Sometimes music is the only facsimile of an answer to our modern troubles. The right album at the right time can offer insight and solace when all semblance of reason escapes us. On the day a coward, fueled by racist and fascist rhetoric, drove hundreds of miles to shoot innocent shoppers at an El Paso Wal-Mart, the album I found myself listening to that afternoon was Mexstep’s Resistir.
There are few records that could deliver the response built to overcome such a horrific moment, but this recent album by the San Antonio (by way of Houston) veteran rapper and educator burns with a call to fight the power. Its complex beats and rhymes encourage understanding, unity and, above all, action. It’s a love letter too and an open window on a culture that’s suddenly misunderstood and under siege in Trump’s America.
“The album signals a call to resist the colonial state of mind that has us fighting ourselves and each other while the power structure continues to oppress,” explained Marco Cervantes, who performs as Mexstep in solo work and as part of the acclaimed hip hop project Third Root. “This is tied to Trump and his supporters because the hate they spew is linked to histories of occupation, colonization and violence. That’s why ‘With Us’ and ‘Clear’ are the first tracks on the album. I wanted to begin with an acknowledgment of violence against indigenous people and stealing of land and link these atrocities to what’s going on today. The album also calls to resist the mindset of feeling inferior and feeling like a criminal. I really wanted to create a piece of art that promotes pride and dignity in self.”
For those who may have missed a recent in-store performance at Cactus Music, Mexstep returns to Houston Friday night for Bounce and Turn. Axelrad hosts the free Texas monthly rap party and he’ll share the stage with DJ Chicken George and fellow artists Kay Illah and Lilly Aviana. He’s looking forward to spending some time in the city, he said.
“I was born in Houston and grew up off of Aldine Mail Route. A lot of rap, Mexican and Tejano music played in the streets, so that affected me. I also grew up in a family where soul and classic rock got a lot of play, and I got a lot of Norteño and cumbia from my grandparents. So all of those genres shaped my musical taste,” he said.
“I fell in love with hip hop in elementary school. Run-DMC had the biggest impact on me then. I started rapping in middle school when Houston was beginning to develop a sound, so the Geto Boys in particular were a big part of my world growing up. NWA, KRS-One, Public Enemy and X Clan were big influences.”
That love for the music made him a natural fit for Third Root, which formed in 2012 when he partnered with rapper Easy Lee, who was performing with the soul and hip hop act Mojoe at the time.
“Rapper Easy Lee from Mojoe and me talked about forming a group that would promote black and brown solidarity as well as trace roots of blackness in Mexican and Chicano culture,” Cervantes explained. “Third Root was born out of these conversations and we later added my old homie DJ Chicken George who I grew up with.”
The group has released four albums and has been featured on NPR, BBC and in the Austin Chronicle.
“Our album Libertad, for me, is one of my proudest musical releases and informed the way that I approached Resistir. If you listen to both back to back, you can hear a relation,” Cervantes noted. “I have a couple other solo projects, Estere-ere-o and Occupied State, both sample heavy, that I produced and wrote on. I took a break from the solo stuff to focus on Third Root, but I kept piling up songs for Resistir. Resistir is my first polished project that I recorded in a real studio and got mastered. The other two were very underground sounding, bad sound quality, but I love them as well. I listened to both the other day and forgot how good some of those songs were.”
The music is informed by hip hop scenes that are worlds apart, but separated by just a couple hundred miles of interstate highway.
“There are lot of different styles in San Antonio, but I fell in with artists who were sampling a lot oldies, so that sound affected how I approached my recordings. I also spent some time deejaying in San Antonio and developed an ear for blending cumbias with hip hop tracks and made that my signature sound. So, playing in San Antonio helped me develop my approach to production as I made more beats and put out releases,” Cervantes said.
“Growing up and recording in Houston I was greatly affected by the Houston scene. I have early memories of being 15 and meeting Willie D and UGK at Track Design Studios and working with Maestro at Samplified, so Houston rap is in my veins. When I was younger, I patterned a lot of my lyrics after Scarface, and if you listen closely now, you can still hear his style in my songs.”
You can also hear an informed voice speaking to social and political issues on Resistir. When he’s not thrilling audiences, Cervantes is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“I felt like from an early age my lyrics were always political. My big heroes were KRS- One, Chuck D from Public Enemy and Brother J from X Clan, so I approached rapping from that angle,” he said. “As I read more and gained more of a consciousness of the history of the Black Power and Chicano movements, my lyrics also grew more informed. This propelled when I finished my BA and went on the complete my doctorate. I wrote lyrics throughout my time finishing school and later working as a professor. For me, this helped me improve what I was doing, and I still feel like the more I read, and the more aware I become, the better my lyrics get. This helps motivate me to write more songs.
“I thought my academic work would help my lyric writing, but I really hadn’t planned that it would connect the way it does now,” Cervantes continued. “That came about with encouragement from some of my mentors, people like Ben Olguín, Norma Cantú, Keta Miranda and Josie Mendez-Negrete. I actually got my job at UTSA largely because of my work as a rapper. Now I have been asked to rap at all kinds of academic functions. Probably the biggest event was being asked to rap at the American Educational Research Association in New York City, which is the largest education conference in the nation. Not everyone that submits to present gets accepted, and I was specially invited to rap at the presidential session in a large ballroom filled with scholars from all over the world. So experiences like that let me know the power of fusing my academic and musical worlds.”
If Mexstep’s brand was reliant solely upon lyrics, it might still work, but the music backing Cervantes’ rhymes is a critical component to the package. Resistir in particular features a cast of heavy hitters, from Grammy Award-winning producer Adrian Quesada (Brownout, Black Pumas) to Grupo Fantasma’s Beto Martinez, Daniel French (Las Cafeteras) and Roberto Livar (Bombasta), to name a few.
“Resistir had a lot of time to marinate. I started seriously working on it in 2016, but some of the songs were written earlier than that. I mapped out topics early on and wrote them out. For beats, I definitely wanted to add components of cumbia, funk, Tejano and son jarocho to the mix to reflect the sounds I grew up on,” he said. “Working with Third Root taught me the power of collaborative work. I had started most of beats for Resistir as skeleton tracks at San Antonio’s Super Mas Mejor Studios. I played many of the instruments on these beats, but couldn’t quite complete them to my satisfaction.
“I approached Adrian Quesada about helping me and he agreed after hearing the songs. He produced three of the tracks himself and the rest are produced by me and Adrian along with co-producers Marcel Pean and Ali Friedrich, so there were a lot of hands on the beats,” he said. “Adrian has the magic touch. He added a lot on some tracks and just a pinch on others. He really made everything make sense.”
The result fascinated listeners at an in-store I attended over the summer, as part of an effort to see 30 live acts in 30 days. Its timely lyrics and lush music seem to be resonating with listeners everywhere, according to Cervantes.
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"The response has been amazing. Radio stations in Houston, San Antonio, Austin and around the nation and world have been playing songs from the album. I get people stopping me on the street letting me know how the album has empowered them. I see people sharing tracks on social media. My inbox is filled with testimonies from listeners inspired by the lyrics. This has made my heart feel good.”
It's also encouraged Cervantes to dive into upcoming projects.
“Definitely another Mexstep and Adrian Quesada collaboration in the works for next year. Lately I’ve been working closely with DJ/beat maker Principe Q (AB Quintanilla’s son, Selena’s nephew) who has developed a style called ‘Screwmbia,’ slowed down cumbias. We have some tracks cooking and planning on doing the recording on that mostly in Houston. I’m almost done with an album with California/Bay Area producer Amaze 88 for late this year and another Third Root project is in the planning stages. So, plenty of music on the way. I’m also finishing up a co-edited book on decolonizing education through music. I’m going to keep working as long as I feel like I’m making a difference.”
Mexstep performs as part of the monthly rap party Bounce and Turn, Friday, September 13 at Axelrad, 1517 Alabama. With Trey Coy, 2Raw, Lilly Aviana, DJ Chicken George, Kay Illah and Yisel Smns. 21 and up. Free.