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SXSW: Nina Dioz's fiery debut in the U.S.

March 22, 2009 | 12:16 pm

Ninadioz Friday night, as rapper Niña Dioz was making her U.S. debut at SXSW, she slammed her microphone down mid-song and started yelling expletives at the sound engineer from the stage, telling the crowd, “This place doesn't want me to give you the show you deserve.” She had been asking for the bass to be turned up, to no avail. 

In a debut marked by a few missteps, mostly due to an underdeveloped sense of stage presence, Carla Reyna, dressed in Tommy Hilfiger overalls and a black beanie, still showed the tiny audience at Fuze nightclub in Austin that she can rap in a practiced and versatile flow.

She's currently Mexico's closest equivalent to England's powerhouse M.I.A, and the diminutive rapper Lady Sovereign -- and like those multi-culti acts, she has to contend with carving out a spot in the mostly male-dominated genre of hip-hop.

Her shows in Mexico City have larger turnouts than the several dozen who appeared for this music showcase. In Mexico's music community, she's arguably the most important hip-hop star to emerge in years, and the best example of the globalization of hip-hop culture and its progression in the land of our southern neighbor. Mexican hip-hop has remained far underground, in comparison to the indie rock and electronica scenes that have a presence on radio and in concert venues here in the U.S.

Dioz, 23, hails from Monterrey, home to one of the first Mexican rap groups to have an international deal with Universal Latino, Control Machete, directly inspired by Los Angeles rap group Cypress Hill and rapper Kid Frost, among others.

Her confident, laidback style has won Dioz fans in the now-disbanded trio. “She's always been very clear about what she wanted to do and doesn't fail," said Pato Machete, a rapper with the group. "She's always moving forward."

Mexico's regionalized scene has spawned a very competitive rap underground, with rappers such as MC Luka, T-Killa (pronounced like tequila), Jezzy P and duo Mood Fu representing Mexico City, the Brujo representing Guadalajara, as well as many others.

Nevertheless, Mexico's hip-hop scene has been overlooked on the global scale; Dioz hopes to change that, while also challenging some traditional ideas. Just 5 foot 6, with a slight sag in her jeans, and shoulder-length blonde hair and blue eyes, Dioz crushes many stereotypes about women and any ideas about what a Mexican rapper should look like. It's a struggle that puts her in two worlds: rapping as a woman, and rapping as a white person in a genre where your skin color seems to raise questions.

“When I started out, I remember being scared, because it was all guys with looks on their faces like they wanted to kill somebody,” she said on a Saturday last month, while filming a music video in a tony part of Monterrey. “But there are also guys who have respect and see a girl on the scene trying to rap and they support her.” She says the skin color comments, which come up often, bother her even less.

In 2007 Dioz released the 7-song EP “Marcapasos” (or “Pacemaker”). She used it as a calling card, traveling to Mexico City to hand-sell discs at the huge flea market known as El Chopo. She now considers the EP more like a demo and not representative of her increased songwriting and rhyming abilities, but one of the tracks found an audience on the city's pop-heavy Reactor 105.7 radio station. An offer from Nike to join its Nike Sportswear team in China last May for an Olympics' performance followed. Last November, a song from her upcoming debut album, “Nueva Escuela” made it onto the soundtrack for Mexico's box office smash, “Rudo y Cursi,” a comedy Sony Pictures scooped up at the  Sundance film festival that stars Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal (slated for fall release in the U.S.). In addition to SXSW's Latin showcase Friday night, she's also set to appear in May at Mexico City's largest alternative music fest, Vive Latino.

“She can express herself with her lyrics and she controls the mic very well,” said Frank “El Medico” Rodriguez, a Miami recording engineer and producer on Dioz's upcoming CD.  Rodriguez, who has worked on albums by reggaeton stars such as Daddy Yankee, was brought to Mexico by Dioz supporter and production collaborator Antonio "Toy Selectah" Hernandez, one of the founders of Control Machete.

Niña Dioz, whose name means literally female baby Jesus (the name stuck after a woman in a cafe shouted it at her), thoughtfully answers questions about hip hop as a culture and musical form. In the last couple of years she's moved to the head of the class in regards to the increasing number of women who rap in Spanish.

“I think now's the time for those women who rap inside their homes to bring it out into the streets and do it for the people,” she said. “Women rappers are evolving, and here in Mexico they've been coming up with some interesting styles and ideas. It's cool what's been going on in the last five years.”

Hip-hop culture and music grabbed Dioz early: at the age of 8, she took her first toke of marijuana and listened to Cypress Hill at the urging of a cousin (she's since quit smoking the herb). In her early teens, she began cutting her teeth in Monterrey's hip-hop underground, at spots such as the Roche where she saw some of her first underground rap shows and kicked some of her first freestyle rhymes in the front of the club. 

The quality of support Dioz received from Monterrey's hip-hop community was instrumental in securing a deal with indie outfit Noiselab Records, a label based in Mexico City. Erick Santos, former lead singer of rapcore group La Flor de Lengua, Monterrey's answer to Rage Against the Machine, was the first to bring Dioz into the studio. Together, they crafted her radio hit, “Cuando, Cuando.”

His goal with Dioz was to push Mexican rap forward: “Control Machete created the standard for producing a Spanish-language hip-hop album,” he said. “The problem is that no one paid attention to try and surpass that level of production. Nothing that followed was as good.”

This model of aiming for rap perfection is what helped launch Dioz into a bigger audience. She hooked up with five other women to form Rimas Femeninas (Female Rhymes) in 2007, a collective of rappers from different parts of Mexico and Latin America, including Afro-Chilean artist Moyenei. The group performed all over Mexico, but separated after a year to pursue solo projects. Performing solo seems to have a bit of a learning curve for Dioz: she's played various shows, but her stage presence isn't yet in line with her rapping skills.

The sound engineer, who had been cursed in an expletive-laced chant led by Dioz, repaired the problem after an awkward pause of 10 minutes in Friday's show. The bass thundered through the speakers and Dioz sprinted to the front of the stage, mic in hand, and launched into song. The words flew out of her mouth with a serious vigor, closing the show with a traditional bit of rap aggression.

Local media, including one reporter from Dallas, flocked to her afterwards, even though she commented that her show was awful.

She may have high standards and a spirited temper but it's how she's gotten ahead so far. “Carla always has a clear idea of what she wants,” Santos said. “If there were more people like Carla here in Mexico, rap would be on a whole other level.”

-- Camilo Smith

Photo courtesy SXSW.com