It’s impossible to know Los Rakas and not respect, or at the very least appreciate, their hustle. Behind what many fans see as glitz, glamour, and the rockstar lifestyle lies a work ethic that’s taken them from the youth centers of Oakland to festivals worldwide in just eight years.
Los Rakas signed to Universal Latino earlier this year and marked the occasion with a double-album debut, something a group like Outkast was able to do only after they’d already cemented their careers. They also signed a partnership deal with Hennessy and have toured nearly non-stop this year with appearances in intimate venues as well as large festivals. As if that weren’t enough, the duo has kept up an incredible pace releasing something new every two or three months like clockwork for the past two or three years.
I caught up with Los Rakas last month at the afterparty for NCLR’s ALMA Awards. The duo was scheduled to perform a brief set that night as a warm-up for their set at the inaugural Supersonico Festival the following day. We spoke backstage where they spoke about their work ethic, how they’ve evolved as performers, and how growing up in Panama and Oakland shaped their music.
I noticed you’ve released A LOT of music in different formats regularly over the past couple of years.
Ricardo: We write a lot of music. We stay in the studio all the time. One thing I say to a lot of people, and I don’t mean to sound conceited or anything, but our work is seven years strong and probably 10, 7 years ahead of the game. Plus we stay trying different things, experimenting with other producers and it sets us apart from what everybody else is doing. It’s not like we can’t do what everybody else is doing in the same genres and styles of music but we really love what we do. When we get in the studio, we’re not thinking about what everybody else is doing. We’re just going in and taking it a step at a time. Sometimes these songs don’t happen as fast as people think. Sometimes it takes six months or two years to finish one song.
Dun Dun: We got songs stacked up. Some songs that we put out maybe even tomorrow, they’ve been in the vault like six months ago.
R: Or longer, let’s be honest. We had songs we just released that we’ve had since 2009.
D: With the last album, a lot of them, like, four or five of those songs are like five year’s old. We also wait for perfect timing. Probably, if we had dropped some of the songs that we dropped when we did them, people probably wouldn’t have understood it. We’re letting our fans grow with us. When we feel it’s the right time to drop it, we drop it.
Was signing with Universal Latino part of that philosophy of waiting for the right moment?
D: Yeah, and it wasn’t like that was the first time a label approached us. Many labels approached us before that but it wasn’t the right time or the right label. With Universal, we felt comfortable and they understood our vision. They want to help make that vision bigger. It wasn’t like the other labels that would come like “I like you guys but I think you should start wearing this or start singing this.”
Or “it’s too experimental” or whatever. They wanted something more Top 40-ish like, say, Pitbull.
R: Yeah, not that there’s anything wrong with Pitbull, but why limit yourself to just one genre of music when you have so many others to experience? Really, we do it organically because that’s how we grew up listening to music. We listen to all genres of music and we don’t do it to try to be cool…that’s how we grew up in our household. Even if I didn’t want to listen to that style of music, that’s what I’m going to listen to because that’s what our tia’s playing.
D: In the beginning, we didn’t even think of it. A lot of people would tell us “you guys are different.” On one of my verses, I say we’re “original por accidente (original by accident).” It’s not like when we started writing we were like “ah, we’re going to make something original and we’re going to have our own sound.” It just happened naturally.
R: The people were the ones that brought it to our attention. Like, “you guys are different” and we got to thinking “you know, maybe we are.” Sometimes you do gotta give yourself some props because, sometimes, you need to in order to keep getting better and better.
Yeah, you gotta step back for a second and see your work for what it is. Thankfully, your musical experiments worked out fine in your case.
D: Exactly! Thank God our whole experiment sounded good because it could’ve been bad too! There’s a bunch of experimental out there that is like…uuugghhhhh!
R: Yeah but our stuff might not be for you too and there’s nothing wrong with that. I guarantee you this though: out of all of the songs you might not like, there will be one that you will like even if you don’t listen to this style of music or that style of music.
How long have you been together?
D: Eight years ago. In 2006, we put out our first mixtape out of the youth centers over there in Oakland. That’s really who helped us become Los Rakas.
R: For those who don’t know who we are, we are from Panama originally. Our ethnicity is Panamanian and we started doing music in the Bay Area, in Oakland, in San Francisco. That’s where our music comes from. It wasn’t born in Panama. It was born in the Bay Area and that’s why we stick out from anybody else because there’s never been nothing like that. Usually Caribbeans that come from these places usually go to New York. When we ended up in Oakland, we stuck out because when you think about Panama, nobody knew where Panama was until we were like “yo, we’re from Panama” and everybody’s like “where’s that?” Now when you know or meet somebody from Panama, they go to Los Rakas.
Keeping your home country on a map is a nice side-effect of your music.
R: Putting Panama on the map and the Bay Area to Panama because a lot of people, when they think of California, they think about L.A. Even people in the United States do that! Now, we be wearin’ the Raiders’ stuff, representing the Bay Area and now if you go to Panama, you see people wearing the Raiders’ outfit.
How does it feel to see that with your own eyes?
R: It feels good because it’s something that we never expected and it just shows how much influence we have in what we do and our craft. People like what we do and it’s a good feeling. We were just doing music but now it became a fashion thing too. It becomes so many other things that you never thought of.
D: Even with the word “Raka.” In Panama, it was to describe somebody from the ‘hood in a negative way. Ever since we started using the word and telling people that just because you’re from the ghetto doesn’t mean you’re a negative person. If you’re a raka, be proud of being a raka. Since then, a lot of people in Panama have been saying “I’m a raka” like Raka Felipe or whatever.
Going back to what you said about putting the Bay Area on the map, your work has also put a positive spin on Oakland.
D: There’s a lot of good things that come out of Oakland and we’re the perfect example of that. There were like three youth centers in Oakland that helped us become who we are. There’s a lot of positive things going on in Oakland.
R: We want to inspire the people from Oakland and that come from Oakland. We’re from Panama and we came to Oakland and we saw opportunity and took advantage of it. Look where we’re at now. That’s why we always rep where we’re from.
Austin: Los Rakas will perform at the Sahara Lounge on Wednesday, Nov. 26 with Orion & Pagame of Peligrosa and Benzo of Dub Academy. RSVP on Facebook here. Hear more music from Los Rakas on bandcamp here.