With 'Manes de Negocio,' Los Rakas position themselves as the heirs of a longstanding Black Panamanian reggaeton tradition. Ghost
With 'Manes de Negocio,' Los Rakas position themselves as the heirs of a longstanding Black Panamanian reggaeton tradition. (Ghost)

Before Urbano Took Over the Airwaves, Oakland Had Los Rakas

Before Urbano Took Over the Airwaves, Oakland Had Los Rakas

A Grammy-nominated album, numerous mixtapes, countless collaborations and frequent trips back to their home country of Panama. For Oakland duo Los Rakas, the past decade has been all about hustle. 

Cousins Raka Rich and Raka Dun are currently promoting their sophomore album, Manes De Negocio (which loosely translates to “men of business”), via Delicious Vinyl Island and their own label, Raka Music. The 12-track project mixes dancehall, rap and reggaeton from Panama and the Bay—a style Los Rakas have been pioneering over the course of their 13 years in the music biz. With a map of Africa on the album cover, Los Rakas remind listeners of the Afro-Latinx roots of the urbano genre currently taking over the airwaves, positioning themselves as the heirs of pioneering Black Panamanian reggaetoneros such as El General and Renato. 

“It comes from Panama, from Oakland, it comes from poverty, from the ghetto, from the struggle,” Rich says of Los Rakas’ sound. 

A lot has changed since Los Rakas came onto the scene with their bilingual back-and-forth and hyphy-meets-reggaeton production—a style many deemed too hybridized to gain mainstream traction when they debuted in 2006. But following the international success of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” in 2017, Latinx music that blends reggaeton flows and American hip-hop culture has grown to dominate global charts. Colombia’s J Balvin, Puerto Rico’s Bad Bunny and Ozuna, and Southern California’s Becky G emerged among a new generation of pop stars who, unlike their forebears Shakira and Ricky Martin, attract huge international audiences without translating their lyrics into English.

“What we started ten years ago is where it’s at [now],” says Rich. “Now it’s not taboo to experiment, to be a rap artist and hop on an EDM song, or mix different languages.”

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Rich grew up between Oakland and Panama, and was the first person in his family born in the United States. Dun was born in Panama and was undocumented until a few years ago. When Los Rakas got their start, he wasn’t yet fluent in English. The same year the duo released their debut studio album, 2014's El Negrito Dun Dun & Ricardo, Dun adjusted his legal status, and was finally able to visit his immediate family back home. With tracks like “Sueño Americano,” “Chica De Mi Corazón” and "Mi País," he reflects on his experiences as an immigrant. 

“When I got here, I fell in love with hip-hop, R&B,” Dun says. “I would kick it with my Black homies and wouldn’t speak Spanish, kick it with the Mexican patnas. It wasn’t hard adjusting to the culture, but the obstacles [were] being an immigrant and not having papers.” 

On Manes De Negocio, features from local and national artists reflect Rich and Dun’s diverse influences. “Otra Vez,” a track with a down-tempo trap beat, features Nicaraguan-American San Francisco rapper Youngin Floe. Dominican-American Love & Hip-Hop: Miami star Amara La Negra seduces alongside Los Rakas on the sultry track “Devórame.” Their collaboration is an important show of solidarity, as Afro-Latinx artists continue to lack representation in Spanish-language entertainment. 

Manes de Negocio is Los Rakas first release since leaving behind a record deal with Universal Music Latino. As Rich and Dun tell it, the label didn’t give them the attention or resources they needed. “We were just done with the situation with our record label, wanting to start fresh,” says Rich. “We weren’t a priority for them [Universal]. If they’re not about the project, they are not gonna put their all into it.”

Still, at the 2017 Grammy Awards, Los Rakas got a nomination for Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album for their self-titled 2016 album. Although they lost to Puerto Rican singer, and former Calle 13 member, Ileana Cabra, the nomination served as a “graduation certificate,” Rich recalls, implying the achievement gave them the confidence they needed to continue their career as independent artists.  

With Manes de Negocio out (and now that Rich and Dun get to travel together back to Panama), the guys have taken the opportunity to work with artists making a name for themselves in Latin America. The up-and-coming artists they're praising? “Sech is one of the biggest Latinx acts that just blew up, his music is tight,” Rich says. The guys also mention Chinese-Panamanian Shyno Gatillo, and Japanese PTY. “These are the cats that represent what Panama culture is."

“What we learn here in the Bay, we take it back to Panama, Colombia,” says Rich. “It feels the same way.”

Los Rakas perform at the URBANO party at Temple on July 18, and open for Don Omar’s El Puro Party! at Shoreline Amphitheater on Sep. 1.

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