Hip-hop, Tejas

Latinos take on rap music and make it their own

And over the last few years, hip-hop has become the new pop -- the only music that is thriving and growing and spitting out new subgenres. There's screw -- the slowed-down, codeine-drenched rap concocted here in town by the late DJ Screw. And then there's the red-hot Atlanta-based style called crunk, as practiced by people like Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boyz, the Ying Yang Twins and the Youngbloodz. Crunk is to hip-hop as heavy metal is to rock, a stripped-down, back-to-basics elemental music complete with pulverizing beats, morbidly obese keyboard riffs, and lyrics that are screamed and not spoken -- it sounds like a backsliding Blind Willie Johnson fronting Kool & the Gang on crack.

Today, virtually all commercial rock sounds like it comes from the same place: a generic suburban wasteland somewhere out in Southern California. By contrast, commercial rap celebrates regionalism. Ears that are only slightly trained can often tell not only the difference between East and West Coast hip-hop, but also what separates an Atlanta record from a Houston record. Nappy Roots celebrate life in semi-rural Kentucky. St. Louis rappers Chingy and Nelly have made the nasal, r-heavy accent of the black sections of that city trendy. New Orleans rap mogul Master P's new single is driven by a tuba, the staple of the Crescent City's brass bands. Other acts sprinkle in Middle Eastern and Latin beats. 50 Cent's new single "P.I.M.P." has a Caribbean steel band playing the hook, and other current hits even have hooks that sound like classical music. And this is just the stuff you hear on the major FM stations. Look elsewhere, and in addition to the pop mainstream, you'll find that now there's a hip-hop avant-garde, classicists and a thriving underground.

After decades of premature pronouncements, rock may just really be dead this time around, at least as a living, breathing, forward-looking musical genre. Take a spin around the rock dial. There's the so-called alternative rock on the Buzz, which sounds as stale and mainstream and as unable to shock, offend or thrill as the bands of the late hair-metal era that were swept aside as the offal they were by Kurt Cobain and the grunge movement.

The old guard: Jumpin' Jess Rodriguez (shown with 
partner Boogieman) thinks hip-hop is the Motown of 
the new generation.
Daniel Kramer
The old guard: Jumpin' Jess Rodriguez (shown with partner Boogieman) thinks hip-hop is the Motown of the new generation.
Rodriguez (left) with Selena and a friend. The DJ 
believes the singer's death helped spur hip-hop's 
Courtesy of Jumpin' Jess Rodriguez
Rodriguez (left) with Selena and a friend. The DJ believes the singer's death helped spur hip-hop's popularity.

Meanwhile, even the hippest and coolest rock bands of the day -- the likes of the Strokes and the Darkness, the Kings of Leon and the Rapture -- all blatantly recycle past trends, both in their music and in their styles. One minute the small-b buzz bands are recycling the psychedelia of 1968; the next minute the blues-derived pre-metal of 1973 is the vibe du jour. Some young bands even unironically pay homage to bands such as Foghat and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Nostalgia can take you only so far.

Meanwhile, mainstream country is at its lowest commercial, popular and artistic ebb since the days when Beatlemania knocked it for a time off the radar. Likewise, boy bands are temporarily out of fashion, and the singing-and-dancing Barbie doll movement of Christina and Britney also has abated.

All of this is borne out in Houston's radio ratings. The No. 1 station plays regional Mexican music. After that, three of the next five highest-rating stations in Houston are either totally (the Party), predominantly (the Box) or significantly (KRBE) hip-hop. Houston's three country stations come in at eight, nine and 11. The Buzz is the highest-rated rock station at No. 10. Local rock institution KLOL has plummeted all the way down to No. 19, below such graveyards of song as KLDE, the oldies station, '80s-formatted the Point and the brain-dead classic rock played on the Arrow.

"What mainstream America is still trying not to comprehend is that hip-hop is pop music today," says Charles Chavez, the head of Houston-based Latium Entertainment and a power behind the current success of Latin rapper Baby Bash and singer Frankie J. "Recently, nine of the top ten singles were all hip-hop. How can that be on the pop charts and you still have people saying this isn't pop? 3 Doors Down and Matchbox 20 is pop music, so is hip-hop, because that same little blond girl from The Woodlands that likes those bands is also singing 50 Cent."

And now that Hispanics are the nation's most numerous minority, hip-hop is rapidly becoming Latinized. "Hispanics like hip-hop too, and just like any other people, they want to see their own people do it," Chavez says. "They get attracted to them easier. And that's something that a lot of the record companies just aren't aware of yet. To them, if you're gonna be a Latin artist, you're gonna shake your bon-bon, sing 'Bailamos.' Which is great -- those guys are pop superstars. But the Latin hip-hop community is not into Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias. They like Ja Rule and 50 Cent, Nelly and DMX."

So much so that there is now a Latin-run, Latin-owned hip-hop station in Houston. That's why the Box sponsored Los Magnificos -- it was a bid to win back the Hispanic audience it lost since the Party, FM 104.9 on your dial, came on the scene. And this Party's not gonna be over for a long, long time.

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