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Mexico City, early 1990s. DJs Toy Hernández, Pato Chapa and Fermín IV of hip-hop trio Control Machete enter a grimy garage lugging a beat box, a turntable and some mikes. They're the only hip-hop act on a slate of punkeros and rockeros. When Control finally take the stage in the early morning, guffaws erupt around the room. Insults follow.
"The crowd started yelling, 'Where are the drummers? Where are the guitars?'" remembers Toy. He's on a telephone from his home in Monterrey; a parrot squawks in the background. "There was no big hip-hop movement in Mexico during this time. Nobody could imagine—not the press, not music fans—that you could possibly perform only with words and a DJ. So people laughed."
Fast forward to Mexico City, last month. Control Machete opens for 50 Cent before a crowd of thousands packed inside the Sports Palace. Now a duo (Fermín IV left last year), now Latin America's premier hip-hop outfit, now ready to conquer el Norte. 50 Cent wowed the audience, but Control Machete's eclectic, spine-rattling bass blasts won in the media.
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"I read the reviews in the press [after the show], and everyone said that we performed better than 50," Hernández says with relish, but no braggadocio. "They asked 50 about us, and he thought it's about time that a Mexican group competed with American hip-hop.
"Everyone in Mexico eventually respected us little by little: by our beats, by our rhymes, by the chingo of times we'd play," Hernández suddenly gushes. "And then we play with 50. It's all destiny, güey. We're starting our own reconquista of hip-hop."
The recent set with 50 Cent is a vindication for Control Machete, who blazed anonymously across Latin America during the late '90s with a hip-hop never heard before: dark, metal-ish thuds with surprising Latin interludes punctuated by acoustic guitars, trembling horns and political lyrics. Control Machete were the first hip-hop group to win acclaim in the Hispanic world, a region that tended to celebrate alterna-rock experiments while ignoring a vibrant hip-hop movement now blossoming in its dystopian urban areas.
Hernández stresses that Control Machete wasn't Latin America's first hip-hop group. He cites such long-forgotten acts as Flor de Lingo, Spanky and Betate Fonk.
And then there was the North American rap scene, so loud, so terrifying you could hear it south of the border. "Here in Monterrey, it wasn't difficult," Hernández says. "We always had stores selling rap records, cousins or friends who came from the gabacho [the United States] with even more records. We always had an opportunity to discover hip-hop. We're only about six hours away from the border, güey. There were many hip-hop heads, not just us in Control Machete."
But it was Hernández who started Monterrey's earliest hip-hop radio show, growing an hourlong Sunday-night gig into a daily four-hour phenomenon that Hernández left last year because of time conflicts—namely, two infant daughters. It was Control Machete that became the first Latin American hip-hop group to sign with a major label when Universal released their gangsta debut, Mucho Barato, in 1997. And Control Machete remain one of the few non-tropical Latin American music projects to achieve American crossover success, this after director Spike Jonze used Control's siren-wailing sampling "Sí, Señor" as a soundtrack for a memorable 2002 Super Bowl commercial extolling the bagginess of Levi's.
"People were like, 'What's that? Hip-hop? In Spanish? Ohmigod!'" Hernández says and laughs, recalling reaction to the commercial. "That was an interesting moment. It got us sales, yes. But I think that showed people the global vision that Control has, the global movement that hip-hop is. It's not the lyrics—the communion, the universal language in hip-hop is en el funkiness del flow."
With the global economy introducing foreign culture to Latin America even as it crowbars wider the historical disparities between the Hispanic world's rich and poor, Hernández thinks hip-hop will dominate other music forms. He points to rappers such as La Mala Rodríguez in Spain, South-Central's own Akwid, and the French-Cuban ensemble Orishas as groups who rap socially conscious tunes alongside bolo-punch beats mixed with the native rhythms of their land.
"We're a generation that grew up during the first rap boom," says Hernández. "I think that's the power of hip-hop—that it's still taking hold in other countries 25 years after its birth. Hip-hop is to make a point. Hip-hop is to make statements. That's why hip-hop in the '80s was so big and why it's getting bigger today. There are problems in Latin America, and hip-hop will give people the opportunity to talk about what happens in the barrio, in love, in the gamble that is life.
"And now comes the fusion—we always had the rhythms," Hernández continues. "That fusion! In Puerto Rico, people combine rap with reggaetón; in Spain, it's flamenco rap. Californians put together Mexican regional with heavy beats.
"The best of hip-hop in Latin America," Hernández concludes with confidence, "is to come."
Control Machete performs with Delinquent Habits at JC Fandango, 1086 N. State College Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 758-1057; www.jcf.com. Thurs., April 8, 8 p.m. $25. 16+.