A budding game changer of the hip hop game sits patiently spitting his exacted rhyme, ever firmly rooted in his Puerto Rican blood and his familial city of Milwaukee that offered him a lifestyle. ¡Oye! is a self professed storyteller, narrating an uneasy upbringing within the belly of the city he calls home, but his adversity is an empowering motive, tinged with a quizzical spirituality and influenced by established unforgotten leaders of the Afrobeat, salsa and hip hop genre.
I’ve found this multi-medium hip hop artist to be a humbling individual. He’s driven by an insatiable hunger to do what Kid Cudi has done for Cleveland or what Twista is doing for Chicago and adamantly refuses to share the sentiments of the giants who have forgotten to pay their respects to their Midwestern roots like the chart toppers we’ve come to know as Michael Jackson, Prince and Kanye.
¡Oye! told his story with the likes of Ludacris, Wale, Janelle Monae, Rhymefest and Rafael Casal during his young resume to boot and recently won an award at the Milwaukee Music Awards for his album, “In My Mind.” His lyrics are turning heads but he’s grounded and admits that he has a life to be grateful for, which couldn’t have existed without the various mentors, friends and collaborators that have molded his career and outlook on life.
He presently resides in London, where he’s been studying under The First Wave Hip-Hop Theatre Ensemble to master his mediums of rap and theater. Musebox sat down with ¡Oye!, known in plain clothes as Karl Iglesias, to talk about the beginnings of his music and theater career, his studies in London, and the journey of Karl Iglesias.
Musebox: “Oye” is Spanish for “hear,” what is it that you want your fans to hear?
¡Oye!: “Oye,” other than just to hear and to listen, also means “check it” in the hip hop culture for when you want people to hear what you’re going to spit. When my fans hear me I want them to hear a lot of “Milwaukee,” I want them to hear a lot of “Puerto Rican in the United States,” a brown boy in the Midwest, a kid in college on a scholarship.
I feel like my story is a unique one. I feel like they’re going to hear a lot of poetry, whether it’s in my delivery or the way I write my rhymes because my whole journey started with poetry and it’s got me to where I am right now with everything else that I do. But I want them to hear a story overall, whether it’s my story or a story I have to translate through song about someone else in my life. But overall, I’m a story teller whether it’s through rhymes or theatre.
MB: You said you were on a scholarship. Can you tell me about the story?
¡Oye!: The First Wave Hip-Hop Theatre Ensemble is a program started about four years ago so the inaugurated class is going to be graduating this year. I’m part of the second cohort. What they do is basically they recruit artists from the hip hop genre, whether it’s graphic art, poetry, rap, DJing, acting and performance, just being part of the hip hop culture.
They put these fifteen people from around the nation together in a theatre ensemble/family and provide them with a full tuition scholarship and the resources to continue developing their art as the way they want. So we have business people from the business school, we have people trying to be lawyers, I’m pursuing theatre, and the spectrum continues. We’re a family and that’s where the scholarship comes from but it’s hard to say “scholarship” because to me it has been more than that.
MB: What types of people have you met and how has that made you a better artist?
¡Oye!: I would say that I’ve met a couple of people, one being a good friend of mine, he happened to be my best friend and I happen to see him as my brother but he’s an artist by the name of G DeLo and he’s from Miami, Florida. He’s a poet, DJ, MC, just all kinds of varieties. But, meeting him has inspired me. He’s the same age as me and has a very similar story as myself, but just from a different part of the world in Miami.
Also meeting Klassik from Milwaukee has been real big because he’s also my age and he’s also brilliant when it comes to music and it reminds me where we need to be at in terms of the development of this culture artistically.
But as for more of a mentor, Dasha Kelly. She’s a poet, mentor and a huge figure in Milwaukee, WI when it comes to poetry and community organizing. But she’s massive and she got me my start where I was able to do slam poetry and where I was initially able to get out my feelings when I was beginning to write. She was the one who really pushed the concept of telling your story to me and I feel like that engulfed all of my art forms to this day, which is massive.
Also Rafael Casal, I call him my big brother, he’s an artist from the Bay Area who also does poetry. He’s an MC and just a musician of all kinds. He just did South By South West this year. I’m real proud of him and he really taught me all that I know when it comes to music.
MB: You have a background in poetry. How did you get into poetry?
¡Oye!: To be honest, I’m a poet as well, but poets range in a large spectrum of writing exercises from poetry to rapping to song writing. I started doing spoken word poetry when I was younger, in the middle of my high school years, when I was going through some rough time with my family, just being with me and my mom. So I felt like it gave me an outlet to release that way. That’s why I’ve got to give my respect to Dasha because she gave me an outlet to perform and something I can never pay back. But I haven’t been doing much spoken word. Lately I’ve been pursuing my acting, my directing, my screen writing, and my music above all and trying to get my live performance together.
MB: Are you trying to get into acting after you graduate or are you planning on pursuing your music career?
¡Oye!: Well right now I’m an acting specialist with the theatre and drama major, so I’m taking all my classes toward it weekly. I always see myself who isn’t choosing. Right now in my life I don’t feel like I’m choosing between my acting and my music. I feel like they live simultaneously with one another because a lot my life revolves around art in so many ways. So I’ve always felt like I’m going to continue to battle and use them both to get into different places and do different things.
But school is school right now. I don’t think I’m going to be graduating until my fifth year, so that gives me time to think. I definitely plan on doing both. It’s definitely something that’s not unheard of these days with Donald Glover and Drake – people who dabbled in different forms of art but have been able to be respected in their music. I like that. I think that the art world and the music word should be filled with people who do more than one art form, acting and rapping, or songwriting and directing, or dancing and singing. I feel like those multiple threats are more entertaining to watch.
MB: What’s the music scene in London like right now?
¡Oye!: London is different. There’s definitely a hip hop scene that’s global. I feel like hip hop is really similar in a lot of ways. What they have a lot now and is big in the clubs is the Dubstep scene, which sometimes have an MC over it, which is fairly fast rapping. But they also have regular hip hop like this cat named Professor Green, who’s pretty nice. This guy named Giggs, who’s kind of more of their street hip hop, thug rap, but still enjoyable none-the-less. I’ve been able to go to a couple of rap battles that they have out here that people have put on and are pretty incredible. So I’ve been able to check those out. That shit’s been fresh and it’s inspiring to see how hip hop is so cross continental. It’s just brilliant to know that we’re part of something so much bigger.
MB: What do you think about the Dubstep, hip hop hybridization?
¡Oye!: To be honest when it comes to most music I’m really open. I see myself as a musician more than I actually do an MC just because when I’m actually making music I love to direct it. So to make it sound like you’re actually visualizing something. So to see something like hip hop being infused with something so experimental like Dubstep, I can’t help but to like it at least a little upon first listening to it and now it’s growing on me a lot more because I’m always interacting with people of that the DJ scene and that’s what they play. So that’s been more interesting to me so much to the fact where one of the songs on the last record, I sent it to a DJ from Milwaukee who does Dubstep to give a Dubstep remix to it. So I’ve been trying to dabble in it as much as I can.
MB: What other artists have you collaborated with?
¡Oye!: I’ve collaborated with crazy actor/poet/MC/educator from the Bay Area. His name is Daveed Diggs. I think he’s a sound that’s really ground breaking coming out of the west coast right now. I was able to work with him on the song “Grey Clouds.”
I was able to work with artist Unom who is from Amsterdam, the Netherlands area, who has this Caribbean, black Netherlands vibe and it’s just dope. I met him from acting, yet again, who’s extra dope and I want to continue to work with him a bit.
I’ve worked with K.Raydio who’s a singer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has this gorgeous voice. Another person is Prophetic, who’s dope, one of the dopest MCs to come out of our city in a long time and Man Mantis who’s from the Madison area. He’s brilliant and he’s been coming out with his own works and I think he’s doing big things.
A lot of those people really helped to glue together this project and I’m real proud to have them in the cast, so to speak.
MB: Congrats on the Milwaukee music award. What are some successes that you’ve seen with your career?
¡Oye!: The Milwaukee music award was really big to me. One, because it’s a voted one, which kind of just let me know how much support I have out there, which was beautiful. Also it was my first record that I came out with and a lot of people gave it some good praise, but it just took the low radar because it was my first one so I think it was an honor to receive that.
When I’m growing up, listening to 88.9 and the FM stations, you’ve been dreaming for a long time and you want to hear your stuff on the radio, and to know that mine has been on the radio in my home city is something that really gives me strength. I feel like right now being 21, I’ve been rapping since I was 19, growing with my career is something you get accustomed to and hold onto tightly.
When it comes to music, I’ve shared the stage with Wale, opened up for Wale when he came to the Rathskeller; opened up for Ludacris with some of my homies when he came to the Alliant Energy Center. I’ve been able to perform across the nation from New York, with the Young and Gifted Theatre Series with the Hip-Hop Theatre Festival. FLOfest in Florida. I was able to perform in Oakland, which was a blessing. Columbia College in Chicago. Halftime at the Badgers game basketball game, which was crazy. So all these moments were just small and a lot of them were humbling even though a lot of them sound really big. But that’s the music world. You’ve got to see the big from the outside and perform on the small stage a bit. But those were kind of my biggest points in my career, which is still fairly young and extremely dedicated to and I spend a lot of time to it, weekly, daily.
MB: When did you know that you could rap and create the lyrics that you do?
¡Oye!: Realistically, growing up in Milwaukee inner city, where hip hop is the main forms of art period, I think rapping is a thing that some people do well and some people don’t, but people dabble in it. I’ve always done that. I can remember thinking far back trying to write songs to beats or trying to write poems onto different rap beats and seeing how that sounded is where I began doing what I did.
It wasn’t until I came to the University of Wisconsin that I was able to meet people who rapped and do poetry and where I was able to build up the courage to be like, “I want to write these rap songs” and I’m going to put them to music. People were helping me, like I said Rafael Casal opened a big door for me and taught me everything I know about mixing and writing thus far. So that’s when it really came into fruition.
MB: When did you start your music career and how did you start it?
¡Oye!: I started my music career in 2009, 2010. That’s when I started rapping, when I really started trying to write rhymes and putting it together. I was like, I’m going to go all the way because I’ve never been one to be afraid to jump forward, to take a step forward. So I went ahead and did it. At the same time, a good friend of mine named Niko Tunacracker, he was beginning a clothing company called InkRed Clothing Company and it has humble beginnings in our dorm room and in the common room of the dorm area.
What we decided to do was the pair up artistically and put out a project where it was like, I basically wrote all the songs, put it together, produced it with the help of Rafael Casal, who helped mix it down, and Klassik did all the beats for it. As a collaboration, Niko did the cover work and took care of all the artistic endeavors of the issue. Then we went out with the project and ended up getting a lot of success out of recognition. It was nice. The chemistry was there so we continued it so out of InkRed clothing became InkRed University, which is more so the big umbrella and the music is under the university as well as the clothing so like now it’s a fully fledged business that we get out our dreams that way.
MB: What inspires you to write the lyrics that you write?
¡Oye!: One, the other MCs that I look up to, like a lot of them and how they tell their stories of where they come from and being honest about that and being honest about who they are. Seeing that done and that kind of courage that might take allows me to do that for myself. So I try to look at my life as much as possible and think of the feelings I’ve said and I haven’t said to anyone and really said and stick to who I am when it comes to ¡Oye! or Karl Iglesias and put that into music form to try to tell people my story in that way.
I’m really influenced by spirituality. An interesting relationship that I have with God, is kind of on and off. I’m not one to go to church or anything like that, but it’s something that’s definitely prevalent in my life when I think of my day to day and who I am and how I’ve grown. Another thing is that being from Milwaukee and knowing that we’re a Midwest city with a lot of country qualities, that’s just who we are.
Being Puerto Rican and really growing up with two languages, and growing up with salsa blaring every Sunday afternoon while my mom’s cleaning the house, this is the life that I went through and that’s my story so sometimes you might hear me rapping in Spanglish. So I might do that because that’s just the life that I’ve lived. You can’t deny that.
MB: So what do you think of the current state of hip hop and all the competition out there?
¡Oye!: I think first of all, I love it and I’m up to date on it and I feel like I’m informed when it comes to that because I’m of the culture and I feel like an artist should be taking in five times as much art as they’re putting out of all kinds of music, all kinds of new people throughout the day and throughout the week.
So I’m excited about music and I’m excited to hear people come up with new stuff. I’m excited to see what Jay-Z has done to hip hop as a culture. Now you have someone who is ahead of Elvis when it comes to number one records. Jay-Z, what he’s done for the culture has been exciting for the fact that we can have an artist from hip hop have more number ones than Elvis. That’s big to me to think that we’re on that scale of history when it comes to music. Also seeing people like Kanye West bring a more theatrical, classical feeling to hip hop, brings it to where Prince and Michael Jackson were performing at. It’s also very exciting seeing what will come of that.
Also just seeing what internet in itself has done to hip hop like Whiz Kalifa or these freshmen that XXL pronounced have a lot of internet presence. That alone has allowed a lot of underground music to flourish. So I feel like within the next time from now until infinity, we’re going to be doing a lot more home grown hip hop and that’s going to be beautiful, especially for the people who are younger, who have made it this way, continue to grow old and become their own record companies and begin to put out the music that they want to. The culture is going to change and be more free. I’m just interested to see how the radios respond to that.
MB: How have you been trying to create an internet presence for yourself?
¡Oye!: It’s necessary for sure. I think I’ve been trying to do that the moment I started my music career. I’ve always said that I’ve wanted to have a director’s point of view, a director’s mindset and just have a vision. That’s my gift over anything, over any art that I have is vision. I feel like I can see things in a step by step process. But as soon as I knew I was going to put out music, and if I was going to put out music, if I’m going to do it all the way, I’m not going to just half ass put out music, so I began to have the whole marketing thing planned. The whole release was planned, interviews were scheduled, and a lot of that was scheduled by my lonesome, just out of hunger since I wanted to succeed. But the whole time you have to put out an online image because I’m not a record company, you know? We’re not mass producing records and selling them. I’m just recently learning what that’s all about. With Niko Tunacrackers, who’s been the head of the clothing company, his internet presence has been pretty solid because the clothing company is well respected and looks really proper because he’s a graphic design, art major. Those things help when it comes to his vision.
MB: But aren’t there a lot of really bad artists out there with the accessibility of the internet?
¡Oye!: Oh yea, of course. I’ve always felt like there are a lot of bad artists. They just were never heard and now they’ve gotten an outlet to be heard so people think their lives are worse. But, there are a lot of bad artists on the radio that have been put out. But that’s what makes you appreciate it because you’re not going to listen to the Beatles every day, but when you do it’ll change your life.
MB: Do you think you’ll stay hungry forever or do you think you’ll want to feel satisfied one day?
¡Oye!: I guess the idea is to feel satisfied one day, but I think I will stay hungry forever because I’m from the inner city of Milwaukee and I grew up in a Latino family. Even to this day, I’m still seeing the struggle in a lot of my family and including myself. So to me the top is so far that it hasn’t been a thought on my mind, to be satisfied. So I just feel like I climb one step at a time, live my years one step at a time. So I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied. I’m just here to create like it’s my job. If I do a good job at that, then I’ll be able to go to work every day, so that’s the overall goal.
MB: What’s an example of a struggle that you’ve faced?
¡Oye!: Being a rapper and Latino is not very mainstream. I feel like we haven’t had a huge respect for a Latino rapper since Big Pun. People are sometimes Latino, like Kid Cudi, but he never really talks about it because it’s not his personality. But me, I’m someone who likes to because it’s all of who I am and it’s a lot of my culture, so I’ve got to tell that story. So people have to really get used to that. So I’ve been trying to overcome that in a sense.
I’ve been trying to overcome the doubters. There’s so many. A lot of your big support in the beginning will be your friends and then there becomes this moment where you take it a little bit more seriously that they were expecting you too, so now they’re torn between being your friends and listening to your music, but your music is obviously not as good as the people they like to listen to quite yet. They hold you to the same standards. That kind of makes it tough because then you have a lack of people believing in you that you used to have before. I think right after that stage comes the next one where you start having strangers believing in you. So it gives you a little more hope and your friends respect your art for what it is. You guys are still able to have a drink and still be friends and have nothing to do with your career at all.
MB: So would you prefer to separate your career from your personal life?
¡Oye!: I’d like to but I feel like it’s impossible sometimes. The first record I did, the “In My Mind” EP, the one I won the award for, it was recorded in two places. One in WSUM in Madison in college and my home, which was, to be honest where my mother lives, in this one bedroom apartment. It was only one bedroom so I’d sleep in the closet.
I set up this little microphone in the closet and was able to lay down the record and mix it the best as I possibly could with the resources I had. But that’s when I became a slight nerd when it comes to mixing and actually researching how to do it really well so I could be a little bit more independent than most rappers. I got the record all done, but I remember that I had to schedule all my recordings when my mom wasn’t home, or it was late at night. She supports it 100%, but sometimes you need absolute quiet in a place where you need to record. But with patience I was able to get it done. But you know, we’ve done a couple of records in my mom’s apartment actually. I hope that one day I’ll be able to look back on this and smile a little bit. It’s a little close for comfort right now.
It’s been a struggle like that right now, but my mom understands and it’s something that my mom has been getting used to. It’s tough with relationships, because whenever you invite someone to be in a relationship with you, they have to get used to the fact that your art form is such a big part of our life. It’s like a child you know, and getting in a relationship with someone who already has a child is complicated. But, if it’s meant to be, it’ll be soon, like Jay-Z said.
MB: What was your mother’s sentiment on rapping when you were starting out? Did she want you to become a doctor or lawyer?
¡Oye!: When I was younger, I would tell her that I would become an architect and build her a house because we’ve always been struggling. But then when I got to college, I didn’t want to do that. It’s hard, and UW doesn’t really have that. But, they did have the soc department, psych department, dance department, theater department, things that I was interested in, and dabbled in all before I finally came to settle on theater. I had that talk with her and I was like, “I’m going to major in theater and I’m going to specialize in acting,” and I know that was scary because I got this full scholarship and I was about to be a theater major, which is kind of like a parent’s nightmare. But I told her that this is what I wanted to do and that I’d never give up and she understood. My mom and I have always had a close relationship and she respected that a lot.
When it comes to rapping and art originality and stuff like that, she never really liked hip hop. She never really liked it a lot especially growing up, because it’s just kind of like, she has no clue as to what they’re trying to say or how they’re saying it or why they’re saying it the way they do. Not to mention that the sometimes the media construes it to how ever they want to and feed it; people receive it as they feed it. But, I’ve been kind of thinking about her when it comes to that. She hears my music and tells me she likes it. How much has she heard? I’m not really sure, nor will I ever be but she always has a smile on her face and she always gives a thumbs up, which you can’t really complain when it comes from your mom. Thinking of her kind of made me want to do a song called, “Vino De Veneno,” which is a song that I did in Spanish – the hook in Spanish and the rap in English – because I knew she would listen to it and that might catch her ear in a different way. So I’m trying to figure out how I can reach people of different ages, of different language barriers a little better, being who I am.
MB: So kind of like what Ricky Martin has done with his Spanish album?
¡Oye!: I think Ricky Martin began his career in Spanish, then broke into English with the mainstream “Livin’ La Vida Loca” stuff popped off. He’s always done English and Spanish but I think some Spanish albums have never been publicized to the American crowd because they’re in Spanish. So if you watch the Spanish channel you might see that Ricky Martin’s got a new record, but you might not know it when you watch MTV, because the record’s in Spanish. That’s a world that most of us have to go through. But, like I said, Ricky Martin started speaking in Spanish first and then went into English, whereas I started with English and Spanish at the same time and then English started dominating just because of where I was located on the map. So I try to capture the ears of what it would sound like in my house, or on my block, or in my apartment so people can hear who I am. I feel like that’s where the Spanish comes from, but I’m not 100% fluent in it at all. I am fairly fluent in it to where I can hold a conversation well and write a couple of songs if need be.
MB: Are you working on something right now that you’d want to tell your fans about?
¡Oye!: Well I just dropped the record so that’s my biggest push right now. I try to do as much as I could when it comes to directing “The Brown Bomber” and just that whole project in itself. It’s been received pretty well lately.
Right now I’m actually working on a couple of videos out here in London – both to songs that aren’t on the record, so when people see the video, they’ll be hearing a random song at the same time. I feel like that’s how you’ve got to keep it fresh for the people who support you.
We’ll be shooting some videos when we get back to Milwaukee. We’ll be shooting one for the lead single off of it called “Party Hard,” which is with Klassik. It’s going to be pretty dope.
I’m also working on a couple of videos with director Alex Browning that features an incredible cast and editor as well.
Also I’ll be working with some salsa bands when I get back home and hopefully to make some collaborations and start getting some live instrumentation popping off with the hip hop, salsa feel and try to create something new.
MB: Do you find it difficult to capture the attention of people if you’re not creating “mainstream” music?
¡Oye!: I find it pretty difficult to capture when it comes to music or anything because in this day and age we live in such an ADD society that you can get any music you want to, any Youtube video you want to, anything so fast, a new status on Facebook every 20 minutes. Everyone is so ADD that it’s so hard to grab a hold of anybody to the point of where you see the artists that are still successful are the ones that came out with just a little before the internet got to where it is today. But we’ll see where it continues. It’s hard especially when you haven’t come out with a record before. You haven’t really come out with a song before, and you’re 19. But, you’ve got to overcome those things. If you’re always scared to take a step forward because you’re afraid to fall on your face, then you’ll never go forward period. So you can’t always fear falling on your face, or else you’ll never walk. So I just kind of walk. I just take little steps forward, little by little, they receive it, they like it, wonderful. If they don’t, I learn from it and try to create something better that more ears can hear. But I already know that no matter how big I get, I’m never going to please everybody. But I can sure as hell try, and that’s half the fun.
MB: Where would you want to establish your career in the US?
¡Oye!: If I could have it my way, it would be in the Midwest. One because a lot of artists in the past have been from the Midwest and never have really brought the wealth that they really accumulated, back home to it like Michael Jackson, Prince, Kanye, Common. People from the Midwest who have become such global figures have forgotten where that was.
Out in the Midwest, it doesn’t have a large presence when it comes to the music scene from a business standpoint. If we don’t have the right people in the business, putting out the music, then we can’t do it the right way and it makes it harder. But there’s a lot of hunger that comes out of Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Madison in its own right, Detroit, Indiana. We’re still putting out music.
Cleveland has had a big push when it comes to Kid Cudi and Chip the Ripper. I want that to be for Milwaukee. This city is a lot of who I am, so much so that I can’t help but want to see it succeed or be represented in that kind of light. It’s real romantic in so many ways, but it’s the only way that I can describe where I’m coming from. I feel like I’ll touch on that a little bit in my next two videos. I kind of want to be able to bring it home in the romantic sense.
But, I’ve always thought about going to New York because of the theater scene there, out West because of the acting and music scene out there. But, Chicago has always given me a wink as well, because it’s so near and there’s theater there of a substantial quality. Being out here in London also – this is my second time in England – and England is beautiful. The opportunities here and the way they treat art is nice. There’s nothing wrong to getting a foreign start to your career like Wale did and he was able to come back home and reclaim his city. I don’t even know where my path is going to lead, but it could be wherever and I’ll give it a 100% wherever I go.
MB: What musicians do you listen to and inspire you?
¡Oye!: One, the question of the century is who’s your favorite rapper, and I always respond to it as Jay-Z. I think Jay-Z has influenced me and just the way his career panned out was so well done when it comes to the gift of writing raps and putting together music and records. Jay-Z definitely has that eye and ear for it.
Also, Kanye West. What he’s done to the Midwest and what he’s done to hip hop period. These are people that I listen to with keen intent. I’m influenced by a lot of old stuff too like salsa in the 70s, like Héctor Lavoe and Afrobeat like Fela Kuti. These are people I definitely look up to with my career. Some surprising hip hop artists that I listen to is Scarface, Outkast and have shaped me in a way.
MB: Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
¡Oye!: I would say, one, be organized when it comes to your career. If you’re serious about becoming a musician, treat your art and your career as a business or else it just won’t work and you have to keep that separate from your art form. So don’t try to mix those too much, but still try to be respectable and handle yourself as a business person as well as a musician.
But also, stay true. Write to the story that is you and the one that you’ve created and have been molded by the things around you and tell your story, because I know there’s got to be so many people out there who share that same story. If you can grasp those people, maybe, just maybe you’ll can catch some listeners for a long time.