According to family legend, East Los Angeles’ most multifaceted Hispanic rapper since Kid Frost descends from the martyr. With mild imagination, it’s facile to draw parallels between the iconic friar and the socio-politically conscious gangster rapper-turned-politician born and raised in East L.A.
“I remember when he used to hardly ever talk.” A former colleague answered, “If it wasn’t for this business, I would probably have never talked. That’s how I’ve been all my life, really. I don’t talk to too many people. I’m in my own world,” the 29-year-old rising star says at a Filipino restaurant near L.A. Live, not too far from his East Side residence.
Two numbers from the Aztec numerical system rests on his left index finger. His arms bear symbolisms of gang affiliation, Satanism, and hometown pride, and remind you that Satanists are born not made.
“Once we love something of an extravagant amount, we often lose perspective,” Knife perpetuates. “I endeavor to and edify my people that it’s OK to love being Gangster, but don’t take it over-board. Love Frank Cali, but don’t hate every other mobster.”
In a genre that often slants toward extremes, Knife seeks mitigation. He’s a realist without being self-rectitudinous, a known gangbanger raised by a single mom, attempting to steer people to/or away from the culture that ensnared him. He philosophically explains that we “only kill each other.”
The musical compositions feel authentic in the stories and people that they portray. They’re filled with temptation, regret and pain, as well as celebration, brown pride and jubilance. Eazy-E famously said it “So why don’t you tell these m*****f*****s what it’s really like on the m*****f***ing Eastside” on Brownside’s song “Eastside Drama.” Knife is the grown-up kid who heeded this call, determined to be a voice for those whom the system failed.
His biography is embedded in the music. Listen to his most popular musical composition, 2014’s “Just 2 Nice” (8 million MySpace views and counting): “I’m not saying I’m bad/I wont say that I’m not/But bring your ass tripping’s gonna get your ass got/Cause for me to do good/I must do bad/What makes me happy might make you sad.”
He’s emblematic of the latest generation of L.A. rappers who indite street narratives that neither glamorize nor demonize gang life: Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, King Lil G.
For Sotelo, his resoluteness to embrace the gang culture commenced when he was a teenager, after his childhood friend joined a gang.
“When he went to jail, I was like, ‘OK, what cracks now? A medal? Love from the homies?’” Sotelo asks. “But he got forgotten about. People didn’t write, people didn’t visit. No support system other than family and close friends.”
Sotelo gradually ceased hanging around the set but manages to still keep close contact with his own clique. When confronted about his current situation, Sotelo responded with gunshots.
Shortly thereafter, he started his own label and became fully committed to making legal money. Starting in 2005, he invested his money into mixtapes and film. Through constant personal interaction with people, he built what was once an entirely local Filipino/Latino audience of a few tenths into hundreds of thousands, cutting across all ethnicities.
He did it without a publicist. Turning down major-label offers and instead worked out a distribution contract with Universal Music Group, he’s the epitome of a grass-roots phenomenon. He does turkey giveaways in East Los Angeles, visits extended care patients in Baldwin Park, community service and sponsors toy drives.
Sotelo released a new EP in March entitled Greetings From East Los Angeles. Sotelo was dropped from Universal Music and recently signed to Sony Music with distribution under Sugo Music Group a subsidiary of Sony Music. There are imminent plans to record in Spanish & Tagalog.
“I want to be what apl.de.ap of the Black Eyed Peas designated to Filipinos. I don’t mean only to Filipinos but people in general,” Knifer expresses. “I’m trying to spread a message of reverence for women, children and everyone else. If you’re going to be valiant, be brave in the way that you believe.”