They are the boys next door--to each other that is. Clean-cut, hard-working and earnest, the four young men of the Jalapenos grew up on the same block in South Central L.A. They're the kind of fellas a girl would like to bring home to mom. As long as mom's into hip-hop doo-wop, that is.
Rafael (Ralph) Flores, Kace Hernandez, Luis (El P) Perez and Carlos (Apollo) Quinonez--all in their early 20s--started rapping together about 10 years ago. And now they're a quartet on the rise, with their own unique blend of a cappella, R&B and rap. Part '50s and part '90s, the bilingual (but mostly English) sound ranges from smooth romantic ballads likely to appeal to these guys' parents, to edgy techno-pop, hip enough for the Cross Colours crowd.
It's the a cappella, though, that makes them stand out. With their honey-smooth harmonies and fresh-faced charm, the Jalapenos are reinterpreting Golden Era panache for their own generation. What's more, they're part of a nascent trend as a cappella emerges as the latest challenge to rap in the mean streets music boom.
The Jalapenos, in fact, may be the first crest of a wave to come. After an appearance in a Mark Taper Forum festival last fall, the group landed a manager and have been playing an increasing number of gigs since. Their story is also being shopped to studios as a film project, sort of Boyz II Men meets "La Bamba"--but true-to-life.
That Hollywood appeal makes sense, given that the Jalapenos' achievements are as much of real life as of music. Flores, Hernandez, Perez and Quinonez are, after all, a challenge to the stereotypes and the statistics.
But simply conceiving of success in the first place--especially for guys this age from working-class backgrounds--was no mean feat. "Nowadays, kids don't dream," says Quinonez, who was born in Mexico and comes from a family of 10. "They cannot see a goal. They have to have support from friends, teachers, parents."
The Jalapenos' first boost came from casual neighborhood popularity. "We decided to be a group when rap first started coming out," says Flores, who was raised in a single-parent household and played sax and clarinet in school bands. "We'd get up at parties and people would ask for oldies. Eventually we became an a cappella group."
Why the fascination with oldies from guys too young to know the '50s as anything but ancient history? "It's in the culture," says Hernandez, who got his introduction to music from an uncle who plays in a band. "Gang members love oldies. They'd always ask, 'Can you guys sing 'Earth Angel'?"
For the Jalapenos, the attraction isn't just the music. They also idealize the '50s as a time when there was a different attitude toward musicians. "We love that music because it was so simple," Flores says. "It was just a guitar and vocals and drums. Nowadays, you have a lot of music that isn't true to the artist."
The third part of the oldies mystique is style. "The showmanship was often incredible--the Four Tops' stage presence, for example," says Perez, whose family came to California from Mexico when he was 4 years old. "There was a lot of glamour in the business, an awe that people had for performers and singers."
Image--a clean-cut, eager-to-please one--is a big part of the Jalapenos' stock-in-trade. "It's about the music, but also the way we dress and carry ourselves and the way we interact," says Flores. "We're clean cut because that's what we like," adds Hernandez.
Still, retro isn't the only influence on the Jalapeno style. The four singers cite an eclecticism rooted in neighborhood culture. "In the area we grew up, you don't just hear a certain type of music," says Perez, whose uncle plays in a traditional banda. "Influences range all the way from the New Edition to Michael Jackson to Los Bukis."
Putting it all together without resources took a combination of know-how, gleaned mostly from school band classes, and desire. "Basically, we were blessed with a little bit of knowledge and we took it as far as it would go," says Flores. "Where we grew up, it's street. No one has instruments, so you do what you can with what you have. We decided to do harmonies because we had our voices and we could. It's cheap."
"We practice every day," says Hernandez. "We all live at home, so it's hard, but this is what we do full time. We're just pushin' and pushin.' "
They do it because there's more at stake than just tunes. "People in the neighborhood notice that we didn't get into the gang scene," says Quinonez. "We graduated from high school, and now we're making something of our lives. We look OK in the eyes of the public."
"People always ask us, 'What kept you away from gangs, drugs, all the negative aspects of your community?' " says Flores. "It's being able to have a dream. If you don't know you can't do something, then you'll try."