As she looked around the booth-lined basement that was the Dinkytowner Cafe -- was as of last weekend, when the venue shut down -- Maria Isa sounded like an old sailor paying respects to a decommissioned battleship. Never mind that she's still only 22 and has many wars left to fight.
"My first show here was a Yo! the Movement show when I was 17, and it was packed with kids," she remembered in her muy-rapido verbal style (fast and spiked with Spanglish).
The St. Paul rapper/singer lamented the fact that the nonprofit youth program Yo! has also ceased to exist, as has the female hip-hop fest that helped launch her, Be Girl Be. A product of community-driven venues and arts programs, she fears they're being cast aside in the current economy.
"Those of us who benefited from these things can keep them alive by continuing to grow, and by doing what we set out to do," she said.
Since her coming-out as a Latina hip-hop artist, Maria IsaBelle Perez Vega certainly has grown. She has developed in the way that could make her protective abuela/grandma ban all men from her concerts. More important, she has blossomed in the way that turns aspiring performers into genuine artists.
Maria's second album, "Street Politics" -- which she's promoting with a release party tonight at First Avenue -- fleshes out her bomba- and reggaeton-enflamed hip-hop sound with an eight-piece band. The CD also raises her value as a sociopolitical rapper and cultural ambassador. When she sings the title track, she says that "I'm not just representing Puerto Ricans or [St. Paul's] West Side, I'm representing all boys and girls in the hood. I'm saying there's a way to rule and change government from the streets."
On record and behind the scenes, "Street Politics" is largely a family affair. Many of the songs were inspired by Maria's culturally active kin, including an uncle who died last year and her father, Harry Perez, an ex-Marine who "fought two wars: one in Vietnam and one on the streets of his hood," she said.
(Maria's grandfather also fought at Normandy and earned a double Purple Heart in World War II, so it's wise not to question the family's patriotism, even when they're calling for the liberation of Puerto Rico.)
The album will be issued on Sota-Rico Records -- a combo of Minnesota and Puerto Rico -- which is a company Maria started with her mother/manager, who has instilled artistic passion and cultural pride in Maria since Day One.
"Maria can make 'Sota-Rico' a known term, just like our new Supreme Court justice is doing for 'Nuyorican,' " boasted her mom, Elsa Vega- Perez, a longtime activist and philanthropist who has been a vice president for the United Way and a board member at the Otto Bremer Association.
Like Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, Maria's parents were born and raised to Puerto Rican immigrants in the projects of New York's Lower East Side, the heart of "Nuyorico." After Harry Perez returned from Vietnam, the couple moved to St. Paul.
"My mom thought she could gain more of an opportunity to fight for Latino rights here than in New York," Maria said. "One reason my mom became such an activist was because she saw my dad get drafted and the effects the war had on him and our whole community."
While she traveled to Puerto Rico many times throughout her youth, and still does, Maria said she learned plenty about her heritage just in Minnesota.
"My grandmother mostly raised me, because my parents were always working to put a roof over our heads," she remembered. "She lived in downtown St. Paul, but inside her apartment it was Puerto Rico. We talked nothing but Spanish, we ate Puerto Rican food, talked about Puerto Rico."
"People say, 'You're Puerto Rican? What part?' And I say, 'Yeah, I'm from the Minnesota part of Puerto Rico.' "
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When Maria was 5, her mom and aunt started a nonprofit arts center on the West Side called El Rico Iris ("the rainbow") to promote Puerto Rican music, dance and culture to their children.
"Maria knew she wanted to be a performer by the time she was 7," her mother, Elsa, recalled. "Even back then, she was a perfectionist. If she did the wrong dance step or whatever, she'd get really upset."
In 2002 she started performing with other El Arco Iris students in the folkloric music group Raices, by which time she was also teaching younger kids at the center. She's still an instructor there.
"She's an inspiration to the younger kids now," Elsa reported. "A couple of them begged their parents to stay up until 10:30 last weekend because Maria was going to be on KMOJ-FM, and when she did a shout-out to them they thought it was the biggest thing ever."
Maria also sang with the concert choir while attending St. Agnes High School in St. Paul. Like any American youth, she fell in love with hip-hop, and started writing her own rhymes as a teenager. Her older brother, Harel, was a close friend of Felipe Espinoza-Day of the pioneering Rhymesayers Latino rap trio Los Nativos, who was key in initiating her into the hip-hop scene.
"At about 15 or 16, I met up with Felipe and told him, 'I want to record a demo,' but he was like, 'You got a ways to go,' " Maria remembered. One of her first gigs as a rapper at 17 was opening for Los Nativos at 7th Street Entry: "I had backup dancers, bomba drums and half the West Side with me."
As she came up through the hip-hop scene, Maria also performed at salsa dance nights and clubs such as El Nuevo Rodeo and Babalu. The back-and-forth between rap gigs and Latino dance events made her a natural purveyor for what would be called reggaeton music, a hybrid of hip-hop and Caribbean dance music.
"I played reggaeton because, to me, it was the natural feel of the drum beat, not because it was popular," she said. "You can call me a reggaeton artist, hip-hop, or whatever, just don't try to box me in."
When Maria was chosen to perform at First Ave's Best New Bands of 2006 showcase, she took the "band" part literally. She experimented with different backing ensembles and eventually paired up with members of the Roots-like live hip-hop band Leroy Smokes, whose trumpeter/keyboardist Kyle (Highstyle) Borchert produced a local reggaeton compilation that featured Maria, "Thunder & Lightning."
"It was pretty effortless," Borchert remembered of their initial rehearsals. "Maria's in charge of the words, obviously, and we've built up a good working relationship collaborating on the music."
After a couple years together, the members of Maria's group have failed in her requests to come up with a name other than the Maria Isa Band, but they have clearly made a mark on her songs. New, rap-heavy tracks such as the Muja Messiah duet "Never Let Go" rock a little harder with the group. Meanwhile, the sweet-boys-are-dangerous dance romp "Caramelo" -- which plays off the fact that Maria is Type 1 diabetic -- suggest the Smokes guys could pass for full-blooded Latin musicians.
Some accompanied Maria to Puerto Rico in 2007, including Borchert. "I'm just a guy from Duluth," he said, "but we'll go over to Maria's house for a family barbecue and it'll feel like Little Puerto Rico, with the food and the music. It's inspiring to all of us."
One such barbecue took place last weekend, a familial celebration for Maria's CD release with the band and other musical supporters. Maria's dad called her during the interview at the Dinkytowner asking about numbers and food preferences. Half the conversation was in Spanish, but it sounded like Maria told him to fire up the usual full-on Puerto Rican extravaganza.
After hanging up the phone, Maria concluded with a smile, "They all know what you get when you come to a Maria Isa party."Not-so-American Idle
Burgeoning Brit-rock faves the Idle Hands will hand off their long-awaited full-length debut with a release party Saturday at the Kitty Cat Klub, an album hilariously titled "The Hearts We Broke on the Way to the Show." It also features a smirk-inducing gem called "The '80s Killed Your Boyfriend."
Unlike most local bands who sound like they came from the U.K., the Hands actually are led by a couple of blokes from Ireland, Ciaran Daly and his brother Criostoir. On record, the co-ed quintet is most reminiscent of the howling, scrappy, gutter-pop of the Libertines. There are plenty of hints of Bowie, Blur and even a little Manchester dance-floor vibe in "Cosmic Dancer." A warning, though: The song "The Fall" sounds nothing like the Fall. First Communion Afterparty and the Guystorm open (10 p.m., $5).CDs at the Cedar
After slimming his own frame down by 100-some pounds last year, Nicholas Mrozinski bulked up the size of his group. The Feelin' Band leader and one-time White Iron Band pianist enlisted 40 musicians to perform on his fourth CD, "Together We're Stronger," including members of WIB, the Big Wu, Heatbox, God Johnson, Gold Standard and even Desdamona. At times it actually sounds like too much is going on, with groovy Little Feat jams bumping up against Dave Matthews-ish feel-good choruses and even some electro-beats, but Mrozinski's John Hiatt-like howl and bouncy piano keep things flowing. Most of the CD's players will perform as the Feelin' Orchestra at tonight's CD party at the Cedar Cultural Center (8 p.m., $10-$12).
Meanwhile, a smaller all-star ensemble has a release party Saturday at the Cedar (8 p.m., $10-$12): GypsyMania, a Reinhardt/Grappelli-plucking acoustic jazz quartet with guitarists Glen Helgeson and Reynold Philipsek, "Prairie Home" violin vet Gary Schulte and standup bassist Jeff Brueske. Their eponymous debut includes four compositions from Django's catalog, three originals pieces, plus playful versions of Gershwin's "Summertime" and the Duke's "It Don't Mean a Thing."Random mix
Randy Casey's Dark Horse Revue will see the light of day Saturday at the Cedar. Casey and his pals (John Eller, Janey Winterbauer, lots more) are putting on a family-friendly version of their tribute to George Harrison as part of the venue's terrific, Target-sponsored children's music series (11 a.m., $6, $3 for kids). ... The Turf Club doesn't have its Grand Old Day tribute to Neil Young anymore, but it will have its weekly Old Stage acoustic setup Sunday with Charlie Parr and Javier Trejo (7 p.m.). ...
Halloween, Alaska and Lookbook each will play a free in-store set at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis on Thursday (7 p.m.) to promote the store's shop-local program MinnEconomy. ... With P.O.S. off touring the world much of this year, other members of Building Better Bombs are now playing in a new group called the Marijuana Deathsquads. They open for Gay Witch Abortion at the 501 Club tonight (10 p.m., free). ...
Sept. 1 is the official release date for Owl City's CD for Universal/Republic, titled "Ocean Eyes." One of the new tracks was streaming this week at Spin.com, which named the Owatonna-reared, MySpace-adored, synth-pop darling (Adam Young) a band to watch at last month's Sasquatch Festival. He and his new group, who have already sold out the Varsity twice this year, don't have another show booked until Sept. 26 at the Cabooze. ...
Tonight's gig by "Say Yeah" rapper Wiz Khalifa at Epic isn't just the first time the Pittsburgh MC has been to town. It's also a first for a new production company called Valid Choice, which is actually three students from Minneapolis' Institute of Production & Recording, Odell Sumpter IV, Ty Cody and David Wolfgram, who put the company together as a school project. St. Paul Slim and King Sandman also perform (10 p.m., $15-$20). Class dismissed.
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