Like many Mexicans who are thriving against the odds in the United States, Francisco Gomez cannot believe his good luck. Akwid, the rap duo featuring him and older brother Sergio, was in the Top 20 of the Billboard Latin album chart for dozens of weeks, and Proyecto Akwid was nominated in the Best Latin Rock Alternative Album category at the 46th annual Grammy Awards.
"It's hard to believe, even for us," says Francisco over the phone as he cruises through L.A. in his car. "To get this kind of support while trying to create a new genre is almost inexplicable." Akwid's music combines the basic patterns of hip-hop programming and traditional Mexican rhythms with the horn accents and percussion of northwestern Mexico's banda. The brothers write and produce their own hooks and lyrics, look like Kid Frost's little brothers, and sound like they're from a generation that grew up listening to Snoop Dogg and N.W.A alongside La Banda El Recodo. They even sample Mexican superstar and romantic crooner Juan Gabriel on the album's first single, the bombastic "No Hay Manera."
"A lot of things have happened in a few months," says Francisco, who accepts that Proyecto Akwid's 200,000-plus sales -- which certify it as platinum in the American Latin market -- also mean that there's a huge number of bootlegs being sold, too. At least the latter, more dubious distinction helps spread the word. "At a certain point, we'd heard that our album was also at the top of the piracy chart, which is not a lot of fun, because piracy is hurting us all. But it is inevitable," he adds, emphasizing his gratitude to "all those that are supporting us by buying legal CDs."
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Francisco believes the massive response to Proyecto Akwid has to do with its musical audacity. He doesn't want to give credit to the extensive publicity campaign that Akwid's record label, a division of the powerful media corporation Univision, may have waged on the group's behalf. "I think people like us [are successful] because we dare to do music without rules," he says. "We like to mix, and we put a lot of heart in what we do because we are for real."
They weren't looking for labels when they began working on the album in 2002. A friend of theirs, Nelson Mendoza, knew some people in the record industry and, after listening to some of the group's tracks, felt the urge to pass them on. "When Guillermo Santiso" -- Fonovisa Records veteran and founder of Headliners Records -- "heard the music and said, 'This is the next thing,' they came looking for us, and not the other way around," says Francisco. Proyecto Akwid was released in June 2003 on Santiso's Headliners Records and was distributed through Univision Records.
The members of Akwid are a lot like TV characters -- stereotypes of the Mexican man as the dominator of his household. Their Spanish lyrics are both explicit and rude, but not necessarily gangsta. "Some people have called us machistas, and some other names. All we have to say is that's the way we grew up, that's the way we are." He's talking about dealing with the aftereffects of songs like "Siempre Ausente," in which they warn their girlfriends about questioning their motives too much: "It's not your business where I've been / And where I'm going to be / It's not your business where I am / Don't ask who I'm with / Don't ask me who's her / Told you many times, I need a couple to be happy / I'm back now, you have me now, but not for long." And on and on.
Still, Akwid's lyrics are not as controversial as those of, say, Molotov's "Puto" ("Fag"). They could easily be interpreted as entertaining, if a little on the macho side. "We're having fun; we really like to go out with more than one girl, and all we're saying is 'Wait for your turn,' " laughs Francisco, who sounds like a teenager but refuses to reveal his exact age; he does acknowledge that he's in his mid-twenties, and that Sergio is two years older.
"A lot of people like the songs, and some don't like them but more than 200,000 people can't be that mad at us, don't you think?" asks Francisco. "We're only taking hip-hop's rhythm. Our lyrics aren't related to it -- we don't talk about gangs, or drugs, or nothing, just about funny things."
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It wasn't long ago that the Gomez brothers had a tough time selling even their friends on the mix of genres they were planning, which has since been tagged in the recording industry as "urban regional." Born in Michoacán, Mexico, the brothers immigrated with their family when they were three and five years old, respectively. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, the two symbolize a new era of bilingual Latinos: more inclined to communicate in English than Spanish, and more influenced in general by American culture, but heavily influenced by that of their native country as well.
Nine years ago, Akwid started performing under the name Juvenile Style and released two underground albums -- Time 2 Expand and Brewed in South Central -- on which they rapped in English. But around 2000 they switched to Spanish and changed the name of the group to a combination of their rap names, DJ AK (Francisco) and DJ Wikid (Sergio).
Before Proyecto Akwid put the group on the map in 2003, Akwid released an album called 2002 A.D. under the labels Banyan and 2-K Sounds. Neglected when it was first released, 2002 A.D. has since been repackaged; nine of its 21 songs were rereleased in February with new production and guest appearances from other L.A. rappers -- Dyablo, Seven and Mr. Sancho among them -- as part of a new CD called Hoy, Ayer and Forever.
When the brothers began singing and rapping in broken, slang-ridden Spanish, they went back to their roots and silenced the critics who once accused them of mimicking black music. Now they've done something more. They still rely heavily on hip-hop beats, but by incorporating Mexican horns and percussion, they have created a distinctly Chicano style of rap. "The place where we grew up helped us mold our personalities," says Francisco. To him, all Akwid is trying to do is to encourage young Mexicans to be themselves. "A lot of people are afraid of saying they're Mexican, or feel embarrassed to admit they're illegal" immigrants, he says. "By having fun, we're trying to tell them they're not alone in feeling those kind of things."