“Man, I’m so fucking excited!”
I’m standing in the lunch rush line at East LA Burrito Spot, La Azteca Tortilleria, with the rapper Speak on an 80-degree day in Mid October, slowly making our way to the register. Speak is looking forward to the comfort that comes from eating a good burrito after a long week that consisted of playing a packed show at the Roxy and doing a run of press in promotion of his latest — and in my opinion best — album to date, Singularity. La Azteca, known for its unparalleled chile relleno burritos, is one of his favorite local joints.
After ordering, Speak (sometimes written “Speakz” or “SPEAK”) and I head outside to talk about the local neighborhood. The rapper, whose real name is Antonio “Anthony” Negrete, has been living in Mexico City since 2015, but today we’re our shared hometown. Both of us spent significant chunks of our childhoods in East LA and the surrounding areas. We know the same neighborhoods and name-checked the same underground artists who would play at DIY venues across the city. Speak found early success working with Syd the Kid on the first The Internet project and penning Kreayshawn’s massive hit “Gucci, Gucci.” That early hype and success ended up colliding with the unchecked ego of youth — leading Speak to burn out, which, in turn, prompted him to ditch his hometown of Los Angeles for a less hectic life in Ciudad De México, at what many assumed would be the cost of his career.
It wasn’t. Since Speak’s relocation to Mexico City, he’s experienced a creative rebirth that first started with 2018s A Man + His Plants and has now seems fully realized on Singularity. After linking up with Mexico’s NAAFI Collective, particularly producer Lao, Speak has become more focused and his bars more biting — as seen in multiple viral freestyle appearances over the past few years.
Because Speak and I planned on chopping it up over burritos, I didn’t prepare formal questions in our convo — only talking points. Just two east LA kids talking shit over Mexican food on the Eastside.
I’m wondering if you can speak on your experience — being Mexican-American it can often feel like you aren’t part of either of those worlds. You’re not really Mexican, but Americans assume you’re not “American.” And then there is this whole other alienation you feel if you’re Mexican-American and weren’t ever taught to speak Spanish. Especially amongst people who felt like you ought to learn the language because it’s part of your identity. Add in the blur of citizenship, where so many of our families have members here legally and illegally…
There is this weird line where it doesn’t allow you to take full ownership of either side of your identity, right? As someone who grew up here in LA and now has relocated to Mexico City, what have you learned about your own unique identity?
I’ve learned that one, I’m not as Mexican as I thought I was, because the definition has a different meaning here. Like you said, even though there’s close proximity of Latinos and Mexican people around you, you are physically detached from the country your parents come from or the country your grandparents come from. People here are very proud of their heritage. Like, “Ah, yeah, I’m Mexican, I’m Mexican. First-generation, second-generation,” or whatever it is. “My family’s from such and such.” There’s immense pride that even when you’re a fluent Spanish speaker, the Mexican experience is different, it’s different. When you’re born on this side, and even if you go back to stay and live, you’re still gringo [white boy]. And you can’t change that no matter what because the difference is the experience.
But on the flip side, you also learn that the Mexican experience is not a singular thing. It’s not monolithic. It’s not, “Okay, you have to dress like this, or “your accent has to be like this,” or “you have to grow up here.” And being from the States doesn’t erase your blood or your heritage. I learned that super quick. I’m like, oh, one, I’m not nearly as Mexican as I thought I was. I’m super Americanized still. But two, that speaks to my life experience. You can’t help where you’re born or those things. You have no control over that. But you can educate yourself in the language, and the traditions, and the customs, and your family history. Not just family history, but the history of the country your family comes from. And I think that’s been the real eye-opener over the last couple of years.
What made you relocate to Mexico in the first place?
My dad’s from there, first off. My family is from there. I was burnt out. We had a studio on Santa Fe, me and my collaborator, producer Caleb. And we recorded and tracked music out of there. That building was sold to the Soho House. So we’re like, “All right, well, there goes the studio.” We were coming to the end of our housing agreement as well in downtown LA. I was just really burnt out by the lifestyle and spiraling hard. Super spiraling, for sure, living this LA facade. I was headed down a dangerous path and I wasn’t happy. So I got the opportunity to return to Mexico to perform and to create music videos. I thought to myself, I was like, “You know what? I haven’t felt this happy in a long time. I’m just going to stay.” And everyone’s like, “What?” I’m like, “Well, what do I have to lose? What am I going back to?”
I don’t want to live in downtown LA anymore. I hate it. Not that I hate downtown LA or the people, it’s hectic. It was just energy I needed to detach myself from. I also didn’t have a girlfriend, didn’t have a kid, didn’t have nothing. So I’m like, “All right, I’m going to just figure it out.” “You can’t do that.” “Well, if you want to, I guess you can.”
Then the concerns start coming. “What about your songwriting? What about your music? What about your career?” I’m like, “What about it? I need to be happy before I could create.” The music and all that is the furthest thing from my fucking mind. I need to get it together, I need to get clean, and I need to recenter and refocus my energy and do things that make me feel good on the inside.
Things that I need to feed my spirit and my mind. I need to find that peace of mind.
At this point, our food arrives. I have a carne asada burrito with cheese, beans, and spicy red salsa on the side, wrapped in a freshly made tortilla. Speak opens his Carnitas burrito and instantly starts serenading it with Prince’s “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World“*
Let’s talk a bit about food. On another assignment, I interviewed a local LA street food chef who works in Boyle Heights. One of the things she told me about her experience is that with her food she is bringing a piece of home back to people who have relocated to this city as their adopted home from various parts of Mexico. Food is a big part of our culture, is there any food in Mexico City that brings you back home, how does the experience differ?
Yeah, absolutely. Here, growing up, it was like, “Let’s go to the taco truck. Let’s go get burritos. Let’s go to the taqueria.” In CDMX, the spectrum of cuisine is so vast — from Michelin star fine dining, internationally acclaimed things like Pujol, or whether it’s the cuisine coming from Oaxaca . But what reminds me of home is it’s always tacos and beer at the center of your communal experience. When you come back late from a party with your homies. “Let’s go get tacos.” So you’re hitting up a taco stand, the little taqueria.
Or if you do business. The joke is, in Mexico City, it’s not like an LA meeting. “Oh, let’s have a 30 minute, hour business meeting.” It’s like, no, you sit down for a meal. You drink a bottle of tequila and you talk for three hours. So everything centers around food. Even access to food… Tacos are a super affordable thing. They’re delicious, they’re quick to make. You’re feeding the economy, you’re feeding your stomach. Every lunch hour, all the taco stands are packed. “Quick, let’s get it on the go.” Yeah. Everything centers around food. Life centers around food. I think more so, here in the States, the mentality is like money, money, money, paper chase, paper chase, paper chase. While there the communal experience is definitely based in food.
All right. Let’s just jump to music real quick. As someone who’s written massive hits for other people but has had a slow start as an upfront voice, you’ve got a unique look, you’ve got bars, you’ve got songwriting chops. Why do you think it’s so hard for the industry to figure out a place to put you?
A lot of it was my own undoing. You don’t realize it when you’re 23 or 24, but I could have gone about things a little bit differently. Sometimes you think like, “Well, I’m not willing to compromise or bend my vision or my principles.” Sometimes you can be self-destructive and a rebel without a cause without knowing it, especially with the nuances of how the music business works, and creating a hit record works. I think that no one wants to work with someone who’s unwilling to bend or compromise to some extent. I’m not saying sell out your whole vision or your sound, but you got to be willing to listen to others. And at the time maybe I was like, “Fuck you, I know everything. I’m the best rapper.”
Nobody wants to hear that. Producers don’t want to hear that; people who are cutting you checks don’t want to hear that. Because at the end of the day, it’s business, and you’re an investment to somebody. Someone is willing to invest X amount of dollars into you. And how could they feel confident in signing or working with, collaborating with, cutting big checks to someone who’s egocentric or flying off the handle or who doesn’t have his shit together?
I think for a long time, I was the problem, truthfully. You only realize that after you’ve grown and you’ve gone through it.
You hit 30 and you become more inward-facing.
Yeah. Look in the mirror. The talent was always there. Amongst any label people, the A&Rs, the talent was never a question, but it was just like, “Okay, you have to be able to keep your head in the game, and stay focused, and produce at a high level.” Not just produce records, but whatever it is, the content. You need to be able to make your art at a high level, stay focused. I think, for a long time, I was more of a liability than an asset.
But fortunately, for me, I always say it’s really never too late. You make adjustments to not just your songwriting or your production or your art, but your life. You make these life adjustments. And as long as you’re willing to learn from those experiences and grow and change, there will always be a place for you.
Now people are starting to come around again. Label people, publishing people. Everyone’s going crazy about the new record or the viral freestyles. People are like, “Wow, this guy’s not signed, but he’s showing up on Power 106, first run in the morning, and just obliterating everything.” I’m just a little older, a little wiser.
Youth is fleeting, right? You could only be the young, hip, trendy, new artist once. But it’s what you do after that, and how you adjust your sound, how you approach your creativity. I mean, it’s a long journey, it’s a lifelong thing. It’s not like, “All right, let’s just crank out the top hits.” No, let’s create bodies of work and immersive experiences. Let’s be in it to be legacy artists.
What would you say is the biggest thing that you’ve learned? Because when you’re writing for somebody else, yeah, it’s filtered through your vision, but it is also translated through somebody else’s voice.
I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is to get the most out of someone you’re writing with or writing for, you have to be willing to push them. I want to work with them to step out of their comfort zone, but without making them feel uncomfortable. To me, there are no mistakes in the studio. I’m like Bob Ross. Happy accidents. There are no mistakes. When an artist wants to say this line or they want to deliver it this way, I’m like, “Yo, that’s dope. I fuck with that. Let’s build on that. Let’s shape it a little bit, tweak it a little bit.”
So we’ll have this and do it your way. Let’s take it and then let’s try it this way. Not, “Hey, do it like this. You’re doing it wrong.” There is no wrong. But it’s a suggestion like, “Yo, try it like this. Put your own little twist on it. I think it’ll sound good like this, but if you don’t like it, you don’t have to keep it.” You have to be able to put your ego to the side. And you have to know not every idea, or every lyric, or every melody is a good one, or it’s going to get used. You have to really redefine, polishing whatever the song is. That’s probably the biggest thing.
So you’re not a Phil Spector producer?
No. I’m not pulling guns on, well… not anymore! I’m not pulling guns on nobody. You got too much to lose. You should never be like, “I’m going to sing it like this.” Like, “You don’t know what you’re doing. Sing it like this.” You got to know when to push and pull back and compromise. That’s all. A lot of compromises.
Your sense of style is distinct. You may have been the only male rapper to appear on Sway with hair clips, eye shadow, and painted nails. What’s your approach? What are you going for in your mind?
It’s all however I feel. Sometimes I look like I’m a bass player for Limp Bizkit. Sometimes I look like a glamorous drag queen. Sometimes I look like a Latin supermodel. It should always be a reflection of your mood. That’s like the same thing with whether it’s doing your nails or makeup. It’s just this is how I felt today. There’s never a super lot of thought put into it. It’s always like, “All right, how do I feel? What do I own that looks like that?” And you just throw it on.
People are always really taken aback by that. You got to be versatile. All my favorites were, whether it was the way Bowie dressed or Kanye dressed, or Prince. It should forever be evolving. Especially when you’re making music and you’re putting together visual aesthetics. It’s like, “All right, this is what it sounds like. This is what the music sounds like. What I’m wearing, how could it reflect? What’s the closest I can get to that?” It’s all just matching. Matching your feelings to your wardrobe, matching the sound to your wardrobe.
The Eastside of LA is known for its DIY culture, what speaks to you most about this neighborhood?
I think because this is a Latino community, you’re already on the outskirts of the west side, Hollywood, all of that. You’re on the other side of the 3rd street bridge, the other side of downtown. There’s a little bit of a disconnect where it’s still LA, but it’s not. It was a community built by Latinos that didn’t have anywhere to go. That, in itself, is DIY. But also, I think… We used to go to a lot of garage punk shows, a lot of backyard shows. That exists. To me, it’s the life force, the bloodstream of the city.
It’s funny. The city’s called Los Angeles, but Latinos have, since the inception of the city, been continually pushed around, continually marginalized. Whether you’re talking about the displacement that happened in Chavez Ravine when the Dodgers came to Los Angeles or even what’s happening now. So I think the neighborhood represents the spirit of being Latino or being Mexican. The innovation, the sense of community. And even now, how there’s Protect Boyle Heights. There’s a strong fight to be like, “Yo, you’re not taking the Eastside.” That’s the Mexican spirit, to fight. That’s probably the most distinct quality of this neighborhood.
You look at icons in Mexican history, Mexican-American history, they’re all in opposition of something.
Absolutely. And I think the people in this neighborhood, whether they’re famous or not, they’re the icons. They’re the ones pushing back. Like, “Yo, you’re not going to move us around.” I love it.
I noticed a big change on your recent freestyle on Sway’s Universe in comparison to your first appearance in 2015. Before there was a lot of anger and now you have a way more peaceful vibe. And it’s kind of a clear-eyed focus. It kind of makes me think of someone like Vince Staples. You know exactly what you want to do, what you’re trying to achieve.
I was on a lot of cocaine during that time. You mix that with ego. There needs to be an adjustment. Again, focus. Making the adjustments to your game. I want it to be sustained intensity, I want to be poignant, I want to get my point across, and I want to be very precise in my message and precise in the way I deliver that message. So it’s like going from being a street brawler to a technical fighter. Like I’m going to jab you, I’m going to be very tactical about it.
I got to the core of my problems and my anger, and it was super misguided. Then, without even knowing it, I was angry with myself. And now, it’s like, “All right, I need to get my shit together. And if I get these chances and these opportunities again, I’m not going to let it go to waste. I’m going to say things that are on my mind, and things that are affecting my people, and things that are affecting my communities.”
It’s like fight the real enemy. “If I could, God willing, reposition myself, and I get these opportunities, I have to say something. I cannot not say something.” How do I look on these big platforms when they got people in cages? There’s a war to eliminate a race, Mexican people in this country. So it’s like, “All right, I’m not going to waste it. I’m not going to squander these chances.” I would be lying to myself, and to my audience, if I’m just going like, “Yeah, we fucking bitches. Yeah. What it do?” It’s not the reality.
I mean, yeah, we’re still fucking them, but you know what I mean? To pretend that the world isn’t burning around you. It’s like the meme with the dog drinking coffee. “Ah, everything’s okay.” No, it’s not. It’s really not. Not to be all gloom and doom, but you could still be swaggy, you could still be clever, you could still be sexual, you could still be all these things, but to not speak on these matters, it’s a disservice to yourself. It’s a disservice to your people and your community.
I didn’t know some of the things I said was going to draw so much heat, but I’d rather it be people upset about that and thinking about that than some stupid punchline. But if you’re going to hate me, at least hate me because I’m standing for something. It’s funny. It’s brought out a lot of, well, I always knew they existed, but they’re like secret racist fans. Kids treating me like, “Why do you have to get all political? I liked you better.” I was like, “Well, what do you mean, ‘why do I have to get all political?’ When you’re a Mexican in America, your existence is political!” When you’re anything in this country. When you’re black in this country, when you’re Latino in this country, when you’re Arab or Asian in this country, your resistance is inherently political because you’re different.
“You’re getting all political.” I was born this way. Like what? It brings out a lot of, “Oh, I don’t like when my favorite rappers mix politics.” No, you don’t like that I’m standing up for myself. It doesn’t make me anti-white or anti-American. It’s funny how people who aren’t marginalized, and people who never had to go through it, are so threatened when people who do are relating their experiences. But they have no problem with rappers talking about killing each other, or selling each other fucking pills, or trapping, or these destructive things. But the moment you say something to uplift the people around you, it’s like, “Oh, he’s radical left.” I’m like, “I’m radical East.”
I guess I have one more question then, and then I’ll shut up and we can enjoy our burritos.
I love this.
I don’t generally like to talk about Trump. We’ve got to think about him all fucking day, all the time. When he came to power, I feel like the Mexican-American community, at least the people that I knew, had a mix of reactions to his presidency. For instance, some people found new ways to identify. Some people were like, “You know what? Fuck America then. I’m not American. I’m Mexican. I’m this other thing in between.” Me, personally, I took it the other direction. When I was younger, I would never wear red, white, and blue because it’s like, that’s just felt too patriotic., and that’s never been me. But after he was elected, I started rocking red, white, and blue Nike Cortez as kind of my own personal visual protest, taking a sneaker loved by LA Chicano’s and dressing it in the color of a country that doesn’t want us.
It was resistance.
Right. So I just wanted to know, in your experience, what is a way that you’ve kind of tried to protest this administration?
I think it’s sprinkled out through a lot of the new album. Just relating the experiences and the consequences and the things that he’s directly responsible for. So on top of that, going on the radio and saying, “Fuck Donald Trump.” It’s not just enough to say it, you need to put action into it. I don’t like to talk about these things, but I’m putting the money where my mouth is. ACLU is out here defending undocumented people. Put your money where your mouth is. We’re going to donate RAICES Texas, we’re going to donate to the National Immigrant Legal Council Fund.
So aside just from being visible in the rap community and the art community and using my platform to flip the bird to those fucking assholes, the resistances come in form of supporting people on the ground who are in the trenches. Whether it’s financially, whether it’s spreading awareness, mobilizing your following. “Yo, guys, this is what’s going down. Donate here.” So just mobilizing and just being the crazy, screaming guy in the corner with a megaphone. Because it does feel like we’re at war.
That’s the resistance. Existence is resistance. That’s not a bar. It’s just the fact.
Singularity is out now. Check it out via bandcamp, Spotify, and Apple Music