Crossover Dreams

Latin Alternative Rock Sets Its Sights on New York

"The last thing I wanted was another Nashville," says Cookman; he didn't want L.A. ghettoized like the home of country music. "I wanted New York [for the conference] because I thought it was closer for people in Argentina, Spain, and Colombia. More so, on the Anglo side, I think a lot of the industry people in L.A. already get it. How could it be that every month there's a sold-out show? Latin groups play the House of Blues and there's a line down the block—people know about these things. I knew I could get all those Anglos to fly to New York. I could never get the ones in New York, who are not yet into it, to fly to L.A."

The LAMC and Watcha tour aim to demonstrate the diversity coming from Latin quarters. "In Seattle you had the grunge movement," says Enrique Lavin. "The same thing is happening with Latin alternative, but you have pockets springing up around the world. Not particular sounds, but particular scenes." Tijuana, for example, has long sported a ska-punk scene (politically charged Tijuana No! is the prime proponent) but now, along with Ensenada, is home to the emerging "nortec" movement, in which techno is combined with traditional Mexican instrumentation and rhythms such as banda and norteño. Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and L.A. itself are all hotbeds for other fusions of hip-hop, rock, and techno.

Started last year by Lyman and other industry heavies, Watcha alone illustrates how preposterous it is to group all this music under one umbrella. In addition to Molotov and Aterciopelados, the lineup includes Tacuba, who opened the West Coast dates of Beck's last tour but will miss the East Coast Watcha dates, guttural Argentinian hardcore-metal group A.N.I.M.A.L., who are currently playing the Warped tour, and L.A.'s "it" band Ozomatli, groovers who blend tropical music with funk, soul, and hip-hop.

But how effective the LAMC will be in its endeavor to promote a crossover remains to be seen. Latin alternative music faces hurdles beyond the obvious language barriers. Much like techno, the genre already has a global culture and following in place. The stateside music industry still needs to decide whether the music can be commercially viable and, if so, how to make it happen. At a panel discussion at the Rock en Ñ festival, talk swirled around the sloppy way this music is disseminated; radio stations say record labels do a poor job servicing them, commercial radio still largely ignores anything remotely edgy, tours are haphazardly promoted.

Anglo media in America, commercial radio and MTV included, generally won't touch anything in Spanish. But Spanish language stations stick to tropical music and pop. So sister NYC stations La Mega (97.9) and Amor (93.1) might play Shakira or Enrique Iglesias, but relegate more adventurous stuff to the occasional specialty show. La Mega declined to return repeated phone calls, and even the publicist at MTV refused to speak on the record about the station's policy regarding Spanish language acts. "We have MTV Latin America," she offered, before saying she'd get back to me (she didn't).

Latin alternative bands may actually be at a disadvantage on a major label's Latin subsidiary, where their albums will be worked by the same people working ballads, Tejano, and pop to Latin radio stations. "My analogy is DMX on Windham Hill," says Cookman. "It obviously wouldn't work, but that wouldn't mean DMX is a bad musician, or Windham Hill a bad label. Would you ask a jazz or classical department to work a rock or hip-hop artist?"

Josh Kun hosts the Red Zone, a Latin L.A. alternative radio show produced by Cookman, and writes frequently about the music (occasionally in the Voice). The English professor at UC Riverside will host the LAMC. "I think the Latin industry has done an absolutely terrible job of marketing this stuff in the U.S.," he says. "We do this radio show and barely get sent anything. We have to beg for it, twist people's arms. Plastilina Mosh, Titan, Sergent Garcia—these are bands being released that have nothing to do with Latin labels. And guess what? Look how much better they are being publicized. Sergent Garcia shouldn't be playing with a Mexican metal band; they should be touring with a salsa band, or a Jamaican MC. This music has a chance, once people start getting that Titan has more to do with Kraftwerk or Bauhaus than they do with a rock band that grew up on the same street as they did."

The bands that have done the best in America—Molotov and Puerto Rican salsa metal stars Puya—both succeeded in crossover environments. Puya played at last year's Ozzfest and are playing with this Summer's Tattoo the Earth tour, where Slipknot and Nashville Pussy fans are likely to appreciate them, and Molotov rocked last year's ska-and-punk-happy Warped tour.

Not coincidentally, both bands also record for Universal Records' Surco imprint. Surco is run by Gustavo Santaolalla, the Latin Phil Spector who produced Puya and Molotov, as well as Café Tacuba, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, and others. This marriage of major-label clout with a Latin alternative guru is a model that's already being duplicated. Maverick recently started a Latin division under the guidance of Bruno Del Granado, who helped launch MTV Latin America. And Cookman weeks ago inked a deal with Arista to start his own label, but only after dining with almost every major-company bigwig. "I had dinner with Tommy Mottola. It was a very Mottola-like experience," he laughs. "And Chris Blackwell left a message on my office voice mail the other day. I'm saving that one until my kids are old enough to understand who Chris Blackwell is."

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