King Don Juan rises from the streets
With his feet firmly on the streets of Calgary and his eyes to the sky, local rap artist Juan “King Don Juan” Ramirez always knew he wanted to spend his life making music.
Ramirez is currently working on Smooth Operator, which will be his fifth mix-tape and is set to drop next month. Unlike his last mix-tape, Undisputed: The People’s Champion, where Ramirez wore his stank gangsta rap face, his new music features more conventional hip-hop music. At the same time, he is working on another mix-tape called Raw, where all the lyrics are spontaneous freestyle.
Twenty-year-old Ramirez likens his heart to a drum. Throughout his life, the music he loves — R&B, jazz, and hip-hop — has had different drumbeats. When he heard rap music for the first time, Ramirez says it was the same drum that was in his heart.
“Music does not just come out of joy and happiness,” says Ramirez. “Some of us, we sing because it hurts. I do not want people to feel like I feel. I want to give them the tools to better themselves and not live how I had to live.”
Ramirez was born in Panajacel, Guatemala, but soon afterwards, the political and domestic situations made it too difficult to continue living in his homeland. Since he was two, the only memory he has of his family’s flight to the United States in 1990 was running over the border with his mother and brother.
“We were sitting in a tunnel underneath a very large chainlink fence,” remembers Ramirez. “There were lights. They were scoping the frontier. The coyotes that my mom had paid had us ready to go and when the time came, they just shouted, ‘Go.’ We just ran, we made a run for it.”
Once in the United States, the small family headed for California, where the church took them in. After learning about Canada for the first time from a member of the congregation, they moved to Calgary in 1991.
Although Spanish is his first language, he says his native tongue is English, because he finds it easier to convey his thoughts and feelings in his music.
“English plays an incredibly dominant role (in my music), because the language is put together so queerly that the literary devices that can be accomplished from using the language properly are incredible,” he says.
As one of his inspirations, Ramirez says his Grade 6 teacher encouraged him to write poetry outside of class after she read one of his pieces.
“She was my fan, so I kept going,” he recalls.
When rapping, Ramirez writes the lyrics in his head and he considers himself to be a linguistic person. After forming the sentences, he tries to stay one line ahead of himself and follows alternating rhyme schemes. Battle rapping, according to him, is “hip-hop in a different realm.” The idea behind it stemmed from a game known as Dozens, which is a friendly exchange of insults.
However, Ramirez says many individuals paint hip-hop and rap artists with the same stereotypes of violence, crime, money, drugs and chauvinism.
“Nine times out of 10, when I tell people that I am a rapper, I get an incredibly negative response,” says Ramirez. “Even the way they look at me, they think less of me, because that is where I come from. The stereotypes go so deep that when people see me and I tell them I make rap music, they don’t even believe me.”
When people think of a hip-hop artist, they have an image in their heads of what they expect such artists to look like, according to Ramirez.
On the other hand, when people think of rap music, another picture comes to mind. He says the image he portrays in his music is more along the lines of a rap artist.
“In my day-to-day life, I do not look like that kind of guy,” Ramirez admits. “Mind you, I’m hood. I’ll throw on a bandeezie, rep my colours and I will put on a hat. That is who I am.”
He says the Calgary hip-hop scene is in its infancy and thinks artists are keeping their music relatively underground because they aren’t ready to show the world their skills.
“The talent is here in this city if you look,” he says. Ramirez talks about a group of people that he calls “the dream killers,” and what local artists are hearing and starting to believe from those people.
“I think a lot of people are listening to the dream killers, and this is exactly what they hear: ‘First of all, you’re Canadian and you are trying to make hip-hop music in Calgary and you are never going to go anywhere with that.’ People hear that and they believe it.”
As a rapper in Calgary, Ramirez says he makes music to feel empathy for different people in the city who have both lived difficult lives and made difficult choices.
“I want everyone to point at me and say, ‘I hate that guy because of what he does. I do not like him because he is this and he’s that,’ ” says Ramirez. “I want them to point the finger at me because I want to take the burden for the people who lived life the way I did: all the killers, the hustlers, the dealers and the single mothers.”
Ultimately, he wants people to point the finger at him because he represents those people. According to Ramirez, those are the individuals he writes music for. Living difficult lives is unfair, he says, and he has known people who haven’t even been given a chance to live.
“Hip-hop gives me a purpose, and it feels as if I am giving a purpose back to the music,” says Ramirez.
According to him, the stereotypes surrounding hip-hop and rap music are anchored so deeply in the ground that Ramirez thinks people will never truly change their minds about the music.
“I am not trying to change anyone’s mind,” he says. “In one of my songs, I have a line that says, ‘You can love or hate me, I don’t care. As long as I stimulated you to think of something.’
“I do not want to be the person who comes to you and says you should change for this reason. I’m the kind of person who will come to you and say, ‘Can you change and if you could, why?’ ”
With such a remarkable life story backing him up, Ramirez says understanding his humble origins has a big role in the music that he makes: “If you do not understand where you came from, you will never know where you’re going.”