Residente on DNA Testing His Roots & Creating 'Intelligent Music'

Krista Schlueter
Residente

After spending more than a decade as half of Puerto Rican rap group Calle 13, Rene Perez, best known as Residente, had big plans for “Somos Anormales (We’re Abnormal),” the lead single from his first solo project and the linchpin of an ambitious multimedia endeavor. Then, a miscalculation: “The giant vagina came out,” he laments.

The 39 year old is not using a euphemism: In the January music video for “Somos Anormales,” a larger-than-life black woman gives birth (in graphic detail) to a steady stream of naked adults, including comedian John Leguizamo and actor Oscar Jaenada, who then engage in a primitive mud fight that devolves into a giant make-out session. Residente knew that the visual, soundtracked by a single that celebrates cultural diversity, would generate controversy; what he didn’t anticipate was YouTube making the clip age-restricted, which has dampened its views (4 million to date, compared with the 50 million mark that Calle 13 videos often clear).

“I like that, I like provoking conversation, but I didn’t find it reprehensible at all,” he emphasizes. “It’s not a real vagina. It looks real, but it isn't.  And at the beginning, there was no restriction. You know why people complained on YouTube? Because the vagina belonged to a black woman and because gay people kissed at the end.” 

Calle 13, which has the most Latin Grammy wins in the awards’ history (25), has long pushed visual boundaries. But the new video also nods toward Residente’s recent quest to discover where he comes from. “The main idea is we all come from the same place,” he says. “We’re all brothers and it’s ridiculous to fight over irrational things. Nowadays, anyone can take a home DNA test and find out they come from Africa and a ton of other places."

In Residente’s case, the DNA test was done several years ago, on a whim, then shelved until 2015, when he went solo and took a closer look. It led him to visit Ghana, Siberia and China and inspired his new self-titled album (due out this spring), as well as a 90-minute documentary that will chronicle his travels and premiere at South by Southwest. 

“I always had the documentary in mind, but the turning point was deciding to make music based on my DNA,” explains Residente, who sees the project as one cohesive whole, with the documentary tracking both his travels and his recording process in each location. “Each sound, each word, even the track order has a reason. We began in Siberia because that’s the birth place of everything. War is in the middle as well as ‘Apocaliptica,’ which we recorded in Beijing and talks about the end of the world, because the pollution makes it seem that way. I almost got killed in Burkina Fasso. It’s an album that needs to be discovered many times.” 

Aside from serving as his solo debut, Residente -- which boasts an intro from the rapper’s cousin, Lin-Manuel Miranda -- is also his first crack at fully producing an album and directing its videos. On the label end, he’s distributed by longtime Calle13 home Sony Music Latin, but has signed a five-year agreement with Fusion Media Group, a division of Univision, that includes album, marketing, touring and merchandising. “They’re giving me a lot of liberty and it shows,” chuckles Residente, acknowledging vagina videos are not common Univision fare. 

Conversely, what’s shocking for him is what often gets played up in big media. “A video with half-naked women on a boat shaking their asses is shocking,” he says wryly. “Bad musical taste is shocking. Kids killing each other is shocking. I want to reach people and I want to sell. But that’s not my priority. I want to create intelligent, creative music that I like.” 

Residente insists, however, that “intelligent” and “creative” are not necessarily synonymous with complex. “Really?” he asks genuinely surprised at the insinuation that his music is that. “Man, it’s so simple: '3 ears, 4 eyes, cellulite, flabby thighs,'” he says, quoting the opening lines “Anormales.” “It’s a really basic song. But people are underestimated.”

Residente ascribes to the broccoli theory: Babies don’t like it, but it’s pure protein. Give it to them enough and they grow to love it. “Same with radio. They give you junk food, until you get a heart attack,” he says. “If you don’t give people ‘broccoli,’ if you don’t celebrate good music, things are going to hell.” It’s one of the reasons he sees the Univision/Fusion partnership as such a win-win. “It’s good for me and the fact that they’re giving me such latitude sends a good message about their brand.” 

Residente, the album, borrows freely from global cultures (everything from Ossetian drums to Chinese opera is featured) and occasionally explores Residente’s softer side, as in the dreamy upcoming single “Desencuentro,” featuring French pop singer Soko. The end result can be beautiful and danceable and infectious  -- because Residente is a master at creating hooks that are one with possibly the best lyrics in Latin urban music -- and often, it’s also violent. 

Yet the shock value of the “Somos Anormales” video also precedes some of Residente’s most incisive rhymes to date. He has proselytized plenty, campaigning for Bernie Sanders and for the release of jailed Puerto Rican activist Oscar Lopez Rivera, and his solo debut is a clear reaction to the times. “As an artist, it’s impossible not to address politics -- not just Trump, but in general,” he says. “It’s good that this country gets to exercise its social protest muscle. [Americans] have been complacent for years.”

Calle 13’s Most Eye Popping Visuals

The combination of Residente, producer Visitante and singer PG-13 has attracted more than 1.7 million Vevo subscribers -- many of whom appreciate their penchant for going for the jugular in their videos. Residente weighs in on three gasp-worthy Calle 13 clips.

“Calma Pueblo” (2010)
Relentless full-frontal nudity (both male and female) frames a lyrical takedown of big government and the music industry. “The idea was to work freely, without any self-censoring,” says Residente of the video, initially released only on Calle 13’s website.

“Multi_Viral” (2013)
Featuring Julian Assange’s voice on the track drew a fair share of attention, as did filming the clip in the West Bank, with a Palestinian schoolboy who wields a guitar that looks like a machine gun. At the time, Residente drew comparisons between his native Puerto Rico, “a colony of the United States,” and the conflict in Israel.

“Ojos Color Sol” (2014)
Starring actor Gael Garcia Bernal, the entire visual to this lush single (which won the Latin Grammy for best short form music video) is a steamy kissing sequence. Says Residente: “I wrote the song for my wife.”

This article originally appeared in the March 11 issue of Billboard.