Bodega Bamz is New York City. Talking to the Tanboys general is like talking to the 6 train, like talking to dominos being played on the stoop at 2 in the morning, like talking to the living incarnation of a bodega. When I make small talk in the beginning of our conversation and ask how he's doing, instead of the usual "I'm good" or "I'm fine," Bamz hits me with that avalanche of words and energy that seems to come from the water in Harlem.
"I'm just running around my city, yaknowwhatImsayin, doing these press runs, yaknowwhatImsayin, making sure everybody got their awareness on the album bout to come out, cause we about to change the game don't let the game change us, yaknowwhatImean."
It's the same high octane flow of syllables that echoes Diddy and Dame Dash's ability to completely take over a conversation, conquer a room with the sheer unstoppable force of their words, and that parallel is no accident. Those "yaknowwhatImsayin"s season his speech like salt on tostones, strategically placed to ensure there's never a pause in his speech, and it's that exact same speech that shows up in his music.
On "Mean Streets," the very first track off Bamz' new album, Sidewalk Exec, we get an outro from one of Bamz' Tanboy friends "talking that real Latino talk." Bringing those real street voices into the album is no accident, it's a time-honored tradition in hip-hop, especially amongst New York City rappers. Just as Biggie had Diddy around to talk that shit, Action Bronson has Big Body Bes around to talk that shit, Bamz knew he needed some good old fashioned shit talking on his album. As he said, "I always used to love how Roc-A-Fella used to do those intros just talking shit so I wanted to do something like that my version, the Latino version. People gonna hear that and have to go to their dictionary, go to their Google translator, be like 'what the fuck is he saying?'"
He's right. I can only follow a small handful of the words on the end of "Mean Streets" but I like not knowing. It lets me know I'm not in my world anymore. I'm somewhere new, a place Bamz is going to let me see through his album. That place is very definitively Spanish Harlem and Bamz is very definitively the product of an environment that has one foot in the U.S. and one foot in the Dominican Republic. That's why he's known to bust out "Suavamente" at shows, why a track like "Woopty Woop Blahzay Blah" flips between English verses and a Spanish hook.
It's a almost shockingly rare dynamic. According to the most recent U.S. census there are over 50 million Latinos living in the U.S., representing approximately 17% of the U.S. total population, yet there's somehow a noticeable absence of Latino rappers who are truly in the spotlight. How is it possible that such a large portion of the population, such a dynamic and diverse range of people, remain so nearly absoltuely unrepresented in the mainstream? It's something Bamz is very aware of, and something he's determined to change.
When I asked why he thought why we didn't hear more Latino voices on the upper ends of hip-hop he replied, "You have to be the one. Boedga Bamz and Tanboys, we're the ones. We're like Neo when it comes to our people. Those people don't come along all the time. The last time we had someone like that was Big Pun and he's been gone 15 years. You're gonna have super talented Latinos, you're gonna have super successful Latinos, but we don't have superstar Latinos. That's'just how the game is. I've created a buzz on my own, being Latino, that people just don't see. It's a gift and a curse. The gift being that it's refreshing, there's only one Bodega Bamz, there's only one Tanboys. The curse is people aren't used to it, they're not familiar. People don't know it is. Is it gimmicky? Is it real? That's the challenge I deal with everyday."
Really, it's the challenge of every artist attempting to do something new, and it's a challenge that can only be conquered by being completely, totally, unapologeticly yourself. From start to finish Street Executive is a thoroughly Bodega Bamz album and a thoroughly New York City album. Considering how deeply the DNA of the city is embedded into the music it's impossible to not see it within a larger movement of young NYC artists making waves and bringing the city back. In addition to Joell Ortiz, the Flatbush Zombies and more, the album's closing track contains a voicemail from the late-great A$AP Yams, the force behind the A$AP Mob that helped usher in a new generation of NYC artists in the national spotlight.
When I brought up Yams with Bamz, he was adamant that the Tanboys and the A$AP Mob were indeed part of the same energy, a larger movement. "I'm one of the creators of that," he said, "with the A$APs and with the Pro Eras and with Action Bronson and Flatbush Zombies and everyone. Just a whole bunch of young, wild fuckers who want to push the envelop and create. We did that. We put the attention span back on New York. When you have a conversation about New York and the resurgence you have to mention Bodega Bamz and the Tanboys. If you don't, obviously you ain't doing your job correctly."
That confidence, that refusal to be quiet, that quest for recognition, is New York City at its fullest. It's Dame Dash and blue Yankee fitted hats and late night trips to the bodega. It's Don Francisco references and bangers like "Billy Bats" and talking shit on your album. It's Bodega Bamz, it's the Tanboys and it's Sidewalk Exec. Ready or not, Bamz is dead set on changing the world, and he's bringing the bodega with him.
"I came in this motherfucker being who I am, that's how I'm going out this motherfucker." - Bodega Bamz
* Art by airzin87
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer/video+radio+podcast host. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]