window, there's absolutely no way to get out," he recalls with a shudder. "Wearing the uniform, with all these enormous guards around; psychologically, you're an inmate."

There's nothing in his straight-up remake of "Mi Libertad," though, that conveys the edge that hard living and hard time eventually put in Ruiz's voice. Rivera's sweetness sounds incongruous, coming off as more of a Christmas carol than a jail lament. An effort to rough up the track by inviting veteran island rapper Voltio to lay down a few rhymes doesn't just come off as corny; the pair don't even sound like they're delivering the same song. It might have been a better idea -- Nat "King" Cole, necrophiliac style -- just to have Voltio rap over Ruiz's original track.

"For me, Frankie Ruiz was more believable," observes Vico C, the undisputed pioneer of Puerto Rican rap, about Rivera's remake. "If a person is going to record, it should be someone who's lived the experience, especially something as specific as being in prison. Voltio does know what he's talking about, so the song worked better for him."

Vico C knows what he's talking about, too. Like Ruiz, the rapper did time on charges of drug possession. He's also pissed; as in, yeah, I did drugs and so do plenty of other people, so why am I in jail? When he ended up doing six months in Orlando at the beginning of 2003 for breaking parole, he was pissed off enough to write his 10th and best album, En Honor a la Verdad.

Gone is the preachy, born-again tone with which he announced that he had kicked his heroin habit on the 1998 comeback album Aquel Que Había Muerto and again with 2002's Emboscada. Verdadopens by making a virtue out of Vico's battle with addiction, as Vico recites the Bible's promise: "If the just man falls 70 times/God will lift him up 70 times," backed by an eerie church organ, frantic violins, police sirens, and an insistent drum track in an intro that ends abruptly with the heavy clank of a prison door.

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