In an office on Old Katy Road is a black wall-sized banner that reads in big-ass gold letters: "LATIUM RECORDS: Latin's Goin' Platinum."
The statement, in a way, says nothing new, as the success of national Latin artists such as Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez indicates. But in another way, the statement is profound: Latium owners Charles and Debra Chavez think they can bring platinum plaques to Houston artists, and they think they can do it through their label, which may be the hottest in town, Latin or not. Both are well connected in the music industry, particularly radio, and as everyone knows, airplay is the best way to make an artist blow up.
In their conference room, Charles and Debra discuss the business and what makes them think they can make Latium, a hybrid of "Latino" and "platinum," a force of nature. Charles is paunchy. His face is masked with a wavy goatee, and his head is slightly covered with thin, dark hair. He wears the rap-mogul uniform: dark blue T-shirt, baggy jeans and a sturdy pair of black shoes. Although he is quick to say he's not rolling in the dough ("yet"), he does have some bling-bling action going on. Debra looks more conservative, with brown-auburn hair, burgundy nails and a light brown suit with ivory-and-black stripes.
The thirtysomething Chavezes have been married for 14 years and are the proud parents of two children -- and their little record kingdom, which recently turned one year old. Their decision to start Latium Records was inspired by an injustice they noticed in the industry: Most Latin music is released by corporate, white-owned and -operated labels. The Chavezes thought it was time Latinos had a say in Latin pop. "These old guys that, you know, run these big record labels don't know what we do about the Latin community, Latin hip-hop artists, Latin dance artists, the Latin audience that wants to buy the music," Charles says. "I mean, that's the life we live. We're trying to make things happen for our community, which is the Latin community, and for the artists that we felt didn't have a fair shake."
Since Latium is pushing mostly Spanglish material, which potentially appeals to a more ethnically diverse audience, there is a strong chance you won't hear it on straightforward Spanish radio stations here, like KQQK/106.5 FM. That is why Latium has been trying to reach all audiences. In Houston, music from the label has been heard on mix shows on KRBE/104.1 FM (Top 40) and KBXX/97.9 FM (rap/R&B).
But Latium is essentially guaranteed airplay on the Latin-oriented dance/rap/pop station KRTX/100.7 FM. Todd De La Garza, a.k.a. DJ Penetrate, has been part-time mix-show director at KRTX over the past four months as well as retail manager for Latium. This happy arrangement poses some conflict of interest, if not something downright unethical. De La Garza insists he is just doing what is required to survive in today's competitive insider-driven radio market. De La Garza perceives these situations as tests for DJs. "You have to maintain your ethics," he says. "You can't have a whole Latium show. If there's a Latium single that's out there getting airplay, then I'll probably play it. You got to make sure there's a balance."
Charles, who points to independent success stories like Puff Daddy and Master P as influences, is also a point man at Latium. He has remained connected to those whose paths he crossed during his years in the radio industry. Born in El Paso, Charles started work as a DJ when he was 13. In 1985 he began spinning at various El Paso radio stations, doing mix shows. After meeting his wife, Charles later moved up to music director at El Paso's KPRR/102.1 FM, then to assistant program director at San Antonio's KTFM/102.7 FM. "The music business is all I ever knew," he says.
As someone who has spent most of his professional career working in and around radio, Charles Chavez knows lots of people. The moment he releases a single, he's on the phone with his connections at radio stations, record stores, clubs, street promotional teams or whoever else can help get the single in people's heads by the end of the week. Charles says he has "phone elbow" from spending all day talking on his cell. It has been said that if you give Charles the call letters to any radio station in the country, he can probably give you the name of the program director.
In 1996 Charles, with brother and fellow DJ Steve Chavez, formed Cibola Productions, a company specializing in remixing Top 40 and dance songs. The duo reworked tracks for Brian McKnight, Gloria Estefan, Geri Halliwell and Luke. A year later Charles moved permanently to Houston to run programming at KHYS/98.5 FM. After spending a year and a half at the station, Charles dropped out of radio to become a local promotional rep for labels such as Def Jam, Priority and Motown. Hyping other people's songs made the Chavezes want to start their own label all the more. "So we just said, 'Why are we making hits for other artists?' " Charles recalls. " 'Why are we pushing records for other labels when we could do it ourselves?' "
Adds Debra: "We just felt, too, that Houston has a lot of talent. All kinds of artists are breaking out of Houston, and we just thought the Latin market had been untouched."
With about $10,000, the Chavezes began their business on January 1, 1999, with Charles serving as president and Debra as vice president. They rented space in a two-room office on Richmond, which they quickly outgrew. In July the couple relocated to its current digs, taking in Charles's recording studio equipment in the process. "I don't wanna be no pager record company," Charles says. "You know, call-me-on-my-cell-phone type of company. Half the battle is getting up in the morning and opening up your office. That makes sure that you're gonna get up and makes things happen."
The first record Latium released, in February, was a vinyl compilation of "booty tracks" and other assorted dance songs for clubs and parties. The label's next release was another compilation, Latin World Hip Hop Volume I, consisting of previously released tracks by local and out-of-state Latino rappers, including Houston's own South Park Mexican. The record was followed by Volume II in November. "I told all these guys, 'Gimme your best records, I put out a CD, and I'll help change [your popularity],' " Charles says, citing his numerous contacts.
Since its release in May, Volume I has sold nearly 25,000 copies, according to Charles. One of the tracks, the deviously bumpy "Just a Friend to Me (Nasty Girl)" by Galveston rap duo Lifestyl, is a certified statewide club and radio hit. The success of "Nasty Girl" prompted Charles to consider signing the duo, Pancho Villa and his cousin Tommy G. But there were two things in the way: 1) Lifestyl was already signed to its own label, Salty Water Records; and 2) Villa, also CEO of Salty Water, says he was in jail for a number of offenses.
After being sprung in July, Villa decided to sign on with the Chavezes and Latium. The duo's next two albums will be released on both Salty Water and Latium. "That's what made it so much appealing to me was the fact that he could get me on more radio stations," the 24-year-old Villa says, "and then, at the same time, I get to promote all my artists. I get to promote my label. I get to pump my label up. So it sets me up for when [Lifestyl] goes back to Salty Water; boom, it's on again."
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Lifestyl's first Salty Water/Latium joint album, Mobstylfiggaz, has been doing well since its release in November, selling approximately 15,000 copies, according to Latium and Lifestyl. Although Villa says it took awhile to get contracts squared up to the duo's liking, he knew getting play on the air and in clubs would make it all worthwhile. "Signing with Charles Chavez, in these six months I feel that we have already saved a year worth of time if we did it ourselves," Villa says.
Another artist soon jumped on the Latium bandwagon, a 21-year-old Houston singer named Brissa Alvarado, who performs under the name Brissa. Formerly of the Spanish-language girl group Xtasy, Brissa was in talks with Latium immediately after Xtasy broke up at the end of 1998. The first single she recorded for Latium, the dreamy synth ballad "For Love," became, much like Lifestyl's "Nasty Girl," a club and radio hit around the state. For her next single, Brissa is redoing "Fascinated," the '80s club classic from Company B. All of this is obviously an effort to put the word out on her debut, which is scheduled to be released soon.
Latium has its sights set on additional acts, including two other signed Latino artists: Maria, an R&B/soul singer, and Moses, an 18-year-old high schooler who "sings like Jodeci," according to Charles. (Moses's plans are on hold until he graduates.) Latium is also looking to release more Latin World collections in the upcoming months. Scheduled titles include Latin World Dance, Latin World Down South and Latin World Booty.
Latium may be just an independent record label, distributing its music through Southwest Wholesale like every other independent in town, but its mind-set is national. "We're not a local record company," Charles says. "We got a national promotion, national distribution. We operate on a national level. We're just based out of Houston." It's this drive that has made people notice the young label. "A lot of record companies, especially local ones, will ask, 'How come I can't get my song on the radio?' " Charles says. " 'How come you can and I can't?' 'Cause I'm making it happen."