Around and Back

Like the majority of young Latinos who sport Cholo wear (and who have nothing to do with gangs, guns or pit bulls), Delinquent Habits are an utterly positive hip-hop crew trying to eke out a legit living. They've had a tough time. Rappers Kemo and Ives and their awe-inspiring DJ O.G. Styles (all from the Downey/ Norwalk area, which they dub the Lower East Side) came out with their first self-titled record in 1996. They sold a million copies worldwide and toured most of Europe, Japan and Central America. Their second record, Here Come the Horns, might have taken them over the top, but their label, PMP, collapsed, leaving the Habits with nobody to pimp the album.

So Latin rap got its 15 minutes, and Delinquent Habits got a mention in the hip-hop footnotes. And that might have been it. But having been around and back with the record industry, they wisely decided to release their latest (and greatest) record, Merry Go Round, on their own Station Thirteen label and quickly hooked up with Ark 21 for worldwide distribution.

Their troubles aren't over. Pioneered by Cypress Hill, Latin rap never really took off, despite the modest successes of such Latin acts as Big Pun and Fat Joe. But neither of them ever embraced Latin music and culture quite as enthusiastically as the Habits, whose music is soaked in mariachi horns and Spanglish rhymes. The lyrics are laid-back and free of references to gangs and violence, except when they're dissing that whole scene. Like fellow LA acts Jurassic 5 and Black Eyed Peas (who barely swear and openly pity the plethora of wannabe thugs fuckin' up hip-hop), Delinquent Habits are avoiding styles that were burned out back when alternative music and Barney the Dinosaur were popular.

From the moment the polished Merry Go Round kicks in, O.G. Styles dominates. His squiggly sounding scratches, Spanish-guitar loops and tinkly piano samples overshadow Ives' and Kimo's decent but undistinguished rhyming. The album's other star is Michelle, a Latin siren who appears on three songs, singing mostly in Spanish. "Que Vuelva" is pretty much her tune, and for some reason, it brings to mind a sweltering club where muchachos in giant cowboy hats compete for the affections of lonely, tortured taxi dancers who love none of them (though it probably has nothing to do with that). There's also no shortage here of strictly West Coast, passing-a-fatty tunes best saved for an evening cruising with the top down on Whittier Boulevard.

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Thankfully, Delinquent Habits don't overdo it with the pot references, which are about as tired as Madonna. In fact, the majority of Merry Go Round sounds very phat indeed. Perhaps there aren't any radio programmers around willing to reach out to rap radio's huge Latino audience, but regardless, Delinquent Habits have fashioned what is easily the finest melding of hip-hop and Latin grooves to date.

Delinquent Habits perform at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Fri., 7:30 p.m. $15. All ages.

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