Interview with hip-hop artist Rico Pabon

Posted Jan 5 2009

This past summer I spent a week as a guest of hip-hop artist Rico Pabon, a heavyweight in the Bay Area music scene, and his family in Puerto Rico, during which time I got to know him a little better as not just an MC, but a father, husband, and all around good guy. In full disclosure, I’ve known his wife Francis the past four years, but I had never actually sat down and had a full conversation with Rico until this trip. But through his work as the lead MC for groups O-Maya and Agua Libre, as well the co-owner of Sofrito, one of only a handful of Puerto Rican restaurants in the Bay, I was familiar with him outside of my friendship with his wife. I’ve been impressed with his body of work and one night we sat down and talked about life till the wee hours of the morning. Rico went way beyond music, talking about overcoming numerous obstacles in his life, community empowerment, and what it means to be a father and husband. There’s a lot here, but trust me, it’s well worth the read!

OK, let’s get some of the basics out of the way. I know your given name is Ray Pabon, so where’d the “Rico” come from?
In the first hip hop group I was in, Equal Justice, I started out as a dancer, but I started writing. I didn’t come up with the name, the others in the group did. It was probably a play on Puerto Rican, since that’s what I am. It was just a nickname that stuck.

This group was in Richmond (California). I moved out there when I was 14, during the second half of the 8th grade. Although I was born in Queens, I actually spent more time in California. The first move out to Cali was because my mother wanted to pursue a modeling career. She was a young mom. Sometimes I would go back to the East Coast for the summer, but most of my time was in California. I felt like we moved to California because my mom and stepdad were running from their problems and hiding from their families. My mother spent a lot of time trying to get clean. We moved back to New York when I was 10.

When I was 10 or 11 I ended up doing a lot of the work for my parents, who were managing apartments but due to their lives as heroine addicts that didn’t go so well. To keep us from being evicted I’d turn on the boiler in the building during the cold months and do the cleaning around the apartments. I got the name “Lil’ Man” because I would get up early and do that work, then go to school, while also taking care of my sister.

My parents later moved to Boston because they were on the run again. They pulled some big scam, hustling a bunch of people in New York. They rented out the same apartments to a bunch of people and collected their first and last months’ rent. So it was like three apartments were rented out to 10 different people. Then basically the day before they were supposed to move in, we left with all their money. At first I didn’t know what happened. We moved from the Bronx to the Roxbury area in Boston. They stayed and I moved back to Cali on my own. I was able to save up money and survive for a bit. I lived with my auntie for awhile but that didn’t work out so I moved in with a friend. I made money by hustling.

I moved back to Cali to get away from them. Plus it was more laid back and slower. I hated New York, but that probably has more to do with the people I was around. Everyone was depressed. I had homies who had it worse than I did. I love it now, but I’m just visiting.

Considering some of the obstacles you’ve had to deal with, what made you decide to pursue something as unstable as music?
At the beginning it was more selfish because it made me feel better; it helped me work my stuff out. It was real personal to help me reflect. As years passed, I worked through it, and I became more politicized, I reflected even more. I got past myself and asked why so many of my friends were going through the same thing. I was curious about why so many people were in these bad situations. Drugs affected me so much because it was in my house with my parents being addicted. So much of what I wrote affected that. As I began to heal and get past a lot of that pain, I could see I wasn’t the only one going through this and asked why so many of us go through this. More recently, I’ve thought about how hip hop helped me in so many ways; keeping me out of trouble. It kept me thinking. I made better decisions and developed greater critical thinking skills without going to school. Writing did that.

It was like going down a hallway and seeing that there are so many doors to go through. I could’ve been a totally (messed) upped person and felt justified in that. Once I realized how powerful it was, my intention changed. I want it to be personal, but it’s not for me anymore. It’s for those kids who are depressed and want to take their own lives; like I did. I want them to know that
they’re not alone, things can get better, and that they do control their own destinies. My experiences weren’t just in vain. I could document my experiences and people could hear about them and see that it’ll be all right. It’s like when I read books like Piri Thomas’ Down these Mean Streets, I didn’t feel so alone. It’s like people can grow from this stuff and shine. Words and music can change how people’s brains work and how they think. It’s like one of God’s tools. It’s way deeper than just putting words together and telling some ghetto stories. I’m writing for people I’ve never met; it’s for the kids who are going through what I went through, or what they’re about to go through. Music really saved my life.

So how long have you been making music?
I was about 16 when I started writing. I’m 34 now. From the beginning I was pretty serious and knew it wasn’t just a hobby. I think part of it was that it was just a healing thing. I had a lot of stuff going on in my life at that time. I had a lot of confusion and anger. Before that, I was dancing. That was my thing. But once I started writing, that was it. I should’ve kept doing both. I was a b-boy since forever.

Is anyone else in family into music?
My three uncles from my mother’s side, who I grew up with.  All three are salsa musicians and I grew up with Latin music. One of her sisters is an all-around musician and incredible vocalist. She plays all kinds of percussion. I hate to say it like this, but I don’t know how else to say it; but she plays “like a man.” What I mean is, we’re not used to seeing women rip it like she does. One time I had a bunch of my guys over, including my teachers and she was there. She came out in her little bathrobe and totally ripped it. She turned me on to American music; Rick James and Tina Marie were her stuff.

My grandfather was also a musician, although not  professional. Even my grandmother is a “freestyle fanatic.” She’ll write poems and start singing her own songs when she’s inspired. It’s a natural thing. All of my cousins play in a band or are singers. From a young age we’re all taught how to keep time with a clave, then move on to congas. I can’t think of one of my cousins who doesn’t play something; usually percussion. No one inspired me to be a hip-hop artist, but my rhythmic style comes from playing the conga and Latin music. I’ve never taken music classes, but while most people write their rhymes listening to an instrumental or banging on a table, I wrote to congas. I don’t know the musical terms, but my rhythm is a mambo rhythm, not the boom bap. That’s more simple and basic. Our Latin rhythms are more complex. You have to figure out how to ride it. So yeah, percussion has an influence on my style. It’s more circular.

I was in the South Bronx when "Criminal Minded" came out. Rakim was my stuff. That was the music of my youth. Yet Latin music was there too. Actually, I shouldn’t say Latin because it’s more African than anything. Music has been a blessing and a curse. We do it because we love it, but as a grown person trying to pay bills, it can be depressing when you’re passionate about it and it makes you happy, but if you’re not making money, it’s sad. You have to make money. You can’t think rationally and just put music on the side. You can try to lie to yourself, but it doesnt’ work like that; you’re always looking to find outlets. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten up at 2 AM, knowing I had to be up at 5:30, but I don’t want to shut that creative flow off. Music itself isn’t the curse, it’s the fact that we need to make so much money to survive in this society. When I ran the restaurant, it would’ve been easier if I could’ve turned that passion off. Life would’ve been easier. I was hungry to get back on the mic. It was hard watching people who had the time, blowing their chance and not having that passion.


1. DJ Graffiti said at January 13, 2009 1:02 am:

This interview is great. It was a longer read than I expected, but well worth it! I feel like I might be biased, since I've been in your interviewee chair, but I still have to say your interviews always seem to reach so much deeper than any others I've read. Good job homie!

Add your own comments