If You’re Latino Then Chances Are You Remember The Rapper Who Took The World By Storm In 1990
Before Latina and Latino rappers like Cardi B, Big Pun, or Lil Rob were using Spanglish (Spanish-English) lyrics in their music, there was an Afro-Cuban rapper named Mellow Man Ace from South Gate, California whose Billboard Top 20 song “Mentirosa,” put bilingual rap on the map.
If this is your first time hearing his name, or reading the lyrics from the hit song, you’re probably not alone — Mellow Man Ace’s overnight success came long before the rise of social media. (It should be noted that he currently has over 20k followers on Instagram, which, by some standards, means that he has some type of influence.)
Born Ulpiano Reyes in Pinar Del Rio, Cuba, Mellow Man Ace is usually overlooked in favor of other Latino/Chicano rap pioneers like Kid Frost, A Lighter Shade of Brown (LSOB), and Lil’ Rob. Frost’s “La Raza” and LSOB’s “On A Sunday Afternoon,” both released in 1990, were anthems for Chicanas and Chicanos in the Southwest, while San Diego native, Lil Rob is best known for his 2005 hit “Summer Nights.” All three are probably on your “Chicano Rap” Spotify playlists at the moment.
But for those of you who are, in fact, old enough to recognize Mellow Man Ace’s name, you’ll remember the way “Mentirosa” took the world by storm in the early ’90s. And, more importantly, the feeling you felt when you finally heard a rapper on the radio who rapped in Spanglish.
Mellow Man Ace emerged on the scene wearing a Cuban guayabera and a Panama straw hat, which resembled a Cuban bolero singer more than it a rapper at the time. But instead of singing “Guantanamera,” Mellow electrified the world with a hard-hitting blend of bilingual, edgy lyrics that ranged from parties to relationships to fame.
I remember the day que tú me decías, time and time again que tú me querías
Before Mellow, however, Latinos on the West Coast didn’t have a voice in the Hip Hop world that reflected the bilingual worlds that we came from. We were listening to Ice-T, Queen Latifah, and Public Enemy in the privacy of our rooms. Meanwhile, our parents played Vicente Fernandez and Paquita Del Barrio in the living room while yelling, “Bajale a esa mierda” (turn that shit down) whenever we played our music.
Our parents didn’t understand our reasons for loving hip-hop, and would often dismiss it as a music form all together. But Mellow had the power to communicate the day-to-day things that we were experiencing in a hybrid language that reflected the “ni de aqui, ni de alla,” (not from here or there) feeling that we felt on an every day basis.
You’re probably wondering where I sit in this equation, right? I had just entered preschool when the song came out, but I was old enough to recognize that the music that was thumping from my cousin’s bedroom would have an impact on me for years to come.
I mean, who wasn’t instantly moved by the catchy opening line: “Check this out baby, tenemos tremendo lío, last night you didn’t go, a la casa de tu tío.” (Check this out baby, we have a big problem, last night you didn’t go, to your uncle’s house.)
I remember receiving the cassette as a Christmas gift a year after the song came out. I’d carry the cassette wherever I went and would play it every time my mother and I drove somewhere until an older cousin of mine (who shall go unnamed) borrowed it one day and never returned it.
“Before Mellow Man Ace, born Ulpiano Reyes, Latinos who loved hip-hop didn’t have a voice that reflected the bilingual worlds that we came from.”
Still, while I was without the cassette, I was never completely removed from the song because it was constantly playing throughout my Southeast L.A. community in homes, liquor stores, and especially our next door neighbor’s 1965 Chevy Impala.
Because for someone like me, who grew in a predominantly Spanish-speaking home (with family from Mexico and Cuba), the bilingual nature of “Mentirosa” allowed the language that I spoke at home and the one I was learning in school to find a way to coexist together. It was almost as if Mellow’s words acted as a timely message to the world: A new generation of Latinos were here and we were going to speak in whatever language or languages we wanted to.
But in addition to becoming an overnight music sensation, Mellow had an immigrant story, that I would learn about as an adult, that hit close to home and resonated with other Latino immigrant experiences throughout the U.S. He reminded us that being a Latino immigrant in the U.S. meant that you had to sacrifice and endure in a country whose language and way of life didn’t always reflect the one our families had left behind.
After immigrating from the western province of Pinar Del Rio, Cuba, in 1971, Mellow and his family settled in a Los Angeles suburb known as South Gate, a community adjacent to Watts. His biggest challenge, among other things, was adjusting to a new language.
“When I got to L.A ,” he explained to me over the phone, “I struggled with the English language and I spoke a Sammy Sosa type of English.”
“Another big difference was that we had carpeting and electricity for the first time in our lives,” he added.
“But understanding Mellow’s impact only as a music contribution is to miss the magnitude of his influence on Latinos throughout the U.S.”
After learning English, he began to write rap lyrics in the tenth grade, but still faced some challenges, which forced him to drop out of high school two years later.
Mellow Man Ace’s passion for music, however, may have been genetic.
His grandfather was once was a composer in a famous Cuban orchestra and his brother, unbeknownst to many, is Sen Dog from the pioneering hip-hop group Cypress Hill. (Mellow Man Ace was also part of an early version of Cypress Hill.)
But understanding Mellow Man Ace’s impact on U.S. Latinos only as a musical contribution is to miss the magnitude of his influence.
“Mentirosa” did more than give us a hypnotic chorus to dance to and recite over and over again. It gave an entire generation of Latinas and Latinos, like myself, to be unapologetically multilingual and multicultural.
For, Mellow Man Ace, whose success paved the way for Latino rappers, it was also about letting the world know that Latinos didn’t have to compromise who they were.
“When I came out, I wanted to make sure people knew who I was,” he said while reflecting on the impact of his career. “I wanted to make it acceptable for Latinos to be who we are, so at the end of the day I kept my life Cuban and that’s how I lived. I never pretended to be anybody else.”
“I opened doors for others and I never closed the door behind me.”
Mellow did, in fact, open doors for an entire generation of Latino rappers like Immortal Technique, Snow Da Product, and Big Pun who, without his success, arguably, may never have been able to break into mainstream music.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, my cousin and I still have a tremendio lio because it’s been twenty-eight years and he still hasn’t returned my cassette.