A gringo-friendly guide to new school cumbia by DJ Juan Data (to be read after this first article).
A lot has happened since that D-Day—as we labeled it on this blog that March 9th 2008, right after the first performance of Zizek’s artists on San Francisco’s Mezzanine’s stage.
If 2007 was the year of the cumbia crossover to the Anglo market (thanks in big part to Up, Bustle & Out’s influential “The Mexican Sessions”), 2008 was the year of the consolidation, proliferation and expansion of something like a neo-cumbia scene in the United States. Even though the US movement had its first manifestations in Los Angeles, back in 2005 with neo-cumbia pioneers Chico Sonido and Mexican Dubwiser, in 2008 San Francisco became the new epicenter of the phenomenon that quickly spread coast-to-coast.
Oro11 and Disco Shawn’s record label (Bersa Discos) and monthly parties (Tormenta Tropical) were a huge success and placed them as the two ambassadors of this hybrid genre to a whole new audience: urban American global-music-seeking hipsters. Thanks to their excellent marketing skills they received more media exposure than anybody else in the scene during the year that just passed, and in a matter of months they went from playing underground gigs for their buddies to booking major international acts (Buraka Som Sistema) to perform at their parties.
For a while it seemed that San Francisco was going to transform into the cumbia capital of the nation when all of a sudden everybody and their mothers started promoting monthly or weekly cumbia parties, but (with the exception of the well-established El Superrritmo) Tormenta Tropical was the only one that thrived and consistently grew, even branching out to Los Angeles by the end of ’08.
However it’s my obligation to mention that way before Tormenta Tropical and the arrival of Oro11 to the Bay Area, the San Francisco neo-cumbia scene was already in gestation at the infamous after-hours Mission spot Balazo, recently renamed SubMission. It was there were every weekend night for the last couple of years, adventurous local DJ’s (including myself) started experimenting with the first cumbia mash-ups on a crowded dancefloor that mixed artsy-fartsy gringo hipsters with punkrockers and cosmopolatinos.
Prehistory of neo-cumbia from the real dirty south.
Let’s rewind a little bit and try to go back to the source of the phenomenon. The connection of cumbia and hip-hop culture, fundamental to the birth of neo-cumbia, is actually nothing new. Many parallels between both genres had been traced by music aficionados and pseudo-sociological studies since I have memory. I remember back in the nineties in Argentina when I was the first journalist to focus on the then-barely-emerging hip-hop scene, the comparisons between cumbia and hip-hop were already present in my chats with every other incipient MC.
The thing is, cumbia was the most popular music in the ghettos (shanty towns, projects and marginal working-class suburban neighborhoods) but there wasn’t an underground culture associated with cumbia yet, all cumbia was romantic and commercial (actually closer to teen R&B than rap). So, rappers back then used to joke around about the fact that “the real gangstas here don’t listen to rap, they listen to cumbia” and they amused themselves calling La Mona Jímenez “the Argentine James Brown” (Rodrigo was “the Argentine 2Pac” and Los Auténticos Decadentes were “the Argentine Beastie Boys” according to an article published back then by Pagina/12). But nobody had the guts yet to actually build a bridge between the two genres.
Actually, you know what, scratch that. Way before them, during the first cumbia craze in 1989, right at the start of the Menem’s era, there was a group called Cumbiatronic and a series of compilation CD’s called Tropitronic with proto-neo-cumbia remixes of the cumbia’s first wave hits. However both had little to no actual connection with real hip-hop and were much more influenced by the euro-dance version of hip-house (both names made clear reference to Belgium’s Technotronic) so they lacked of the oh-so-necessary street cred.
Typically, cumbia was an assembly-line type of music, marketed for the masses and controlled by a handful of puppet-masters who left almost no room for any actual artistic expression to the performers, so hip-hoppers (like everybody else in the underground) used to look down on the Colombian import. While hip-hop was aiming upwards from the streets trying in vain to reach a media that never paid them any attention, cumbia was the absolute opposite, coming down from the mass media and marketing offices of monopolistic labels to seize control of the streets.
It wasn’t until the very late 90’s when cumbia actually started getting some street cred with the arrival of the first cumbia villera groups: Guachín and Flor de Piedra. Later in 2000 the visionary Pablo Lescano and his group Damas Gratis stepped into the scene and the cumbia villera revolution officially kicked off. Nothing was ever the same again. Cumbia villera had even more street credibility than most rappers and wannabe gangsters in Argentina ever dreamed of.
When tracing back the roots of the current neo-cumbia movement, it is during that period that we start finding the first intents of merging cumbia and hip-hop. Because the most approximately accurate definition of neo-cumbia could be this: the appropriation and/or reinterpretation of cumbia sounds from a hip-hop (meaning music recycling through cut-and-past of samples and loops) perspective.
Hence, Bajo Palabra was not neo-cumbia yet. Sure, they were respected rappers in the underground hip-hop scene and had street-cred and gangsta reputation, but when they tried to bring rap and cumbia together, they did it with the (wacky) beats provided by a classic cumbia producer, and under the direction of a manipulative classic cumbia manager with dubious artistic accomplishments (and by classic cumbia here I don’t mean traditional Colombian instrumental cumbia but the typical commercial Argentinean cumbia of the 90’s which production relied almost entirely on synth-keyboards).
Neo-cumbia didn’t start in Argentina until after the 2001 crisis, when local DJ’s and producers started sampling cumbia in their PC’s and sequencing them on Fruityloops. Nevertheless, the top producers of that generation, El Hijo De La Cumbia and DJ Negro, both agree on pointing at DJ Taz as the undeniable local pioneer of this hybrid-genre and his classic '99 “La Danza Del Tablón” as the foundational track of Argentine neo-cumbia.
One upon a time in Mexico.
“‘Cumbia sobre el río’ was the song that started it all,” told me Toy Selectah in an interview we did the day after his performance at Tormenta Tropical in San Francisco, along with Chico Sonido. Celso Piña was the biggest name in Mexican cumbia but he hadn’t crossed over to the mainstream until 2001 when the groundbreaking Barrio Bravo was released. It was for that album (which can be found in the jukebox of virtually every taquería) that the traditional accordionist teamed up with Toy and Pato from the pioneering hip-hop group Control Machete and together with Blanquito Man from King Chango recorded “Cumbia sobre el río.” The first cumbia song ever to go on rotation in latin MTV, the song that is to cumbia what Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” was to hip-hop: crossover.
Toy was ahead of his time. I remember I talked to him around that time and he told me about his interest in this connection between hip-hop and cumbia but I didn’t give it much importance at the moment. What came to my mind was Ozomatli’s “Cumbia de los muertos,” a cumbia song that thanks to having Jurassic 5’s MC Chali2Na on it, was played by many strictly-hip-hop DJ’s world wide. “Cumbia sobre el río” went way further, it wasn’t just a cumbia song with a guest rapper dropping sixteen bars, it had a strong hip-hop baseline and a killer beat.
“That was the foundational song of the new cumbia,” explains Toy, “It was a very significant song because it had the roots foundations of traditional cumbia together with hip-hop and reggae. And it was a massive success. Even Pablo (Lescano, from Damas Gratis) says that’s the song that started it all. That was when everybody started adding powerful baselines to cumbia beats.” That song was later included in plenty of those cumbia compilations with girls in bikinis on their covers and also in Babel's soundtrack.
Thanks to "Cumbia Sobre el Río", Sonidero Nacional was born. Sonidero Nacional has been since then a constantly morphing collective headed by Toy Selectah dedicated to deliver powerful cumbia remixes of mainstream pop songs (by the likes of Shakira, Juanes, Julieta Venegas, Don Omar, etc). Toy coined the name "cumbow" (cumbia with a reggaetón dembow beat) to define the style of this mixes that were distributed only to DJ's in MP3 format.
Sonidero Nacional could’ve been the greatest super-group of all the cumbia new school but at the time Toy Selectah was going through major changes in his life: he broke up Control Machete and became A&R of Machete Music, a Universal Records subsidiary originally focus on developing Latino urban music in the US. That same year, 2004, thanks to Pitbull’s “Culo” and Daddy Yankee’s “La Gasolina” reggaetón became the new Latin music mainstream and Toy was right there working with the biggest players in the reggaetón game.
The Myspace Effect.
While Toy was too busy with the mainstream, that seed that he planted with “Cumbia sobre el río” started to give fruits all across Latin America and the US. Neo-cumbia was in its primary development stages, there wasn’t a scene, record labels or clubs yet but there was a virtual networking website that captivated teenager and indie artists world wide: myspace.com
“It was when we all started to get deep into myspace,” according to Toy, that this new generation of underground cumbia producers started to pop up and connect between eachother. Sonido Martines and Villa Diamante were the first ones I remember seeing online from Argentina, while Sonido Changorama and Sistema Local where simultaneously pioneering the scene in Mexico.
It was during that period that I did an interview with the Bristol group Up, Bustle & Out who at the time were promoting the release of their album City Breakers. I was a huge fan of UB&O since the Master Sessions albums they made in Cuba and I was always interested in the way they portrayed traditional Latin music from a British DJ perspective. But City Breakers didn’t have almost any Latin music elements in it, it was more focused on Jamaican reggae and dub so I remember asking them if the had plans to do any other experimenting with Latin beats and that’s when I first heard of The Mexican Sessions. They told me they teamed up with Toy Selectah and Sistema Local in Mexico for some amazing cumbia jams. I was shocked and fascinated with the idea and I couldn't wait to hear the results. The album didn’t come out until 2007 and if you ask me, that’s was the first neo-cumbia official full length release.
Before that however, in 2005, Chico Sonido, from Sistema Local moved from Mexico to Los Angeles and that’s the date remember by Toy Selectah, who at the time also lived in LA, of the official birth of the neo-cumbia as an actual scene: when they released in vinyl the first and only Sistema Local record that included cumbia mash-ups of Kelis’ “My Milkshake” and Missy Elliot “Get your Freak On”.
Something else happened in 2005 -besides the Myspace phenomenon- that would reshape music forever: M.I.A.
The London-via-Sri-Lanka petite talented singer brought a whole new paradigm to music globalization making third-world formerly cheesy genres cool for the consumption of first-world young hipsters, thus paving the way for the neo-cumbia invasion. Toy Selectah was in New York for the first show of M.I.A. and it was there, that in the backstage he first met who was her DJ and then boyfriend, Diplo.
Later that night Toy and Diplo met again at M.I.A.’s hotel room and they exchanged some tracks. “I took my whole hard-drive full of instrumentals and acapellas and when he heard that he started e-mailing me like crazy,” says Toy. That was Diplo’s introduction to cumbia.
Next stop: Buenos Aires. “I took Diplo to Zizek,” remembers Toy, in reference to the first neo-cumbia nightclub of the Southern Cone where DJ’s and producers like El Remolón, Chancha Via Circuito and Oro11 (who was still living down there) where starting to make a name for themselves playing mostly for a crowd of curious foreigners visiting the Argentinean capital. Diplo then posted a blog and podcast about cumbia and all of a sudden hipsters and music snobs all over the first world were talking about this “new” Latin thing called cumbia.
In 2008, now long-gone from Machete Music (which mutated into a commercial top-40 crap label), Toy Selectah was formally invited to become part of the Mad Decent family; Diplo’s record label will be releasing Toy’s first solo album sometime in “early” 2009. Meanwhile Bersa Discos is also preparing a release of some Toy’s tracks, and in Mexico Universal Records should be about to drop a compilation CD with the remixes of Sonidero Nacional: the album that potentially will make neo-cumbia a massive thing capable of overthrowing reggaetón after more than four tedious years of tyranny over all Latin music. Amen.
IMPORTANT NOTE: There have been lots of other influential players in the development of cumbia's new school, many of them outside Argentina, Mexico and the USA. Like Sidestepper in Colombia and Señor Coconut in Germany for example. This article does not intent to be an absolute coverage of the scene and its history by any means so I apologize to all those that, due to my negligence and/or ignorance were left out.