Bronx-born Natalie “Maluca” Yepez was a musically inclined bartender with a bad case of stage fright when, in 2007, she met record producer Diplo at a club on New York’s Lower East Side. It being karaoke night, they sang a Beastie Boys tune together, and later started exchanging music via e-mail. Within a year, Diplo, who helped launch the careers of M.I.A. and Santigold, went to work on Maluca’s. Their first collaboration, a spicy electro-mambo track called “El Tigeraso,” debuted in the summer of 2009; along with the accompanying video—in which the 29-year-old Dominican struts around town in red leather with rollers in her hair—it immediately established her as a hip-shaking, Spanglish-spewing firecracker with a unique sense of style. Since then Maluca has given Latin music a certain urban-hipster swagger with her steady stream of bass-thumping party jams that mix merengue, electro-rock, old-school house, and hip hop. She spent last fall touring with the Swedish pop star Robyn, and is at work on her debut album, due out this year.
Where did you get the nickname Maluca?
My uncle gave it to me when I was a kid. In Brazil it means “crazy woman,” but in other countries it means “ugly brown woman.”
Were you crazy as a child? You’re clearly not ugly.
I was definitely mischievous and always getting into trouble. I remember my uncle saying to me, “Maluca, get dressed, we’re going to the Copacabana!” I was, like, six, and the only one out of all my cousins who thought he was for real.
Do you come from a musical family?
Yeah, my dad worked at the marketing firm for Delicious Vinyl, which at the time had Tone-Loc and Young MC. Now he’s a preacher! Check it: Maluca’s a preacher’s daughter. My family would always tell me, “You’re so strange with your strange music and your strange clothing.” They still say this. They think I worship the devil.
Your style is a little wild.
I was born in the Bronx, and then I migrated to the East Village when I was 13, so I always say I’m half hood rat, half hipster.
And your music’s equally eclectic. You’ve described it as experimental tropical punk, ghetto tech, hip house…
It’s very New York. Growing up, I would go to Pyramid and listen to two-step, to Williamsburg for some bachata. Saturdays would be the Copacabana; Sundays, Joe’s Pub. I’d go listen to spoken word at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. My music incorporates a lot of different sounds. I infuse Latin styles, but it’s not very literal. It’s not your typical merengue or punta.
Do you think Latin music gets a bad rap in the U.S.?
I don’t want to generalize, but I feel Latin music has been stuck in a certain place. I just wanted to make it more progressive. Make it my own.
Back to your style for a minute: Why the curlers in your “Tigeraso” video?
Growing up, if you were getting your hair done and you wanted something to eat, you would just go in your rollers—whatever. But you never went to the club with your rollers. So the concept was like: I’m Maluca. I don’t give a shit. I’m gonna go to the grocery store, I’m gonna go to the club—in my rollers! The funniest thing is that for my night look, I go in my good rollers, which are gold soda cans.
Do women actually use cans as curlers?
All the time. If you couldn’t afford to go to the hair salon, you’d use cans. Or if you wanted a more curly look, you’d use straws.
What was it like touring for the first time this past year?
The energy in Europe is so good. I love it there. In Belgium I played in front of 10,000 people. I thought I was gonna die. The audience was throwing things at me. But then I was like: I’m from New York. I’m gonna kill it! And I did. And then afterward I found out that when they throw things, it’s because they like you.
Do you still get stage fright?
I always get nervous before I go onstage, and then when I’m onstage, I go into a zone. It’s almost like blacking out. Even though I have choreography, you never know what I’m going to do. I stage dive sometimes, hide under the DJ booth. One time I did an outdoor show, and I decided to go for a run in the woods—midsong. People were like, Is this bitch crazy? But it’s about having fun. Times are tough; I just want to give people an awesome show.