Edgaro, 'El Productor en Jefe'
Hip hop artist, DJ and producer

We first met Edgar `Edgaro' González in 2007 when Havana Cultura talked to him about his group, Doble Filo. One of the most successful and interesting hip hop acts in Cuba, Doble Filo came to life in a run-down high-rise building in Alamar with "Laboratorio 675" graffitied on the front of it, and that's where we found Edgaro along with his two bandmates, Yrak Sáenz (Vitalicio) and Alain Medina (DJ Dark).

Five years later, the Havana Cultura film crew is back in town to hear about Edgaro's recent projects, among them his appearance on the latest Havana Cultura CD, Gilles Peterson Presents Havana Cultura: The Search Continues (Brownswood Recordings).

On the first day of our interview, Edgaro is in Havana but he's about as far from Alamar as you can be, metaphorically speaking. He's in a Vedado TV studio where he's co-hosting a popular Cuban TV show called Cuerda Viva. The Cuerda Viva set consists of two facing stages, a DJ station and a fog machine. On one of the stages is Extraño Corazón, a long-haired, slightly bearded rock band that has been a fixture on Cuban concert stages since 1992. After Extraño Corazón runs through two songs, Edgaro steps to the DJ station for some light banter with three other presenters who, together, are meant to represent the variety of dance culture in Cuba.

Edgaro's hair is gathered in a top knot and he's wearing a Member's Only-style jacket, Ray-Ban Wayfarers, an un-tucked checked shirt, red trainers and dark blue jeans. When the interview begins he reassures us he's working with the Cuerda Viva show to represent the alternative music scene in Havana. Besides, it's only an occasional gig for him. His heart, he insists, remains with hip hop in general and with Doble Filo in particular. Edgaro and Vitalicio performed in Miami for the first time in 2011 on the same bill as Cuban torch singer Osdalgia. (Edgaro and Osdalgia went on to record together, accompanied by the Havana Cultura Band, on that second Gilles Peterson CD.) And, at the time of our interview, Edgaro is working on a new Doble Filo album, Regreso del Futuro (`back from the future').

These days Edgaro bills himself as "El Productor en Jefe", particularly when it comes to his twice-weekly DJ gigs in Havana clubs. It's a job title that resonates with hip-hop posturing but which is actually, for anyone who knows Edgaro, a bit of un-hip-hop self-deprecation.

In a city where highly skilled musicians are thick on the ground, and where it's hard to meet someone without at least one music prodigy in the family, Edgaro's obsession with music developed despite (or perhaps because of) his lack of any formal training. He began rapping in Alamar when he was 13 years old, backing himself with beats and breaks recorded on cassette tapes. He had a gift for putting words together and performing them but he found he was particularly interested in manipulating the `pause' and `play' buttons on his cassette machine. A producer was born.

"In the studio I knew what I wanted," Edgaro recalls. "I didn't know what the notes were, didn't know what chords to put where, didn't know what terms to use, and I was working with real musicians who said, `Hey, you're producer-in-chief, you call the shots.' It was funny." Edgaro says he learned everything he knows about producing from watching a documentary about Benny Moré, the great Cuban bandleader. "[Benny Moré] did his arrangements with his voice, so I tried the same thing: I want the guitar to go tun tin tun and the bass to go co concon coc onc ocon, and the joke about me being `El Productor en Jefe' kind of stuck."

As Doble Filo began to take off — in 1996 the group won the top prize at the seminal Alamar Rap Festival —Edgaro had the opportunity to meet other DJs and producers visiting Cuba. In 2009 Edgaro met Gilles Peterson when he came to town to record Havana Cultura: New Cuba Sound (also on Peterson's Brownswood Recordings label). He smiles at the memory: "[Gilles] came to my house, saw all my boxes of records, I played him some Cuban music. He just looked at me and said, `You're the Cuban Madlib!'. That made me happy because I had met [Californian hip hop producer] Madlib and he's supercool." When Peterson came to know Edgaro better and discovered he not only could mix and produce but could sing as well, he corrected himself and called Edgaro "a Cuban Pharrell Williams".

The day after Edgaro's TV appearance, we join him at his current home in Centro Habana where he lives with his mother, his girlfriend, his girlfriend's little daughter, and a dog. Edgaro's mother cooks in the minuscule kitchen while the rest of them are squeezed into the front room watching cartoons on an old TV set. To one side of this room is a bedroom barely big enough to fit a single-size mattress and there's a tiny bathroom on the other side. We all move into Edgaro's home studio, which may be slightly bigger than the TV room but which is still pretty cramped. Mixing consoles are piled on cardboard boxes. The closet space is reserved for his shoe collection. We count 19 pairs (well-maintained Nikes and Adidas mostly) in addition to the Pumas he's wearing today.

Edgaro went to an American school in the Netherlands from four to eight years old and then, when he and his mother moved to Alamar, he started listening to Biggie. When Edgaro speaks English today, he sounds as if he he had grown up on Biggie's block in Brooklyn.

Edgaro tells us he's preparing a solo album called Rey muerto (`dead king'). The album, though, is anything but an ego trip. It will showcase the talents of a wide range of singers, and Edgaro won't be among them. "I want to be the full-on producer," he says. "Doble Filo has a very specific style, even if it's a group that's musically rather eclectic. There are a lot of things I want to do – a type of bolero, things that require a singer, less rap-able – that I can't do with Doble Filo and that I'm going to do with this album I'm producing." He fires up his computer and plays us a track-in-progress. It contains a sample from "Que te pedí" by Elena Burke (1928-2002). "This is one of my favourite boleros by one of my favourite Cuban singers," he says, swaying to the beat he has added to the original track.

Given the evidence – his interest in and knowledge of romantic ballads, his move away from Alamar where Doble Filo and a lot of other good Cuban rappers first came to prominence – you might conclude that Edgaro has left his hip hop roots behind. And you would be mistaken. Hip hop is not merely a point of departure for Edgaro. It's the point of everything for him. For instance, an interest in visual art back in the day led him to do what hip hop fans were doing in the streets of New York, London, Paris and a lot of other cities. The walls of Alamar blossomed with the artwork of Edgaro and his posse (their tag was AKG, for Alamar Graffiti Kings).

As far as Edgaro's current musical explorations, he doesn't see any inconsistency with his hip hop state of mind. "A lot of people of my generation like boleros," he explains. "What the blues is for hip hop in the United States, the bolero and filín are to hip hop in Cuba. Rhythmically, the four-four tempo is the same." He points out that his Rey muerto album, along with the more traditional-sounding Cuban melodies, features a major contribution from Golpe Seko, up-and-coming rappers from Santiago de Cuba.

We say goodbye to Edgaro knowing it won't be long before we see him again. In fact we'll see him later this evening in the Teatro Bertolt Brecht where he's playing a DJ set. And we'll see him in three days at a party in the Havana Club Museo del Ron.

El Productor en Jefe is everywhere.