Mexican recording artists have long been subjugated to stereotypes projected on them by outsiders. They’re not all sombrero-wearing mustached men walking around with guitars. You’ll look to Mexico City to find Americanized acts making accessible pop music and walk away satisfied. Still, if you pay attention, at this very moment, there is a vibrant community being emboldened south of the capital by one man in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca, for how small it is, and in spite of its shout-out in Childish Gambino’s “This is America”, is still stuck in the mud of traditionalism. English is hardly spoken, the population is hardly sizable, and the clothes people wear there are still mostly reliant on generations past. The music produced by DJ TBear realizes this and works to assist women in feeling empowered enough to rap in their own native language in their own native country. There’s nothing that will drive change more than empowerment.
In the thick of the globe’s coated 2019 summer, Middle Mexico’s musical pioneer and founder of rap record label Bear House, DJ TBear, dropped a pin to his home studio, graciously offering the space for an on-location interview. The New York Times ran a Surfacing profile in 2018, where DJ T-Bear was credited with founding the label many women are signed to as rappers themselves. This makes TBear a crucial figure in the music industry south of our border, unwittingly or not. He is fighting the good fight.
The album DJ TBear produced in 2016 for Mare Advertencia Lirika is filled with nature sounds and wildlife expressions, recalling the same kinds of sounds Kanye West used in his WTT days. The album is carried on by soft strings, and grooves that feel authentically Mexican. The singing is heartfelt. Once the woman begins rapping, the production wraps around her vocals to keep up with her flow. Things start to get a little breezier 10 minutes in, which is when the authentic Mexican sound makes a return for more rapid fire raps from Lirika.
The repurposed garage exists in the hills in residential suburbia. The recording studio is aplomb with the usual: stacks of vinyl touching the ceiling, audio equipment scattered about like crisp leaves looking up at door hinges on a windy day. The homes surrounding the artist are slightly elevated but otherwise plain-looking. There’s a Starbucks nearby.
Headquartered here, on the outskirts of San Felipe de Agua, an upscale suburb of the city center, DJ TBear’s figure is cut like a gentle giant. Well over six feet tall, his enormous glasses work hard to frame his face. He looks like the typical producer and studio owner. He settles into the studio, and after some niceties, we begin our interview to find out more about what the artist stands for, the label Bear House Co., what his vision for Oaxaca is, and what’s next for Oaxaca and him.
This interview was originally conducted in Spanish and has been lightly edited for clarity. Translator: Oscar Anthony Vanegas.
Mustafa Abubaker: What was the first day of Bear House Studio Company?
DJ TBear: It was a small home studio around 2008. It was first when I started to record people who rap in Oaxaca, Mexico. In 2008, we started doing more recordings, and we were progressing. We did more beat making, and that was the start. That was the start of Bearhouse Studio Company, but I started doing rap in 2002.
Abubaker: How do you describe Bear House Studio Company music?
TBear: The music is rap. The majority is heavily influenced by the 1990’s rap in the United States. Tupac, Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious BIG “Biggie Smalls” and Dr. Dre. That was the influence. For beat producing, my biggest influences were DJ Premier. DJ Premier and Dr. Dre have been my influences. The people who record in Bearhouse Studio have beats like that type. Type from the 90s. The rap has lyrics that range from different topics. Some lyrics talk about parties. Lyrics talk about what is happening in society or a problem.
Abubaker: Why are all the artists in Bear House Studio women? Why are there no men?
TBear: I started doing this in 2002. The people that I started with are the initiators of rap in Oaxaca, Mexico. At that time, we were called a different name. When I lived in Baja California, Mexico, my group was basically West Side Connection. In 2004 women started to join. They formed the first group in Oaxaca, Mexico that was called Libertencia Lyrica (Lyrical Liberty). I produced some of their songs and one of their CD’s. Now the women that are in Bearhouse Studio Company, a lot of them talk about different topics. Some of them rap about parties. For example, a rapper who is not directly connected with Bearhouse Studio Company, one the initiators of rap in Oaxaca, Mexico, whom I have worked with and produced a CD with, is Mare Advertencia Lirika. That CD, all the songs are mine. She does consciousness rap and empowers women. For example, Aries, another girl who is with Bearhouse, her rap is more party-like. Also, there are men in Bearhouse, but I have had more success with women.
Abubaker: What was your thought process in making Bear House Studio Company?
TBear: The name is from my nickname. Oso, which is a bear in Spanish. When I was younger, I played American football. They called my nickname Oso. From there, I stayed with that nickname, and I used it as my DJ name. I called my studio the house of the bear. That was my thought process for the name. For the studio, I do not want it to just be a small studio. I make t-shirts; we want to make a clothing brand. That is what Bear House is. It is a brand.
Abubaker: In what creative state is Bear House Studio Company?
TBear: Right now, we are in reconstruction. There are new, and there are people who left. We are working on a CD for one of the new MCs called Reves Martinez. We have nothing recorded for now. We have small collaborations with Mara Advertencia Lirika. Another with one rapper from Oaxaca, but he lives in Fresno, California. For now, we are working on beats and production. I am working on a DJ competition and will be competing in the Red Bull Freestyle competition.
Abubaker: How do you incorporate American and foreign styles when producing?
TBear: For the time that I lived in Baja, California, I have a lot of influence from the rap of the United States. I try to equilibrate by integrating Latin and Mexican things and music from Oaxaca. I find the balance. My music and production have to do more with rap from the USA, though.
Abubaker: What did you do to start your projects?
TBear: If you are asking in what ways I find inspiration for my projects when I start them, let’s say, I like to listen to music. Mexican music, like “Tigres del Norte” or funk genre from the USA. Also, jazz music. All that is what I listen to inspire me to work on something. When I am not working from a music perspective, we are working on t-shirt designs. We want to start making t-shirt designs for our company.
Abubaker: Are there visuals and videos for Bear House Studio Company?
TBear: For the moment, there are no music videos. There are a few small music videos. There is not anyone that we have recorded a music video with high production. First, we want to make sure an artist has made it big in the industry. Oaxaca has a market that is not as popular as Guadalajara or Monterrey. It is harder to make it here.
Abubaker: Will we see Bear House Studio Company in the United States?
TBear: I hope so. I hope to go to the United States to play as a DJ. That is a dream.
Abubaker: What are your thoughts on the state of the music industry?
TBear: The industry in Mexico is growing, but it is growing with modern rap with no real containment. For example, I listened to rap in the ’90s. Tupac can rap about drugs and another song rap about consciousness. “California Love” talks about gangster life, but “Keep Your Head Up” talks about helping women. In Mexico, rap is more about gangster and unrealistic things that the rapper is most likely lying about. But that is what is selling right now. Same in the United States. Trap music is what is selling in the USA. In Mexico, you can get a trap beat to be more present in the scene.
Abubaker: What is the biggest problem in music in Oaxaca and Mexico?
TBear: The biggest problem in music in Mexico, and I lived it as DJ and rapper, is… If you have ever heard the comparison of Mexico to crabs. The one who wants to get out, the other crabs hold you back. People hold you back. In the USA, people support you. In Mexico, if they see you rising, then people talk bad about you and try to hold you back. There is no support from the community for a rapper trying to make it big and become a star. If they see you rising to the top, people try to hold you back. In Mexico and Oaxaca, that is the biggest problem.
Abubaker: How would you describe Oaxacan hip-hop?
TBear: This is how it was in 2002. We started with lyrics with party and not that much consciousness rap. From there, things started to blossom. Consciousness rap, party rap, gangster rap, trap rap. From a straightforward way of rapping, there have been more and more branches added to the genre.
Abubaker: What makes Oaxaca different?
TBear: What makes this rap different from the rest of the country? There is nothing that makes it different. I once thought the idea, but at that time, I was further ahead of my time. I used to listen to “Dirty South” rap, which is Texas rap and Mississippi rap, but there was no one in Oaxaca to rap on those beats that I produced. I wanted Oaxaca to have their own sound, but it never happened. I want Oaxaca to have a sound that is different from the rest of the country… a sound that is from Oaxaca and different.
Abubaker: What is the culture of Oaxaca music?
TBear: What is specific to the music from Oaxaca is how some sounds are from bands, like “Dios Nunca Muere.” That is what marks the trademark sound of Oaxaca.
Abubaker: What is your responsibility at Bear House Studio Company?
TBear: I am the owner and beatmaker.
Abubaker: What are you working on right now?
TBear: What I am working on now is making beats for one of my own CD’s. I haven’t had the chance to make my own thing where I work with artists. I usually do work where I come out as a producer, but I want to come out with something as my own.
Abubaker: What do you think about Latin artists like Bad Bunny?
TBear: I think Latin people boost Bad Bunny because of the way paved by Daddy Yankee. The ones who started Latin music really paved the way. They opened the lanes for artists like Bad Bunny to make it. I like his rhythm because it is trap, but I don’t always like his lyrics. I listen to American rap. I like Ozuna, who is another Spanish artist, more. I feel like this is the result of a lot of artists opening the lane for today’s artists being so successful.
Abubaker: If you make music with someone, who would it be?
TBear: With a rapper, in today’s time, I like J. Cole. I like how he raps. Joey Bada$$ too. I like how he raps. Older times, I would like to work with Tupac. DJ Premier.
Abubaker: Why don’t you rap in English if it is so popular?
TBear: A lot of times, it is the difficulty of learning the English language. The rap in English has more words that you can cut. It is more malleable. “Thank you” can turn into “thanks.” There is more fluidity in English rap. I don’t understand a lot of rap, but I like the flow on the beats. I desire to learn the language better.
Abubaker: Do you have merchandise for Bear House?
Abubaker: What is next for Bear House in the future?
TBear: Reconstruction. We want new people. There have been rappers that left, and we are looking to get new artists. We also want to empower the brand. We want the t-shirts to be more known. We have been promoting our shirts in Fresno, California, and are looking to expand the brand.
Born July 25, 1993, in Queens, New York, Mustafa ‘Mus’ Abubaker is a Pakistani American writer and editor from Atlanta, Georgia. He enjoys reading, cooking, and running. Visit his website, follow him on Twitter, and on Instagram.