Inside the sincere, psychedelic world of Pedazo De Carne Con Ojo - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Pedazo De Carne Con Ojo is the project of Steven Perez, a Philadelphia musician with sincere love for hip hop, poetry, punk and hardcore, pop, R&B, salsa, bachata, merengue, and even more. Perez has lived in Philly since 2016, writing, playing punk and indie, and he started releasing solo material under the Pedazo moniker in 2019 after years of struggling with doubts about sharing his own music. Now he has a strong standing in the Philly scene, and some of his closest friends are musicians who encourage him to keep pushing, including Chris Taylor of Body Meat, who he’s touring with right now – the two play Johnny Brenda’s on Wednesday 3/30 with Lucy and Zeke Ultra.

Pedazo is a kaleidoscopic project, pinned on samples from past recordings of pop and merengue, salsa, bachata and other styles of Caribbean music, all of which Perez heard in his family’s home in Florida growing up. These styles all cling together on his LPs ¿Pero Like Cómo E’tá? (2020) and Dun Dun (2021), both pressed on cassette by Citrus City Tapes. His latest drops are Dun Dun Remixes and a single on Fire Talk Records‘ Open Tab imprint, ¨All I Know.¨

Through this discography, Perez packs instrumentals like psychedelic collages, in the tradition of Madlib and MIKE, voices on top spinning spoken words or melodies, sometimes raps, but he prefers not to name himself a rapper. Last week I spoke with Perez about where Pedazo came from, an accidental quarantine record, respecting comedians and rappers, favorite new music and favorite skate spots in Philadelphia. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Thomas Hagen: How long have you been living in Philadelphia and how did you first get involved with the music scene here?

Steven Perez: Yeah, I moved here in summer of 2016, I moved from Florida. I moved here for work, but also I had always been a fan of Philly’s music scene. There’s a lot of amazing acts that have come here since forever, from Coltrane, to Spirit of the Beehive – I was a fan of them before I moved here – Palm and Alex G and all that stuff, there’s so much that came out of here, a lot of stuff from the 90s that I grew up listening to. And I started playing music, started getting involved by going to punk shows, I was more in that scene when I first moved here – shoutout Cousin Danny’s, which I think is such an important space to have in Philly.

I was involved in the punk scene, playing in bands, going to shows, meeting people; I honestly didn’t really know anyone when I moved here. I had never been here before, I knew maybe one or two people but they were friends of friends, so it was kind of a blind move. But thankfully some of the people that I met were from Florida and involved in music so it was easy to get patched in, whereas often when you move somewhere and don’t know anyone it can be really difficult. I had one of the luckier experiences where I found a crew of people within six months of living here, had a crew to chill with, knew when the shows were happening, the kind of secret raves and all the really interesting stuff that was happening I was kinda keyed into pretty early. Honestly it’s kinda crazy – some of those people I knew in music, but Tinder also worked out for me in that way – I don’t think I ever got a solid romantic relationship out of Tinder but I definitely made a lot of really great friends. It’s funny how that sh*t works.

TH: Did you ever rap or produce music before you began Pedazo De Carne Con Ojo?

SP: Yeah, I definitely was one of those kids who grew up around a lot of people who were really into this – I was like the baby who was rapping before I knew language. [laughs] There’s that viral video of the little baby rapping with his dad, but he’s not saying any words – I had a cousin who sent that to me and said, Yo, that was you. Not like I was good or anything, I just really liked it. I always loved music and I grew up listening to rap music through my older siblings and family members, and I tried producing it a lot. Actually the first time I tried to make music – Nas was a big influence and is a big influence – and I just wanted to make stuff like that, so I got FruityLoops when I was like fourteen. I was trying to make beats and I couldn’t figure it out. I never shared anything that I made in the hip hop or rap sphere, because I had such great respect for it; if I wasn’t proud of it I just didn’t feel comfortable sharing it. Then the first time I released stuff like that I was twenty-six or twenty-seven, so it took me a while to feel comfortable to share it.

TH: Do you consider your project a hip hop project?

SP: That’s a good question – no, no I don’t. It is influenced by hip hop greatly, and in many ways I’m trying to contribute to that culture and craft. But, one – I’m not a rapper. I rap sometimes but I am not a rapper at all. That is a very, very technical, skillful thing, and I don’t feel like I’m good enough, nor do I do it enough to be in that category, out of respect to the rappers that have been doing this. And also I venture into other stuff, there’s pop moments, there’s R&B moments. I don’t like calling it that because that’s one of those genres that really gets pigeonholed, unfortunately. I wanna do other stuff; I’d like one day for there to be classical-sounding stuff in there, I really like orchestras too. And also there’s so much that I pay homage to from my identity and my family’s culture, like salsa, merengue, bachata. So I’m more interested in making music and seeing where that goes, and I don’t feel comfortable calling it a rap project, personally, out of respect to the craft and the genre.

I would be honored to be in that space, and any time someone writes about that or says that, it’s an honor, but I just don’t feel like I’ve earned that yet. It makes sense, I’m rapping, I’m doing it, but I’m also doing other things. Like Frank Ocean raps all the time, but I don’t know that you would call him a rapper, you know what I mean? It’s kinda like that, I’d like to live in that space genre-wise. I could never be anything close to that man, but in the way that he’s kind of in the R&B space but he can do everything, and I think he gets acknowledged for all of his abilities. I wanna live there rather than the hip hop / rap space because that often can feel pigeonholing.

Pedazo De Carne Con Ojo | photo by Emily Burtner

TH: The phrase “pedazo de carne con ojo” appears in your track “Mind Racing.” Can you explain the significance of the phrase and why you chose to perform under this name?

SP: The literal translation is like, piece of meat with eyes. But it’s a common expression in Latinx culture, specifically Dominican – at least that’s my understanding, my mom said it to me all the time – and it means you’re being a smartass or a troublemaker, something like that. So she would call me that all the time, pedazo de carne con ojo. I actually wasn’t gonna name this project that at all, I was gonna name it this other name, I was ready and right when I was about to upload it to distribute, I noticed that someone else had taken the name, and it was someone doing rap music and I was like, F*ck this is gonna be confusing. And my Instagram handle was always @pedazodecarneconojo – this is something my mom called me my entire life, I would say that’s the closest thing I have to a nickname – so I was talking to somebody and they were just like, Run that! And I was like, you’re right, so I just went with it. Using it in the songs was this kind of third-person speak, speaking to the name. But also, I just wanted to have call-backs; I like the idea of hearing something over and over. Like “dun dun” for example, there’s that motif of dun dun, a kind of vocal motif, and that’s the thing with the name, pronouncing myself within the music.

TH: What music served as your early inspiration for Pedazo De Carne Con Ojo?

SP: It was definitely a lot of bachata and merengue and salsa music, all the stuff that my mom was playing in the house when I was growing up. Like Anthony SantosJohnny VenturaCelia CruzHector Lavoe, who I’m a huge fan of – a lot of music from the Caribbean. That was definitely the impetus to this and I wanted to pull from that. I knew I was interested in sampling music and I didn’t want to take from other cultures, and I felt, what is my way that I can do this while being respectful of others, and so, let me do the music that I grew up listening to. And also, I’d been making punk music, or indie music, or indie “rock,” all these genres that aren’t bachata and merengue, so my family hasn’t necessarily been super supportive – not in a negative way, they just don’t really get it – and so I wanted to make something I was hoping my family would be interested in. And luckily they were! It’s weird, but they kind of like it more now.

TH: What experiences or feelings inspired your lyrics on Dun Dun?

SP: It’s funny because it’s such a quarantine album, but a good amount of those songs were written before the quarantine or the pandemic ever started. It worked out that way where this feeling of isolation ended up being this universal thing for everybody. It just was; we all were going through it. I think isolation, a perpetual fear of poverty, fear of not being a good counterpart in relationships – not only romantic ones but friendships and social relationships, period. There’s an anxiety for me there about not being a good enough friend or partner. I think those were the feelings. And experiences were just the pandemic, and life stuff – there’s a lot; it’s in the songs. Pretty dark stuff, you know what I mean? I get sad sometimes, so… [Laughs]

I definitely hear it as a sad album, and it’s funny because I really was trying to not do that anymore. That’s kinda been my thing, making bummy songs, and Pedazo started in a lot of ways to be a little brighter. So if you listen to the record before Dun Dun, it’s much brighter. It touches on gnarly topics, but it’s definitely brighter and it’s just more fun. But Dun Dun, it was hard not to talk about it; I felt like I was being fake if I was making anything that didn’t acknowledge the kind of grief we were all going through. You know a lot of people died, a lot of people lost their jobs, a lot of people felt lost, so I begrudgingly tapped into that. [laughs]

I wish I could be funny or silly. I love people like Zack Fox, people who in music can be really funny. Like Lil Wayne can have these little quips that are f*cking hilarious – I wish I could do that. I think there are songs that can be a little goofy; there was someone who wrote about the songs being goofy, and I thought that was really interesting. I had never heard anyone say it, and I think initially I was like, Man what the f*ck! But then I sat with it and I was like, nah, that kinda makes sense, because I was trying to let it be goofy. I was trying to let myself be a little less brooding and more just enjoying life. And I think there are definitely funny moments and funny lines in songs, and I don’t know that it all is, but I’ve tried to incorporate goofy stuff, or even it just comes off that way unknowingly. And I think it’s kinda cool. I think comedy is one of, if not the most difficult art form that we have. It’s really hard to be funny, in my opinion.

TH: How has your process for recording your albums worked? Are there certain pieces of hardware or software you always use?

SP: It’s starting to evolve. When I first started, it was just my computer and a MIDI keyboard that I was using as a MIDI controller, and I did everything on that, so drums, sampling, any chords like strings or synths. And actually for the first couple of projects, I was very adamant about not using virtual instruments, or any instruments except the sampler – and I use Ableton. Cause I really love the idea like, Okay, if I need a synth, then I need to listen to a bunch of music and find a synth sound that I like and use that. The first two records, except maybe a shaker or something, everything is pretty much sample-based, even if you hear a synth chord or an organ or anything then I’m pulling from something else. In Dun Dun I opened it up a little more and I bought a multi-pad like a drum pad, like an SPD – it’s not the SPD but similar to that – and started doing that more because I liked being able to use drumsticks and really build drum patterns that way. It’s pretty difficult to do the drums I was thinking of with a MIDI keyboard. And now there’s a microphone, a drum pad, I bought a piano too so trying to use that more, that’s a later development. The piano, and I’m back playing guitar which I haven’t done in a few years, those things will show up on the next stuff I’m working on, but for what I’ve done already it’s honestly mostly just been computer and whatever MIDI controller I could get my hands on.

Pedazo De Carne Con Ojo | photo by Emily Burtner

TH: How would you describe your live performances? What can audiences expect to see on the run of shows you have this month?

SP: In the past it was just me, I was performing the classic pop / hip hop thing, like karaoke style almost, so it was just me singing over the backing tracks. For these shows, I have one of my closest friends playing the drum pad, so he’s doing all the drums for the songs and other percussive elements, and then me still with the backing tracks. It’s super exciting! It was fun doing it by myself, and nerve-wracking but really beautiful in that cause it was such a learning experience. But to have someone who I’ve known since I was like ten years old, who I’m very close to onstage with me again is really exciting. We just did some shows in Virginia and it’s such a cool vibe; I feel like it really adds a new dimension to the show so I think it’ll be really fun for people to see.

I hope people come support Body Meat, who – I’ve said this before – I wouldn’t making this music if it weren’t for him! He really was one of those people who pushed me to do this, and same with the drummer that’s in my band. Those two people really pushed me to make the music I’m making now, so I hope people support these shows and I want Body Meat to still be doing this forever.

TH:What is your relationship with Chris from Body Meat like?

SP: It’s funny, I moved into a room in a house that Chris was living in with a bunch of other folks; that’s kinda how I met Spirit and Palm and all them, just these houses that were neighboring each other. And that’s my dude. We skate together, play video games and sh*t, like, we’re homies, you know? It was happenstance that we became friends, I needed a room in a dire situation and it worked out, and I’m very glad cause I’ve made a lot of great friends through that.

TH: What are your favorite spots to skate in Philadelphia?

SP9th & Poplar was my favorite! Of all time. But that just kept changing around, and I get that there’s a new playground for kids, so they moved some stuff but I totally get it. There was a side where all that flatground is, and that was really dope because you could be with your crew and everyone on every level could be skating together, but then they said we couldn’t skate there anymore. That spot was so dope, especially during the pandemic because it was the one place where we could all hang out, you know? I like flatground a lot, so if there’s a smooth basketball court or street hockey rink, that’s my favorite sh*t cause I’m not good at this, I just like cruising around. It’s hard, Philly has so many interesting parks that could be perfect but one thing makes it trash. Like Paine’s could be perfect but it’s on a hill and they put bricks before every ledge. Grays Ferry could be sick but they put pool coping on everything. Granahan is fire, I haven’t been there in a while and I love that park, and there’s so many cool spots now. I come from Florida where I grew up in Tampa, so I had a skatepark in Tampa which is a very big deal, and now is probably the most famous skatepark in the world. So I was still very fortunate to have that, it was just not a lot to skate, whereas in Philly it’s kinda crazy how many parks there are now. And I think that speaks to the proliferation of skateboarding, but also this city is really one of the Meccas of skating, so it’s really cool to be here through all of that.

TK: What music are you listening to in 2022?

SP: I really like the new Nilufer Yanya album PAINLESS. I haven’t been this excited about a rock album, a rock-adjacent album in a long time – I mean, Spirit of the Beehive will always f*ckin take hold of me, and there are bands, but this one just hit different. It’s really incredible what she did with it, where it’s so powerful yet graceful and elegant. I like John Glacier’s album SHILOH, I’ve been listening to that a lot. A lot of stuff from Fania Records, like from the 70s; a lot of that just feels like home, a lot of that salsa music. It’s like the most famous salsa record label of all time, like Celia Cruz was on there, Johnny Pacheco owns it – or owned it, rest in peace. I’ve been listening to Cheo Feliciano, some of the records he had on there like Buscando Amor, “looking for love” is the translation, really love that album a lot. I like the new Tirzah album a lot. JWords, from New York, I think she is one of the most interesting producers right now. I think what she did with Nappy Nina for this album Double Down was super incredible, I think her stuff with maassai is super incredible, she just put out a solo album that’s really good. Friends, like Spirit, Body Meat. I’m excited to see Spirit after this run cause I think they’ve finally locked in.

TH: Are you working on any new projects now that you can share about?

SP: They’re still mostly under wraps – but I’m excited there’s a new song we’re playing on the tour that I’m really really excited about. It might be one of the best things I’ve ever made. That’s dope; I hope people come to the shows to hear it, because I’m really excited about it. I have a bunch of stuff in the chamber that I’m working on. I’ve set a date for myself, and I’d like to finish an album before the new year.

Pedazo De Carne Con Ojo plays Johnny Brenda’s on Wednesday 3/30 with Body Meat, Lucy and Zeke Ultra. Find his videos for “Hold Me Down” and “Stuck in the Crib” below. His single “All I Know” came out in January on Fire Talk’s new imprint, Open Tab.

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