As frontman of alternative-hip-hop group Calle 13, Residente sold hundreds of thousands of records and racked up more Latin Grammys than any other act in history. But when it came time to make his solo debut, the rapper-producer – born René Pérez Joglar – decided he wanted something more.
"I don't want to sound arrogant," he tells Rolling Stone over the phone, "but it's really easy to make another hit. I don't want to do it because the industry pushes you to do that, so, I decided to travel and trace my DNA … using music."
A few years ago, Joglar took a DNA test that traced his genes back to 10 vastly different locales – from his native Puerto Rico to Armenia, Ghana to China. An artist long invested in breaking down boundaries of all kinds, Joglar decided that these results would serve as the conceptual framework for his next project – a self-titled LP accompanied by a documentary and book commissioned by Fusion Media Group, a division of Hispanic media conglomerate Univision.
Residente is Joglar's first record since disbanding Calle 13, the wildly successful group he shared with his siblings Eduardo Cabra Martínez and Ileana Cabra Joglar. For his own project, the MC amassed new collaborators from 10 different corners of the earth, each artist local to a place of his genetic origin. Indie-pop singer SoKo lends a touch of French melodrama in the star-crossed love song "Desencuentro"; composer Goran Bregović and his Balkan brass band underscore Joglar's cyborg-ian dystopia in "El Futuro Es Nuestro"; and Niger-born Tuareg guitarist Bombino guests on the slick, funky "La Sombra."
Though the album finds him breaking away from Calle 13, Residente still turned out to be a family affair: On the album's opening track, "Intro ADN/DNA," Hamilton actor-playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda tells the tale of how he and Joglar discovered they were long-lost cousins. A Nuyorican by way of Manhattan's Washington Heights, Miranda had never crossed paths with Joglar, a Boricua born and raised in San Juan – at least not until the two had long grown up and become fans of each others' music. Joglar, who later made a guest appearance on 2016's Hamilton Mixtape, asked Miranda to emcee one of his concerts in Puerto Rico. While communing with Miranda backstage, Joglar's mother, Flor, identified his lineage with clairvoyant precision: "You have your grandfather's face," she told Miranda. "He was my mother's cousin."
Joglar, the man Miranda calls a "global artist in residence," spoke to Rolling Stone about building international solidarity among his fellow musicians, his stance on Puerto Rican independence and the making of Residente.
You've always had your own personality, but now that Calle 13 is no more, you're establishing yourself as a proper solo artist. What has that process been like?
For this record, I had produced the whole album myself. And as always, I wrote all my lyrics. But I was surrounded by great people, very talented people. Great musicians, composers and a great mixer, Tom Elmhirst [Adele, Amy Winehouse].
People still know me by Calle 13, and you know, they stop me on the street. It's nice, but I just want to start using Residente all the time. I decided to put everything under the name of Residente. The documentary: Residente. The album: Residente. I'm writing a book about the travels and the pictures and all of the creative process, and it's going to be Residente also.
New York's Lower East Side is a special place for the Puerto Rican community; it's also where you worked on your new album. What did that entail?
I did a lot of my pre-production and some of my post-production in a place called the Loisaida Center. It's a place for the people from there, the Latin community – but they don't use it often. They let me use one of the rooms. I was working between there and Electric Lady Studios in the West Village. I was walking all the time from the West Village to Lower East Side in Manhattan, and it was nice, you know.
You recently premiered your documentary at South By Southwest. In the film you spent two years visiting places like Spain, Ghana and China – where else did this project lead you?
I visited France and Armenia. Then I went to Ossetia in Georgia, I went to Moscow and Siberia in Russia. I went to Antigua. I went to Burkina Faso in Africa. I went to Niger. Then of course, I spent time in Puerto Rico, my country.
Your music with Calle 13 encompassed so many different genres, and yet for this project, you still found artists who make vastly different music than you – like the opera singers in Beijing.
I wasn't trying to make a world-music album, but you know, it's a very unique album. I'm a rapper, and I also make beats, but they're real beats with real sounds, not samples. The radio right now, I'm in shock, everyone sounds the same. It's like junk food, you know. The people are eating junk food. You need to eat better or you're going to die. With music, it's the same.
International music is still difficult for the music industry to package and sell – to be on the radio you have to be easy for people to digest. But that's not who you are.
I take my time in order to write things that are accessible to people. To write something that is nice and maybe poetic, and intelligent and creative? It's difficult to do, but I don't think my work is difficult to digest. It's just that – I don't know – I just don't think people eat much broccoli. But they need to eat broccoli, because it has protein and it's good for your health, you see? And I'm not the only vegetable – there are other vegetables around. But labels should help put out those vegetables so people can eat them, because otherwise we're going to die a slow cultural death.
You have the most Grammys of any Latino artist. But it sounds like you learned a lot of new things while making this record – not just about your genetic heritage, but about music too.
The Grammys are something great – in terms of business it's good, everything helps. But when I won Record of the Year, I didn't actually believe that my album was the best of the year, because that's being naïve. That happens a lot, here in the U.S. They say they have the Best Record of the Year and the most beautiful women in the world, and I'm like, "Are you kidding me? Have you listened to other people's music from around the world?" They just don't have the opportunity to show it.
I learned a lot in this album. Like, I've never been to a place at war. Five hours from the capital in Armenia, there's been a war going off and on, in a place called Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenians live. Azerbaijan was dropping bombs on Nagorno-Karabakh. We recorded some parts there but it was kind of difficult, so we had to leave and record the rest in a church [in Ossetia]. It's like another level of understanding, war.
Those recordings would become your track "Guerra."
Yeah! It was tough to meet with the refugees of war and talk to them. And because I had to communicate with a lot of people that speak only one language, it took me a while. Of course music is our universal language, but after these travels, I have a respect for linguistics that I've never had before.
What parallels or similarities did you find between Puerto Rico and the places you visited?
We have a lot in common. My country, being a colony of the U.S. ... we have a lot in common with other small countries. Bigger countries fuck with small countries and make us serve them. I'm not talking about the people; I'm talking about the governments: U.S., France, China, Russia, all the big countries. They just fuck with the small countries, and that's something that we have in common.
When listening to this album, it seems like your main objective was to celebrate diversity and migration – but you also show that there's a dark side, especially in Latin America, where genetic diversity is usually the result of a conflict or a conquest. Can you talk about the first time you started to think critically about your Puerto Rican heritage?
Growing up in a colony, it's impossible not to be even a little bit political, to have that in your blood. I was educated this way, ever since I was a kid. It's very easy to be ... I don't want to use that word, ignorant, but a lack of education – that's the way to maintain a colony. It's obvious. Like that's why we've been a colony.
The situation of Puerto Rico is kind of complicated for some people; for me it's simple. We are a colony and we don't have any rights. Our president is Trump even though we can't vote for the president. We have two flags all the time. We are a small island in the middle of the Caribbean. We don't cause trouble or bother anyone but we go to war. In exchange we get a passport.
[Many Puerto Ricans] want to be part of the U.S., because they are fighting for the same rights as you get in the States. But for 100 years we've been told that we can't be by ourselves – and if you believe in independence, then you're a socialist or a communist, but you know, they say it in a bad way. "You're gonna be like Cuba," they say. Cuba has great things and bad things … but it's the same with the States, same as any other country.
In the opening track, your primo Lin-Manuel Miranda says you are both descended from Gilberto Conception de Gracia, the founder of the Independence Party of Puerto Rico. Activism seems to run in your family.
I grew up in a house with those kinds of values and ideals: helping others and understanding others and sharing your stuff with others, what you have. My mom is an actress; my dad is a worker's lawyer.
Did you go to protests as a kid?
I remember going with my dad to strike with the electricity workers. I remember writing signs for the protests. One time, there was this dry forest that they were going to bomb; they wanted to kill all the wildlife and build a hotel there. So we camped out there, with my stepmom and my dad for a few days. They never pushed me to do things that I didn't want to do, but I understood them. Not everyone has that education and I was lucky to have that. Later on I went to the University of Puerto Rico, fighting to lower the cost of education over there.
You've always been very provocative, but early on in your career with Calle 13, your reputation as a joker or party animal preceded your reputation as a political activist.
I talk about everything. I talk about parties, sex, but from the very beginning I did a song called, "Dear FBI." Because they killed a guy [Filiberto Ojeda Ríos] who fought for our independence. The FBI killed him the day that we celebrate the only day that we were independent for eight hours. So they killed him that same day and he was like 74 years old or something like that and with heart problems. They didn't even call a doctor. So that kind of stuff happens in Puerto Rico and goes way back – the tests they did on our island with the birth-control pills, practicing bombs. There is a lot of stuff that happened that, if [Puerto Ricans] knew, they would support [independence].
With my first album, I just wanted to know how to make a hit, even breaking the rules of Sony. At first they told me that I had too short of hooks – like "Atrévete-te-te" is a 16-bar hook. And it was a huge hit. After that I was just like, "OK, I know how to make a hit' … Which is boring. The priorities of musicians these days are weird. They don't see themselves as human beings. They want to be idols. Like you have a TV show called American Idol or whatever. Why you want to be an idol? You're another worker. You are like a construction worker. You're lucky that you can travel and know the world and understand it and make music, even make money from music. But you're still a worker. Of course I'm an artist, but even sometimes I have to remind [myself] that I'm working, this is work. It's a job that I love and I like it and sometimes you don't feel that it's work, but what I'm trying to say is that I don't want to feel like the star. If more artists did the same, their music wouldn't suck.
You traveled around the world for this project – but then you brought it all back home by recruiting some notable Puerto Ricans. You have your cousin Lin-Manuel Miranda; you got a touch of rock from Omar Rodríguez-López; then you got John Leguizamo to act in your video. How did you connect with them?
They are all friends. Well, Lin is my second cousin – I'm so proud of him. Then John Leguizamo is a good friend; I met him, like, way back. He gave me my first Grammy, actually, for Best Video in 2006. Since then, we've been in contact. Omar is a friend of mine; he recorded some guitar for us in Calle 13. When I lived in L.A. for a year, he used to come visit me; we made music together. He's such a great artist and his girlfriend Teri is an amazing artist too. They are like an art power couple.
Can we talk about the making of the wild video for "Somos Anormales (We Are Abnormal)"?
It's the first video I've done where I've been the director. I filmed it in Madrid – it took me four days. I wanted to talk about the beginning of humanity and how we got here. So it started with an egg because I don't know what happened first – the chicken or the egg? We came from Africa, we came out in all these weird, different shapes and forms – then for some reason we started fighting because we wanted to be the same. Then, while we were fighting, we forgot about what we were fighting about. … Then comes that reproductive mud fest that's represented in the video at the end.
You didn't just direct this video, but you were shot singing from the origin of it all – or, more specifically, with your head popping out from inside a synthetic vagina.
I thought it was funny, just seeing it all from there. I think it was maybe the first time for any music video. Also, during this process of humanity they split into the clean ones and the dirty ones; that always happens. The rich ones and the poor ones. Like it is in real life, you have people pushing each other into the mud to stay clean. But then, they all reproduce – clean or dirty, it doesn't matter – they reproduce and now we are here.