Contrary to popular belief, Hip-Hop is more than a genre of music. In fact, it’s not even a genre of music. Instead, it’s a worldly culture comprised of the following four tenants: DJ’ing, rapping, graffiti art and breakdancing. With that said, the culture has grown a bit since it first arrived at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue a few decades ago. Hip-Hop has influenced fashion, sports, film, television and comedy. With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that world-renowned DJ EFN connected his love for film with his love for Hip-Hop to create what viewers around the world know as Coming Home.
Powered by DJ EFN’s Crazy Hood Productions, Coming Home works with Rock The Bells to explore the state of Hip-Hop in countries that are often overlooked. Over the last few years, DJ EFN and company have flown out to Cuba, Peru, Vietnam and beyond to meet with those who are shaping the culture around the world. Now, DJ EFN and his team are going to a place they’ve never been before, REVOLT. DJ EFN and Crazy Hood Productions have partnered with REVOLT to amplify the Coming Home series as it heads to South Africa and Colombia.
After flying around the world and documenting the Hip-Hop scene in Colombia and South Africa, DJ EFN chopped it up with Def Pen about where Coming Home has been and where he hopes it will go moving forward.
Ryan Shepard: In preparation for our conversation today, I went back and watched some of the previous episodes of Coming Home. While I was watching the first half of Coming Home: Exploring Hip-Hop in Cuba, the director, Garcia, said, “I was starting to get frustrated. We had been there a day and a half and we hadn’t found any Cuban hip-hop.” From the perspective of the viewer, we typically don’t get to see or hear about those production hurdles that you and your team may go through while putting together these episodes. Typically, what is the most difficult part about putting together an episode of Coming Home?
DJ EFN: To be honest with you, the most difficult part is the travel portion. We have to move the whole crew and try to get an understanding of the landscape without [spoiling it]. What I try not to do is to have too much information and have any preconceptions before I get anywhere. When I’m there, I want the culture to kind of guide me. It might sound corny, but I want things to happen organically.
I want to hear from the streets about who’s who, what’s what, who are the pioneers [of hip-hop in that area] and all of that. There’s not much preparation that goes into who we meet or how we meet people. We’re more focused on how we move in a country and how we travel from place to place. That actually becomes the hardest part of the trip because we’re traveling with a crew of people and we have cameras. In some countries, you draw a lot of attention when you move like that. We’re also not moving with security or anything like that because it may make things less organic if we did. That’s not to say we might not have security in the future if we continue to do this, but we try not to.
RS: During your trip to Peru, you mentioned something about that. Before you went to a particular spot in Callao, you looked at the camera and explained that the van service was uneasy about a place you were going to. In contrast, one thing that you and almost everyone else have brought up in nearly every episode is the sense of community that you have felt going to different cities across the world. From your perspective, what is the biggest difference between the communities in Hip-Hop that you encounter overseas as opposed to the communities in Hip-Hop that you encounter in the U.S.?
DJ EFN: Going to every country, the thing that we’ve kind of heard consistently is that they feel like we don’t do Hip-Hop anymore in the United States. They feel that we’re just an industry or a business. They’ll say, “The industry controls the art. Therefore, there’s no pure Hip-Hop culture.” That’s how they feel about us.
With that said, this experience is refreshing for me. I really love Hip-Hop. I’ve lived and breathed Hip-Hop since I was a kid and I’ve always sought out the purest forms of it, so it’s dope to experience it in this way. There’s also a sad part to it as well. To do this, we have to go to some of the under-resourced neighborhoods in some of the most marginalized countries, but this is where Hip-Hop was born. It was born out of poverty and scarcity. So, we’re kind of going back in time in a sense, but we’re finding the purest forms of the culture in a sense.
I don’t know if I’m answering your question or changing, but what surprised me a lot is this. No matter the language barrier, they understand what we’re doing now [with Hip-Hop in the U.S.] They want industry and they want to make money too, but they feel like we’ve lost our way with the development of Hip-Hop. They feel as if we no longer do what we exported to them years ago and we’re trying to make a quick buck.
RS: Actually, that answer first perfectly into what I wanted to ask next. While you and your crew were out in Cuba, you spoke to an artist by the name of Yrako. While he was talking, he mentioned that artists like Public Enemy and Run DMC had the biggest impact on Cuba over time because they spoke about things that still connect to what they’re going through today. What, if any, artists do you think are having that same impact despite the language barriers that may exist?
DJ EFN: I think I’ll be biased in my answer because I’m such a fan of him, but I think Kendrick Lamar has that same impact. In more recent years that Kendrick Lamar has been out, I’ve noticed that he resonates in a way that allows the older generation of Hip-Hop heads and the younger generation to both like him.
In that sense, each country is also a little bit different. For example, Cuba is a closed country. It’s closed to the rest of the world as an embargo, so they kind of maintain that old-school ideology because they’re not getting much from the outside. But when you go to a country that’s a little bit more open and has a little bit more internet access, you’ll see a variety of influences.
RS: A few weeks ago, I was having a back and forth with a friend when Rolling Loud shared its lineup for its stop in Toronto. One of the headliners for the festival is Santan Dave out of London and she got a kick out of making fun of Dave because she had never heard of him before. Meanwhile, Dave is selling out venues all over the place and would be thought of very differently by U.S. listeners if he was born in America. I’m a huge fan of Dave, but her jokes about him highlighted how oblivious we can be in the U.S. about anything outside of our country as it pertains to music. After watching Coming Home and learning more about the artists you’ve met up with around the world, I’ve felt that some of these artists could be bigger names around the world if they had that infrastructure and industry you mentioned earlier. Who are a few of the artists that you feel could be bigger names around the world if they had the platforms that we have in the U.S., Canada, etc.?
I think that almost everybody we’ve featured in the films has the ability to resonate with a larger audience if they had more industry around them. In some cases, artists have been able to resonate outside of their home country despite a lack of infrastructure around them. Some of them have been able to travel outside of their country, make a living and then go back.
One of the bigger artists that I was surprised by was Suboi in Vietnam. Barack Obama was the first sitting U.S. President to visit Vietnam since the Vietnam War. While he was addressing some of the Vietnamese people, she was in the crowd and she started rhyming. It went viral and she was on CNN. I saw that right before we went or it might have happened right afterward. I’m a little blurry on that one. Nonetheless, everyone was saying that we had to link with her when we got there. When we linked, I could just tell. Although I don’t speak any Vietnamese, I could tell that whatever she was rapping was dope. Her swag, demeanor and the way she carried herself showed that she was a superstar. Since we left Vietnam, she’s been featured at SXSW, sponsored by Adidas and I think she did the music for a King Kong movie. She’s huge.
I think that’s another piece of information that we’ve taken away from making these films. They’ve detached themselves from [American] influence and they’re looking to their neighbors instead. So, Suboi is one of the biggest artists in Asia and we’d never know it in America, but they don’t really care that we know it because they have a self-contained ecosystem for themselves now.
RS: As previously mentioned, you’ve been to Haiti, Peru, Cuba, Vietnam and beyond. Most recently, you’ve been able to travel to Colombia and South Africa. What is the most surprising or unexpected thing that you learned while connecting with the Hip-Hop scene in those two countries?
DJ EFN: There’s nothing really surprising that I’ve learned recently because I feel like Hip-Hop is relatable anywhere you go. Wherever we find Hip-Hop, we find a home. I guess the surprising part about each trip is seeing how different cultures interpret Hip-Hop. For example, I didn’t know there was a whole subgenre of Voodoo rap in Haiti and I thought that was ill. In Colombia, it was cool to hear the different sounds [in each region]. It was almost like it is here where we have the west coast, the south, the midwest and the east coast. They have that as well. The sounds change as you go from Bogotá, the big city, to Medellín. Then, you have the valley in the middle and Ráquira to the coast, which has a Caribbean flavor. So, it was dope to see that. I wasn’t necessarily surprised, but it was dope to see. In South Africa, one of the pioneers out there was telling us that they don’t think Hip-Hop would have taken such a hold if it wasn’t for apartheid. Hearing that at first, you’d think he was bugging up apartheid, but he was actually saying that Hip-Hop was the music of revolution for them. They already had their own music in South Africa, but this was the time of Public Enemy and NWA. Therefore, they were able to make Hip-Hop the voice against apartheid.
RS: Lastly, you’ve been all over the world. Where would you like to take Coming Home next?
DJ EFN: I’ve had two kids since I started this journey. If you would have asked me this before I had my kids, I would’ve told you that I want to go around the world. Now, I’ve got to limit my travels, but I truly want to go everywhere. I want to go to the places where you’d least expect Hip-Hop or you just can’t imagine what the Hip-Hop community is doing there. Mongolia, Tibet, other parts of Africa and the Middle East [re places I’d like to go]. I would also like to do one film in Israel and then do another film in Palestine. Mentally, one of the films that I’ve been working on mentally is Coming Home: Native America. I want to visit different reservations, meet with different tribes and just experience Hip-Hop through their eyes. There’s a huge Indigenous Hip-Hop community across America and that’s what I want to do.
Note: This interview was lightly edited for brevity and grammatical clarity.