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CULTURE MIX

An average homie, really

LaLa sings about family, life in L.A., her friends. On the cusp of breaking through, it won't change.

June 09, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

LaLa was a struggling singer with a MySpace page, just a cool Valley girl posting some homemade music on the Web, when one of her songs was played on the radio last year. Fans started e-mailing that they'd heard her on the air, and she couldn't believe it.

"No, people must be trippin'," she thought. "They're confusing me with somebody else."

But they weren't. Bilingual DJ Julio G of KDAY-FM (93.5), a veteran of L.A.'s underground Latino rap scene, had stumbled across LaLa's website and was seduced by her sound, a sweet and smooth blend of West Coast hip-hop beats, a golden oldies groove and "a street L.A. Latina vibe," as her bio puts it. The afternoon DJ downloaded and then aired "La La La," a song that starts: "Let me tell you where I grew up at/ In the 818, straight true 2 that."

The radio play suddenly amplified the buzz surrounding the singer-songwriter, a gardener's daughter also known as Sad Girl whose Web page (www.myspace.com/lalasadgirl) now has more than half a million views. At a time when the music industry largely ignores Southern California's massive Mexican American population, LaLa's story shows how the new democratic digital media allows overlooked artists to get noticed, no matter their ethnicity or social class.

"My success has a lot to do with the love that I got on MySpace," the singer, whose real name is Casey Romero, told me while she sat at the home studio of Pocos Pero Locos, the weekly Latino hip-hop show on Power 106. "It was just me, my computer and one or two producers that I worked with. So it was kind of like the voice of the people pushing it along."

Julio G, one of the first to play N.W.A in the late '80s, eventually introduced LaLa to Bryan Turner, former owner of Priority Records, the label that launched the seminal rap group from Compton. Turner signed LaLa to a management and production deal with his new film and music venture, Melee Entertainment, elevating the 26-year-old into a new orbit that could accelerate her career.

This week, the singer was shooting her first video -- on location in the Valley, of course. She invited fans to participate in the shoot of her song "Homegirlz," an irresistible, finger-popping tribute to her barrio friendships.

"The girls love me on my MySpace and they hit me up because they like that I'm just like them," LaLa says.

But at 6 feet tall in heels with raven-black hair, white short-shorts and long, ooh-la-la legs, LaLa stood out like a goddess on grimy Van Nuys Boulevard. She may want to nurture an image "just like the homegirl on your block," but she sure knows how to act the part of a star.

On Tuesday, the crew set up on the sidewalk in front of Big Taco, a funky Van Nuys fast-food shack with security gates, peeling paint and delicious steak en molcajete. LaLa sat at a metal sidewalk table, gabbing and high-fiving with her homegirls over carne asada tacos. Later, she leaned coquettishly against the take-out window while singing the chorus into the camera with mesmerizing sincerity.

"Real homies always ask what's good wit you/ Real homies are the ones tellin you the truth/ Real homies even roll when they know you wrong/ My real homies know that this is their song."

LaLa doesn't disguise who she is and where she comes from. But references to her barrio background didn't always sit well with producers and record labels, she recalls.

"Two years ago when I first started to do music, I was really pushed to leave the references out. Producers were like, 'You need to think of a broader audience. That niche might be too small, LaLa. You're not going to sell that many records focusing on that.' "

That niche was her family, her neighborhood, her homies. It was all she knew. Why would she want to write about something else?

"I don't want to do this if I'm not gonna do it my way," she says. "Other artists rap [about] where they're from and their culture. They have a distinct sound and they use their slang, what's cool for them. Why can't we?"

LaLa grew up the oldest of five daughters who crammed into a two-bedroom house and shared a single bath, at times with their abuelita. Her father, Mark Manuel Romero, is an L.A. native with New Mexico roots who worked as a meat cutter and gardener to raise the family.

The household was so noisy that LaLa had to study with headphones on. Around the time she graduated from Van Nuys' Birmingham High School, two nieces and a nephew had also moved into the family home. The crowding was typical for the barrio, but hardly conducive to creativity.

"I was crossing out the days until I turned 18 so I could move out," she says. "It was just too hectic, too crazy. You can't really think in that kind of household, and you can't write."

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