Chicano Rapper Conejo on Releasing Music as a Wanted Man

Conejo isn't listening to hip-hop
Conejo isn't listening to hip-hop
Speedie nak
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If ever find yourself in a car with Conejo and you get the aux, here's a word of advice: Don’t put on your favorite hip-hop album.

The Mexican-American rapper, born Jose Martin, doesn’t listen to rap music. At least, he tries his best not to. It’s a surprising choice for someone who’s dedicated their life to making hip-hop, but his reasoning is as unexpected as his preference.

“I don’t want to be influenced by anything,” he explains as we ride through Phoenix. “When I get in the studio, I want it to be just me.”

The independent rapper, who will be performing at the Monarch Theatre on Friday, August 16, for The Phoenix Rising show, has built a legacy rife with unexpected choices. He’s not timid about his past as a gang member. Growing up in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, Martin became involved with the infamous Harpys Gang, which has been linked to the Mexican Mafia, at a very young age.

Inevitably, his lifestyle landed him in trouble more than once. A death at a 2001 house party forced the budding rapper to flee the country. While living as a fugitive in Mexico, Martin was placed on the FBI’s most-wanted list under suspicion of murder. He stayed underground for 15 years before being extradited to the U.S. In 2018, all charges against Conejo related to the murder were dropped, giving the musician the freedom to promote his music in a big way.

Conejo’s early albums set a precedent for his musical persona. Rapping in Spanish as fluently and frequently as he does in English, the artist paints a vivid picture of what gang life is like. For example, on tracks like "Conejo" from his 2016 album, Shady Conejo, he opens up about living a life you can’t escape, while at the same time constantly dealing with the threat of death or betrayal. The same gritty sound translates to his best-known album, 2005’s Fallen Angels. The project was pushed into the spotlight after the single “Let's Ride” was featured on the popular crime drama The Shield.

Now, at 44 years old, Conejo is creating a new narrative for himself. In the past, he made music to speak about his own life as a means of therapy. Now, he’s speaking to warn others of the dangers of street life. He’s telling his truth, as he lived it.

“I made music from the trenches,” he said. “I lived this shit. With my music, I bring my fans with me.”

On the rare occasion that Conejo isn’t making music, he spends his days on film and television sets. Recently, he’s linked up with Training Day writer David Ayer for the upcoming film The Tax Collector. He’s also slated to make an appearance in the Fox television series Deputy. For now, he’s keeping tight-lipped about his roles in the projects, which are scheduled for release in late 2019 and early 2020, respectively.

“It’s super-secret shit,” he said of his acting debut. “You’ll see. We’re real excited.”

Until then, he’s maintaining his decades-old habit of releasing music en masse. Since he started releasing four-track demos in the ’90s, Conejo hasn’t gone a year without releasing at least one album. While on the lam, he released an incredible 63 albums on iTunes alone. Hood God 2, which was released last July, makes it clear that the performer has no intention of slowing down.

Conejo has taken his old life and used his past to rise above his circumstances. Hopefully, his fans are down for the ride.

Conejo is scheduled to perform Friday, August 16, at Monarch Theatre. Tickets are $32 to $84 and can be purchased via Eventbrite.

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