"I had never heard anybody say that Puerto Ricans had anything to do with African descent. So up until that moment in my life, I had no idea who I was," recalls Pabón, 27, during a phone interview from his home in Richmond. "I went the next day and did [what] every Puerto Rican out here of this generation [did]. I went to the encyclopedia and read the whole thing about Puerto Rico."
Eventually, Pabón began to write songs about his newly discovered cultural background. By doing so, he joined a heritage of lyricists -- from Marvin Gaye to KRS-One to Chuck D of Public Enemy -- who've blurred the lines between personal experiences and sociopolitical wake-up calls. Still, while he's been sharing his life story and worldview via his collective, the Prophets of Rage, for the last seven years, he didn't feel as though he really belonged in a historical timeline until a recent show at the Ashkenaz in Berkeley.
"There was this one dude who was in the front the whole time, and he was just looking at me," Pabón says. "Bobbing his head, you know, giving me love, but just staring at me the whole time. And, as I was leaving, I got outside, and he stood in front of me. He was like, 'Thank you ... no, you don't understand,' and he grabbed me and hugged me.
"I'm looking at this guy like, 'I don't even know you, kid.' But he had my very first record. He bought it when he was like 15, and that was his shit. We got into a conversation. He was like, 'There were times where it would just be about making a decision,' like whether to kick it with his boys on that particular night or not. And because he had heard my song about such and such, it made him think he had another way to look at it."
While Pabón originally wrote as a way to express himself rather than to change the lives of others ("That's some ego shit," he explains), he felt deeply satisfied to discover that his music had helped somebody. The meeting also showed him the power of his voice and of rap music in general.
"That's what the name "Prophets of Rage' represents," Pabón says. "It's meant in the same spirit as how Chuck D and Public Enemy used that name for themselves." The collective is not one small group of people, Pabón explains, it's an ancestry. The listener coronates a prophet by becoming an MC himself or otherwise sharing his experiences.
Pabón's own experiences have proven fertile ground for exploring human truths -- and for crafting diverse soundscapes. Born when his mother was 15 years old into a family of salsa musicians (his uncles and aunts have several albums out as the Pabóns), the future Prophet moved often between the Bronx, Boston, and Daly City -- every time "to escape drama." Each new home had two things in common: financial tribulations and salsa music. He soon understood that hardship and meaningful art were two sides of the same coin.
"The most beautiful music has come out of those periods of time when we were enslaved -- well, we're still enslaved -- or our condition of living had just changed from bad to worse," Pabón suggests. "Maybe it's because that's what we need to do at those times. It's not something that we're doing just to make money off of or to get some fame or to get played on the radio. It's really, truly an expression of our emotion. Because pain is one of those energies that, if you don't let it out, it can destroy your soul."
Pabón let out his initial pain on the first Prophets of Rage record, 1994's No More Patience. By the time of the group's second album, 1997's acclaimed Brand New World, the Prophets seemed poised to jump onto the national stage. But even though the album's first single, "Memories," was played on KMEL and other stations beyond the Bay Area, the record got buried in the rubble of music industry restructuring. Soon, the group's other founding members, MC Crazy and DJ Park, left to pursue their own projects, and Pabón hooked up with Afro-Latin band O-Maya and producer Headnod (of local hip hop act Mission:) to record the Prophets' new album, My Power.
The recently released record continues to explore Pabón's usual dichotomy of hardship and beauty. While his lyrics mix sober truths with celebrations of sensuality, Pabón's spacious backdrops and churning grooves provide flavorful structures. On the album's opening track, "Nothing Sweeter," the Prophets connect breezy Latin vibes and horn hooks with lyrics of personal righteousness and romance: "I contemplated while most others stayed faded/ Waited to get up out the ghetto and made it/ Only to return to set the rooftops of the projects' mentality to burn/ Title of queen you earn." Next, Pabón ups the tempo for "Two Ways Home," an infectious, swinging number with driving drums, carnival organ accents, and horns that drag happily like hands in the water behind a boat. Pabón's raw, chanting chorus rides the groove, belying the sober indictment of American politics buried in the verses.
Musically, the rest of the album vacillates between these two tempos and mind-sets. There are head-nodder standouts, like the crystalline "Make the Most" (produced by No One of the Bay Area Arts Collective), and quicker grooves, such as the conga-driven call-and-response joint "They Don't Know." But it is Pabón's wide-ranging lyrics that take precedence -- bound by the theme that struggle feeds beauty. He commends and seeks out righteous action, raising a fist for activists who "spent 12 years of their lives solitarily confined like Oscar López/ Still can't break his focus," and challenging immorality among both the abusers of power and the victims. On "Warriors," he tells a struggling woman, "If the sun dies, you will be the light," while on the tender, personal "Mami Linda," he recounts the brutality of his mother's childhood and credits her as being "the reason why I shine."
But all that glitters is not gold -- especially in the music industry, where a sense of morality rarely seems to pay and where the promise of gold records often feels tied to the snuffing of any creative flame. Disillusioned with record labels and distribution deals, Pabón is taking a DIY approach to marketing My Power, making it available for now only on his Web site, www.prophets-of-rage.com, and at live performances. Not only does the independent marketing protect him from the machinations of large record companies, it also suits his message. Like politics, business is personal to Pabón. The front line of the struggle is the front row of a show; hard times and beauty come together where the stage meets the dance floor. For Pabón, hip hop is a form of oral history -- one that passes along the details that schoolbooks leave out.
"This is supposed to be ghetto CNN, communicate-with-your-people-without-the-mainstream-media type of music," he says.