Perhaps one of the greatest mysteries in Houston hip-hop is "What happened to Aztek Escobar and Roc La Familia?" The Latin-minded record label founded in July 2005 by Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter was an extension of Roc-A-Fella Records and is now, for all intents and purposes, defunct.
But before it went nonoperational, Houston's 24-year-old Miguel Gomez, better known as Aztek Escobar — who uses the microphone to evoke the strongest of emotions and tell real-life stories of the streets — did what most hip-hop observers on the surface would describe as the unthinkable, but was to Aztek a natural evolution of his life's vision.
He walked away from Roc La Familia.
At the end of 2007, Escobar asked the greatest rapper alive to let him go from his label face to face, man to man. Since that happened, Aztek has remained completely silent about the severed business relationship, while, pursuant to the split, contradicting those legal and technical developments with the label through strong proclamations that "I am Roc La Familia. It ain't over 'til I say it's over" in his lyrics and YouTube videos.
That, without a doubt, left a tremendous gray area for those who wanted, and still want, concrete, definitive answers about why Aztek and the label broke ties, but Aztek has been virtually silent on the subject.
But in a sudden turn of events, Aztek granted us his first interview in three years to shed light on the great mystery that's hung over Houston's Latino hip-hop scene. The answer is perhaps less climactic and more predictable than people would want.
Still, Aztek's personal reasoning and justification for walking away draws inspiration from, and gives more definition to, the fact that Houston hip-hop is in itself perhaps too round in its "pop-trunk-selling, independent, we-are-our-own-CEO" philosophy to fit in the square major-label holes that control an artist businesswise and creatively.
In 2005, when the hip-hop national spotlight shone brightest on Houston, that certainly wasn't the mentality. Major labels were mining Houston's ghetto caves for new talent, and found it in artists like Chamillionare and Mike Jones.
Aztek was another nugget, the first artist to be signed to Jay-Z's Roc La Familia. Things for this Houstonian, raised by an all-woman family, changed dramatically.
Before Roc La Familia, Aztek had to bully his way into all-black clubs to gain very hard-earned respect and wait for hours in radio-station lobbies to hand DJs freestyles they could play on the radio. After, he rode with Jay-Z in a Rolls-Royce Phantom to Toronto and posed for paparazzi with Kanye West.
"Being at the top" is a cliché, but Aztek was there. He was deep in stardom.
Boxing is his passion, and there's footage on the Internet of Aztek and Freddie Roach, famed trainer of Manny "Pac-Man" Pacquiao, having casual conversation. In the same video, Atlanta's Young Jeezy spots Aztek in a crowd and embraces him like a brother.
Latino hip-hop followers growing up in Texas are often known to embrace black urban culture as a way of life but still maintain a deeply rooted pride in their Hispanic heritage, so the rise of East and West Coast artists like Big Pun and Cypress Hill inspired pride. Still, that music, however popular and embraced, didn't necessarily represent their unique upbringing and experiences in Texas.
But after the great industry strides made by South Park Mexican, news of Aztek's teaming with Jay-Z put him in a position to be Houston's next great brown hope, especially for Texas's many Mexican Americans who found it tricky to relate to the Chicano rap of California or the Puerto Rican flow of New York.
Though Colombian, Aztek grew up in Houston, where a large majority of Hispanics are Mexican-American, and he expressed their street experiences through emotional storytelling and powerful lyrical delivery. His joining Roc La Familia represented a rare instance of black-brown unity, and looked like an exciting sign of things to come. Jay-Z was creating a platform for the nation's burgeoning Latino hip-hop audience to have something to call its own, and Houston was first at-bat.
But when Aztek first signed on, Jay-Z said something at the beginning of his Latino signing's mixtape that might have been an eerie manifestation of the things that were about to happen.
"Much bigger than just music, it's the coming together of black and brown people," Jigga declares. "Oh, they gonna shut us down for this one, but before they do we gonna have a great time. Aztek, let them know what we about to do to the world, carbon."
Jay-Z refers to "they," a vague word that often pops up when some Latinos talk about their community's progress or lack thereof. "They" sometimes refers to "the man," or unseen forces that don't want to see Latinos rise up in a given industry or society in general. Oftentimes, "they" is dismissed as a conspiracy theory or an easy scapegoat, but in this case "they" have a face — one Aztek says he saw up close.
After Roc La Familia swung a deal for Aztek to endorse Crown Royal liquor, "they" interrupted a photo shoot. It was the first of many instances that made Aztek think he was going to become a problem for the major-label business. In the interview, he spoke passionately about representing his Latino community and how black and brown people need to "beat the ghetto and rise up."
"I didn't know somebody in the crowd was watching me," he says today, referring to the Crown Royal representative who interrupted his interview. "This lady comes out of nowhere and said, 'Hey, you can't talk like that. You can't say stuff like that.'
"By the end of the thing, she and a couple of other black suits were around me telling me, 'You can't talk like that.' That bothered me," he continues. "[I thought] 'This is not right. This is not what it's supposed to be.'"
Aztek maintains that it's ten times harder for a Latino rapper to make it in hip-hop than a black artist. Not because corporations don't know how to access the Latino consumer market, he says, but because they don't know what product to give them.
"It's not [that] they don't know how to target the Hispanic people, it's that there's not corporations set up to give them what they really want [musically]," says Aztek.
"Putting Latinos through the current major-label process doesn't make sense for us in the barrio. It doesn't reach the right people. A lot of people don't want Latinos to make it because once we set up our own process, it's going to be our own process and no one's going to be able to fuck with us."
Or could it be that if Latino artists are put at the forefront, will their community's spending power be diverted to these musicians rather than the current pool of non-Latino artists? It's a nonsensical fear Aztek says the music industry has.
In reality, though, it's just another revenue stream. There's enough of the pie to go around, and Latinos' buying power is in no danger of spreading itself too thin.
"Hispanics, who are they buying?" asks Aztek. "They are buying black artists. What happens when Latino [rappers] pop off? 'They are going to buy him and not buy us.'"
"We are just giving them another option," he continues. "There will be enough money for everybody."
In the end, Aztek says his separation from the label came down to business moves and music he simply didn't want to make. In other words, his life's vision clashed with Roc La Familia's plans for him.
"They wanted me to make a certain kind of music, certain kinds of songs," he says now. "It wasn't part of my vision. I can't stray from this vision. If I stray from this vision, I'm dying, and I don't plan on dying anytime soon."
So he met with Jay-Z and other Roc La Familia executives.
"Sometimes following my heart, what I believe in, clashes with the game," he says. "I sat down with [Jay-Z] in the meeting and said, 'Legally, let me go. I don't want to make these moves.'
"Jay said, 'Take a week to think about it. I told him, 'I've been thinking about it and I've made the decision.' He said, 'No problem, done deal.'"
"That's what a real leader does," continues Aztek. "His followers follow him, not because they have to, but because they want to. I don't represent the Roc because I have to, but because I want to."
Institutionally, according to Wikipedia, Roc La Familia doesn't exist anymore. The site says four albums by artists signed after Aztek were never released, including Aztek's Colombian Necktie.
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Aztek was indeed in good company. Hector "El Father," N.O.R.E., Tru-life and Dimitri "El Boss" made up the rest of Roc La Familia's roster. For Aztek, Roc La Familia lives until he decides to let the movement die.
"When we did Roc La Familia, it was a whole other thing born into the universe," he says. "Seeing the people throw their [country's] flags up, people not being afraid to be Hispanic, proud of how they look and seeing [Latinos] make a name for themselves in hip-hop, giving my people opportunities and jobs, those were my greatest moments."
"Jay is always going to be a best friend of mine," he continues. "Jay's always going to be familia. When you say Roc La Familia, you can't say that without saying Aztek. When you say Wolf Pack, you can't say that without saying the barrio, and when you say the barrio, you can't say that without saying the people and that's what this was for — it was for the people."
Whether "they" like it or not.