Not His Cross to Bear

Crossover. Record executives dream of it. Most Latin performers covet it. The very thought of it makes Marc Anthony a little sick.

"Every time I hear the word 'crossover' something goes off in my stomach," says Anthony, who last year became the first salsa artist to sell out Madison Square Garden. He is currently at work on an English-language album for Columbia Records. "The perception is that you create an entire body of work [in Spanish] but the ultimate goal is to cross over [to the English-language market.] That makes me uncomfortable, because it sends out a message that the love my fans give me just isn't enough, which is totally false. Recording in English is just an extension of what I do."

It's not a far reach. Anthony, born Marco Antonio Muniz, grew up in East Harlem, in a neighborhood he has described as one where he might hear Ruben Blades, Gloria Gaynor, and the Doobie Brothers coming from the windows on one block. He was also exposed to Puerto Rican music from an early age by his father, Felipe Muniz, a guitarist who plays jibaro music, a popular folkloric style. Anthony, who turns 30 next month, has performed professionally since he was twelve. He recorded with "freestyle" dance artist Sa-Fire and has sung with Menudo. His 1991 solo debut was an English album, When the Night Is Over. A dance single from the album, "Ride on the Rhythm," went to number one on Billboard's dance chart.

But Anthony became a superstar by performing a fresh kind of salsa that combined soulful vocals, pop-style melodies, and Latin rhythms with the urban edge of hip-hop. A logical end-of-century mix, it was something no one had done with such success. On his breakthrough album, Todo a Su Tiempo, Anthony worked with Sergio George, the New York mastermind behind DLG and other urban Latin groups that have broken down the barriers of mainstream dance music. Todo a Su Tiempo was the first salsa record to go gold. Anthony's latest record, Contra la Corriente, has been one of the top fifteen albums on the Billboard Latin chart since it was released ten months ago. Also among Anthony's firsts: the first tropical (salsa, merengue) artist to have a record on the Billboard 200, a cross-genre list of the top-selling albums in the United States.

"The whole concept of crossover doesn't exist in my mind," he says on the phone from New York. Why should it? "Ninety-five percent of my fan base is bilingual."

Anthony's music has obviously reached a wide audience. But his listeners are principally people much like himself -- MTV-era Latins who reject the stereotypical image of Spanish-language singers as soap opera studs with slicked-back hair. On his album covers, wearing loose black clothes and wire-rim glasses, Anthony exudes the understated cool of an Armani model.

"There's a whole bicultural vibe that he brings out in his music. He's made salsa a little more hip, a little more relevant," says John Lannert, Billboard's Caribbean and Latin bureau chief. "He's a reflection of his audience, someone's who's grown up listening to hip-hop, pop, R&B, and salsa, and that's what comes out in his music. He has a charisma and a vocal delivery that the younger generation of Latins can relate to in a way that isn't possible with salsa artists from Puerto Rico. For a lot of Latin kids in this country, listening to tropical music has been something that's relegated to relatives' parties. I think he's made young Caribbean Latins proud of their musical heritage."

Anthony has helped make salsa more acceptable for a Latin generation raised in the United States, but he hasn't alienated their parents, either. By all accounts, Anthony is a boy any mother could love. He brings the Puerto Rican flag onstage, ends a phone conversation with "God bless you," and talks passionately about family values (he has a young daughter but is not married.) Still, some members of the old guard have failed to find Anthony endearing -- namely, music critics who are fans of the old-style salsa that came out of New York in the Seventies. They have frequently maligned Anthony as being a proponent of "romantic salsa" style, which favors lovesick crooning over the harder rhythmic melodies and upbeat, improvisational vocals that descended from Cuban son.

Granted, not everyone wants love songs. But Anthony's detractors don't seem to be listening to the music. Make no mistake, it is music, not the drum-machine drivel that has come to characterize contemporary, commercial salsa. The songs on Contra la Corriente start off slow and moony, blowing out into a twisting montage of Latin dance rhythms, with instrument solos performing duets with Anthony's voice.

"The salsa purists should just shut up and get over it," Anthony huffs, traces of a tough barrio inflection suddenly coloring his voice. "The salsa my generation does has already become standard. It's totally accepted. There are a lot of kids who are taking it to new levels now, playing with the rhythms. It's inevitable that music is going to evolve every ten years. As long as you do any music that's pure at heart, that's fine. If you do something for commercial reasons, that's a sin. I love what I do and I'm honest about what I do. I don't make commercial decisions, I make heart decisions."

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