Steven Perez is Pedazo de carne con ojo. Pero Like Cómo E’tá? came out on one of the last days of January. It’s March now. You’re probably reading this at home. Or maybe you’re at the job you had to go into. No matter where you are, remember that you’re doing great. Keep up the good work.
Pero Like Cómo E’tá? is good. Like, really good. Pedazo de carne con ojo’s latest is very special—I implore you to listen. The project primarily focuses on Steven Perez’s interest in hip-hop, electronic and pop music combined with the salsa, bachata and merengue music his mother played around the house. The tape blurs the borders between genres, picking up where last year’s stellar self-titled LP left off. Released via the Latinx-operated Citrus City, Steven Perez truly finds his voice on this one, and the record speaks for itself.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Perez over the phone to chat about influence, collaborators and community.
Treble: Pedazo de Carne con ojo is a nickname that comes from your mom?
Steven Perez: Yeah, it’s an old, pretty common Latinx expression or idiom. It’s like you’re being a smartass or something. You’re either being too smart for your own good or you’re just not using your head. Kind of like a knucklehead.
T: You’ve said your music is heavily influenced by the music your parents played growing up like merengue, bachata and salsa. How did you begin to incorporate those sounds into your music?
P: The Roland SP-404 was definitely the start. Growing up, my mom never liked the music I was making, whether it was emo or folk or whatever. I was always kind of trying to impress her, or get her to be on my side a little bit. Early on, I’d try to play merengue guitar, which is crazy. You have to really know your shit. I mean, you get older and you’re like, “damn, I don’t really know anything about my culture,” and you kind of start fucking with the music your parents were playing. In college I started to listen to a lot of salsa and bachata music. Then I got a 404 about two years ago. One of my best friends had one and I started to try to sample. For a while I was doing what I thought hip-hop was supposed to be—jazz records, old Motown. I love that stuff but I felt that wasn’t really mine. It was appropriative. So I thought, “what if I tried my own shit?” That’s the shit my mom was playing. It was tight. If you’re making Latin music, it’s so easy for it to be reggaeton. I fuck with that shit but I felt it was pigeonholing. So I was trying to find a way to blend that in a more interesting way. I don’t know if I did that, but it was fun. [laughs]
T: At least you had a good time.
SP: I had a really good time, and that’s what matters.
T: I listened to your interview on Under the First Floor Podcast. I wanted to ask you—what is “coked out 80s merengue?”
SP: [laughs] Oh shit. First things first, shout out to Under the First Floor David Settle. That dude is one of the most amazing musicians/singer-songwriters I’ve ever met. That dude has recorded all my bands since I was 18. He’s done so many people’s bands. His band Ex Breathers is, to me, one of the best hardcore bands to ever exist. That dude is a G. He works so hard and does not get the credit he deserves. I just had to say that shit out loud. Anyways, yeah, he cut that shit up weird. In the Dominican Republic, there’s basically a DR version of Soul Train. So all these artists would come through for this TV show. They’d be playing merengue, bachata, all across the board. But some of the merengue in there is so crazy fast. If you listen to Raulín Rodrígez or Anthony Santos—that shit is so fast. It’s like music on coke. That’s how I kind of think about it, because traditional merengue is accordions, more like slow folk music. Then all of the sudden, in the ’80s, shit got crazy. So that’s what I meant, which is fucked up, in retrospect. I just meant that there was this era of merengue that got really fast.
T: So your friend Malcolm gave you the now discontinued Roland SP-404?
SP: Yeah. I should say that’s what got me started, but none of Pero Like used that. By the time I started recording Pero Like, I was straight into Ableton. It’s just easier that way. The 404 is so obsolete you can’t even use an SD card. But it’s what sparked me going really into sampling. I was making little beats and tapping shit together. By the time I was making this record, I was past it. The 404 uses an obsolete media thing, a compact flash. That was such a hassle to transfer shit to my computer, so I just gave up. The whole record is just Ableton.
T: Do you think the 404 had influence on how you approached using Ableton?
SP: That kind of tactile tapping. I want to make sure that even though I’m not playing these instruments, I’m doing something with my hands. Also, after playing in bands for over a decade, it still feels weird to perform it in that way.
Treble: Where has your creative trajectory gone since picking up the 404? Did you make rules for yourself? Break some?
SP: I think one rule I really had was like, “This has to be you, Steven.” It’s cliche for a reason. I felt like for a long time that I was trying to make music that a certain type of person would like. I was trying to fit into a crowd I didn’t grow up in. So for this project I said, “This shit has to bop.” I want people in my family to at least like a phrase, to be like, “oh wow this kind of slaps.” I want to try to keep people paying attention. That’s something I feel learned from listening to people like Slauson Malone. A Quiet Farewell really influenced me, when that came out I scrapped a whole album. That and Body Meat’s Truck Music came out around the same time. I was living with Chris while he made that. I would hear it upstairs all the time. I would kind of hear it be like, “wow he’s not fucking around.” Those two albums came out a day apart and I got bodied. I felt like I wasn’t contributing shit to the craft. I owe a lot to those two records and those two artists. I don’t know Slauson at all, but you can hear how hard he worked on that. I know how hard Chris worked. The way they approached their projects is something that will be a part of my process. Earl is probably top 5 influence on everything I do. That dude is the one, to me. Right now we’re in a really good time for hip-hop. But when he did I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, and I found out he produced it, that’s when I was like, “I wanna do shit like this.” Some Rap Songs? Fire. Feet of Clay? Fire. He gets it.
Treble: What have you been listening to?
SP: Before you called I was listening to Liv.e. MIKE was on for a long time, Tears of Joy. I like Mavi a lot. The new Spirit of the Beehive, the new Draag Me album. That’s Zach [Schwartz] from Spirit. I’m listening to that one a lot. It was so crazy he asked me to be on a song. Mad Philly people. PIERI – Daniella. This girl is killing it. Crazy cool reggaeton in Philly. She just has a single right now but seeing her perform is the most fun shit you’ll ever do. She’s about to drop mad shit. She’ll blow up.
I’m always going back to salsa and bachata music so Héctor Lavoe, Anthony Santos, Johnny Ventura…I was talking to my mom recently and I think she’s finally hype that I’m finally listening to the shit she loved as a kid. She’s telling me that she used to live by these dudes in the Dominican Republic. She would go to the clubs and be dancing with all these merengue dancers. It’s crazy to think there was this degree of separation. I’ve been listening to this shit all the time and my mom used to be around them. It’s crazy.
Treble: You talk about how Philly holds a place for creativity. You linked with Rivka from Spirit of the Beehive, she sings on “Mind Racing” and “I Need the Bag.” Powered by Wind did the video.
SP: Oh yeah, biggest shout out to Powered By Wind. They did that video for me and they did not have to. They’re doing everybody’s videos right now. They grind so hard. Most of the time they’re not making money. They should be getting paid 10, 20, 30 grand that most people get paid. They do it on the cheap, they hustle. I owe so much to them.
Treble: Is a communal record something you’d want to create? Who would you like to work with?
SP: Hell yeah. Like, realistically?
SP: Damn. Right off the bat, obviously Earl. That’d be the tightest shit ever. No cap. All the homies I want to do more with. There’s a crazy story to Rivka’s collab. She was coming over to the crib to record some parts. She came after work. I used to live in a two house place, so it was people from Spirit, people from Palm, Chris from Body Meat. Everybody lived in these two houses. She comes over and said she saw someone just crash their car. We live right by the train. Our house faces the train. Every time the train passes the house shakes. She comes in and I’m like, “can I get you some water or whatever?” She comes up and I’m nosy, so I peek out the window. So I go and I see smoke coming out of this car. People are gathering around and I’m like, “what the fuck.” We walk out and this dude, who either had a stroke, was off some drugs or wanted to kill himself or maybe a combination of the two. He crashed his car on this two lane road under the bridge. The car is smoking like crazy. Eventually the hood catches on fire, but he won’t get out. He’s just holding onto the steering wheel, tweaking out. Three dudes are trying to pull him out. Nothing. We’re all just watching, thinking, “we’re about to see this dude blow up.” This is crazy. And there are all these cars paralleled parked on the side, so if one car blows up, another car blows up, and another. It’d be catastrophic. There’s mad dudes with fire extinguishers. People yelling at the guys trying to help to leave saying, “It’s not worth it, he doesn’t wanna come out!” Eventually fire trucks come. They’re able to contain the fire. They cut the seatbelt and pull it out. They make it happen. We’re all just outside watching this shit. Rivka is supposed to sing on a song, it’s crazy. Then we go back inside and she bangs it out in 20 minutes. I just gotta say, Rivka is one of the toughest people I’ve ever met. We watched this whole thing happen and she was only supposed to one song, but does two no problem. I have so much respect for her. Off topic but that’s just the craziest story.
Treble: That’s insane.
SP: Yeah, it kind of peeks into “Mind Racing” a little bit. The character is, you know, mind racing—losing it. I felt like her vocal part fit perfectly by accident. It fit the vibe in such a good way. Awful event, I really hope that guy is OK. But it’s still just crazy fit.
Treble: Brevity is a common theme with Pedazo releases. Is that intentional?
SP: Yea. That’s kind of the sauce. I’ve been playing in bands for a long time. I’ve made songs that are like, eight minutes long. We don’t think that way anymore. The number one Billboard song is like a minute and ten seconds. Keep the phrases of music short. I wanted to see if I could do that. That was part of it. No one can hold onto anything more than a minute, so let me not make anything that lasts more than a minute. You’ll notice there’s not a song on the record that isn’t two songs in one. Everything is all these pieces glued together. It’s fun that way. It keeps things interesting.
Treble: You’re a poet. You took a few years off to focus on reading and writing. What sort of things did you do to be self-disciplined?
SP: A lot of it was when I realized there wasn’t much of a future in music. I started meeting poets. I never knew there was this path where you can get an MFA and be a teacher. That’s what started it. I’m kind of OCD so once I start some shit I’m really doing it. I always read a lot, I studied literature in college. I was always someone who read and wrote all the time. I never thought about it as poetry. Everything you hear about poetry in school is Shakespeare and shit. Then you realize there’s actually this whole contemporary literary world that has produced some really interesting work. I wanted to see if I could spar with them. So I just read all the time and I wrote every day. I didn’t smoke as much weed. It was tight. I miss that. I don’t do it as much. That shit is important. I don’t care what anyone tells you, reading is an important skill and a rewarding one. There’s mad dope poets. People should be reading poetry. If you don’t like poetry, go to one of their readings. You’ll enjoy that shit.
Treble: Can you tell me a little about “I Need the Bag”?
SP: It was originally another song. It was on that record I scrapped. So my older brother is seven years older than me. I was always around older people. I would follow him and his homies around. They were instigators, they’d talk mad shit and fight all the time. They’d say stuff like, “Damn, he said fuck you and ya motherfuckin’ mama.” That shit is so fucked up but it’s hilarious. I can’t remember when, but I really wanted to put that in a song. I found some of those samples and wrote this whole crazy verse. I scrapped that one and I reworked that verse into this one. That song, you know. My parents worked really hard and I’m grateful for that, but we didn’t have much. You grow up in certain environments where you think money is the only way out of shit. That’s how I was becoming, and I hated that. I still have to watch myself. “Money is the fuel for choices,” as Chappelle would say. It’s important but when you get to a point when you need money over respecting people or over the lives of others. That’s what that song is really about. Like, it’s all I think about sometimes, all I feel like I am to my family sometimes, is a support system of money. I think it’s a very grotesque line that captures the horrors of capitalism. That’s all there is to it. I was trying to grapple with that.
Treble: The proceeds for Pero Like go to Juntos. Can you tell us more about that?
SP: Juntos is a nonprofit organization that helps with immigrants within the Latinx community. It’s all reaching but they help a lot with the immigrant community in South Philly. That’s where they started. That shit is super important. This country is superficially built on the inclusion of all people, especially refugees. We obviously have an administration that does not respect that, and previous administrations have not respected that. I wanted to do my part in any way. I’m using other music, I’m using my inspirations—I don’t deserve all the money for this. I don’t believe I do. I believe that nothing I make is going to pay back these artists what they deserve, but I would hope these artists would respect that I’m trying to at least contribute to an organization that cares about the actual promise of this country. Especially a country that has compounded these horrific tendencies and states from where these people are coming from. If you look at most of the refugees and immigrants that came to this country, they’re fleeing a place that was destroyed by America’s colonial powers. That’s not much about the organization but they have a simple goal. That’s why I picked them and that’s where my head is always at.
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