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Dazed Mix – Rosa Pistola

Dazed Mix: Rosa Pistola

The Colombian artist is Mexico City’s most in-demand reggaeton DJ, maintaining an explicitly underground and old-school sound

Rosa Pistola is hard to miss. The Colombian artist is Mexico City’s most in-demand reggaeton DJ, often playing five shows across the city in a single weekend. Her tattoos and colourful outfits also contribute to the overall impression of a reggaeton legend-in-the-making, although she tells me many of her tattoos are dedicated to her pets: two cats and a dog. She used to make her own clothes, but shut down her fashion brand RIP last year to dedicate her life to music full-time.

“I charge a lot to work here in DF because I hate it,” she laughs, referring to Distrito Federal, a common abbreviation for Mexico City despite its official name changing to CDMX in 2016. “I feel like the parties are super boring.” She prefers the gigs in the State of Mexico, the country’s most densely populated state, which encompasses the sprawling and notoriously high-crime neighbourhoods clustered around the capital. “I love going there and people love me, I swear it’s like I’m fucking Madonna,” she says in her apartment in the centre of the city. “People cry, there’s like a three-hour line to take a photo with me.”

The 31-year-old has been playing reggaeton professionally for four years, after a friend asked to use her playlist for an event. Instead, she learned to DJ in time for her friend’s party and put together her first set. It went well, obviously. In February, she played her biggest show to date, at Electric Daisy Carnival in Mexico, and her recent European tour took in a second appearance at Primavera Sound and, later this week, a set at the Rum Shack at Glastonbury Festival.

Rosa is part of the Perreo Pesado crew – a collective that plays, produces, and releases underground reggaeton – alongside Mexican DJs Krizis and Sueño, and also works with other artists like La Tiguerita to produce songs and videos. It’s all part of her vision for a professional urban music industry in Mexico. “I consciously started to pay my collaborators because I want reggaeton to be something serious again here. Because of the violence and stuff, the industry was almost dead until three or four years ago.”

But as reggaeton’s popularity explodes worldwide, Rosa Pistola maintains an explicitly underground and old-school sound. “My style of music isn’t that presentable, but it’s a fantasy, it’s not literal,” she explains. “Underground means the songs that can’t be played on radio or TV. They’re artists that are not going to be commercial because the lyrics are so transgressive. The pop reggaeton that is consumed all over the world is not even really reggaeton for me.”

In this Dazed Mix, Rosa Pistola curates an introduction to reggaeton like you’ve never heard it before. 

How did you get into music?

Rosa Pistola: In Colombia, we listen to reggaeton all the time. I used to always go to the minitecas, like little discos that parents organise in the living room of their house with smoke machines and lights and DJs, but it’s just kids dancing. I was a huge dancer when I was a kid and I was big on amasise, which is what you say when you dance super close to someone, almost having sex but with clothes on. And at that time with Tengo Calderon, Ivy Queen, Don Omar, Baby Rasta, it was the music that you heard all day every day. After that, I turned into a bit of a rebel and was into punk, but I always made music and I always listened to reggaeton at home.

And how did you end up in Mexico City?

Rosa Pistola: I left school when I was 15, I didn’t graduate or anything. When I was a kid I was really terrible, I was the worst kid anyone could have. So as soon as I turned 18, my mum kicked me out of the house. I couch surfed for a while until my dad, who I’d never had a relationship with, offered me a plane ticket to Mexico and I accepted. He knew about my situation and he asked me if I wanted to go somewhere in the world to start my life again.

I overstayed my tourist visa and was in Mexico illegally for six years. I couldn’t leave the country or have a formal job or a bank account. Being illegal in a country is something that makes you feel awful and it follows you every second of the day. It was really sad living here for so many years and it being my home, but being afraid all the time that you might have to leave in a moment for whatever reason. I was scared to even go to the airport. But afterwards I paid a coyote a fuckload of money to get me good papers and then I finally I got my residency formalised.

“I know lots of the lyrics (in reggaeton) are really violent, but that’s the reality of what’s happening to us every day” – Rosa Pistola

What attracts you to underground reggaeton, despite its bad reputation? 

Rosa Pistola: I know lots of the lyrics are really violent, but that’s the reality of what’s happening to us every day. I think it’s important that that is expressed because it’s a part of us as humans and we shouldn’t repress or sanitise things. It affects us in different ways depending on the economic possibilities that we have, so we need to judge it all as something that belongs to us. The absurd wealth that some people have, just like the absurd poverty and violence that some people live. It’s all part of our society. 

Before this job, I was in this bubble where it’s like “If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.” But when I started to work, people hired me in rough neighbourhoods. I go to communities where water arrives once a week, the streets aren’t paved, it’s all safe houses where they take kidnapped people. Experiencing that completely changed me. I believe it’s super important to learn to think about all the human beings around you and respect them, if you want respect. The growth that reggaeton has given me as a person has been the most fucking incredible thing I’ve experienced in my life.

What does it feel like to be part of the new wave of reggaeton artists in Mexico?

Rosa Pistola: The fact that the city is so big is actually really good for me, because it’s the only city, maybe in the world, where a DJ has the luxury of playing so many times in one night and not feel like you’re losing hype or whatever. Right now it’s a good moment for reggaeton, and I think rap is opening the doors for us. But I think we’re also lacking some culture of professionalism in the music scene here. 

The industry works like it does because of a lot of social and political issues in Mexico, but I think that now there are the economic conditions for reggaeton to become a respectable and admirable job. It would be cool to be able to say to your family that you’re proud to be a reggaeton artist and for people not to immediately link you with criminals. For that to happen, I think we should start trying to educate ourselves and each other to be more professional and less dumb when it comes to doing business, then we can teach the generations of Mexican musicians to come.

And how did you learn the business side, being someone so independent and self-taught?

Rosa Pistola: From getting hit. Obviously, when I was starting out I made lots of bad deals and people took advantage of me, so I had to learn to be smarter, because the whole world wants to fuck you over. I had to inform myself, to read a shitload about the business of music. I noticed there were a lot of tutorials on YouTube about how the percentages work, the contracts, the agencies. That’s why lately in my Facebook I’ve been doing some livestreams where I just sit down and chat with people and explain things like tax and visas and bank accounts, things that you need if you want to people to take you seriously as a professional musician. I think it’s super important that the industry gets more professional because up until now reggaeton has only been run by criminals and working under those conditions is pretty shit.

So why do you keep doing it then?

Rosa Pistola: Because I love music, it really is my oxygen. I would have committed suicide if I didn’t have music, you know? Because I don’t understand the world and I feel really outside of it, so music is the thing that keeps me tied to life, basically. Because there’s nothing else. I don’t have family or a boyfriend, and I don’t have lots of friends… Music is my connection to everything that’s around me. 

I always get really nervous before I play, I vomit and cry and everything, then I go out and pretend that everything is okay. I vomited three times before EDC, but it all went really well. For me, it’s really emotional to succeed on that level, I kept crying from the emotion, from the happiness. It takes me a week to come down from the rush. For the first time I felt proud of how I played, because people always criticise me a fuckload. It’s fine, I can deal with it. But sometimes it takes away the pleasure of the victory. Obviously I’m not the best DJ but I’m also not the worst, but because I’m a woman the criticism is more intense.

“Music is the thing that keeps me tied to life… Music is my connection to everything that’s around me” – Rosa Pistola

Do you think that’s because people are not used to seeing women DJs in reggaeton?

Rosa Pistola: Right now, I’m actually privileged in this scene as a woman because I get paid more and I get offered more gigs, but that also means there’s more jealousy. People think I don’t deserve what I get. It happens to everyone, it’s human nature. But I feel like people are always watching women, waiting for the moment that we fall. The comments on social media do affect me sometimes, like when people make fun of your body or something. If I get criticised for how I played I can improve for next time, but if they say that stuff you’re like, “ouch”.

It seems like that negativity is part of what drives you to work even harder. What are you working on right now?

Rosa Pistola: I’m making a couple of mixtapes with other artists, some more positive and romantic stuff. For me that’s unusual, but it’s cool to experiment with those emotions. I’m also releasing my first merengue so I’m excited. However underground we want reggaeton to be, it’s become pop and what interests me is what is getting played in the neighbourhood, which right now is merengue. I think merengue is what’s coming next, because reggaeton is about to get boring. 

Rosa Pistola plays the Rum Shack, Glastonbury Festival on Saturday June 29