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Their rap comes in Spanish

October 04, 2008|AGUSTIN GURZA
  • Victor "El Lunatiko," left, and Johnny "El Duke" Lopez created Crooked Stilo, a successful Latino rap act.
Victor "El Lunatiko," left, and Johnny "El Duke"… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

BROTHERS Victor and Johnny Lopez were so young when they started stealing cars and taking joy rides that their little heads barely appeared over the dashboard. They weren't even teenagers yet and had to peer through the openings in the steering wheel to see the road. One of their capers ended with a televised police chase and a one-way ticket back to their native El Salvador, courtesy of their parents, not La Migra.

Victor Miguel and Armida Lopez, a salesman and a seamstress, had risked coming to this country illegally in 1980 to flee the civil war back home. They weren't about to lose their only sons to the street gangs of Pico-Union whose members used auto theft as an initiation. So in 1985, they used their last dime to enroll Victor and Johnny, then 12 and 13, in a military school in San Salvador.

Victor came home with medals and honors two years later. Johnny came home to discover rap. The younger brother remembers hearing his first rap song on the radio, something by N.W.A, the Compton trio that shocked the world with its gangsta lyrics. The boys were not allowed to live the thug life, but they realized they could rap about it.

Today, Victor "El Lunatiko," 37, and Johnny "El Duke," 36, are the creators of Crooked Stilo, one of L.A.'s most successful Latin rap acts.

Their latest album, "Cumbia Urbana," defines a sound that blends hip-hop with the traditional tropical music their parents loved, especially the Colombian cumbia so popular in Central America. The duo performs later this month at the Knitting Factory in a BMI-sponsored showcase titled "El Otro Lado del Hip Hop" (The Other Side of Hip-Hop) that also features Akwid, La Sinfonia and David Rolas.

L.A. has been overshadowed in bicultural hip-hop since the early success of West Coast Latino pioneers Kid Frost and Mellow Man Ace, who used to rehearse in the garage of MC A.L.T. across from where the Lopezes lived.

East Coast varieties, especially reggaeton, have hogged most of the national spotlight in the last decade. The scene here survives in semi-underground fashion. A few years ago, the industry took notice when Fonovisa, a major Mexican regional label, started promoting local Latino rap as the next big thing. But despite the initial success of Akwid, another brother act, the style never quite broke through.

Crooked Stilo had its debut in 1991 with the self-produced album "Crooked for Life." It was sold by the brothers' cousin at swap meets, the grass-roots marketplace for immigrant music, where it was discovered by indie label Underworld 805. Even the brothers say they couldn't believe it when the label ponied up $6,000 for the rights to their music. Even more surprising was performing later in New York and finding that fans knew all their lyrics.

"We just kept looking at each other and said, 'Man, is this true?' " recalled Victor.

They started bilingual, but the label urged them to follow up with an all-Spanish album because people seemed to like their Salvadoran lilt and lingo. Their 2003 "El Regreso" (The Return) included songs such as "La Mota" (Weed) and "Quieren Pleito" (They Want to Rumble) -- plus a parental advisory.

By then, the family had moved to Temple City in the San Gabriel Valley, finally finding the haven they had been seeking. But the brothers joke that it was hard to rap about soccer games and backyard barbecues. "We were still thugging it even though we were no longer in that [gang] environment," said Johnny. It was Fonovisa that finally made it clear they weren't getting into Wal-Mart with all that foul language. So they switched to rapping about partying and girls and soon were being booked on TV's "Sabado Gigante."

The label also helped them hit on the fusion formula that would make them distinctive. The brothers had already sampled songs from their father's old record collection, storing snippets from Mexico's La Sonora Santanera, Venezuela's Billos Caracas Boys and El Salvador's Los Hermanos Flores. They hadn't used the samples because, as Johnny explains, "we didn't think it was hip."

But when they took a rap version of La Santanera's "La Boa" to the label, the reaction was immediate. "This is it," said Nelson Hernandez, a label exec.

"La Boa's" irresistible hook -- "Este nuevo ritmo, ya todos lo saben" ("This new rhythm, everybody knows it now") -- yielded the title of the first single, "Ya Lo Saben" (They Know It Now) from their Fonovisa debut, 2004's "Puro Escandalo" (Pure Scandal).

In another song, they sampled "El Ano Viejo" (The Old Year), a Latin American standard heard every New Year's Eve in dance halls and home parties from L.A. to Lima, Peru. On their new album, they replace samples with their own original music, still in a cumbia style, and are putting together a band for live shows.

The brothers knew they had hit on something when kids started telling them that their parents had taken their Crooked Stilo CDs. Among their biggest fans are Mr. and Mrs. Lopez, who've been married for 37 years.

I met the parents at their impeccable Temple City home. Their mother always has food for an army because, she explained, though she has an empty nest she still has "a lot of big cooking pots."

Their sons live nearby and visit all the time with their five children. The rappers still need to supplement their incomes, Johnny with a courier service and Victor with a software company. But now, when the brothers go back to El Salvador, they're treated like stars, not delinquents. At concerts, they're introduced as the creators of "cumbia urbana." They still look at each other in disbelief and say, "We are?"

"El Otro Lado Del Hip Hop" (The Other Side of Hip-Hop), Oct. 29 at the Knitting Factory, 7021 Hollywood Blvd. Tickets, $5, $8 at the door. Information: (323) 463-0204.


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