2Mex explores the harsh economics of underground hip-hop
Alex “2Mex” Ocana, a 33-year-old MC from Los Angeles, can purée words like a blender chopping up strawberries and bananas or touch you with a statement so poignant it verges on tragicomic. Unfortunately, most hip-hoppers haven’t yet learned how to support their fringe artists, ignoring them in favor of the next major-label prospect. So 2Mex lives under the radar.
He’s made music since the mid-’90s, first appearing as a member of the hip-hop group Visionaries, then as one-half of the duo Of Mexican Descent alongside Xololanxinxo, and finally as a compelling solo MC who frequently surprises listeners with his emotional depth.
“I feel a sense of urgency and that I have to do it. That’s all I want to do every day,” said 2Mex, from Denver. He’s touring as $martyr, a project he created with MC/producer Life Rexall. Released last April on indie label Cornerstone Recording Arts Society, $martyr’s Money Symbol Martyrs confronts the duo’s status as struggling rappers, with song titles like “So Money,” “Money Doesn’t Matter” and “Full Court Pressure.”
Money Symbol Martyrs is one of 2Mex’s most accessible recordings. Life Rexall’s classical hip-hop tracks conjure California sunshine and green vistas, hearkening toward Jurassic 5 and Camp Lo. Meanwhile 2Mex curbs his usually complex speed-raps stuffed with metaphorical phrases, instead opting for simple lines, like on “Green Grass.”
“Being out in Europe, I got to see green grass and air on the Autobahn in a BM / Something I could dream or could rhyme, a utopia / Anything you could think of, modernized and opened up / But I’d rather be back in the struggle, in the heart of Los Angeles at the heart of the hustle / Not trying to be next to come out of this hole, but happy to be Mexican and part of this home,” he raps.
“I tried to write songs with a bunch of—I wouldn’t say inside jokes, but inside meanings. Or I write songs with alliteration and play around with the coded styles [of the lyrics],” said 2Mex. “Honestly, so many people, they just don’t get it. People are just like, ‘I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. The flow is tight, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ So the $martyr record is a little more straightforward.”
Money Symbol Martyrs is one of three records 2Mex recently finished. Up next is a new album by the Visionaries, We Are the Ones (we’ve been waiting for). Then there’s the Look Daggers, a rock-rap project featuring 2Mex and Ikey Owens, keyboardist for prog-metal band the Mars Volta.
Despite these projects, however, 2Mex keeps reprising his role as the Money Symbol Martyr. “Three weeks ago, I talked to Rhymesayers and Epitaph,” he continued. As two of the country’s biggest indie labels, Rhymesayers Entertainment is home for Atmosphere while Epitaph Records represents Sage Francis, Blackalicious and the Coup. “Epitaph is like, ‘Show me a demo.’ And I’m like, ‘Show you a demo? I’ve been giving you my records for years, and you tell me that you love them. But you don’t fuck with me? Why do you need a demo?’” he said. “You guys either believe in me, or you don’t.”
But 2Mex is still able to make music for a living. He gets small monetary advances from indie labels like Cornerstone RAS and Up Above to record albums. He tours extensively and sells CDs on the Internet.
“We’re grinding. It’s literally underground, hand-to-hand down here,” said 2Mex. “I wish I didn’t have to hustle. I wish I didn’t have to sit around at shows peddling my CDs and T-shirts and all this bullshit. I just want to be at the house, recording songs.
“There’s something that feels so good about finding a beat that you like,” he concluded. “Writing to it, then dropping it [on the track] and then just having it for yourself and listening to the shit for a month, you know? Honestly, it feels so good just getting it mixed and mastered, and it sounds the best that it can.”