Tuesday, November 30, 2010

DJ LENGUA–Cruzando (Unicornio Discos, 2010)

I know I have already referred to Unicornio Discos often-overlooked relevance in neo-cumbia’s evolution in previous posts; but I had the feeling there was a need to fill the gap with the real history, as told by one of its founding members. So with the excuse of DJ Lengua’s new vinyl EP release, Cruzando, I met with him recently at a bar in Downtown, San Francisco for a long chat about what I consider to be neo-cumbia’s missing link: Unicornio Club.
Most of you haven’t heard of the new cumbia boom until late in 2007 when all of a sudden Up, Bustle & Out’s Mexican Sessions (along with other important releases from that same year, like Kumbia Queers’ debut Cumbia Nena, Calle 13’s single “Cumbia de los Aburridos” and Mad Decent’s Diplo visit to Argentina with its subsequent hugely influential blog post) put the genre in the map and made it an international phenomenon. 
I personally started following the crossover phenomenon a tiny bit before that, with the early pre-Zizek releases of El Remolón and Villa Diamante and, of course, Toy Selectah’s and Chico Sonido’s cumbia remixes and mash-ups done under the Sonidero Nacional and Sistema Local names, which I was mixing in my sets since 2006. But it wasn’t until 2008 that the idea of a new global scene started to materialize with the almost sychronized appearance of Bersa Discos and Zizek, that’s when I started writing those articles about the evolution of neo-cumbia. But somehow, I knew there was an invaluable missing piece in the puzzle, something that happened before I became aware of this phenomenon, that I wasn’t taking in account in my earlier articles.
You see, long before cumbia was adopted by the English-speaking hipsters, there was a bunch of Latino DJs with artistic sensibilities throwing cumbia-themed parties in the heart of hipsterdom San Francisco. It was called Unicornio Club.
Unicornio Club, the monthly party that would later morph into Unicornio Discos, the record label, started around 2001 “by this guy Luis (Illades), from Tijuana and my buddy (renown visual artist) Julio Cesar Morales. I jumped in around 2002 and Joe (Franko, a.k.a. Sonido Franko of El Supersonido) appeared around that same time,” says DJ Lengua who at that point would still go by his real name, Eamon Ore-Giron, name that he used to sign his first vinyl release: “it was a collaborative project with Julio Morales. That one is all based on Perez Prado’s music. Is all sample-based with freestyle type beats, you know, dancehall, electro and Perez Prado. It came out in red vinyl.”
Born in Tucson, Arizona of a Peruvian father and Irish mother, Eamon moved a lot around the world during his childhood. “I spent most of my life traveling, lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Lima, Peru, etc” Currently he’s an LA resident and active nightlife personality, hosting the successful all-vinyl cumbia night Más Éxitos, but he started DJing in San Francisco’s Mission District, where Unicornio was born.
- I was talking to Franko the other day and he said it was you who turned him into cumbia. He says you were the first one that he saw digging for old cumbia records.
- Nobody was digging cumbia back then. Franko was more into boogaloo, Latin funk, stuff like that. We would go down to DF- I used to go down every year to visit since I lived there in '93.
- Would you say your connection to cumbia started in DF with the Sonideros?
- Yeah, totally. In Peru I also listened to cumbias, but more of the cheesy pop cumbia, not like the cumbias costeñas that are more like wow!
- You weren’t exposed to Chicha while in Peru?
- No, yeah well, I had some exposure when I was a kid ‘cause my uncle listened to Los Destellos and Diablos Rojos and stuff like that and he gave me a lot of his records. But I heard it in passing, it wasn’t something that I was really into.
- So how did you start digging for cumbia records?
- Well, before cumbia, I collected a lot of funk and soul, a lot of Tex-Mex and stuff like that. When I started digging it was more like Latin funk, almost like lowrider type funk, you know what I mean? Like Los 7 Modernistas, they had those really weird soul type songs. And those random albums that look amazing and you put them on and it’s actually rancheras and then there’s one song that’s fucking awesome. A lot of cumbias came through that too. I used to collect some early reggaeton from the ‘90s in cassette tapes, back when I was in Peru. But I didn’t really started incorporating that into my music and until around 2000.
- Why did you turn your focus into cumbia?
- First, I used to collect CDs and in those bootleg MP3 CDs I bought in Lima, I found out about the deeper Peruvian cumbias. I asked my uncle about those records he used to have when I was a kid and he gave them to me in a big bag and that was it, that was the beginning! That was in ‘98. So, I started collecting around ‘98, 2000 and I remember going to Mexico City once with Franko and this guy Morelos, he’s a Sonidero, and he gave us a crazy deal on like boxes and boxes of records, and I remember I went through and I knew what I wanted. Franko was looking for all this Latin soul stuff and I was pulling out all the cumbias. And he was like, what is that? What are you grabbing? I was like, I want the fucking cumbias! He didn’t even- he wasn’t super hip to it. That was around 2001.
- What was it in cumbia that you found attractive at that point?
- I just really loved it. It just has such a soulful sound and there’s such a variety, you know?
- What about the cultural context of cumbia, the whole kitsch factor, did that attracted you too?
- Maybe... I don’t think so much the kitsch thing. I kinda took it on face value for what it was. There’s kind of a fascination in Mexico to use cumbia as a social agitation, a lot of artists do that, they dress up all naco and they try to make it into a funny thing.
- The irony...
- The irony! I get it but, to me, I personally can get that as a joke just once. I don’t need to keep seeing it over and over. But I’m also not the opposite, like those who consider cumbia sacred. I love Dick el Demasiado and that kind of avant-guard artist approach to cumbia; but to me it’s more like it touched me in a deeper way. So I never felt about it in an ironic way. I just wanted to use it as a way to explore rhythm.
- At that point, did you ever imagine that cumbia would end up crossing over to the gringo hipsters?
- No, never! When we did Unicornio (the party) it was all latinos. Colombians would should up with their hats and they were kinda astounded that they found a place that played good cumbias, the really deep costeñas stuff. Mexicans, Salvadoreans, all the people in the Mission that would come were latinos and it’d get packed. It was cool to have a party for a Latino audience that wasn’t about the typical thing, the salsa where you have to dress fancy and have good dance moves. Just fucking having fun, you know?
- And when did you start noticing the cross over phenomenon?
- It wasn’t until I saw Bersa Discos when they started doing their thing (at the end of 2007) that I realized it had more of a club potential, it could be placed into a club context. It was also very disorienting because a lot of the music they were playing as cumbia from like Zizek in Argentina, to me it was like, that’s cumbia? One thing that’s interesting is that we didn’t get any media attention. Nobody ever interviewed us when we were doing the club for years, 7 years and nobody reached us because it was only the paisanos that’d come. Once it became a hit, then all of a sudden it was like “oh! Who are these guys?”
- It’s like Bersa Discos showed up one day and they had all the media buzz. Their first Tormenta Tropical party was featured on SF Weekly with a full-page article!
- Oh yeah! It was like all of a sudden “Cumbia is here!” It is fucked up in some way but I also respect them, I like Gavin (a.k.a. Oro11) a lot, he’s a really good guy and he’s just doing his thing and I totally respect it. And we wanna collaborate at some point. But we come from a slightly different angle. We’re more coming from the traditional cumbia-meets sonidero-meets hip-hop. And they’re more into some club, Baltimore, bass sound, which I can dig, but I don’t go ape-shit about.
Right about the same time everybody started going crazy for cumbia, Unicornio DJ’s decided to call the quits and focus into producing and releasing new music. DJ Lengua’s self-titled debut was the label’s first release, followed by other releases by DJ Roger Más and Chicano Batman. Cruzando is Lengua’s second release under that name and it’s a collection of seven instrumental tracks where he merges minimalist cumbia samples with traditional funky break beats.
“Originally, with Unicornio we thought of doing reissues,” remembers Lengua, “but then we saw that Barbés were doing that already, and also SoundWay and Vampi Soul. And we didn’t really want to go down that route. As much as I’d like to do some reissues, and we might do it in the future, but we wanted to kinda bring new life in a way.
How did the transition from party to label happened and why?      
- When we got tired of doing the club thing, we said "let’s morph this into a record label and put out shit that we love". We’re friends with the Nuevos Ricos guys in DF, Silverio, María Daniela, and so we were inspired by their label. “Hey, we should fucking do a label and put out all this shit that doesn’t get exposure out here.”
Going into your new release, why did you name it Cruzando?
One thing that was really important for us when creating Unicornio with Joe (Franko) was that we wanted to put out vinyl that has art. Nowadays that’s such a rare thing, especially since we make them for no profit at all, it’s just about making a piece of art. I didn’t want to put an album out in a white label. There’s a lot of labor put into it and I also wanted to showcase my friend’s art. Julio Morales is from Tijuana, his artwork is all about the border and those type of issues are very important to us. I wanted the theme to be cruzando because to me it brings out ideas about crossing borders, but also crossing styles and crossfading in a mixer, as a DJ. So, it’s kinda like a metaphore for what we do in our life. 
- Being yourself a visual artist, why did you decide to have a piece by Julio instead of one of yours?
 Because I love his work, you know? And his pieces are so powerful. It’s all about ways that people smuggle themselves into the States, in a car-seat, inside of a speaker...
- When I saw you DJing I noticed you have a preference for 7 inch records which I share, can you explain to me what attracts you to this particular format?
- I love 7 inches! 45’s are harder to maneuver, you have less time to blend, but you also have like a schizophrenic format. You have two completely different songs on every 45—four different songs! Because the normal song at 45rpm and then the same song at 33rpm it’s a totally different beat. And you have a lot more flexibility with the pitch. I am a specialty DJ. I’m a DJ that late at night you wanna hang out and listen to. When you wanna trip-out and unwind and be like what the fuck is going on, that’s when I like to DJ. I’m not so much into the whole packed dance-floor, I mean, I do it, and I can do that, but I prefer to create a soundscape and try to get in into the subtleties of EQ’ing and filtering.
- Since you have a preference for 45’s why did your two releases on Unicornio have been on 12 inches?
- I want to, and I don’t wanna give out much of a secret, but I really wanna play with the format of 45 and the idea of the pitch so there will be stuff for sure.     
- I noticed that one of the things that distinguishes you from the majority of the neo-cumbia producers is that you use a lot of funky breaks. Where does that come from?
- Yeah. I think that because cumbia has the emphasis on the up note, when you throw in the down note (from a funk drum) it really creates this whole new thing, you know? It’s kinda like the perfect blend between American music and Latin American music. Every once in a while, back in the day, they used to do that like on the Cumbia en Moog’s “Cumbia de sal”. Nobody else really utilized that again.
- Do you get the funky breaks from Latin funk too?
-  Some of them, yeah. Some of them I got from Los 7 Modernistas’ album, Los Yakis, Los Angeles Negros, some of those have a lot of amazing drums. I use a lot of Leo Dan too.
- Yeah, I noticed a lot of your samples are not from cumbia at all, like boleros and stuff like that and you make them into cumbias.
- Yeah, yeah. In my album there’s a lot of cumbia but there’s also a lot of soul, hip-hop... to me it’s like I love cumbia but I don’t see that as my only thing.
- Now, I have to ask you this. Out of the seven tracks of the EP, six of them are exactly 100 BPM. Do you have an especial predilection for this tempo or what?
- (Laughs) I know, I know!
- Is it because it’s easier to blend them with one another?
- Actually it is easier. But no, it’s like around there all the music that I like, cumbia, hip-hop and electronica, it tends to be at that bpm. I think maybe it’s right in the middle, between 120 and 90... or 110 and 90 (laughs)!

DJ Lengua's Cruzando will be available soon for purchase through Discos Unicornios. Stay tuned!

Monday, November 29, 2010

CALLE 13-Entren Los Que Quieran (Sony, 2010)

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Calle 13 for Remezcla (yeah I've been writing there a lot recently, that's why this blog's been a bit abandoned) and the motherfuckers of the label didn't send advance copies of the album to the media so I wasn't able to formulate all the questions that I have now, after listening to it.
Of course, the label was scared of it leaking. Even Visitante during the interview told me, "you'll find it bootlegged all over the Internet the day after it comes out" and he was right, I stumbled upon it without actually being looking for it. He didn't seem to care about it. These guys seem to be quite pissed off with their record label anyway, this is the last record with them under contract and on the album's intro (one of the best album intros ever produced, I have to say) they talk shit about their label in ways I've never heard before. Like them or not, you gotta give it to them, they have balls and I'll always admire them for that.
But I didn't always admire Calle 13. I remember I totally dismissed them back in 2006 when they came out. They offered me a sit-down interview with them and I refused it because I thought "what am I gonna ask to this douche-bag looking guy with funny hair from fucking Puerto Rico?" and I made the same mistake a lot of other people made: putting them in the same box of all the retarded reggaetoneros. I've never been to the island, but in my imagination, considering the ridiculous amounts of disposable boriqua music that gets exported and the popularity of eyebrow plucking among straight (yeah right!) men, the collective brain power of all Puerto Rico was comparable to that of the cast of Jersey Shore. What intelligent question could this guy answer?
Needless to say, I was wrong. He was way smarter than I expected. Smarter than me and also smarter than all the other purist hip-hop MC's that I admired and defended to death as the best lyricists. Oh yeah, I was wrong. But it didn't take me a lot to realize it. As soon as I actually listened to their debut album for the first time I knew it. This guy can actually rhyme, he has perfect flow and better punch-lines than all those purists put together. He just doesn't get the hip-hop credibility that he deserves because he did a handful of reggaeton hits (god forbid!) back in his beginnings and because he rhymes over beats that are too catchy, too "alternative" and too "Latin" whatever those two things mean, for the orthodox hip-hop heads who still try to emulate Wu-Tang's RZA productions 15 years later.
I'm a reformed orthodox b-boy and now I'm able to give full credit to Calle 13 for being the bestest of the best and for being the most significant thing to happen to Spanish-speaking rap--I mean Spanish language music, in the past decade. Because they did what we all were trying to do and nobody could. They proved to the narrow-minded Latin American mainstream audience (and record label execs) that good rap can be amusing, accessible and dancy at the same time of being full of wisdom and cleverly written lines, (and it could sell by the millions!).
I remember myself back then in the pre-Calle13 era, trying to convert Latin rockeros, trying to get them to sit down and listen to 16 bars of a clever rhymer "you'll see how amazing the lyrics are when you actually pay close attention to them." But it was futile, because in most cases, the smart rhymes came framed on boring-ass repetitive minimalist down-tempo beats. Because they (or should I say we) were all making rap for the exclusive appreciation of an elite of connaisseurs, they (we) were making rap for other rappers and aspiring rappers to listen to. Then Calle 13 came out and it changed it all, making rap so good that my mother could appreciate its goodness without the need of taking a course in hip-hop appreciation and the four elements...
So Calle 13 proved that rap could be good while accessible and proved, at least to me, that there was some intellectual power in Puerto Rico. So now I wonder, why after 4 years of absolute supremacy they still haven't influenced the rest of the scene for good? Why all the reggaetoneros keep making kindergarten-level rhymes and all the "real" rappers keep trying to make J Dilla-style beats? Where is the new school of Calle 13-inspired microphone controllers? How long do we have to wait until they replace the current status-quo of urban radio?