When you hear the words Mexican Step Grandfather, an image of a wise abuelo sitting in a rocking chair, waiting to tell stories of days passed to eager niños and niñas automatically starts playing on the movie screen of your mind.
Mexican Step grandfather is actually the stage name of UTSA professor Marco Cervantes, a San Antonio based MC/DJ/Producer. He’s a social/political rapper who has been in the local music scene for quite some time, having produced two albums and several collaborations. Just last year, he was awarded a Ford Fellowship for his scholarly work on Black and Chicano cultural intersections and was voted San Antonio Current’s hip hop artist of the year.
In this week’s Professors that Rock series, Marco Cervantes sparks more interest as he opens up about life as the Mexican Step Grandfather and his love for music and Black & Chicano cultures.
At what age did you realize that you had a passion for music?
Umm…really young, elementary school age, I was really into music, all kinds of music. My parents were playing everything you know, from traditional Mexican music to rock, Spanish, soul… those kinds of stuff. So I was into that. It was later around like junior high, at age 13, that’s when I actually began writing my own stuff. I wanted to do hip-hop. My parents were really into music. My dad was a drummer….he used to be in a band before where they played like rock, blues to like soul music so that’s where I kind of get some of the musical stuff. On my mother’s side, my mother was a musician. In her family, like all of my uncles were musicians and my grandfather was also a band leader in Corpus Christi.
How did you come up with your stage name”Mexican Step grandfather”?
Oh, uh. Yeah, that question comes up all the time. What I was actually doing with that name was it was a title of a book that I was working on because I wanted to be a fiction writer. And it was really talking about my own grandfathers because most of my family are Tejano. They’re from Texas but I had both of my grandfathers, on both sides, mother and father, were step- grandfathers. So my connections, people would say like, “Well how are you connected to Mexico?”So well my family’s from Texas but you know my two Mexican step grandfathers were from Mexico so there’s sort of a connection there. But I never finished the book and I was DJ ing at the time using my own name, which had been my real name and I decided I needed something a little bit more catchy I guess, and I kind of was playing around with the name kind of thinking well maybe I’ll just use it as my DJ name and see what happens. I ended up using it and it got all of this attention, and all of these articles I started seeing it in the newspaper and stuff. So that caught on and I’d always done rapping. I took a break from DJ ing from a while so when I started doing more of my own stuff, because I was in a group before, so I started saying okay I want to go do some solo stuff and I decided to just go ahead and use that name. I’d already been using it as a DJ and I felt it fit because of a lot of the subject matter I talk about, which is like brokenness between Mexicans and Mexican Americans a lot of times. You know there’s sort of a divide because of legislation and things like that, a cultural divide as well. So I found that it might be away to make some commentary on some of these stuff, divided cultures, maybe bringing them back to think that you know, we’re all kind of linked together in a weird of kind of way.
I know that you’re a very social/political rapper. What message are you attempting to convey through your music?
Bringing a sort of awareness that Mexicans and Mexican Americans have so much in common. Like I said because of legislation and cultural differences, there has been a divide…Where are you from? Are you from here? Are from you there? That sort of thing goes on but the music though allows me to reach out to um people from both sides. I’ve gone to Mexico, done shows there and I find that music has been a good way to bring cultures together. The interesting thing is hip-hop alone, I’ve gotten the opportunity to see how hip-hop has infused so many cultures together and not just Mexicans, or Mexican Americans but Black culture as well. You know a big part of hip-hop, the creation of hip-hop, has a long history in Black Americans and not just in the U.S. but also in the world. So yeah, pretty much, that’s what I’m trying to do politically as far as bringing those two cultures together, but also awareness to like some of the social/political factors that kind of create a sort of block from opportunities. Like why aren’t these opportunities there in education? Why aren’t more cultural considerations being taken into the education process? Why is it only just one history that we’re getting a lot of times? So with the music I feel like it’s an opportunity for me to give multiple histories and as well book shows where I’m getting other artists who are doing the same thing you know, and its away from commercial mainstream. I have no desire for any of that and a lot of artists that I work with, the same thing, it’s to relay a message because mainstream music isn’t really doing it. Hip-hop really isn’t doing it right now. A lot of the messages are troubling and very limiting. They kind of give a narrow way to the point of hip-hop, they give the youths the idea that well if I want to do hip-hop I have to talk about this, I have to talk about that and it just creates a lot of confusion. I think we should break that.
I agree with your view on today’s hip-hop style. Is there any particular reason you chose this genre?
You know, um, I like all kinds of music, all types of music but that’s what I grew up performing and that’s what I found that I was able to do well, like really well was actual rap. I think that I’m a better rapper even than a DJ. That’s where I find that I can trust myself to do it. I play guitar, I play bass, I play drums, the keyboard. Pretty much the main instruments but I feel like I’m much better at rapping. That’s kind of how I feel at home, I just feel a lot better. I’ve tried other genres, kind of dabbled in this and that. You know I think that in the future I think I’m going to try some other combinations of different music but I’ve always gone back to hip hop, always. I’m in my safe place, you know, like my comfort zone.
Since you play all of those instruments, do you create the beats for your songs?
Yeah for the last album, I do all of the beats on the album. On the last album, one beat I didn’t do but the rest of the beats I did myself, and that usually requires either sampling something like a record. I tend to sample like old Mexican records and old Latino records. I just find new loops that I find interesting, and then I play off of those loops and create my own beats. I sample stuff, put it into the computer and then make beats out of it. There’s that way or I’ll go the whole live instrument way where I just play a drum beat, make some changes….have the drum beat play and then play some bass to go that route. It’s always different, there’s not like one way as to how I make the music like okay, I do this and that. I always put it together very differently and then a lot of times I’ll get musicians, friends of mine who are a lot better at the guitar than I am. I lay out the basic idea for them and they go along with it so that’s pretty much how it works. But the beats I do all, all of them.
How many albums have you recorded to date?
Okay, well I have my own album, the first one I’ve done all by myself. I did an EP before that, which is like a smaller album. I did that one in 2008 so those two are the ones that are just me. I
did another album with another group called Revolts of the Sun. So I did an album with them, I did an instrumental album called Inner stations. When I was younger I was in a group, we didn’t put out an album, we put out a single but it was actually on mainstream radio when I was in high school. Back then I thought I was going to be like a big pop star or whatever but then I took a break. But as far as my own stuff, only two, the EP and the album.
Recently you acquired your Doctorate. In what area is it?
English…it’s in the English department but within this English Ph.D program there’s emphasis on Latino Studies. That’s the route I chose so that gave me the opportunity to look at Latino literature but also music as well. And what I did, my dissertation was on Latin-Texano cultural interconnections through fiction, poetry, type of music so a big part of it was music. Luckily for me because you know that’s like my passion, my love, music so it was a really interesting study to do given how I grew up, you know, and my own cultural history. It allowed me to revisit a lot of things and helped me understand why I am the way I am and how I turned out to be this way. But yeah it’s in the English department and I just finished it like four weeks ago.
Did you put your musical career on hold to accomplish this?
Yeah, I did a lot of shows up until maybe towards the end of the Spring I decided to cut everything out and just really focus on the writing part of it. I think that’s what I’ll have to do for years to come to find time where I can do the music, take a little break, and then focus on the writing part of it. It takes up a lot of time, both take up a lot of time but I think they’re both equally important especially with what I’m trying to do at UTSA….change the way we’re teaching and learning about music and cultures and literature.
Have you ever performed on campus?
No, not on this campus, I never have. But I plan to with the right event, I think that would be good. Maybe an academic event that involves performing, kind of like what I’m doing with the feminism conference coming next year. I’m hoping to have another conference like that. We’re trying to get Jean Grae, she’s a hip hop artist down and some other hip-hop artists as well. It’s going to be Thursday all academic and then Friday all hip-hop. But I’m hoping to perform here.
What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment as it relates to your music?
I’d probably say getting the album done. That was one thing that I kind of wanted to do. I’ve always been in groups like I said, but I’ve never had the opportunity to totally control my own album, like the way I wanted it to sound, all the lyrics and so that was, I think for me a big one. Another one that I always tell people is going to Mexico and performing. It’s kind of a history that a lot of Mexican American performers have. They go to Mexico and it’s like it’s the Mexican culture or whatever. But it’s actually does feel really good to me to actually go to Mexico and perform my material, and have people really getting into it. But yeah the album, probably for me right now is the biggest. You know one good thing too is that last year they voted me, San Antonio current (which is a music entertainment magazine), they voted me best hip-hop artist for last year, 2009. So that was a kind of a surprise actually…I’d been doing all of these shows and stuff so I guess that’s one the reason they voted that. There’s a lot of little things like that let me know to keep doing this. Hopefully bigger things will be in the future.
What advice would you give to current music majors, or anyone that’s pursuing a career in music?
Um, I would say keep at it. I guess it depends on what kind of music you’re doing but just keep at your passion and keep studying. You know there’s that balance that I think is hard for a lot of people, including myself, to handle but keeping that balance, taking care of your studies but also pursing your passion. Those two things are most important. Getting past the different expectations that you have for school, like you have to get your Bachelor’s and your Master’s and Ph.D. For me, I wouldn’t have been able to do all of that I think if I hadn’t had the passion part of it so I would say find that equal sort of comfortable balance.
What are your goals for the future?
Continue teaching, I’m hoping to stay here a long, long, long time. I’m hoping to move up the ranks from Assistant to Associate to full-time Professor. Also, I really want to bring more events to UTSA. One of the things that’s coming up now is the Black & Brown Feminism Hip Hop Conference so that’s going to be in March and I want to continue doing events like this. What this event is going to do is allow people from all around, like all around the world we sent out invitations and people have been responding like crazy. But pretty much, people from all around write an essay to send, or a performance, work of art, something demonstrating their view, their reading of Black & Brown Women in Hip-Hop Media, how hip-hop’s being performed, how hip-hop’s being appreciated, how people are viewing hip-hop, how people are dancing, the videos…like anything involving Black & Brown Women in hip-hop it would be a place to have that discussion. So it’s just one of the things, I’m hoping to bring more stuff like that, more events like that and I’m glad, I think that having this job allows me to do that. Musically, I plan to do more albums. I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can. I’m not going to stop. I feel lucky that I don’t have to rely on sort of this idea of having a record label or anything like that. I can just put out stuff whenever I want to. I am my own record label basically so that’s pretty much what I have in store … moving up in the academics as well as doing more musically.
In which store can we find your albums?
They’re in the local stores here in San Antonio. They’re at some places in Houston as well but that’s about it. It’s available for free online at www.bandcamp.com. Yeah you can download it for free online and I think I’m going to do a lot of stuff like that…as long as people are getting it, that’s really my main concern and not how much money I make. Of course it’s nice to make enough money to buy the next album but I’m not really doing it for money. I’m more concerned with getting the stuff out.