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By Michael E. Miller
Kidd Cumbia, a.k.a. David Elizondo, is distracted. He's trying to focus on the surprise success of A Toda Maquina (Full Force), the debut album from his group ATM. Yet he can't help looking across the lobby of the Sofitel Hotel near Miami International Airport at a group of young men who greatly resemble him. Dressed in the Mexican-urban uniform of close-cropped hair, baggy jeans, and fresh-scoured sneakers, this is what's left of the Kumbia Kings, the cumbia-hip-hop group Elizondo recorded with briefly before forming ATM. Elizondo is still smarting over a slight by A.B. Quintanilla of the Kings, who excised Elizondo's vocal and replaced it with an annoying squeak.
"That's disrespect," he blurts out before recovering his composure. Then he squints at his erstwhile rivals who just happen to be staying in the same hotel while shooting their first post-Kumbia Kings music video in Miami. "It's funny that we're all here together," he says. "A lot of people are saying we have to be against each other, but we're cool."
As a pretender to the Kumbia Kings throne, ATM is part of the urban movement that has made Latin music "cool" for young U.S.-born Latinos eager to differentiate themselves from their parents. "When I was growing up it wasn't cool to be Latin," observes the 24-year-old Elizondo as he holds forth at the Sofitel. "You tried to be black or white, but not Latin. Now it's like the coolest thing in the world to be Latin."
The new cool -- and corresponding record sales -- has helped the once-underground movement gain legitimacy in the music industry. For the first time in the fifteen-year history of Premio Lo Nuestro(Our Own Prize), the awards show broadcast on the Univision network from 7:00 to 11:00 tonight will include an "urban" category. But exactly what makes urban music Latin or Latin music urban is far from clear. ATM is a good case in point: Although the band plays primarily rap, reggaetón, and R&B, the inclusion of the accordion on many of the tracks earned the group a nomination as best new artist not in the new urban slot, but in the Mexican regional category.
It's not that Mexican regional music can't be urban too; there's nothing more gangsta than the drug-dealing outlaws of today's narcocorridos, to pick an obvious example. But however popular Lupillo Rivera and his siblings might be, African-American urban music remains the lingua franca for Latinos from Nuyoricans in the Bronx to vatos in Califas. "We're losing a lot of the Hispanic kids to [African-American] rap and I feel okay about it, because that's my world first," says Elizondo.
The Kumbia Kings spoke to Chicanos in the Southwest. Anyone not steeped in Puerto Rico's barrio culture needs a dictionary to understand Tego Calderón. With ATM, Elizondo hoped to make Latin urban music that could travel from the East Coast to the West. The Texas-born producer and songwriter determined to create what he calls an "international" language. "Why not bring reggaetón and cumbia together?" Elizondo urges. "Why not make the Hispanic market more valuable? Let's make ourselves more valuable."
Kidd Cumbia began his fusion project soon after he wrote the first single for Miami-based Jive Five and hooked up with the now-defunct boy band's Puerto Rican singer and guitarist, Chelo Mejía. While the two already shared a background in hip-hop and R&B, they swapped regional styles and national vocabulary. "Chelo, he uses a word -- I don't even know what it means -- it's a Puerto Rican dish," Elizondo struggles until his interlocutor comes up with the right word. "Sofrito," he repeats, satisfied with the Boricua word for stew. "Sofrito con guacamole," he adds, completing the culinary metaphor for ATM's pan-Latin approach. "The worlds are so much alike. We're all Latino."
Elizondo's why-can't-we-get-along approach only goes so far. ATM includes a track called "Mata la Cucaracha" ("Kill the Cockroach"), a none-too-subtle dig at Quintanilla with a reprise of the squeaky vocal track that offended Elizondo. "It's friendly rivalry," the songwriter shrugs. "Tejana music benefits."
ATM's effort to offer an alternative to African-American urban sounds has its limits as well. "Gangsta Cumbia," the track Elizondo says ATM built its sound around, is a deliberate effort to tap into already established sounds of blackness. Elizondo and his bandmates asked, "What's the hottest thing in the English market?" The answer, at that moment in 2002, was Nelly. A fan of the West Coast swing of the late Nineties, Elizondo threw in a little "G Funk" for good measure. "What if Nelly and Nate Dogg collaborated on a track?" Elizondo asked. What if you threw a little accordion and bajo sexto at that? The producer answers his own question: "That's the sound we wanted."
If the approach seems derivative, the result is surprising. Dip Nelly's signature flow into a cumbia beat, and you've got a whole new urban grammar.