“You remember, that was the summer of Up Rock, quarter water, speed knots, pillow bags, two-for-five, Jesus pieces, and Bambú. The Willie Bobo was turned up to ten, and some would’ve said that a science was dropped on our summer.”
-Willie Perdomo, “In the Face of What You Remember”
The truculent verses of Harlem-bred Nuyorican poet Willie Perdomo embody a revolution of identity, the same one that affected those of us who lived through the intersection of salsa and hip-hop in 1990s New York. His new collection of poems, “The Crazy Bunch,” is overflowing with tight texts that evoke a coming-of-age story of a group of friends who navigated the streets of African American and Latinx neighborhoods with an urban angst and strong doses of collective love. In these lines you can hear the song of soulful salsa singer Ismael “Maelo” Rivera and the sardonic irony of Jay-Z.
The impeccably crafted texts of “The Crazy Bunch” are not just poems but a synthesis of song lyrics, theatrical dialogues and the dopest of screenplays — as a whole they suggest the narrative structure of a novel. The narrator speaks to us in that sweet grace of African American vernacular, continually code-switching with fragments of remembered Spanish, reminding us that something in that moment was changing. The prodigal sons and daughters of Puerto Rico were helping to transform New York street culture and forming, with their multiracial cohort, the basis for what would become hip-hop culture.
“That summer that was lit with whispers of wild style, Rock Steady battles,” intones Perdomo, alluding to Charlie Ahearn’s 1982 underground classic “Wild Style,” which documented graffiti writers such as Lee Quiñones (a.k.a. Crash) and comrade Lady Pink (Sandra Fabra), who participated in the dawn of one of hip-hop’s Four Elements. “That summer Charlie Chase hijacked megawatts from Rosa’s kitchenette, found gems in a milk crate, spun his one & twos below rims that still vibrated with undocumented double-dunks,” he declaims, referring to the legendary old-school DJ whose real name was Carlos Mandes, the Puerto Rican whiz kid from the Cold Crush Brothers.
As a ’90s Nuyorican who “dropped science” like Perdomo, I also lived in the same world with the music of iconic Puerto Rican salsa singer Héctor Lavoe, who walked those same streets. I heard Perdomo channel his voice many times at the Nuyorican Poets Café in the Lower East Side (a/k/a Loisaida) when he sand a few words of the chorus of Lavoe’s “Mi Gente” (“My People”). It was the same subversive dialect trick performed by novelist Piri Thomas in “Down These Mean Streets” and the poet Tato Laviera in his enduring classic “AmeRican.”
“In the madrugada,” writes Perdomo, referring to the early dawn hours, “we found a Big Beat, a homeostatic way of hanging out, spin styles & salvation, word to my mother became a true signature."
That was El Barrio/Spanish Harlem in those days, and so it was in Loisaida when I crossed paths with Perdomo reading poems on that same small Nuyorican Poets Café stage that OGs such as Miguel Algarín, Pedro Pietri, Sandra María Esteves and Victor Hernández Cruz gave us. It was the moment when our version of slam poetry — a competition involving audience members flashing Olympic-style numbers that was imported from Chicago’s Green Mill cocktail lounge — took off. Slam poets, inheriting the declamatory style of African American feminist poet Ntozake Shange, democratized poetry from its literary journal stuffiness with beer, wine and laughter, as well as hip-hop bravado.
Perdomo frequently defeated me and several others in these bouts, winning the cafe’s Grand Slam championship in 1992. But I had the honor of performing with him on bigger stages in New York, Los Angeles and even Copenhagen. After an overnight explosion of national notoriety — one of the original cast members of MTV’s “Real World” was spoken-word poet Kevin Powell — the Nuyorican Poets Café itself transformed from a space dominated by Nuyoricans to one that opened its doors to African Americans, Asians, fierce feminists and the LGBTQ community.
That ’90s moment anticipated today’s rebirth of spoken word’s power, led by a new generation of feminist and queer poets. Elizabeth Acevedo, of Dominican roots, won the prestigious National Book Award in November, using a fresh Afro-Latinx voice in her book “The Poet X” — constructed as a YA novel — as well as her recent novel “With the Fire on High.” Raquel Salas Rivera, of Puerto Rican ancestry, was named the Poet Laureate of the city of Philadelphia in April, and identifies as a queer, influenced by Cuban poet José Martí, Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and German philosopher Karl Marx. These voices and many more demonstrate how Latinx identities are now signaling the emergence of feelings and narratives that were once invisible.
Perdomo’s “Crazy Bunch” depicts that time and place as a kind of prophecy of the transnational, intersectional times we live in. His poems evoke a journey from the Caribbean, where one people from the South meet up with another Great Migration in cities like New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. For him, coming of age meant synthesizing Puerto Rican fire with Harlem cool. “This block is my island,” says Nestor, one of the “Crazy Bunch.” And suddenly, every palm tree you have ever seen spray-painted on a shuttered-up bodega embodies a bilingual, tropical truth.