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POP MUSIC | Latin Pulse

Rap Movement Gaining Strength in Spanish Rock

May 02, 1999|ERNESTO LECHNER | Ernesto Lechner is a frequent contributor to Calendar

In a year that is off to a slow start where Latin rock is concerned, the few noteworthy releases in the field belong to a subgenre that is growing at a surprisingly rapid pace: rock-rap en espan~ol.

During the '90s, tropical music artists such as El General had already started to experiment with rap, adding spoken interludes to merengues and cumbias and creating tracks that were geared to big-city dance floors. But the results of these musical experiments were of limited quality, and none of these acts had the lyrical bravado and defiant stance of the most respected hip-hop practitioners.

Originally thought of as a gimmick, rap-accented rock in Spanish has gained respectability in the late '90s through highly original and controversial acts such as Mexico's Molotov and Argentina's Illya Kuryaki & the Valderramas.

The movement is gaining momentum this year thanks to a pair of albums, including the debut of Monterrey, Mexico's El Gran Silencio. Titled "Libres y Locos," it is a bold recording that brings hip-hop closer to Latin America by blending it with ranchera stylings.

In addition, "Artilleria Pesada," the just-released second album by Control Machete, brings the former cult outfit (also from Monterrey) closer to the mainstream as well as demonstrating that the group has the talent and range for a long, interesting career.

One unique element about the Machete album is that it contains probably the first track in the history of Latin music to combine an aggressive rap with traditional Cuban salsa performed by a live ensemble.

"Going to Cuba was a shock to us," recalls Toy, the member of the band who creates the musical textures over which the others do their rapping. "In Mexico, we grew up with this image of [the island's] socialism as something cold, but when we got there we saw it was exactly the opposite."

The trio secured the help of some choice players known in the U.S. from the Buena Vista Social Club and Afro-Cuban All-Stars sessions in recording "Danzon," the album's most daring tune.

As a concept, "Danzon" gets an A for innovation. As a song, it fails, sounding forced and dissonant. While listening to Ruben Gonzalez's brilliant piano solo, you can't help but wish the rap track would suddenly disappear so that you could just enjoy the beauty of the music itself.

Interestingly, it is the track before "Danzon" that stands as the album's best. Entitled "Esperanza," it creates a fascinating contrast between rapper Fermin's no-nonsense optimism and a dreamy sample that seems to have come from a corny '70s album by romantic crooners such as Jose Jose and Sandro.

There is an intensity to Machete that makes it stand apart from the other rock-rap en espan~ol acts. Molotov has used profanity as its calling card, El Gran Silencio relies on its traditional Mexican roots, and Illya Kuryaki strives to create lush rap operas.

Fermin, Toy and third member Pato don't have a conceptual trademark, but their eerie sonic concoctions and furious vocal delivery create a very particular mood that is hard to forget. Live, they are known to immerse the audience in an experience that, although including beats that are dark and brooding, ultimately leaves you recharged with lyrics of defiance and hope.

"If something separates the Monterrey rap movement from the rest of the rock en espan~ol world, it is our tenacity to do what we wanted to do," Fermin explains. "Since the record companies didn't pay attention to us, we recorded demos and sold them on our live gigs. Making music has always been what made us feel good about ourselves. If we ever lose the support of our company, we will continue doing it on our own."

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