A Glimpse at Center of the Margin: rap music and lumpen innovation in an underground rap recording studio of Buenos Aires

May 3, 2017

A Glimpse at Center of the Margin offers an extract of the Spanish authored ethnography titled “Centro del Margen: Crónica de un día en un estudio de grabación clandestino de música rap en Buenos Aires” recently published in Studies in Latin American Popular Culture. The original ethnographic essay consists of thirteen diary-styled entries throughout a cycle of twenty four hours spent in the underground rap recording studio of Buenos Aires. Using a chronicle, I intercalate the experiences of fieldwork with the review of theoretical ideas about the lived experiences. This format allows for a subjective narration that aims to integrate El Triángulo Studio’s protagonists as co-investigators in the co-creation of knowledge. In this brief translated glimpse of Center of the Margin for Panoramas I offer three summaries of the article’s thirteen entries. These spotlight Latin American rap music as protest song, urban spaces where youth manifest themselves and the development of self-taught engineers, composers and musical producers whom I identify as lumpen-innovators.

Photo B: El Triángulo neighborhood, Temperley, Lomas de Zamora (Google Maps)

6:05AM: Lying on a bed that acts as a sofa by day, I negotiate shared mattress real estate with Spunky and Catana, the two pitbulls that watch after the underground rap studio in Temperley, on the fringes of the Buenos Aires suburbs, known as El Triángulo (The Triangle). Located within the southern municipality of Lomas de Zamora, El Triángulo Studio is a home recording studio situated within a small neighborhood referred to by the same name. The name is born from its geographical circumstance since the makeshift houses that inhabit this area are framed by three major railway lines, two commercial and one cargo. The official maps of Buenos Aires do not indicate that there are homes within this triangular void. Seen from outside, the geographic hollow is considered by many to be a shantytown or villa enclosed by railroad scrap.  

Villa is the name given in Argentina to informal settlements characterized by a dense proliferation of precarious housing. They are generated when the municipal administrations and urban development authorities do not address the housing needs of the community, when a group of people requires a place to live, but they do not have the necessary financial resources to acquire or build regular housing. For its inhabitants, El Triángulo is not a villa, however the neighborhood exhibits several symptoms that usually define one, such as the lack of septic systems or drainage. In the absence of infrastructures executed by public administrations, residents establish their own gas and electrical lines.

The small house that hosts El Triángulo Studio is made of asphalt and tin. Herein lives the rapper and musical producer Marcos, his wife Yesica and their two daughters. A quarter of the physical space of the home belongs to the recording studio, but more than three-quarters of its economy is invested in it. All household appliances, plus all of the studio’s sound and recording equipment are nourished by a fragile cable that brings electricity from a street lamp. As I lay in El Triángulo Studio listening to the roar of the railroad that passes next to the house, Spunky and Catana re-accommodate themselves to leave me enough space to stretch my legs, yet offer me the South American hospitality of warming my feet as I fall back to sleep.

Photo: Nucleo El Triangulo Studio

9:00AM: As I awake in El Triángulo, I begin curiously investigating how to work the kitchen. There is no septic system or drain. Rather, the household depends on a water faucet just off the street, from which buckets are filled for use in the kitchen or bathroom. Yesica, who hears me in the kitchen looking through receptacles and assessing gas pipes, walks into the kitchen affectionately taking a jug from my hand and says “Meli, I’ll make the mate” (a popular Argentine tea). As we sat in the kitchen drinking mate, we chatted about hip-hop culture.

Four means of expression, called elements, define hip-hop with linguistic, physical, visual, and auditory codes. These are represented by rap, dance, graffiti and DJing or musical production. In spite of a well developed Latin American hip-hop movement demonstrated by events like Hip-Hop al Parque (a festival in Bogota that registers an impressive turnout of one hundred thousand people per year), rap music did not identify itself with the Argentine masses in a similar way. “In border countries such as Brazil and Chile there are many rappers,” says Yesica while refreshing the mate's herbs, “but here we are few.” Although rap has established itself as a protest song throughout Latin America, it is only in recent years that the hip-hop movement has become popular within Argentina. Rap in Latin America, unlike the genre in the United States or Europe, has been primarily political, called by some “conscious rap” or “protest rap.” What was the trova  or the new song folk movement in the Americas, marked by protagonists like Joan Baez, Silvio Rodríguez , Violeta Parra, and Atahualpa Yupanqui, is similar to the role that rap plays today (Vargas Arana 2011). In many cases, the messages of new song and Latin American rap music remain parallel, but rap’s acoustic representation, youthful exuberance and artistic expression have been translated to identify with a millennial generation.

Our conversation, exclamations, and laughter awaken Marcos who walks into the kitchen still half asleep, sits down, and waits his turn of the next mate. Popularly known by the name Núcleo, Marcos is one of Buenos Aires’ most popular underground hip-hop figures as both a rapper and a music/video producer. The term “underground” within this context refers to non-commercial and independent artists who operate outside of the formal avenues of the musical and cultural industries.

Similar to El Triángulo, there are several underground recording studios throughout Latin America. Cyber connectivity between these studios is crucial to their formation of a collective movement. Hip-hop youth form a global majority when in their own countries they are local minorities. Informal studios like this one communicate with each other and self-promote via platforms like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. These nodes of exchange turn small scale local spaces into transnational rap hubs. Rappers and rap music producers upload their home recorded songs, music videos and album demos to servers such as MediaFire or Soundcloud, from where they host and promote free downloads via their social media networks. Most underground rap recording studios are in similar urban, geographic, social, and economic margins as El Triángulo, creating a complex artistic network between marginal communities that circumnavigate the financial and societal centers of the pop culture industries, yet equally infiltrate their publics. 

The creation of a global network devised from the urban margin is a phenomenon explored by the anthropologist Derek Purdue (2010; 50) who identifies rappers from the outskirts of Sao Paulo who apply a process of self-construction with which they establish networks of access to global cultural centers. This serves as a contrast to the transnational portals whose access depends on economic and social privilege such as major record labels, singer/songwriter and composer associations, formal media outlets, marketing advertisers, and tour promoters. Most of the albums and songs released from El Triángulo are digital and distributed online which eliminates the cost of printing physical CDs. This allows rappers to participate in a network parallel to the official one, yet avoiding the centralized control of cultural institutions and circumnavigating the obstacles created by the lack of market access to the entertainment industry.

Photo: Triangulo Studio

6:15PM: As the evening set in, the freestyle rap improviser D-TOKE stopped by to visit El Triángulo. D-TOKE is amongst the founders of a biweekly rap improvisation battle that takes place in a park just a few train stations south of El Triángulo. Participants pass a hat around to raise money, which comes from the general public as much as from its contestants. The winner of the improvisation battle takes the cumulative pot of money. In Núcleo’s words, "very little is gathered, but for us, it’s a lot." These types of planned-social-improvisations take over public spaces throughout Buenos Aires and offer further insight into the socio-political aspects of rap’s geographical authority.

Sociologist Milka Mingardi (2009; 1) discusses the appropriation of public spaces by young people for the practice of graffiti, break-dance and rap within Buenos Aires. She proposes that youth seek out spaces where they cannot be removed by authority figures, where they can install themselves liberally for as long as they desire. Mingardi applies the analysis of Marc Augé (1993; 5) who identifies these as “non-places” or spaces crossed to reach other places. Such a “non-place” is open to anyone. It does not have its own end, being most often used as a place of transit. Rules of inhabitance are created by their immediate settlers, generating a space opposite to what young people confront in their schools, homes, and exchanges with government institutions.

Arguably, the neighborhood of El Triángulo is a type of non-place where its inhabitants simply “do not exist” in the urban-economic radar. This triangular hollow is registered as a crossing of train lines on the urban margin, which is itself a cultural, political, economic and geographical space that exists between the urban center and its rural circumference. In these types of non-places we find a combination of factors including limited economic resources and state abandonment, alongside social prejudice mixed with the desire for improvement and aspiration for recognition from surrounding institutional and social spheres. This periphery is a place where the economic and technical scraps of the urban center trickle towards, and its inhabitants must self design and often repurpose their uses. This yields few resources and equipment in the hands of many, which produces a multitude of self-taught innovators.

The aforementioned social group formed by economically marginalized groups in urban environments invokes the Marxist concept of the lumpen-proletariat. In German Ideology, Marx referred to this group at the margin of the class system that was not integrated in the division of labor but that managed to survive from it (1965; 217). Marx claimed such a group would never achieve a “class consciousness,” considering it not only useless, but “dangerous” within the revolutionary context (Communist Manifesto, 1998, 21). Unlike workers, who possess values such as solidarity and industriousness, according to Marx, the lumpen are essentially selfish. A few years later, Marx re-organized his ideas in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1914; 83) recognizing the political potential of this group as a revolutionary reserve army or a potential criminal element.

Anthropologist Richard Fanthorpe (2001; 369) presents the contemporary lumpen as an isolated youth, modernized by Western education and access to global media, but frustrated by their lack of developmental avenues. In his recent study of Venezuelan popular politics, sociologist Luis Duno-Gottenberg (2013; 269) emphasizes the productive power of the lumpen and labels them as agents of cultural production and social change. Political Scientist Kevin Barnhurst (1982; 373) adds to this discussion by proposing that technical experimentation within the lumpen class is a mechanism that generates hope for overcoming the daily struggles often associated with poverty.

Hip-hop in El Triángulo teaches rappers like Núcleo, D-Toke, and many of the others who gather here, the daily practices of solidarity and work ethic. Within the class of lumpen, internal fractions are created. Within these fractions of a sub-proletariat, a new echelon of lumpen-innovators has flourished here, precisely because of their desire for betterment amid their institutional and municipal neglect. To some extent, I assess Marcos is subconsciously aware of this, after all, his nom d’plume is Núcleo, which means axis or center. Through his individual agency, El Triángulo has become a central meeting point for a marginal community of the southern cone.

5:10AM: Quickly dawn approaches. Spunky struts over to me and puts his head on my lap, with an upward glance he gestures that it is time to turn the sofa into a bed at El Triángulo Studio.

Photo: Spunky


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About Author(s)

Melisa Rivière's picture
Melisa Rivière
Melisa Rivière, Ph.D. is an anthropologist and lecturer in the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research is focused on the globalization of hip-hop, civil rights, media, and popular youth culture movements in Latin America. She has published portions of her research in academic journals and popular culture magazines as well as received various awards for her multimedia ethnographic works.