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An Interview with Uncle Tino

The local rapper is a new member of the GRAMMYs Music’s Bold New Generation Class of 2022.

Uncle Tino (photo by Brenda Hernandez)

Tell me about your journey to becoming a musician.
It started in high school, but I’ve always really loved music. I picked up guitar and drums individually, but eventually I started to really tap into my creative writing. In high school I did slam poetry, which gave me an avenue to perform in front of people. It was scary as hell at first, and I was super-nervous and very shaky, but it led me into lyrical hip-hop. I started listening to it, studying it, and enjoying it. I was like, alright, this is something I want to do with my life eventually. Now I’m here, and I’ve decided to incorporate a bunch of different [styles and influences] into [my music]. I wanted to take my once-emcee persona and transform it and evolve. For me, it doesn’t just have to stay in one spot. If I want to be a hip-hop artist I can, but that doesn’t mean that I have to abide by hip-hop criteria. Even though I respect the art and the genre, I like to twist it up a bit. 

What made you realize music was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
In high school, when people listened to what I would write. And it felt good to see that people were genuinely interested and enjoying what I had to say. Even then, I felt a fire under my ass when people would look at me and think, ‘Oh, this dorky, vaguely Hispanic kid, he can’t rap.’ Then I’d rap and they’d be like, ‘Oh shit!’ I liked being that element of surprise, and I really liked moving people. I had a blast—and I still have a blast performing. It’s so fun to me, and I love spreading joy. I first started performing in August 2014, and it was just great seeing everybody being happy. I loved it. Once I realized I could do it, I didn’t see why I should stop. 

When OutSmart interviewed you last June, you had recently released your album Colorfool. Catch us up on what you’ve been up to since then.
I have a lot less money! [Laughs] I ended my time at a job that helped me get Colorfool off the ground. [Then I had] another job less than three months, because I decided to make music full-time. It’s been eye-opening and humbling. Since then, I’ve just been performing the album and making it different every time. I’ve also been using the time to find my center again, because I really want to make new music. Recently, I acquired a really good microphone that allows me to actually want to work at home. I’ve been getting back into writing, practicing a lot of self care, exercising, praying, meditating, resting, and spending time with my friends. Right now, it’s just been a [time to reflect] on how I want to approach my next album. I also [recently got accepted] into the GRAMMYs Recording Academy, and I have a manager. 

How did you become a member of the Recording Academy and the GRAMMYs Music’s Bold New Generation Class of 2022?
I knew a bunch of people who were invited last year. It was super-badass. I was so happy for everyone. [To get in], you need a couple of letters of recommendation from current members, and two of my really good friends in the industry [wrote mine]. I sent my application in, and the Academy reviewed it to [make sure] that what I do for the music industry is worthy of being invited to join. 

Do you now have any special Recording Academy privileges? 
Yes, my membership allows me to vote in the Texas chapter. 

You’ve performed on stages across Houston, have been featured in Billboard, and now the Academy has recognized you. What’s your proudest accomplishment? 
Billboard is definitely up there. I thought that was really neat, because I got to talk shit about Greg Abbott. But I would say my proudest moment was definitely the first show I got to play at White Oak. One of my friends, who is also an Academy member, is dating someone whose son is trans as well. He’s 12 or 13, and I had a moment to really make him feel special at my show. I created this little grid on the floor with tape to get people engaged [during different parts of the show]. I told my friend [to stand in a specific spot on the grid] so that I could dedicate a song to [the son]. That’s one of the big reasons I want to do what I do, because I get to make kids like me feel special and let them know that they’re capable. 

What does it mean for you as a trans artist and activist to have your career blow up like it has?
I really just want to help. I want to make this community visible and let people know that we are harmless. There are people who don’t “agree,” or whatever, but this isn’t something that you’re supposed to agree with. You just have to understand that this is our life, and something that we need to do. If somebody wants plastic surgery, or larger breasts—or I want none [laughs]—just be human. 

I always knew I wanted to help; I just never knew in what way. Right now I’m teaming up with a couple of other people to throw a drag show, with all proceeds going to the Montrose Center. I’m also donating some money that I’m making from my hats for trans youth to Equality Texas. It’s really cool. It’s something that I’m glad to be a part of. I’m blessed that I’m able to do this, and to be a voice to people who feel like they don’t have one. 

Walk me through the process of creating a song.
Sometimes, if I want to produce a song, I can sit down and play with drums or just little dumb noises. Other times, I’ll sing to myself and I’ll record a vocal for it. More recently I’ve been trying to write more organically while in session, because it helps me get things done quicker. When I’m on the spot, writing with other people, we’ll only have a couple of hours. I try not to put too much pressure on myself, because that’s an easy way to lose it. Recently, I’ve just been trying to have more fun with it and express how I feel. If there’s a song I don’t think sounds good, I won’t get married to that song or the words. 

Who are some of your musical inspirations?
Missy Elliott, Mac Miller, Wu-Tang Clan, Gang Starr, Parliament-Funkadelic, Deftones, Incubus, The Gorillaz, Linkin Park, My Chemical Romance, OutKast, Action Bronson, Isaiah Rashad, Anderson Paak, J Dilla, Madlib, the Alchemist, Freddie Gibbs, Britney Spears, Led Zepplin, and Smokey Robinson. I just like pulling inspiration from a lot of different people—especially a lot of dance and house music. Recently I’ve been pulling inspiration from my friends Dende, CA The Don, Andres Mishka, Tol Calvin, Kiran the Nomad, and Kim Koro. 

In your opinion, what makes a good song?
Something that can leave a lasting impression on everybody. 

What are some of your favorite places to perform in Houston?
I like to perform anywhere, as long as the stage is big enough. I have several other musicians with me on stage, so I love to be able to run around. I had a great time performing at Ripcord [during Pride]. White Oak is cool. Axelrad is always fun. I want to do Warehouse Live and The Secret Group next.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a musician?
Be the least afraid as possible. Enjoy yourself. Do not overthink shit, because that will hold you back. It sounds cliche, but have fun with what you wanna do. You’re going to make some good songs and you’re gonna make some bad songs. That’s a given. You’re not going to make a perfect song every time, especially when you’re first starting out. Don’t let the fear of being not good stop you. That’s just a part of the process of creating music, evolving, and getting better.  

Where can our readers keep up with you?
If anybody wants to find me or follow me, I’m Uncle Tino on all platforms. 

Keep up with Uncle Tino on Instagram @reallyuncletino.

This article appears in the August 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Lourdes Zavaleta

Lourdes Zavaleta is the managing editor of OutSmart magazine.
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