By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
The few attempts to fuse country and rap have been novelties, amusing at best, if not ridiculous. But in Los Angeles an equally odd fusion produced an innovative, tough new style that sounds completely natural.
Banda rap, a/k/a "urban regional," mixes hip-hop attitude and production with the melodies and instrumentation of Mexican ranchera: accordions, mariachi guitars, nasal country singers, and above all, the thumping brass bands of the Pacific coast. Too bad Nashville never discovered the tuba.
This gangsta ranchera is the soundtrack of the new L.A., a city where Mexicans are the majority and Anglo culture is on the defensive. One recent hit, Jae-P's "Ni de Aquá Ni de Alla," lays it all out: "I'm not from here, and I'm not from there/But here is where I like to be/And here I'm gonna stay." Rapped in fast Spanish over a sampled accordion riff, it could be the anthem for millions of kids whose roots are in Mexico but whose future is in the U.S. While the Minutemen post vigilante patrols, Jae-P's lyric bursts with optimism: "I don't care what they say or think of me/My kid will be president of this fuckin' country." And it's sounding truer every day. As Antonio Villaraigosa was sworn in as the city's first Mexican mayor in 130 years, people were already discussing his presidential prospects.
The new sound exploded in 2003 with two albums, a groundbreaking anthology entitled Jesse y Jorge Morales Presentan Z Banda Rap and Akwid's Proyecto Akwid. The Morales brothers are corrido singers, followers of the frequently name-checked Chalino Sánchez, who used the traditional ballad form to chronicle the violence and heroism of the cross-border drug trade. Their anthology showcased other local artists, like Dyablo and Locura Terminal, but was barely heard outside L.A.
Proyecto Akwid, by contrast, became the genre's runaway success, quickly earning Latin platinum status and a Grammy nomination. Its first single, "No Hay Manera," made the case with its opening lines: "There's no way you can stop this/ Like a corrido/Akwid has returned with a new sound." The beats backed up the boast. The tuba burped along like a nimble elephant, while trumpets and valve trombones punched under hard-edged, tag-team rapping, then blared to introduce a lilting ranchera chorus. Other songs effortlessly fused Mexican regional traditions and the street sound of South Central.
Akwid are Sergio and Francisco Gomez, brothers born in the tiny Michoacán town of Jiquilpan but raised in South Central. Their shaved heads, football jerseys, heavy physiques, and slang-heavy Spanish would not turn heads on any L.A. barrio street corner, and they grew up listening to equal doses of Chalino and Snoop Dogg, as well as the older folks' romantic ballads and r&b oldies. Their songs mix all of this with rowdy humor and the greatest tubas in hip-hop, reaching a high point on their second album, KOMP 104.9 Radio Compa, and its romping, pounding lead single, "Jamás Imaginé."
Three years on, banda rap is confronting Puerto Rican reggaetón and struggling to top its early successes. Akwid's new Los Aguacates de Jiquilpanis an obvious attempt at palette broadening. They have kept their jokey attitude, with a fairy-tale narration satirizing their small-town background, but the roots ranchera feel is submerged in uptown sounds: synth keyboard, string sections, and samples of George Clinton and jazz piano. The beats are still distinctive but lack the polka-derived thump that made their greatest tracks so bizarrely compelling.
Meanwhile, other urban-regional outfits are mixing in Caribbean beats or falling back on pop hip-hop. It remains to be seen if banda rap is truly the sound of a Mexican reconquest, or just a wild moment in an evolving scene. But damn, those tubas are fine.
Akwid play S.O.B.'s October 20.