Papa Humbertico

Move over Papa Hemingway. There's a new Papa H. making a name for himself in Havana, though these two men have little or nothing in common beyond their nickname. Hemingway had a bushy white beard, liked a splash of grapefruit juice in his daiquiris, and saw Havana for the last time in 1960. Papá Humbertico has a close-cut black beard, likes playing basketball, and owns and operates Cuba's most important hip hop production company out of his home in eastern Havana. In fact, if you need to compare Papá Humbertico with anybody, 1990s Dr. Dre would be a closer match than Hemingway.

Papá Humbertico was born Humberto Joel Cabreras Santana in 1985. He grew up on Havana's outskirts in Guanabacoa, in the house that now serves as his studio and as the headquarters of Real 70 Producciones. When he was nine years old the winds of hip hop blew in from Puerto Rico and Panama. The sounds of Vico C and El General weren't gangsta, more like proto-reggaeton, but the language was Spanish and the beats left their imprint. In 1996, he saw Cuban rap pioneers Primera Base in concert, then he ran home and memorised their lyrics. It wasn't long before he discovered Tupac, Fugees and the rest of the US rap scene. "There weren't a lot of artistic things happening in this neighbourhood," he recalls. "Most people were into dog fighting, cock fighting, illegal gambling. I got into that a bit but then I changed direction."

Papá Humbertico recorded his first CD in 2001. He didn't have the resources to invest in production but he didn't let that stop him. He called this first effort Hip hop de bajo costo (`low-budget hip hop') and he immediately became a beacon for all those who, like him, had a lot to say and little to spend. As the 21st century began and the Asociación Hermanos Saíz and the state-run Agencia Cubana de Rap were helping to promote Cuban hip hop through official channels such as Festival de Rap Cubano in Alamar, Papá Humbertico's Real 70 Producciones, named for his street address, became the unofficial catalyst for "underground" hip hop in Cuba. The titles of Papá Humbertico's subsequent recordings read like a history of Cuban hip hop: Denuncia social (2002), Hip-hop underground (2003), Pluma y micrófono (2005), Rap y activismo (2006), Revolución dentro de la Revolución (2006), La Comision depuradora Vol. 1 y Vol. 2 (2007), Redención (2008) and Luz (2009). 

When he was 14, he was in training to play professional basketball. He was one of the shortest players in his sports academy and the nickname "Papa" stuck. "When I was on the bench, I listened to rap," he recalls. "I thought, if basketball doesn't work out for me, I can become a rapper."

Papá Humbertico, team player and natural-born producer, has been working with other rappers and musicians since the beginning. His Sonidos Turbios recordings have showcased some of the best Cuban hip hop to date, featuring among others El Discípulo, Los Aldeanos, Anónimo Consejo, Hermanos de Causa, Explosión Suprema, Los Paisanos and Danay Suárez. The Real 70 movement was chronicled in a Spanish documentary shot in three phases, 2008, 2010 and 2011. 

At the time of his interview with Havana Cultura, Papá Humbertico was working on a new project for Mano Armada, his duo with El Discípulo. The idea, he explained, was to record a hip hop version of the songs, then record a version of the same songs but with live drums, bass and guitar by Brazilian metal rockers Antizona. 

"I think the best of Cuban culture, of Cuban music in particular, isn't necessarily commercial," he says. "It's great we're starting to know this music a bit, that the barriers are falling a bit, that the doors of cultural institutions, of television and radio, are opening in Cuba."