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By Michael E. Miller
The four guys lunching at the Beach all look the same, but one lets it be known who the boss is. "I am," says Cuban-born A.T. Molina, his face hidden behind translucent glasses and a hat, hip-hop style. In the bustling restaurant, people talk and nosh noisily while Molina -- frontman, producer, composer, and arranger of Caribbean Funk -- is happy to be the center of attention.
Some might say Molina is hogging the spotlight that once shined on Bolivian band Azul Azul, a group dissolved by the members this past July in protest of the permission record label Sony Discos granted other bands, including King Africa and Caribbean Funk, to popularize the Azul Azul's hit "La Bomba" ("The Bomb") in Spain and in the United States, respectively. Despite the Bolivians claim that they could cross over themselves, estimates suggest that only 800,000 of the 3 million copies of "La Bomba" sold belong to Azul Azul.
Molina, working closely with the director of Sony's crossover division, Gabriel Buitriago, has remixed salsero Huey Dumbar, merenguero Elvis Crespo, and pop Mexican singer Fey. He is a little defensive when the conversation turns to the Bolivians' blues. "I wrote at least half, if not more, of the crossover [version of “La Bomba']," insists Molina, "and that was the version that became popular in the U.S. market. That success is what led to the Caribbean Funk." According to Molina, he not only wrote the English-language version of the infectious dance hit, he also arranged and produced the song and recruited the woman who raps the English lyric. The Bolivians supplied only the Spanish chorus -- arguably the most memorable part of the song. On Caribbean Funk's self-titled debut, the chorus is re-recorded by Molina himself.
But is "La Bomba" the big hit for Caribbean Funk? "Noooo," say all four assembled funksters in chorus. "That has nothing to do with us, nothing at all," argues Molina. Developed to bring Caribbean-flavored pop to the States, the group consists of Molina and a rapidly shifting roster of chorus singers and rappers, including for now fellow Cuban Lex, the Dominican T Nice, Jamaican Nikki, and U.S. native Mara. T Nice is eager to speak up, saying, "I want to give my opinion now." None too subtly, the boss shuts him up. "That is just one more song on the CD," he says. Maybe, except that that particular song is promoted by a slick music video and pitched on the CD cover as follows: "Includes the Hits: “La Bomba,' “One More Try,' “Tide Is High.'" Draw your own conclusions.
As even that partial list of covers suggests, Caribbean Funk is really not aiming at originality. What Molina hopes will distinguish the group from the many one-hit wonders he covers is his careful production of Caribbean party tunes. In addition to "La Bomba," Caribbean Funk breathes new, urban life into the choruses and melodies of party favorites "Tu Pun Pun," "Sopa de Caracol" ("Shellfish Soup"), "One More Try," and "Teaser." Molina describes the formula: "There are a bunch of contagious songs on that CD that can compete with any rap singer on the market because it is at the same level of productions. Some hip-hop projects that include Latinos do not work at this caliber. They lack the spice, the salsa. We have all those ingredients already in the mix." Right or wrong, "La Bomba" is in the mix.