Slowrider is party music; Slowrider is protest tunes. Slowrider is instrumental grandiosity; Slowrider is austere hip-hop/ cumbia beats. Slowrider is an insignificant group that'll never achieve sales outside Los Angeles; Slowrider is ripe to conquer KCRW and the NPR nation. Classify Slowrider however you must, but the band scratches with so many picks the only honest characterization of them you can deduce is that labels mean nothing.
Chaos is the governing force controlling Slowrider, a yin-yang push-and-pull that demands restlessness and constant evolution from them, even at the risk of displeasing fans. The group first attained word-of-mouth status in 1998 as a six-member outfit that quickly won acclaim as LA's ultimate party band, each performance as comfortably sweaty as a mid-'80s Eastlos house party. Then Slowrider instituted a radical alignment in 2002 with Nacimiento, an epic effort featuring suites of instrumentals concentrating more on the jazzy than the jamming. The group expanded to nine members for that album but shrank back to six once again for this year's Historias en RevisiónEP, a cosmic spin that channeled late-'70s soul, even more jazz, and lithe Latin rhythms behind the chants of MC Olmeca, an early-20s prophet who just might evolve into Southern California's most articulate musical spokesperson since Zack de la Rocha.
"We could have done Más Alla five times, but we wanted to do something new," says keyboardist and founding member Dgomez, referring to their much-burned debut. "Same thing with Nacimiento. Even today, people will come up to us and ask, 'What happened? You guys change too much.'" He grins. "I like to hear that, whether it's a compliment or a dis. It means we're on the right track."
Today—at least as of last week—Slowrider involves two distinct halves, the instrumental and lyrical. Their spacey, wordless songs reference generations of Los Angeles music, alternately rumbling like Thee Midniters' "Whittier Blvd." or cruising over synths à la Money Mark's "Sunday Gardena Boulevard," all intricate sonic portraits incorporating solos less onanistic than examples of improvisational expertise.
Olmeca brandishes some sort of percussive instrument during these riffs, letting the thud of his taps speak instead of his scowl. But Slowrider transforms into a different beast once Olmeca grabs the mic for the band's spoken tracks. He prowls the stage like a jaguar, his long, ebony-black braid swinging from the back of his head, gleaming like a menacing baton. The innocents have nothing to worry about—he and Slowrider fight from the stage against the maladies of the world with smartly written odes and music that's equal parts joy and furor, exuberance and anger.
Slowrider's instrumental and lyrical relationship is a marriage that's as meant-to-be as peanut butter and jelly. But it almost wasn't. A Cal State LA professor introduced Olmeca—who at the time was pursuing solo projects by recording himself on a tinny keyboard—to drummer Moises Ruíz around 2000. They immediately clicked—"I saw Mo's scruffy beard and heard his politics, and I knew we were on the same page," says Olmeca—and Ruíz invited him to perform with Slowrider that very night. Dgomez, however, was less than welcoming.
"We'd have shows, and people would just get onstage and start to jam even if we didn't know them—people who should have been committed," Dgomez laughs. "After a couple of months like that, performances started to get really cacophonous. I didn't want to get into that. So I was skeptical at first when Olmeca started jamming with us." Very skeptical—Dgomez handed Olmeca a cowbell the first couple of collaborations.
But Dgomez's doubt couldn't deny the humble Olmeca too long. "Whenever he'd get onstage, the audience would get even crazier," continues Dgomez. "He turned out to be what we needed. What we had always been trying to say musically, he was saying lyrically."
For Dgomez, Olmeca's addition to the group allowed Slowrider to finally explore the political bent they had long embodied but seldom voiced. Slowrider songs aren't always about politics per se, but most of their performances find them at benefits for various rallies and causes—the Taco Bell boycott campaign of last year, the continued struggles of Justice for Janitors and Los Angeles' garment workers, and a slew of anti-war rallies that Olmeca admits "is the most important thing for us right now."
Nevertheless, "I'm not sure Slowrider is political," adds the soft-spoken Dgomez. "We tend to deal more in truths than ideologies. And the truth is things are messed up. Poor people are the heart and soul of this country and get the least out of it. We're a part of the community—we can't escape it nor do we want to."
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The band's commitment to community manifests itself most prominently in supporting their fellow LA artists, both by promoting other bands (they recently started a label, Nomadic Sound System, to help out local LA artists) and supporting one another against a corporate America that never met a Latino it didn't wish to culturally exploit.
"A lot of Latinos capitalize on their culture but don't give back," Dgomez says without naming names. "To do that is to be the biggest hypocrite in the world. And the funny thing is these corporations don't seem to care. We had some opportunities from big-name clubs to play Día de los Muertos shows next month. Sure, they want to book us and other acts on those days. But what about the rest of the year? No calls. That's the nature of capitalism—consummation without consideration."
"We have to be cautious," Olmeca adds. "We have to stick together more than ever and keep on with our vision. Who knows? Maybe we'll change and sell out. I know me, I just got a solo deal with Universal." He lets the beat pass and leans back in his chair. "Sure."
Slowrider performs with Maldita Vecindad at JC Fandango, 1086 N. State College Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 758-9998. Sun., 8 p.m. $30. 16+.