Ten years ago, Maluca, the New York-bred musician born Natalie Yepez, dropped her debut single, "El Tigeraso," produced by Diplo. The two met in a karaoke bar while singing Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." Soon after, Maluca joined Diplo's Mad Decent label as one of his first signees. In the "El Tigeraso" video, Maluca wore rollers in her hair and shooed away wannabe suitors.
By the time she hit the music scene, Maluca had been largely influenced by the pop, global club music, New York house, and hip-hop of her youth, and the bachata and merengue of her Dominican heritage and childhood growing up in Manhattan's East Village. "My influence was New York and J.Lo," Maluca says. "And there's me in the middle: I'm the baby."
These influences found room to breathe in Maluca's vibrant sound from a 2010 mixtape called China Food, to singles like 2014's "Trigger" and 2016's "Mala." But when "El Tigeraso" hit, there was no one quite like her in 2009's music scene, and she — a person who sang Bob Marley in a Chinese restaurant bathroom uptown at age six, wrote constantly in her diary and suffered from stage fright — was suddenly touring the world and playing music.
In the years since, she's played a number of festivals, including Lollapalooza and South by Southwest, recorded a number of collaborations with artists ranging from Robyn to Happy Colors, and on the personal front, gotten sober. It was the independent innovator Robyn, with whom Maluca sang on 2015's "Love Is Free," who encouraged her to redefine for herself what a modern-day pop star could look like.
Now, with the Sam Sparro-produced song and self-directed video "NYC Baby," premiering today on PAPER, Maluca pens a triumphant love letter to the city that made her. It is both a culmination of her experiences to-date, and a sample of the city's cultural touchstones that Maluca has long been enamored with.
The video is an intimate, documentary-style portrait of a quintessential New York summer weekend, including seeing beach babes at Coney Island, rollerblading through downtown's Washington Square Park, kiki-ing on the subway, and dancing in the Washington Heights streets after the Dominican Day Parade. The song, complete with horns and big and bright '80s-tinged freestyle beats, evokes the time Gloria Estefan and her Miami Sound Machine dominated the charts. Then, there's the irresistible hook, Maluca's voice full of warmth and confidence: "New York City, baby/I'm gonna give you my l-l-love/Hold me down until I come true."
"NYC Baby" is just a taste of what's to come from Maluca's official debut album, a project slated for independent release later this year — a project ten years in the making. As she's been teasing on Instagram, listeners can expect a diaristic approach to the music and visuals, a nostalgic scrapbook of her youth. In paying homage to where she came from, Maluca gets to clearly define where she's headed.
I caught up with the NYC baby at her downtown home to discuss her upbringing, what the past 10 years have been like for her, and calling the shots.
Every artist's discovery of their desire to perform is different. How did yours come about?
As a kid, there were always pictures of me on the kitchen table. Like performing, sitting in director's chairs. I remember we were sitting at this Chinese restaurant uptown, where I was living at the time, and I would always think of a way to the bathroom to sing, because I knew at six, the acoustics were good in the bathroom. Obviously I knew there was something about singing in the bathroom. But there was one time, my mom was like, "The whole restaurant can hear you." And I was singing, "get up, stand up, stand up for your rights..." And there would be this knocking on the door, and my mom would be like, "Natalie! What are you doing in there?" I'd be like, "Nothing much, I'm washing my hands, mom!" It was just a constant thing. I was very theatrical. Every talent show there was, I was in the talent show.
Were there people who encouraged you early on?
I had a drama teacher in grade school who encouraged me to perform when he heard me scat singing. So by high school I wanted to try out for the LaGuardia performing arts high school — you know, the Fame school. So one day, I thought, Fuck it, I'm going to go for it. I had never really taken consistently professional dance classes. It was like in and out. I was really into interpretive dance and I was always watching operas as a kid and there was a PBS channel I remember, and I would break out into interpretive dancing in my living room. I remember my family, my mom, being like, Wow, this is amazing. I thought I'd just do what I do in my living room at the audition. The day of the audition, my mom took me, but the whole time, she was like, "You know, you're probably not gonna get in. Why would you even try? You're not a professional dancer." And it just completely crushed me. It was my first like, squash. I was just completely in my head during the audition, and I didn't get in. I remember I couldn't perform, I felt so insecure.
That sucks! How did you turn it around? Obviously, you overcame that at some point.
For the longest time after, I didn't know being a serious performer was even an option for me. I thought I was gonna be a therapist. And then I got this job and I couldn't even read a poem I had written. At around 19 through my early twenties, I started working at Cafe Habana downtown. There was this guy there who was in a six-piece band called The Bowery Riots and he was like, "I really want you to be part of our band." I was like, "Really? Why? Me?" He knew I could sing but I don't know how he knew. So I started singing back up with them. I remember Lady Gaga's trumpet player was in the band. My first lead solo was a cover of "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes, my first time singing like that. I grew up singing in church and the girls hated on me, and I remember by that point I had become terrified of expressing myself. But the night I sang "Be My Baby" on stage, Erykah Badu was there. It was a really tiny bar with maybe 20 other people and she was literally right here. She was just jamming, her energy was so good, and she was into it. I was like, Oh my god, this is so crazy.
So cut to you meeting Diplo and working with him. You're touring. Does it hit you that you've sort beat the odds of people not believing in you?
No, I wasn't like that. I was like, "Party! Party! Yasss!" It was a big party and I loved it. I was wasted. I was just like, Sure, let's get on a fucking plane. I felt like a rock star, but I didn't understand that I had impact even when I had recorded my first song. I was like, "Cute, I recorded a song." Celebrate, whatever. It wasn't still a possibility for me to have my own name. It wasn't till Diplo asked me to perform my song at South by Southwest. I don't remember all of that shit. I was just like, Sure, whatever. Listen, if I am to perform, I need a Mac computer, I need whistles, I need two dancers. I borrowed money from a drug dealer, and told him I was doing a random show in Texas with hipster people. It was so nuts.
When did it hit you though?
It wasn't until that show at South by Southwest when I was like, Whoa. Nobody knew who I was, and "El Tigeraso" was not even out yet. I was just going on stage with my GarageBand music and "Tigeraso" was the only good, polished record I had. I had a song called "Flap Attack" about my best friend's pussy. I was just trying to show you the levels of DIY that I would roll with. [singing] "Flap attack hoe, flap attack hoe, they gonna come and get ya..." To me, this was good! That was fun! I remember that with the crowd, it was like five people when I started the show, by the end of the show, there were thousands in the whole crowd that were into the beat, having fun. I got off the stage and it was like, a little press, the best agents all approached me. It was a lot. I saw the way people treated me differently and then, I thought, This could be a real thing. And then it became a real thing like this [finger snaps], and there I was, on tour — with my GarageBand music.
What's something you hate getting asked?
People are always asking me, "What is it like being a Latina in music?" I hate that shit. 'Cause first of all, what is it like being Black and being a queer rapper? I'm like, Do you even ask white people what it's like to be white and playing the keyboard? Never. What is it like being white and just culturally appropriating everybody's music? How dare you.
Tell me about New York's relationship to your music and vice versa.
New York has really been my inspiration, I feel really blessed that the way I understood music involved travel within the city from spot to spot. There's the hip-hop party at 8 o'clock and it's like a fusion of hip-hop, reggae, and dancehall, and then you're getting on a train going to Williamsburg to listen to your favorite bachata band, and then it's midnight and now you're going to the rave. That's my scope, that's how I understood music. Then I realized not everybody had that. I was a drum-and-bass head, and I was sipping champagne with all the rappers at Nacho's Pub listening to Nickelback. Also the landscape of the radio. My influence was New York and J.Lo. And there's me in the middle: I'm the baby.
"New York is like my family, my co-writer. New York is like the mother, my godmother."
What do you say to people who claim New York is dead?
This song is an homage to New York and the New York that I love, the New York that I miss, but also I still see bits of that New York in the kids here now. There is still a special independent artistic and restless creative spirit here that doesn't exist anywhere else. It's still here, so how could it be dead? I remember in Sex and the City, I don't know which episode, but it said New York is the fifth person in the group. That's how I always experienced New York. New York is like my family, my co-writer. New York is like the mother, my godmother. So making "NYC Baby" was like a love letter, a thank you. I love New York, I think New York is so fab. We still need to be sure we are making room for more cool, queer creatives to shine. I don't want this to sound like some kind of weird real estate pitch. [Laughs]
How does your upcoming debut album address the past 10 years of your life and career?
Without giving too much, this is a story for all the kids who just feel like they're in the gutter, and two, that whatever's gonna happen for me, it can happen for you. So much of what I use to journal about as a kid has come true. Look at how that happened for me. It's not linear. It's zigzag, up and down and around, and also all these ideas that we hold as a society, they're all crumbling. This idea of success, what does that even mean?
I definitely got caught up with drugs and alcohol, and that lifestyle. I also didn't have the right people around me invested in my wellness. I didn't even know the alcohol and drugs were getting in the way of my creativity for years. I thought it was the world that just wouldn't let me. And then I decided to get sober, and as a result, I started to feel better. I started to gain self-esteem. Through that, I let go of a lot of relationships. And the music industry is gross. Of course I wanted to get high and fucked up. So I had to let go a lot of relationships that were just so toxic, and then I decided to give myself a break.
What happened when you took your break?
I hadn't seen a friend for lunch in years, so I started scheduling lunch dates with friends. I didn't even know what the inside of a Whole Foods was like. I needed to do normal shit like go to yoga or TJ Maxx. I took a writing class at The New School. I found people who really care about me in the music industry. Robyn is one of those people. That's important, because the music industry has a very patriarchal infrastructure, it's very male centric. It's not safe, it's not loving and kind. Thank God for Hennessy supporting Cardi B. Thank God for her family. My family wasn't very down with it. I also came from a generation where if you're not a Madonna, Rihanna, as big as Whitney or Britney Spears, then what's the point? I had to find other people to expand me, to show me what it could look like, and one of those people was Robyn. She's a massive pop star. She has autonomy, privacy. She's not an asshole and she's not gross, and she's also kind. People told her she couldn't do what she's doing now because of her age. And look. She's killing it.
Photography: Elvin Tavarez