All my friends know the low rider / The low rider is a little higher / The low rider drives a little slower / Low rider, is a real goer. -- War, "Low Rider"
Inside the giant convention hall at Reliant Center, under a sickly amber-colored fluorescent light, lies an ocean of Houston street culture -- the Los Magnificos Car Show, a sea of chrome, paint, smoke and steel all set to a throbbing hip-hop soundtrack.
At one end of the vast room there's a huge stage, where the likes of local legends Big Moe, Slim Thug and Baby Bash, and national heavy hitters such as Ludacris and Chingy will take the stage over the course of a long afternoon and evening, while at the other end there's another stage where the underground up-and-comers perform in front of friends and family.
In between, there are literally acres of low-riders. To walk from one end of the room to the other takes about half an hour, and you feel as overstimulated as a sugared-up two-year-old on his first trip to Chuck E. Cheese's. There are modern low-riders -- tricked-out Lexuses and SUVs. Then there are the classics -- everything from 1980s Broughams to 1940s Chevys, complete with plush velvet interiors and Mexican flags dangling from the rearview mirrors. It's not just a Hispanic thing, though -- for there is Scarface's custom 30-foot Hummer and the Rap-A-Lot RV.
There's also a big section of chromed-out bicycles -- the winner was a royal blue and bright yellow homage to the comic book character Wolverine -- and even a few bling-bling tricycles. Every so often, a cloud of dry-ice smoke billows forth to enshroud the rides.
Lining the sides of the room are dozens of hip-hop music industry booths -- all the big local labels like Rap-A-Lot and Dope House are there, often with bikini-clad girls handing out flyers. Then there are the other, less glamorous industry folks: tape duplicators, CD pressers, graphic artists and T-shirt designers. All of them have booming sound systems cranked to 11 and all of them are playing different beats -- it's the aural equivalent of drowning in hip-hop soup. At one such booth, an intense knot of kids gathers around a sound system, freestyling, eager to snatch the mike from one another and spit a few impromptu verses.
And everywhere there are people, virtually all of whom are black or Hispanic. While you see a few Hispanic dudes still wearing the brimmed hats of the classic low-rider, and a small clique of young cholos sporting vintage zoot suits, most of the men are clad in a bewildering and positively psychedelic array of sports throwback jerseys. Many have the braided hair made popular by ballers like Latrell Sprewell.
The older cats resurrect sports ghosts long forgotten -- it's like riffling through a bizarro edition of the complete set of Topps 1979 football cards. There's a short and Hispanic Philly Eagle No. 17 over there. Remember Harold Carmichael, the freakishly tall black guy who caught at least one pass in almost every game he played? That guy does. A solidly built black guy sports a black-and-yellow Franco Harris Steelers jersey -- in the very shadow of the Dome, it brings back some of the most unpleasant of Houston sports memories. Others exhume such design tragedies as the 1970s mustard-yellow and shit-brown San Diego Padres abominations, or the baby-blue and red Phillies unis worn by the likes of Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose, which also dredge up tragic recollections for Houstonians. One kid, who looks much too young to remember the era, is clad in a Phi Slama Jama Clyde Drexler model, autographed by the Glide himself.
And then there's the Astros regalia -- hands-down the most popular stuff going. There's a few orange rainbows, a scattering of the navy-blue hats, and literally dozens of variations on the theme that no Astro ever wore. There are green Astros shirts and yellow Astros shirts, pinstriped Astros hats and multicolored Astros hats.
There's what you would call a statistically insignificant number of white people in attendance. Hip-hop, throwbacks and cars have united two-thirds of the city. Houston's blacks and Mexican-Americans are having quite a party together, and when you're at the Los Magnificos Car Show, you know you're at the true cutting edge of our city's real culture. Black people gave the world rap. Mexican-Americans gave the world low-riders. The two go together like chocolate and peanut butter. And now each has taken the other's contribution and run with it -- the biologists would call it symbiosis. After all, the Los Magnificos Car Show was sponsored by the Box, an African-American hip-hop station.
We're in your country now and there's a lot of us. So watch out, 'cause now we're rappin', hijo su. -- Chingo Bling, "North Tamaulipas/Outside, Outside"
If you're wondering why the Box sponsored a low-rider show, or what hip-hop has to do with Mexican-American car culture, you've missed the revolution that has taken place in the last five to ten years. Latinos have become the largest minority in the United States, and Mexican-Americans make up two-thirds of all Latinos in the country, and 72 percent in Houston. (It's likely much higher -- 191,000 Houston Hispanics declared themselves "Hispanic -- Other" in the 2000 census, and it's far more likely that the vast majority of them are of Mexican origin rather than, say, Chilean or Cuban. Then there are the illegals, most of whom are also from Mexico and many if not most of whom didn't fill out census forms.)
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.
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.
Roll back about a dozen years. Back then, most Hispanic kids were into either Tejano or the darkest of dark metal -- bands like Slayer, Pantera and Metallica. Being a metal or Tejano fan was as much a part of Tex-Mex culture as listening to the brown-eyed soul of bands like Thee Midnighters remains a part of East L.A. culture.
"Back then, everybody wanted to wear jeans, Ropers and a cowboy hat," says Jumpin' Jess Rodriguez, a local concert promoter and oldies/Tejano DJ on the Internet radio station bnetradio.com. "Now they all want to look like [New York Puerto Rican rapper] Fat Joe."
The Box -- the first FM hip-hop station in Houston -- can claim the credit for some of this seismic shift in fashion. The Box started broadcasting in 1991. Already back then there were years of pent-up demand for a hip-hop station, but then there were still a bunch of people who were saying that hip-hop was just a fad and would soon be going the way of disco.
"When the Box came along, it was all Geto Boys and Fifth Ward Boyz," remembers Chavez. "Majic 102 had the Quiet Storm, the Box had the Thunder Storm. Hip-hop was becoming a culture, not just a type of music, and the Box took advantage of it. And back then, their listeners were a third black, a third white and a third Hispanic. People from Sugar Land to Fifth Ward were into the Box. And they still try to play records that everyone will like."
But now they have competition. Not only does pop station KRBE play about four hip-hop tunes out of every ten it spins, but now there's a Latin-run competitor in the Party. Unlike the Box, the Party plays no R&B. Unlike KRBE, the Party spins no ballads or pop songs. "Party 104 came on and said, 'We want to play the hip-hop records that Hispanics like,' " says Chavez.
"That was huge," says 24-year-old local Latin rapper H-Town Slim. "I flipped immediately because they were Mexicans, you know? I knew there was not gonna be so much R&B stuff. I can't stand a lot of that Top 40 R&B."
"You'd be surprised at how much the Box is trying to accommodate the Latino market," says Andres Garcia-Lopez, who owns a small studio with Slim called Broadway Recordings. "Now they have Hispanic DJs. And now they're sponsoring car shows. An African-American station and they're sponsoring Los Magnificos, a Mexican thing."
"When Selena died it seemed like none of the young kids wanted to listen to Tejano anymore," says Mark "Homie Marco" Arias, KPTY's program director and the station's man-about-town at local hip-hop clubs. "Their idol died, and they were looking for something. So our idea was to have a hip-hop station geared to Hispanics. We knew that hip-hop was the most popular music."
It's important to remember that it's a Latin-run hip-hop station, not a Latin hip-hop station. The playlist is dominated by the likes of Ludacris, 50 Cent and Chingy. "From doing our research we found out that not all of them like [West Coast Hispanic rappers] Lil' Rob or Mister Shadow, but that almost all of them liked Eminem, Dr. Dre and Jay-Z."
There is a noticeable Latin tinge to the Party's playlists, though. "When Fat Joe and Ashanti came out with their record, we blasted it," says Arias. "When Ja Rule and Jennifer Lopez came out with their song, we spun it first. We always looked out for the leaning Latin edge hip-hop records that were still mainstream. We knew KRBE would play 'em, we knew the Box would eventually play 'em, but we would be first. Baby Bash, Frankie J., Angelina, Amanda Perez -- she's No. 1 in Australia and Japan right now and we were the first to play her."
Chingo Bling, a 24-year-old rapper/ comedian who fuses norteño culture with that of Houston's wards, thinks the station is right not to play exclusively or even mostly Latin rap. "I think the way the Party is doing it is great. You couldn't force-feed a bunch of Latin rap -- Latins wouldn't even like it. You've got to know who you're talking to. If you're talking to Hispanics, I'm gonna give them what they want. I'm not necessarily gonna give them other young Hispanics. If they want to hear [black rapper] Big Moe, so be it. If they want to hear [black rapper] Slim Thug and Chingo Bling followed by some Amanda Perez and Beesh and then some more Slim Thug on top of that, so be it."
Arias says that their target is Hispanic females. They play the records that get the women in the clubs, which keeps their advertisers (often Latin-predominant hip-hop places like Coco Loco, the Perfect Rack and T-Town) happy. "We play hip-hop for everybody that loves hip-hop, so we hope everybody will come to the Party. But Hispanic females are our main target."
Then there's the on-air talent. Most but not all of the DJs are Hispanics and they are encouraged to throw in a little Spanglish. "We talk bilingual on the radio, we do things like 'Mañanitas in the Morning,' we do 'Fiesta Fridays.' Cinco de Mayo's a big celebration for our station. We're in the Martin Luther King Day Parade and everything, but Latin events are huge for us. And I think Hispanic kids can identify -- we're not as R&B as the Box, we're not as Top 40 as KRBE, we're right in the middle. And when Hispanic kids listen and they hear our DJs dropping a little bitty bit of bilingual stuff, they like it."
It's a lot like cable channel Mun2 (pronounced "moon-dose"), a Miami-based MTV-like channel that broadcasts mostly black and a few Latin hip-hop videos, all hosted by Spanglish-speaking Latino VJs. And Arias is right that the Hispanic kids like it. Since going on the air in 2001, and getting a new, amped-up signal in March of last year, the Party's ratings have tripled. Currently it's the No. 6 station in Houston, and its ratings have yet to go down.
I'm SPM you know my name / I'm the one that came about the dope game / I've paid my dues and kept my cool / I'm the one that told your kid to stay in school / I'm from the streets thank god for rap / I creep through my hood in the smoke gray 'llac -- South Park Mexican, "You Know My Name"
Even though he didn't make any CDs, Al Pacino's portrayal of Tony Montana in Scarface looms as large for hip-hop as Peter Fonda's portrayal of Captain America in Easy Rider did for hippie rockers, likely more so. Scarface is the starkest, most cynical telling of the American dream possible and a cautionary tale of how the means always gets you in the end, but every poor kid who watches it thinks of how they would have done things differently, how they would have stayed on top of the game.
And whether by emulation or mere coincidence, the rap game is not much different from the dope game. It's hard as hell to get to the top and harder still to stay there. It's all about getting as much as you can as fast as you can and fighting like hell to keep it. There are people who will rip you off at every turn and a few out there who would kill you in return for an insult.
The mob as portrayed in the movies -- be it Scarface's Cuban variety or the Italian one -- is hip-hop's guiding force. Houston's Latin rappers take up names like Juan Gotti and Lucky Luciano.
So a case can be made for Tony Montana's being as influential on rap as Grandmaster Flash, L.L. Cool J or Run-DMC. (A recent documentary included in the DVD edition of Scarface also makes this case.) There's Houston's Scarface, the elder statesman of Dirty South rap, and the breakthrough album of his former group the Geto Boys was positively encrusted with sound bites from the movie. Just as surely as you'll find a copy of the good book on a preacher's mantel, on every hip-hop-based episode of Cribs, you're sure to see a deluxe DVD edition of the flick in the entertainment center. And since Tony Montana was a Cuban immigrant, he has become something like the first and still the most influential Latin rapper, in terms of style if not grooves.
Just as Carlos Coy, a.k.a. South Park Mexican, was Houston's most important and influential real Latin rapper. SPM's rise and fall mirrored that of Montana so closely it seems almost intentional. Like Montana, Coy started from scratch, hustling in the streets. Coy claims to have dealt drugs and had a few brushes with death while in the dope game, just like Tony Montana. And like Montana, Coy had the strong work ethic and talent it took to found and run an empire. And as with Montana, the kingdom Coy created was undone by his personal demons -- both had sexual perversions that led directly to their undoing.
Unlike Montana, though, Coy can't be said to have gone down with guns blazing. His downfall -- a conviction on charges of sexual assault of a nine-year-old girl -- could hardly be seen as the sort that brought any street cred. Tupac and Biggie went out like gangstas, just like Tony Montana. Coy went out like a dirty old man.
Many of Pac's fans believe he faked his death. Similarly, many of Coy's fans refuse to believe in his guilt. "I thought he didn't do it," says one fan. "But I was afraid to tell people I thought he didn't do it, because lots of people thought he did. The 14-, 15-year-olds, yeah, I could see him doing that," he adds, referring to the other young girls who took the stand and said they had had sex with Coy. "Some girls that age look 18 or 19. But a nine-year-old? That sounds like a setup."
"One day you've got the entire world going for you and the next day you're behind bars," says another fan. "And for something stupid -- it wasn't like a drug charge. It's very embarrassing to have a sexual assault charge of a nine-year-old."
"He had so many local kids looking up to him," says the first fan.
And yet Coy's influence can still be felt on the scene. After all, it was SPM who first brought native Californian Baby Bash to town, and this year Bash's "Suga Suga" became the biggest non-Beyoncé/Destiny's Child hit out of Houston since Coy's day. And it's likely the connections that Coy made with suits at his former label, Universal Records, helped Bash get his deal with that company. What's more, he showed thousands of local Hispanic kids a whole new realm of possibility.
In five years, SPM went from high school dropout/crack dealer to rap mogul, written up by Newsweek and a mainstay on the Billboard charts. To the kids in Houston's barrios he was something more: He was a folk hero. He was signed to Universal, and he and his family also controlled their own local label, Dope House Records, with about a dozen hip-hop acts in the stable. And he did it all on his own terms.
"He was one of the ones who inspired me, who showed me that we could do it," says H-Town Slim. "This dude is Latino like me, he's from the same neighborhood as me, and if he could get a deal with Universal, then so could I."
"SPM got pretty far, and I'm not counting him out 'cause he will get out someday, but when he was making his big move, people really embraced that," says Chingo Bling. "People were like, 'We saw him come up, he's from my neighborhood, he raps about stuff we know and we like ' He was relevant. The stuff that's really relevant to us isn't [often] represented."
"It was a big deal how he set the tone," says Garcia-Lopez. "You could be Hispanic and be from Houston and be a rapper. He did a lot of things with a lot of people that nobody had done before. Yeah, there were rappers before him that were Mexican, but nobody got around as much as he did. You could go to a music store and see him guest-appearing on all kinds of albums. I won't say he broke doors down, but he really got his name out there."
Prior to the revelations about his sexual proclivities, even the older generation saw Coy as more of a force for good than evil. "I think he tried to be a positive figure," says Jumpin' Jess Rodriguez, the oldies/Tejano DJ and concert promoter, who adds that he used to play Coy's music on his radio shows. "When you sell that product, you've gotta go with that gangsta situation, talking about weed and girls and going out partying. But later on, some of his music did have a positive message. It was about going out and getting an education, being positive, fighting the fight and having respect for yourself. A lot of it did say to be proud of who you are And he also said that music was his new drug, which encouraged a lot of young people to want to get into music, which is a positive road."
While on the stand at his trial last year, SPM made a characteristically boastful statement in his defense that had most in the courtroom scoffing. "Y'all all credit [Mayor] Lee Brown with calming down the gang problem," he said. "I think y'all should thank South Park Mexican."
H-Town Slim, a former gangbanger himself, doesn't see it as being all that laughable a claim. "When SPM came out, gangbanging was still really popular, but when he got huge, the whole thing kinda died out. After SPM came out, every kid wanted to be a rapper, not a gangster."
But as popular and influential as Coy was here, he was never able to crack the market in California. Los Angeles is the Mexican-American New York and L.A. rolled into one, and until a Houston rapper makes it there, he hasn't made it anywhere, at least in the eyes of the major labels. And cracking that nut is not as easy as an Anglo might think. After all, Mexican-Americans are Mexican-Americans, right? Wrong.
As seen at Los Magnificos, blacks and Hispanics in Houston get along pretty well. Not so in parts of California. "In California the strife is real bad," says Chingo Bling. "I don't know if it's a cultural thing, but in Texas we just blend better. Northern California, [blacks and Hispanics] get along, but Southern California, phew. They do not mix. I've heard [San Diego Latin rapper] Lil' Rob interviewed, and people ask him, 'Why don't you use the N-word, and some of your peers do?' And he's like, 'Well, I'm not black, and we have our own slang.' I won't call it an old and traditional view, just kind of different. I think the prison system has something to do with it."
"Out there it's all about la raza and Brown Pride," says H-Town Slim. "There's just more Mexicans over there -- L.A. is more Mexican than Houston."
Slim believes that Houston is comparatively much more integrated. "Out there East L.A. is puro mexicano. But here, if you go over to the north side, like by Elysian and Hardy, where is the line between the black and Mexican neighborhoods? We share our cultures."
And Angeleno Hispanics and those from elsewhere see this cultural fusion as a sellout. "They're like, 'Those Texans think they're black,' " says Chingo Bling. "They call us brother-lovers."
And worse. There's the Mexican-Spanish "M-word," mayate. Bring it up to Chingo Bling and he sounds like every white Southerner who doesn't want to be branded a redneck. "I don't use that word, and nobody in my family uses that word," he says.
Garcia-Lopez has another one: naco. "A nigger taco," he says. That's what the Mexican-Americans in the Rio Grande Valley called him when he played some hip-hop on a boombox.
And even among the Hispanics in Southern California who do rap, there's a tendency to radicalism and militancy off-putting to many Texans. "There's still rappers out there that want to keep it brown, stay Chicano, stick to their raza and all that," says Chavez. "That's perfect. They've got to keep their niche and develop it. You just have to make sure that you can make a record that everyone is going to like."
"We go about it a different way than Californians," says Chingo Bling. "Out there, the rappers use a lot of different symbols: the Aztec calendar, their style of tattoos."
"California is still more into gangs," says Chavez. "The South is more into ballin'. We're past that. The East Coast is more philosophical -- they're into talking about education and making sure their race is treated like everybody else, which is great for them too, but here it's still all about 24s, pimpin' hos and all that stuff."
"We just mo' playa down here," sums up Chingo Bling.
Chavez is supremely disinterested in the Angeleno view of Texan Hispanics as "brother-lovers." "When they see us making money," he says of the Californians, "they'll say, 'I wish I was green like them.' "
For their part, many local Mexican-Americans resent the cultural imperialism that radiates out of East L.A. On the rare occasion that Hollywood or the networks acknowledge the fact that Mexican-Americans are now a full two-thirds of America's largest minority, the Big Media in Los Angeles presents the cholo life of the SoCal barrios as the one and only Mexican-American reality. "They look at us like we wanna be black, and we look at them and say, 'Man, them fools are straight outta movies,' " says Chingo Bling. "That's all we know, that's all we see."
On a Web site like brownpride.com, it's more of the same. More militancy, more radicalism, more talk of Aztlan and la raza. Though it purports to speak for all Hispanics, and especially Mexican-Americans, there's a definite California slant. "We go on there and we think, 'Damn, this is just a California thing,' " says Chingo Bling. "And then we look at TV and they all dress a certain way Probably the majority [in California] is like that."
There are also subtle variations on the theme in Texas. "It's hard to generalize even in Texas, because you've got El Paso and Odessa way out west, Amarillo way up northwest, and cities like San Antonio, that have a stronger, I guess, California feel," Chingo says. "You do see Aztec calendar shirts and hear people talking a little different. It feels like you're in Phoenix or Albuquerque or somewhere, just a little bit."
Not that Houston is a paragon of acceptance, either. There's a Latin rap syndicated radio show called Pocos Pero Locos that airs here on the Party. Pocos Pero Locos is California-based, its playlist Cali-dominated. "We're kinda closed-minded about it here," admits Chingo Bling. "We're like, 'Oh, man. Fuck that Cali shit. I can't jam to that. I wanna hear that dude up the block, I wanna listen to the people from here.' I hear that shit all the time, people just automatically not giving that stuff a chance."
Chingo adds that he believes things in California are changing, slowly but surely. "I've been out there and I've talked to tons of people who tell me they're tired of all the cholo stuff, the oldies [music] -- we're tired out of that. They like the new stuff, they like Jay-Z. Kinda like us, you know?"
And he sees the Pocos Pero Locos show and the success of someone like Bash -- a Californian with one foot in Texas and the other in his native state -- as vital keys to understanding. And then there is his own self. Chingo's act is not a fusion of Tejano and Dirty South hip-hop culture, but one of North Mexican and Dirty South hip-hop culture, and as such is much easier for all Mexican-Americans to deal with.
"The bridge is missing, but I think shows like Pocos Pero Locos are helping to bridge that gap. We're at least exposed to what's going on over there. We know who Lil' Rob is, we know who Mister Shadow is. And I think somebody like Beesh can help -- he's from California and he's bringing that Bay Area slang out here and mixin' it with the Texas stuff and taking it nationwide. With myself, people can relate to what I'm doing out there also. So I'm telling them, 'Hey, this is the words we use, this is how we feel.' When it comes down to it, we're probably not even that different. We all have pride, we're all like, 'Our town is better than yours.' "
Meanwhile, some blacks in Texas and elsewhere also resent the Hispanic incursions into their culture. There's the rap, the clothes, the fact that many Hispanic young men are sprouting braided hair. "That comes up all the time," says Chingo. "You hear comments from these [black] guys all the time like, 'Oh, these dudes getting braided up, they tryin' to be like us.' Our comeback is 'Y'all took our low-riders, so we can have the braids.' "
"What people overlook is that hip-hop was created by Latins and blacks in the Bronx," says Garcia-Lopez. "It wasn't just black people, it was also the Puerto Ricans."
"I wouldn't say they were trying to be Mexican, but every black dude in L.A. wears Dickeys, house shoes, the wife-beaters," says H-Town Slim. "You can listen to Dr. Dre records and they're all talking about those clothes, and that's straight-up Mexican stuff. And then there's the low-riders; Chuck Taylors were a Mexican thing. But no one ever talks about that -- they always talk about Mexicans trying to be black with the braids and the rapping and that stuff."
"They all eat tacos on the down-low, you know?" he adds. " 'Go on out to the sto' and go get me some tacos right quick!' "
(And there was War, the almost all-black L.A. band of the early and mid-'70s that sounded all-Hispanic. It was War that gave the world the still-cool, Latin-sounding tunes "Low-Rider," "Spill the Wine," "The World Is a Ghetto" and "The Cisco Kid.")
And whether they be black or Hispanic, whether they're from South Central or Fifth Ward or East L.A. or Harrisburg in Houston, they all get to deal with the Man, who is still a white guy. He's still pretty clueless, too. He hasn't realized the size of the English-speaking Hispanic market, though he's waking up to it a little now. After all, green is his favorite color, too.
"A lot of people see Hispanic stuff as not marketable," says H-Town Slim. "When they think Hispanic, they automatically think of someone who can't speak English, a wetback or something."
"Charro hats and margaritas ," puts in Garcia-Lopez.
"They don't think of an American, but that's really who we are," finishes Slim.
"Me, I want what's coming to me."
"What's coming to you?"
"The world, Chico, and everything in it." -- Tony Montana in Scarface
Proving that reality is a battle Charles Chavez fights every day. In a three-room office suite in a Sharpstown high-rise, the head of Latium Entertainment sits behind his desk, working the phones. A few feet away, his wife taps at a computer keyboard, and in the next room his brother and another assistant are hard at work. The walls are lined with photos of Charles Chavez with a gang sign-throwing Ice Cube, Charles Chavez with a smirking Clive Davis, Charles Chavez with stars and bigwigs all over the place. Through the windows, there's a panoramic view of downtown about ten miles distant, and the Southwest Freeway -- the proverbial two-way street to Mexico and back -- looks close enough to touch even though it's about a hundred feet below.
"I don't want to target Hispanics, I want to take Hispanics mainstream," he says.
And he's doing it. It was from this office that Chavez and his company helped launch Baby Bash and Frankie J. from scufflers on the Texas and California scenes to national names, presences near the very top of the Billboard charts and on to The Sharon Osbourne Show and to an upcoming Cleveland gig with Mr. White-Bread himself, Clay Aiken. A 30-day planner on the wall tells the tale of Bash's then-ongoing 30-city, 45-day tour, which took him from coast to coast and into Chicago.
"We're not turning our back on our people, we just want to grow so the next Frankie J. can come out," he says of the Mexican-American R&B crooner he represents. "We had problems with Frankie J. when he came out. He peaked at No. 4 on TRL, but then the record stores put his record in the Latin section. And he wasn't singing Latin music. If John Mayer was Irish, they wouldn't put him in the Irish section. That's something we're trying to overcome today. It's just marketing -- Frankie came from the Kumbia Kings, so it was just assumed that he was Latin even though he had a Top Ten pop record in the country."
Five years ago, when the Chavezes started up a record label, they gave it the name Latium Records. Latium was a contraction of "Latins going platinum." That dream may have seemed a little far-fetched then, but right now their dreams are this close to coming true. "Back then I was trying to find people I thought were talented, that we could mold into something," he says. "And I went broke.
"What I do now is invest in artists that are already ready. New artists bring me stuff all the time and I tell them to pay their dues and go make a hit record, and then look for someone like me."
Today, Chavez does radio promotions for L.A.-based Geffen Records. "Bash and Frankie brought me a hit record and I went and got it played," he says. "I told them I would get it played and then we would go get a deal." (Next in the pipeline: local rapper Gemini.)
Right now, Baby Bash and Frankie J. have made a hit record. The rapper and the singer brought it to him, and it worked just like he said. Chavez got it on the radio and both Bash and Frankie got record deals with major labels. Their rap-R&B duet "Suga Suga" rocketed to very close to the top of the charts. Many who heard it in places like Des Moines and Louisville probably never knew that the singers were a couple of Latin guys.
Chavez likes it that way. He's not looking for any affirmative action-style handouts. "There's Nelly, Eminem, 50 Cent," he says. "To me, a Latin rapper has to be just as good. It definitely has to start in the underground. You have to create a fan base, hone those skills. The biggest artists all started somewhere. The Latin people are gonna have to come to them first. From there, they can go on to become a mass-appeal artist. But in order to do that, they have to be just as good as everybody else. It's all about the song at the end of the day."
Well, that and a few other things. He's currently at loggerheads with Bash over an image thing. He wants the handsome Bash to take his shirt off on stage. Bash ain't havin' it.
"He's saying, 'Aw, come on, man, I'm hard.' I told him he would sell a million records. I'm trying to convince him, and he's trying to keep it real. 50 Cent don't have a hard time performing in a wife-beater."
("If he works out, he should do it," says Slim, when told of the idea. "50 Cent takes his shirt off. Most of his fan base is females. And it's like Tupac said: 'Rap to the bitches and you will sell records.' ")
Chavez sees "keeping it real" as three of the most harmful and misunderstood words in the music business. "I'll tell an artist in a second -- 'You want to keep it real, you'll just keep it real broke.' There's a way to make it where you can stay real. People talk about selling out -- yeah, those guys are selling out of record stores and that's what it's all about -- making good music that people like. When people say they want to keep it real, what they mean is that they want to keep making music their way, which is not a problem so long as people like it.
"Everybody that's changed music history has been somebody that's kept it real their way, but their way was good. Kurt Cobain kept it real, and he became a platinum-selling artist. The early rappers kept it real and they changed the game. But if nobody likes your music and nobody's coming to your concerts, guess what -- change your ways! Find something else real."
Chavez isn't interested in Latin rap or Latin rappers. For him, the only Latin rap is the stuff that is performed in Spanish, and the only Latin rappers were people like Coy. "I don't think Carlos wanted to cross over into the pop world. He wanted to stay true to his people, but I want my artists to become pop stars," he says. "It's a battle I have to face every day. Baby Bash is getting 9,000 spins a week and MTV's still not playing him. Do you think if he was either black or white they would play him?"
As it happens, hip-hop is thriving across the border. Mexican groups such as Molotov and Control Machete are legendary names on both sides of the Rio Grande, but increasingly, so are black American rappers such as Big Moe and Ludacris. The Beat -- the McAllen sister station to the Party -- can claim credit for that.
Chingo Bling's family is from northern Tamaulipas, well within earshot of McAllen radio. "There's this circulation of music and culture and all that stuff because it's so close to America," he says. "If you cruise out there on Saturday or Sunday night, half the cars have Texas plates, and you hear Lil' Troy, whatever's hot here in Houston. Hip-hop's the voice of the youth, and the Beat's signal reaches about an hour's drive into Mexico. The Beat's taking over."
So now hip-hop's making inroads on certain elements of the norteño market, much the same way norteño and hip-hop ganged up on and all but destroyed Tejano's presence on the radio. Jumpin' Jess Rodriguez is one who knows this all too well. Like Arias, Rodriguez sees the death of Selena as being vital to hip-hop's rise in popularity. He says that after Selena died, Tejano radio ratings flatlined. The playlists stagnated, and program directors at the stations -- most of which were bought and sold a few times in the '90s media consolidation boom -- thought the easiest way out of the rut was to tinker with the format. They started adding norteño tunes -- music from across the border -- in an effort to broaden the market. Tejano-norteño playlists pleased nobody -- neither the first-generation immigrants nor the Tejano fans whose families have been in Texas for decades or even several centuries.
"When the big corporate companies came in with all their research and the tight rotations and the same music that they're playing over and over again, then the young Hispanics and Tejanos tuned out," Rodriguez says. "My children grew up with Tejano, but after Selena and Emilio's heyday, radio stations didn't promote new artists. That prevented growth. Consultants like Bob Perry at KQQK started mixing in more norteño music because they thought the Mexican national market was bigger than the Tejano market."
Rodriguez says that idea only seems true. Mexican nationals are merely more apparent than Tejanos because they are more concentrated. "A lot of Tejanos are culturally assimilated. They're living in Clear Lake, Spring, The Woodlands and everywhere else. There are Tejano listeners out there, they just aren't coming out to the Saturday-night dances the way they used to. They're out there golfing, Boy Scouting, soccer and everything else, just like mainstream America."
Chingo Bling's family -- much more recent immigrants to America than Rodriguez -- are typical of many relative newcomers to America in that they never had much love for Tejano anyway. "I never did really like Tejano," he says. "That music was kind of annoying to me. And my whole family kinda feels that way. Culturally speaking, my family always looked at Tejano as music by people who were born here and grew up here. That's not a bad thing, but if you're not a Tejano it kind of stands out in your mind."
But for the English-speaking Hispanic kids out there, the way forward more often lies with hip-hop than with either norteño or Tejano, or with the ass-waggling rico suave lover-man stereotype of the Ricky Martins of the world. And now, thanks to people like South Park Mexican and Baby Bash and Frankie J., they see a way to make it big on their own terms. Even the joker Chingo Bling is part of the solution -- part of the method behind his madness is to help light the way, to show them that they can be "street" American-style and Mexican-style at the very same time.
"This is just a theory -- I'm not in every kid's head -- but I think what's going on with a lot of Hispanic kids is something, I don't know what the word is, 'displacement' or something like that," he says. "We can never envision ourselves as president. That's why I did this whole Chingo for President thing, as a parody. We can't really see ourselves going all the way platinum next to Nelly. I mean, yeah, you got all these fools like Enrique Iglesias, but that's love music, and we don't care about that. That's not some fool from the hood."
But others can see Hispanics going all the way platinum, just like Nelly. One such is Avery Lipman, the president of Universal Records. A few days after our initial interview, Charles Chavez called back following a discussion with Lipman. Bash and Frankie J. had just slipped into the Billboard top ten. "We were kicking around names to call this music, and he kept coming up with a bunch that I thought would be limiting," Chavez says. Eventually they settled on a genre name you just might be hearing a lot of over the next few years: "new urban Latino."
"Everybody asks me what kind of sound this music is," he says. "Is it Latin rap? No! It's bigger than Latin rap. Is it R&B? Yeah, but it's done by Latinos. Is it pop, is it hip-hop, what is it? It's our sound, that's what it is.
"Take it or fuck yourself," he says, breaking into a cackle.
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