Interview: Los Rakas

Panamanian cousins from Oakland spark a new global beat.

FOR THOSE ABOUT TO RAKATAKA Los Rakas fly the flag for Panamanian style.

FOR THOSE ABOUT TO RAKATAKA Los Rakas fly the flag for Panamanian style. Photograph: Sarah Jane Rhee

Los Rakas enjoy what may be a unique standing among hip-hop acts that rhyme en espanol. "Most of our fans don't speak Spanish," says Panama, a.k.a. Raka Dun, who forms the Bay Area duo along with his cousin, Rico, or Raka Rich. A border-defying conversation between hip-hop, dancehall, R&B and folkloric music from their native Panama, Los Rakas' "Panabay" sound has been embraced with equal enthusiasm by California Latinos, Oakland's post-hyphy rap scene, and tropical bass DJs like NYC's Uproot Andy (who remixed their breakout single, "Abrazame," a Panabay answer to Gyptian's "Hold Yuh") and Chief Boima.

Dun and Rico, who moved from Panama City to the Oakland area at ages 12 and 14, respectively, credit their country's unique cultural mix with inspiring their broad musical palette. (In fact, they began rapping first in English, then in Spanglish, before deciding to focus on Spanish rhymes). During the construction of the Panama Canal a century ago, workers from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands were brought in by the U.S.; today, West Indian patois is still spoken, while the popularity of reggae and dancehall approaches that of salsa and merengue.

"At parties growing up, they would play reggae and the youth would get up and dance, and then they'd play merengue and the older folks would come up," Dun says during an interview at Converse Rubber Tracks Studio in Williamsburg. Rico interjects: "And then they'd play Haitian music for the grandparents, and that's when everybody got up."

Although the U.S. Panamanian community is small, as is the market for rap in Panama, the group has begun making waves there, due partly to their name. "Raka comes from rakataka, a word to describe somebody from the 'hood," Dun says. "But the way [Panamanians] say it was negative, like, 'Damn those rakas!'" In Rico and Dun's hands, the term has been appropriated as a badge of honor, in much the same way American rappers have redefined ghetto. "Make our people be proud of what they are, that's what we're trying to do," Dun says.

In typical, multifaceted Los Rakas fashion, their infectious 2010 anthem "Soy Raka" spotlights the Oakland street-dance style known as turfing, a precursor to L.A.'s jerkin' movement. "In Panama right now, they are crazy about jerkin,'" Rico says. "We from Panama but also from Oakland, so we wanted to show our kids in Panama: Y'all like that, but you're gonna love this."

Their new, eight-song EP, Chancletas y Camisetas Bordadas, is Los Rakas' first label release after two mixtapes and numerous singles. It takes its name from a pair of Panamanian fashion staples: the colorful flip-flops and white tank tops with embroidered borders preferred by rakatakas.

"That's shit people in Panama might not appreciate, but us not being over here for so long, it's like, 'Damn, I miss that, how come they don't realize that's tight?'" Rico says. "You're not supposed to wear [camisetas bordadas] because it's considered gangster stuff. But it's beautiful. Nobody else in the world do it, so why you tripping?"

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