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Hector Peña, Jr.

Hector Peña, Jr. smiled as he rolled his chair over to his computer in Cut Zone Entertainment’s recording studio, a small, air-conditioned room he often sits in for hours at a time.

“This is what I want to drop as the single,” he said. He opened up iTunes and started blasting “Private Party” by Tony Sunshine, a resident of the nearby Forest Houses who recently signed with Cut Zone, which Peña co-owns. As the hip-hop song played, the smile on Peña’s face grew even larger.

“I love this song,” he said. “The song is catchy. It should be on a soundtrack.”

At the song’s end, Peña walked out of the recording studio and down the narrow hallway leading to a much larger section of the building. Here, the records adorning the studio’s walls are nowhere to be seen, having been replaced by razors, combs and hairspray. This South Bronx business may house a recording studio in the back, but it is a typical barbershop in the front. Peña sees nothing unusual about this combination.

“It’s only strange because it’s never been done before,” he said.

The barbershop provides most of the money essential to keeping Cut Zone Entertainment alive, but Peña’s passion lies almost entirely in the backroom. As someone who grew up in Forest Houses alongside Fat Joe, a successful rapper whose song “Lean Back” hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the summer of 2004, music has always been a significant part of his life. He hopes to use Cut Zone as a way to turn this passion into a career and give residents of his old development a chance at the big time.

“There’s a lot of talent in Forest Houses,” said Peña. “All we need is that one shot. Hopefully, God’s going to give it to us.”

Peña was born in Puerto Rico but has lived in the South Bronx for all but the first six months of his life, most of them in Forest Houses. The development would be his home for over 30 years. Although he speaks fondly of his childhood, it did not take long for tragedy to find him.

When Peña was 8, his baseball team was playing in the Little League championship game on a sunny July day. The park was packed with people from all over the neighborhood who came to watch, regardless of whether or not they had a child playing. Peña’s team did not win, but the game took a far more sorrowful turn for him when a brawl broke out over a table of food that had been set up for the winning team. During the fight, a man fatally stabbed his father, Hector Manuel Peña Sr.

“I went straight from the championship game to Lincoln Hospital,” Peña said. “He died in the ER."

Peña’s mother Leonora Peña Rivera still managed to keep the household together for Peña, his older sister Margaret, and his younger brother Edward. Their apartment quickly earned a reputation among other Forest residents as a friendly, welcoming place.

“That household was definitely packed with a lot of good people,” said Dwayne Rose, who was born in Forest Houses in 1987. “Hector was like an uncle to me. If I needed anything, Hector was always there.”

Peña became especially close to Danny Alvarez, who came to Forest Houses from Puerto Rico as a teenager in 1985. He met the Peñas shortly after his move and soon came to view their apartment as a second home.

“Hector’s like my little brother,” said Alvarez. “His mom used to wake up and make me breakfast. Everybody on the block used to hang out at Hec’s house.”
But Peña started heading down a rougher path during his high school years. He tried to find a job but didn’t have any luck, and, after seeing the money several of his peers were making from selling drugs, he decided he should try dealing as well.

“I’m not happy about it,” Peña says now, “but I did it.”

Alvarez was also getting involved with the drug trade at this point. Then, in the early 1990s, Alvarez was sentenced to six months in prison for selling drugs to an undercover police officer, and Peña was sentenced to five years probation on drug and assault charges.

Both managed to avoid repeat offenses. Alvarez credits New York State’s Shock Incarceration program, which provides young offenders with relatively short sentences, militaristic discipline, substance abuse treatment and education while in prison. Peña credits his two children, who were born the same year he was sentenced to probation.

“My kids were my turnaround,” said Peña. “If I’m in jail, who’s going to take care of them?”

Alvarez and Peña both held down a variety of jobs after their sentences. Among others, Alvarez sold cars and worked construction, and Peña worked for a moving company and as a medical assistant, the latter after earning an associate degree from Mandl College.

Their friendship took a fortuitous turn in 2007, when Alvarez won $75,000 in the New York State lottery. He decided to use the winnings to buy a barbershop at East 152nd Street and Melrose Avenue, which he named Cut Zone. In the basement, he decided to build a recording studio. After all, he figured, if Fat Joe could come out of Forest Houses, so could the next great rapper.

“There’s a lot of talent around here, so why not do that?” he asked. “I still think that somebody from the neighborhood is going to come in and be the star of the century. If we made one, we can make another.”

This first recording studio, however, did not last long. Because the basement was only supposed to be used for storage, the city fined Alvarez and forced him to demolish it after about a year and a half after its construction.

In spite of the fine, Cut Zone was still consistently making money, especially after Alvarez brought Peña in to watch over the store when he took a trip to Puerto Rico to visit his family.

“Since that day on,” Alvarez said, referring to the day he returned from Puerto Rico, “the store is running perfectly."

Alvarez soon had enough money saved up to start a second location, which opened in October 2010. There would be two main differences with this one: Peña would be part owner based on his help with the first store, and the recording studio would be aboveground and legal.

Peña was not very involved with the recording studio in Alvarez’s first barbershop, but he has jumped into his role as part owner of Cut Zone Entertainment with gusto. The label officially launched earlier in 2011 and currently relies on online media to distribute its music. It has a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account, and it recently uploaded Sunshine’s song “Downfall” onto YouTube.

“Thank God for the Internet,” Peña said.

Cut Zone has yet to find its big star. Nevertheless, Peña is optimistic about the future of the company and thrilled to be working in the music business. It has been one of his loves since childhood, and, like Alvarez, he knew Fat Joe growing up and even attended some of his meetings with producers and record labels. However, Peña has never viewed music as a way to escape Forest Houses. For him, it was and remains something fun that helps get him through hard times.

“To me, it wasn’t getting out of the projects,” he said. “It’s not [about] the projects. It’s [about] what you do when you’re living in the projects.”

Peña has too much he wants to do in his old neighborhood to leave, anyway. In addition to helping Cut Zone Entertainment find a star, he would also like to open a 24-hour batting cage, a domed soccer field, and a “huge” computer lab.

“I would do it if I had the money,” he said. “Why not?”

 

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Hector Peña, Jr.