The Puerto Rican Producer and
Music Historian Merging
Hip Hop with the Sounds of La Isla
BY ANTONIO GONZALEZ | DECEMBER 1, 2020
With an identity and cultural foothold that spans beyond the borders of the archipelago we call home, it’s no surprise that the ever evolving landscape of Puerto Rican music has seeped into realms we would have never dreamed of.
o matter the genre, music is one of
the principal ways in which we tell our stories, and communicate with the world. But to discuss the future of Puerto Rican music, we must learn to appreciate where we came from.
Enter, Elí Omar Rios, or El Bles, the Puerto Rican music producer and music historian who is using our rich past to build an even richer future - one sample at a time.
Both El Bles and I are local to Orlando, Florida, so it was an obvious choice to (safely) meet up with him, and spend some time in his space and get to know him. I arrived at his apartment on a Saturday afternoon, and was immediately taken aback by the invisibly radiant energy in the space. From the focal point that is his workspace down to the curated decor; a blend of perfectly color coded mid-century modern furniture (down to the rust colored soundproofing panels) with accents of vejigantes, Puerto Rican flags, landmarks, and Taino symbols - I felt immediately at home.
Born into a family full of rich musical history, his grandparents and parents are classically trained musicians, with records and world tours under their belts, El Bles knew from an early age that music was not only important to our culture, but it was in his DNA. His father, Eligio Rios was a trained pianist and violinist, playing in his band Clave Tres and with La Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico, and worked with many of the greats in the industry: Cheo Feliciano,Sonora Ponceña, Willie Colon and Chamaco Rivera, to name a few. It was this very upbringing that laid the foundation for the path he would come to take.
"I am a big fan of hip hop. I think hip hop is what brought me to
do what I do. Yo tenía unos primos que vivían en el Bronx y siempre
me traían mixtapes (back when mixtapes were a thing) and they
would always bring me the newest hip hop music from New York,
and man I fell in love."
At the age of 18, he landed in Orlando, Florida, in hopes of pursuing his dreams
of becoming a producer, and producing HIS way. As is with the way the universe works, one day, he received a pamphlet in the mail from Full Sail University, and that’s when he realized, “man, this is exactly what I’ve been looking for,” and so began his musical journey.
Starting off on a NetPC handed down to him from his father, which he put on top of
stacked crates, El Bles put in his “10,000 hours,” and his studio has blossomed over the last 18
years into the perfectly manicured workspace that is his studio today. With inspirations ranging from Big Pun to Ray Barretto, his body of work, along with his sound has grown from his debut mixtape BlesTruMentals, to his debut album I Am Latin Soul, and the many projects that followed, all the while staying true to that Borikua spirit.
El Bles: "I want to be the person to put Puerto Rico on the map. Similar to how hip hop was built on the foundation of sampling old school soul and stuff like that, I want to make sure that we are not underrepresented. So, I decided to focus my career on predominantly putting the culture at the forefront, so I consider myself a music historian, more than I am a musician, because everything I do always touches back on something from back when, that I have a responsibility to reintroduce, so that the newer generation can know where we’re from, because without culture we lose our identity, and that’s dangerous."
"Spirituality is at the forefront of everything I do. Nothing I do comes
from me. I have a very special connection to God. I'm only a vessel... I really feel like we're all just vessels. I'm just the outlet He found to do this specific task, so absolutely this is a really big deal to me."
This spiritual compass is what drives him, and it is something you can not only FEEL on his solo projects, but on his collaborative efforts with the likes of music producer Thanks Joey on Qahwah Con Leche, and on his latest project with hip hop artist Niko Is on Sofrito 2020. Separately, each of these artists are extremely talented powerhouses in their own rights, but when they each team up with El Bendecido, pure magic happens, and the result is a sound that is the perfect union of each’s background. His dedication to presenting a fully cohesive body of work speaks volumes to his efficacy as a music historian.
On Qahwah Con Leche, a fusion between Arab culture and Puerto Rican culture, (which Bles describes as a mirror), El Bles and Thanks Joey bonded over their appreciation for sampling vintage vinyls, the similarities in Arab and Puerto Rican political struggles, and they mixed it all together and poured this flawless sound into a deliciously served cup of qahwah, proving that one can explore new territory while staying true to their background.
On Sofrito 2020, we see El Bles team up with Niko Is, the Brazilian-Argentine hip hop artist who has worked with the likes of Talib Kweli, Michael Winslow, and Dave Chapelle to name a few. The two have created an entire body of work that blends both of their styles in a harmonious way. The way Niko’s flow and rhymes pair with El Bles’ samples of old school salsa are perfectly exemplified on “All White Suit With The Pollo,” the intro track to Sofrito 2020, and I could not believe I was sitting just mere feet away from where all this magic happened.
“My pursuit is to always elevate the Latine culture through what I do,” says El Bles, while doing everything with intention. “If I’m investing my spirit and energy into something, it has to be meaningful. I found my purpose and I’m not deviating from that.”
Having had El Bles on our radar since before PREVOLU came to be, it has always been clear that he is very particular with those he chooses to work with and collaborate with, keeping his artistic integrity front and center, a trait we admire deeply. We are extremely honored for the opportunity to sit down with him and get to know him and his process. He takes his role as a music historian very seriously and is ushering a new sound that will both inspire people to dance, and serve as an education to those who haven’t been exposed to some of our cultural greats.
As Puerto Ricans, we all have our individual ties to our island, our culture, and our own set of emotions that connect us to our home. When we reached the end of our time together, I asked Bles what he wants for Puerto Rico, a topic that garners many varied opinions, both politically driven, spiritually driven and culturally driven.
El Bles: “I want independence. Why not? We handled ourselves well during Maria, that was pretty powerful. Give us the chance.”
We concluded our interview remembering childhood pastimes on the island, reminiscing about “escondite, toca palo, corriendo bicicleta pa la playa,” things that are small, sometimes seemingly minute details of life back on the island, but that not every person has the opportunity to have experienced due to a vast majority of circumstances that have left us forced to join the diaspora, as is not uncommon for us Borikua. It’s conversations like these that really bring us back to the root of what it is to be Borikua. There is no right or wrong way to be Borikua, but to ignore our Borikua spirit and not invest time in learning our history is to leave ourselves at a disadvantage, and it’s important to celebrate and invest in artists like El Bles, El Bendecido, who are fighting to keep that history and heritage alive.
“I feel like I was one of those that was put in place to try and preserve it [Puerto Rican culture]…. I wouldn’t do it any other way, this is 'til the casket drops. It’s not about the money, or the fame for me, it’s about educating people, the new generation, the kids. Keeping that sazón alive, keeping that sofrito alive.”
In regards to what’s next, El Bles plans to continue honing his signature sound, collaborating with artists that align with his vision and sound, and has his sights set high, aiming to do commercial placements and soundtracks for different series, primarily focusing on curating sound for Latine centric shows. Whatever the future holds for this insanely talented producer/ music historian, we are proud to host him as our first Compositor Del Mes, and cannot wait to see what he puts out next.
Sofrito 2020 is available across all streaming platforms