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Photos by OCW staffMatt Martínez of Over the Counter Intelligence (OTCI) is usually self-effacing, but ask him to describe punk's "revolutionary" ethos, and he looks like a man who has just swallowed turpentine.
"A lot of people like to sing about how they hate the government and society, but they don't do shit about it," he says with disgust. "That doesn't help the revolution at all."
OTCI work in the tradition of activist musicians Woody Guthrie, Ozomatli and Los Crudos—people who sang about fighting for a better world and could show the bruises to prove their participation in the fight.
Singing about Che and Chomsky is only part of OTCI's arsenal of revolutionary action. Chances are they're on the line if there's an Orange County protest. Vicente Fox in Santa Ana? One of their equipment handlers stood in front of a hostile crowd with a sign telling the Mexican president to "¡Chinga tu madre!" ("Go fuck your mother!"). Last month's brawl in front of Anaheim City Hall between Barbara Coe's anti-immigrant hordes and a slew of anarchists? OTCI's managers were trading verbal barbs with people whining about Mexicans. Anti-war protests? Nazis at the Shack? Police brutality marches? Yes, yes and yes.
Despite such street-level activism, OTCI remains—you know—a band. Call the quartet (Martínez on guitar, drummer José "Mansun" Reyes, singer Andre Sandoval and bassist Rafael Ramos) Rage Against the Machine Hardcore—less rap and rock and more revolutionary fervor, with lyrics that make Zack de la Rocha look like a vendido(that's a sellout). OTCI's performances are filled with shameless promotions of social causes between songs, the hurling of 400-page sociopolitical tomes into the audience, and equally heavy rhythms that feel like the weight bearing down on all the oppressed people of the world. It's no wonder Sandoval is usually left gasping by concert's end, symbolically curled up in a ball, as if clubbed by cops—or maybe reborn.
OTCI's members hail from Santa Ana's mean streets, where political consciousness is usually a luxury in the face of wrenching poverty. Martínez (a former gang member who freely admits, "I traded in my gun for a bass") didn't get politically active until joining OTCI.
"Growing up, you always have an idea of what's going on," Martínez tells me shortly before moderating a recent Taco Bell boycott-planning meeting. "You don't just wake up one day and realize that the government's fucked-up and keeps you down. But it does take something to motivate you into action. In our case, it was the music."
Besides the protests and headlining a Taco Bell boycott benefit show (at which Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello gave the band rave reviews), OTCI want to set an example for their peers who eschew the glossiness of rock en español for something truer to their experience but think that punk is too "white." The group does get some curious glances for the type of music they play ("Stick to rap!" is a common reaction), but Martínez stresses that playing punk doesn't insulate them from their surroundings.
"We're a new genre—barrio punk," he says with pride. "Anything we play comes from our community and is designed to help it out."
Revolutionary activism creates problems for the band, which occasionally has a hard time finding gigs thanks to such tunes as "The Only Good Cop Is a Dead One" and audience-participation numbers with "Fuck George Bush!" as a chorus. In fact, OTCI is now banned from Chain Reaction because the group's manager tagged "Doing is the best way of saying" in the Anaheim club's bathroom and refused to clean it up.
"It's not the best thing for our career to get banned from a club," Martínez says. "But we'd rather play benefit shows that help the cause for an audience that cares about the revolution than for people who are content with doing nothing."
Over the Counter Intelligence perform at the Collective Arts in Action, 1919 W. Seventh St., fourth floor, Los Angeles, (323) 993-6001. Feb. 22. Call for time. $5.