Blue-Collar Hip Hop with CL Sosa

CL Sosa | Photograph by Catalina Fragoso

I met with CL Sosa + Bodega outside of Montclair’s Red Eye Cafe, the group smoking cigarettes and sipping coffee at a small iron-wrought table just outside of the store front. Carlos, known as CL Sosa, was going on about making beats and their new album (at the time, still unmastered) as I approached and sat with them.

As both a DJ, now with a residency at Loop Lounge, and a hip-hop artist, which came first?
Probably DJing when I was a kid. The guy downstairs had turntables. I was never invited to use them. I wanted my own set but they were too expensive, so I started rapping because my friends were doing it, too. I was into breakdancing, and just hip-hop in general. I could’ve gotten into graffiti art, too—I was just attracted to the lifestyle.

You’re from Clifton, which isn’t necessarily a hip-hop oriented community. Why hip-hop?
Growing up, I listened to rock, my parents blasted salsa, but my older cousins gave me hip-hop mixtapes. For me, it was just easier to hear good hip-hop in the late 90s, and never had a guitar growing up, so I never learned anything else. Hip-hop was easy to get into.

A friend told me to do some local open-mics, but no one did hip-hop at them. I liked that—knowing, walking in, I had something different.  
You started as a solo artist, just CL Sosa. What brought Bodega into the mix?

I started with freestyle battles and had a really hushed voice so people wouldn’t hear me. A friend told me to do some local open-mics, but no one did hip-hop at them. I liked that—knowing, walking in, I had something different. Hip-hop open-mics in Paterson were where the spark started. Other rappers were like, “Who is this guy?” But the response was overwhelmingly positive. I knew then that I had to keep doing this. The guys in Bodega are my friends. I had a three month period where I wasn’t playing shows and I was working with this pop/hip-hop band, but I didn’t like the commercial packaging. I ended up booking one big show in the city and asked these guys (Bodega) to play with me and it just stuck. We’re still looking for a drummer, but it’s hard to find the right person. Rock drums are real stiff; we need a loose hip-hop drummer.

Your music release history is a bit scattered. Are you more interested in releasing singles than albums?
Our last album And Then Everything Turned Gray was when everything changed for me. I used to release mixtapes, so when I wasn’t doing shows, I’d hand them out to friends. Singles are good because if you feel strongly about something, it’s like…just put it out there, rather than sit on it.

You play out frequently, with a regular gig at Loop Lounge, shows with Bodega scheduled—you’re clearly stage-oriented. Is playing out more important than recording, or just more of a focus right now?
It’s way more of a focus right now. Songs can take a day, a week, a month to finish, but when I do live shows, I add little things. I like to see people sing back. I’d rather play a great show than record, not that one is better. I spent time emailing blogs and websites. Even if a mix got a review, it wouldn’t go anywhere. Shows are more responsive.

Between rapping and DJing, which is your fun and which is your art? Are both?
I don’t like to call myself a DJ because it’s its own art. It’s cool to see people dance—and it’s not a hobby. Definitely something I’ve wanted to do, but it’s much more relaxed than rap. I have fun with it.

Your Facebook page mentions Portals. What is that?
Portals is a blog collective of about fourteen different blogs from around the world who collaborate, perform, and create a community in places where there isn’t necessarily a scene. I collaborated with Kynan, Wavves’ brother, who both just released an instrumental tape. Portals puts you in contact with new and interesting people. You never know who someone will be one day.

Rap isn’t easy to get good at, but it’s a great art, especially in a place where people aren’t giving kids positive reinforcement. I know you’re also interested in promoting positivity in urban areas. Can you elaborate?
Spending time in Paterson, I’d see young kids interested in what I do, and it’s an art that costs no money.
No one tells these kids they can be something. I had a job that fell through with an organization to develop rap basics classes. I still want to open it up in a rec center so kids can tell their story, but with the band and DJing, I have a lot on my plate.

Everyone has a message: what do you want CL Sosa + Bodega to represent?
Most of the themes are from a blue-collar approach. I rap about everyday life, and people know what it is not to succeed or to be behind on rent. We’re lifestyle-based, but it’s just reality. I rap about real things that I or my friends have experienced. Everyone can relate to struggling.

In one song, I use the line “Sometimes the only thing that makes me happy is a cold beer and a hot slice of pizza” because I’m not Drake eating imported fish. Just the simple things that bring big joy.

Looking to the future, where do you see DJing going? Bodega? What are your ideas, plans, dreams?
I’d like to bring back a funky, soul, old-school style party to the area since there isn’t one anywhere. It doesn’t matter who you are—everyone can get down to some funk! For Bodega? Find a drummer and bring back the live 90s hip-hop energy, like The Roots but with live instruments.

My end-all dream is not to be a hugely successful musician, but to inspire someone to do what I was told I couldn’t. Money and coverage doesn’t drive me; it’s more about connecting with people. The problem is there isn’t really an underground show anymore. Hip-hop artists just blow up overnight, and it’s so competitive. Everyone wants to be the man, but just be like, “Hey, I rap and you do, too. Let’s play a show. Get a DJ!” If anyone shares this mentality, get in touch. We’re always shoehorned into ridiculous shows with bands I might like but that it makes no sense to play with.

About the Author

Patrick BoylePatrick Boyle is the Founder and Editor-in-chief of Lamplighter. He is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars and takes considerable care when drafting e-mails. Follow him on Twitter: @PatBoyleView all posts by Patrick Boyle →