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THE BIG MIX : Pop Music : Z'Looke at This Band : Three blacks, one Mexican sing out: read their lips

February 05, 1989|DENNIS HUNT

For Z'Looke, the local R&B/dance-music band whose single, "Can U Read My Lips," is a big hit on the Billboard black chart, the look is very important

On their debut album, "Take U Back to My Place," the four musicians wearing dark shades and dressed in black look like a corps of hit men. "Mysterious and a little mean--that's how we want to look," keyboardist/guitarist Mikel Cee explained.

But guitarist Art Z, a Mexican, didn't look anything like that when Riverside natives Cee and bassist Eric Jerome, both black, first saw him a few years ago. This was even before they found lead singer Wayne Cockerman (also black). They were organizing a band and were in the market for a guitarist.

"I didn't want him in the group," Cee recalled of Z. "He looked weird and very straight. I thought he looked like a jerk."

Art Z chuckles about it now, but back then he didn't think the rejection was so funny. "I thought I was hip, but I guess I wasn't hip enough for them," recalled the guitarist, who had been studying jazz at Cal State L.A. "I grew up in this lower-class neighborhood in Pasadena. I grew up on R&B, but jazz was my preference. But I had to eat so I was trying to get into R&B. There's more opportunities to play and more money in it."

When Cee and Jerome met up with Art Z a year later, he had acquired the look . "He had become quite funky," Cee said, laughing.

"I had gotten hipper," Art Z confirmed. "I had quit school and started playing music around town. I threw away those Beethoven and Bach records I had been listening to and started listening to Prince."

Cee noted, "He was one of us. It was like he had been on a diet of nothing but chitlins for a year."

Laughing and obviously appreciative, Art Z leaned over and extended his hand to Cee. They shook hands--hip-style.

Rock 'n' roll--like athletics--has been given a lot of credit for bringing the races together in America. Yet it's still hard, more than 30 years after the birth of rock, to find integrated bands.

That's why the composition of Z'Looke is still bound to draw second glances. Though relations between those two minorities are often stereotyped as strained, Cee, 21, sat next to Z, 22, one evening in the Hollywood office of their label, Orpheus Records, and claimed there have been no problems.

"We never think about it--the racial thing. We never think about what Art is, other than he's Art and a musician--a damn good musician."

It was obvious that Cee didn't like the line of questioning. Art Z didn't seem to like it either--but that was less obvious since he's rather reserved and somewhat hard to read.

"That racial stuff shouldn't matter," Cee said. "Blacks and Mexicans get along fine. That's the way it is."

Art Z smiled.

Cee continued: "The fact that Art's not black hasn't been a factor with this band. It just hasn't mattered."

But it might have mattered to record companies, which are concerned with marketing artists and getting their records played on radio. Noted Cee: "With this kind of band, with blacks and a Mexican, there are things we probably couldn't do. If we were playing country music, we'd have a problem. Those (people) wouldn't want to deal with two minorities."

Securing a record deal was quite a chore for this quartet, which writes and produces most of its own music. "But the problem was the music, not race," Art Z insisted. "Companies didn't think the music was quite right."

Both said the band might still be chasing a record contract if it weren't for the efforts of their attorney, Bill Lewis, who worked out deals with Hush Productions--for management--and Orpheus Records, a new label.

Z'Looke's music is high-tech hip-hop, showcasing up-to-the-minute rhythms that set the street crowd rocking. The vocals aren't terribly distinctive, but the musicianship is exceptional. That pulsing beat and the irresistible hooks are luring listeners to "Can U Read My Lips." There are some cuts on the debut album that are equally magnetic--like "Sneak Preview" and "Love Sick," which is the next single.

"Orpheus didn't care what we are," Art Z said. "They signed us because they heard potential hits in our demos. That's the bottom line."

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