Colombia’s viral chart is generally awash in tuneful reggaeton — the dominant sound of commercial pop in that country, with its tightly programmed beats and curt rumbles of bass. But in June 2018, an unusual song rocketed to the top of the Spotify ranking: “La Mitad De La Mitad” by Crudo Means Raw. The looping rhythm section evokes old funk records, rather than laptop wizardry, and instead of sketching tales of love (or at least lust), the lyrics rallied against new anti-drug laws in the country.
“La Mitad De La Mitad” sparked an enthusiastic response in Crudo Means Raw’s hometown of Medellín. “All over the city, they were banging that track in nightclubs,” says the rapper-producer, whose real name is Fernando Bustamante. “It would be the 2 a.m. part of the party where it gets really grimy and ratchet, and they would play my song.”
Bustamante’s breakout single melded the techniques of American hip-hop producers — listen for the Parliament sample — with the sounds of Colombia: The drums pay tribute to the country’s Pacific Coast region, a hotbed of Afro-Colombian fusion that is rarely acknowledged on modern Latin radio. The hybrid reflects Bustamante’s passion for New York rap’s so-called golden age in the late Eighties and early Nineties — A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr. “Colombia loves old school hip-hop,” Bustamante says. “Tribe said they made music so people could dance while they used their minds at the same time. That’s the objective.” And that’s “La Mitad De La Mitad” — protest music you can dance to.
Bustamante lived in Long Island, a train ride from the birthplace of the rap groups he revered, until he was five, when he moved back to Colombia to be with his mother. “My mom gave me that Dangerous tape [by Michael Jackson],” the rapper recalls. “And she would listen to a lot of Sade and a lot of Latino music: [the label] Fania, Willie Colón. [A] Tribe [Called Quest] was poppin’. Bone Thugs[-N-Harmony] E. 1999 Eternal was poppin’. When Disaster Strikes by Busta [Rhymes].”
In time, Bustamante’s fandom morphed into a desire to create art of his own, and he started to “emulate the greats.” “I would make beats like Pete Rock made beats,” he says, nodding to the New York producer whose Nineties albums with CL Smooth are viewed as boom bap bibles.
“I didn’t have my unique sound back in the day,” Bustamente continues. But he “studied the craft of beat-making,” searching for a fresh approach to a canonical style. He also started to distribute his work around town: “I would give away beat tapes to people on the corner smoking weed, people on the soccer field. ‘Beats? Beats? Beats?’”
When Bustamante got to high school, he began to rap in earnest with classmates; one of them was José Balvin, now known simply as J Balvin, one of the most popular singers on the planet. Even back then, “he was the man for the catchy hooks,” Bustamante remembers. “I was doing the MCing; the lyrical part.”
When Bustamante decided to start rapping in earnest, it was probably inevitable that he modeled his approach on his early-Nineties hip-hop heroes, artists who famously valued their message as much as their groove. “The money move is cool, but I want the lyric [to be meaningful],” Bustamante says. “A lot of people are listening: Teachers, janitors, workers.” “I come from where many are born, few are raised,” he raps in “No Copio,” a pretty, propulsive track that encourages listeners to defy fear. “I just want to breathe.”
Bustamante’s message resonated with manager Rebeca León. “[The producer] Sky [Rompiendo], who I work with, came over to my house and put on ‘La Mitad De La Mitad,’” León recalls. “I lost my mind. It became the song I listened to most in 2018 on Spotify.”
León had heard stories from her then-client Balvin about rapping with a high school friend he called “Fercho.” “I knew about their adventures: They came to Miami together, lived in an apartment and painted houses, they grinded together,” she says. “But I never knew Fercho as Crudo Means Raw.” When she reached out to Bustamante on Instagram to praise “La Mitad De La Mitad,” she was shocked to learn he was Balvin’s old collaborator and decided to reunite the two men during a party at fashion week in Medellín. “[Bustamante] came and surprised [Balvin]; [Balvin] started crying when he saw him,” she recalls. (León now manages Crudo Means Raw.)
If “La Mitad De La Mitad” was, in Bustamante’s words, “the gate to enter the portal to the next dimension,” follow-up single “Maria” is the interstellar rocket ship. Released just before Christmas 2018, this is a true head-turner — a deftly executed hybrid of dembow-funk with a psych-pop bridge.
Bustamante opens the track with some casual bluster: “Obvio, obvio que le gusta.” “That means, ‘obviously they like it, obviously,’” he says. The swagger in the art is also present in the artist; Bustamante’s playful bravado is part of his charm. “Now when they say ‘obviously’ in Medellín — people in the street can’t even say ‘obvio’ anymore because they remember ‘Maria’!”
Thanks to his new fame, Bustamante has recorded collaborations with Juanes and his old friend Balvin. Even as his audience multiplies, Bustamante is adamant that the mission remains the same. “The song might be commercial, have a catchy hook, but the substance should turn a light on,” he says. “I want to make messages that echo.”