Freestyle battles are routine events in Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires, where fans regularly pour into the city’s plazas to watch the best MCs square off. In recent years, however, these showcases have become hotbeds of the country’s flourishing trap scene, which has produced a number of breakout artists vying for global attention. There’s Paulo Londra, the crackly-voiced rapper who is the most-streamed Argentine act on Spotify and has collaborated with Ed Sheeran; emo kid Cazzu, who has signed to indie label Rimas Entertainment, home to Puerto Rican sensation Bad Bunny; and Nicki Nicole, the 18-year-old who in August hit No. 3 on the Billboard Argentina Hot 100 with her track “BZRP Music Session, Vol. 13.”
“This is exploding at an international level,” says Federico Lauría, head of Argentine trap label Lauria Dale Play and production company Dale Play. In 2016, he watched as a freestyler named Duki won a rap battle called El Quinto Escalón. The song he performed, “No Vendo Trap,” subsequently became the first in the battle’s history to hit 1 million YouTube views and has since attracted 24 million views total.
The trap scene’s vibrancy is surprising, and not just because Argentina is 5,000-plus miles away from the Atlanta communities in which the genre was born. For decades, the country’s main popular music export was rock en español bands like Los Enanitos Verdes and Soda Stereo. While Argentina has embraced rap since the ’90s, it’s still navigating a complex relationship with the genre: Many of its trap artists are from low-income neighborhoods and say they identify with hip-hop acts, but they are nearly all white. (Much of Argentina’s population is of Spanish and Italian descent.)
Still, Lauría says their connection to trap is “genuine” and notes that their music is already connecting on a grassroots level. “Duki reached the [Spotify] global charts without being on a mainstream playlist or on U.S. radio,” he says. “They go from the streets and soar up.” Roberta Pate, Spotify’s head of artist and label marketing, Latin America, says the DIY mindset of these musicians has been integral to their success. “The artists started [out] 100% indie, since they understood technology and music distributors,” she says. “They partnered directly with Spotify and used Spotify for Artists to gather analytics, knowing and understanding their audience better for digital promotion.”
Now, as they attract international attention, these artists are figuring out where to go next. Londra, who inked a deal with Warner Music Latina in 2018, has been exploring a more pop-leaning sound and avoiding trap’s tropes of drugs and violence in what appears to be a bid for broader commercial success. Others, like newcomer Lucho SSJ, are holding on to trap’s trademark toughness. “Everyone goes their own way — some are doing underground stuff, some have a more [traditional] hip-hop style,” says Cazzu. “It’s really personal.”
One thing that won’t change? The emphasis on wordplay and clever writing that comes from honing their craft in rap-battle circles. “These kids are still young — 18 to 22 — and they’re growing,” says Lauría, “but they’re not compromising their artistic roots.”