Illya Kuryaki and the Valderramas first decided they were Chicano in 1995. It happened on their third album, Chaco, two full years before Mexican rapero crews like Control Machete and Molotov would start donning khakis, throwing mock gang signs, and flipping rhymes in Spanglish. Best of all, they weren’t even Mexican.
Dante Spinetta and Emmanuel Horvilleur, IKV’s two middle-class bohos, are from Argentina, a Euro-identified country that’s never pledged too much allegiance to Latin America, let alone to Mexico’s satellite campus in East L.A. So imagine the rock authenticity shock when, after repeated Cypress Hill listenings, IKV tried going full vato on “Abarajame,” Latin American Chicanophilia’s premier theme song.
Over dusty beats, swollen bass lines, trumpet burps, and slide guitar loops (remember, this was also before Beck went Chicano on Odelay), they became the “Valderrama clica” and worked every cholo cliché in the Hollywood book with enough tongue in cheek to deflect appropriation critiques: talking about vatos and varrios, making “car nada” sound like “carnal,” pushing rhymes like “be cool, don’t be culo,” coining phrases like “saqueame la dicka,” and getting movimiento-proud by declaring “Soy de la raza brotha.” They even tried to out-insane B-Real while stomping on whitey: “guero, vato, estoy loco.”
On their latest album, Versus— which has been out since late 1997 and is only now available in the U.S.— they’ve morphed their politicized chicanismo pose into an elaborate hipster aesthetic of role-playing theatrics and otherworldly escapism. Sure they can sound like Soul Assassins wannabes on tracks like “Das Dos,” but Versus is about making new worlds, not reliving old ones. “I’m not trying to be a gangsta or a hamsta,” Spinetta bilingually giggles, “I’m just trying to express what I feel, madafacka.”
So forget Chaco‘s psychedelic hodgepodge of East Los hip-hop, grimy funk, and summer-in-the-park daydreams. Now when IKV express what they feel, they come up with a retro Latin blaxploitation comic book that throws whimsical traces of ’70s Argentinean peace-and-love rock balladry in the middle of a Maxwell/Barry White/Snoop Dogg soul en español showdown with Earth, Wind & Fire, Around the World in a Day Prince, and a boudoir full of overheated superlovers. Falsetto whirs get head-banged on “Galaxia,” and “Demolicion,” a Barbarella slow jam, is even greased up with a “guitarra orgasmitronikka.”
But because this is IKV and not, say, Lenny Kravitz with an MC itch (“protect me from the negative cosmos, baby” sounds better in Spanish anyway), there are also big sweeping strings, cherubic harp plucks, and come-hither flutes. Oh yeah, and the whole thing takes place in Klama Hama, an airbrushed fantasy land of trampling zebras and butterflies that look like Bruce Lee.
Back in the ’70s, one of the Argentinean military dictatorship’s biggest complaints about beloved rock nacional honchos Charly García,
Fito Paez, and Spinetta’s father, Luis Alberto, was that they created a world of long hair, guitar solos, and oppositional politics totally separate from the junta’s prescribed tenets of national culture. Admirals threw around phrases like “private universe” and “secret society” and accused the rockeros of practicing secret “rituals.”
A generation later, with dictatorships and disappearances now safely a part of history, Versus flaunts its youthful occultism. In the album’s illustrated graphic novella cover art, Spinetta and Horvilleur are half-dragon, half-human superheroes who use magic and kung fu to fight against evil, making their way past mystic cliffs and Heavy Metal girl-girl couples to get to the dark castle. This crossbreeding of real and make-believe worlds— “the bridge toward reality is in dreams,” Spinetta croons in “Galaxia”— has roots in the band’s name: a hybrid action-hero offspring of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.‘s blond secret agent Illya Kuryakin and Afro-Colombian soccer icon Carlos Valderrama.
“Expedicion al Klama Hama,” a symphonic hip-hop Dungeons and Dragons versioning of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” is the code that cracks Versus wide open (sort of). The sky burns, a new era is being born, the wrath of the dragon is spreading through jungles and forests, and the only salvation is memorizing Chow Yun-Fat moves and falling in love. In the song’s equally cryptic video, Spinetta and Horvilleur practice kung fu ballet in the fog-blanketed front yard of a spooky mansion where doctors perform experiments on women who wash up on the shore of a hazy bog.
Apparently, IKV are done writing songs about victimized Argentinean aborigines and Zapatista revolutionaries. Versus is the Chicano-worshiping Latin American B-boys’ first fantasy hang suite, where a half-dragon can safely look into the eyes of his forest nymph and promise, “We’ll make this Xanadu our home and this sea our condition.”