Like many Mexicans who are thriving against the odds in the United States, Francisco Gomez cannot believe his good luck. Akwid, the rap duo featuring him and his older brother Sergio, has been in the top twenty of the Billboard Latin album chart for the past 30 weeks, and Proyecto Akwid has been nominated in the Best Latin Rock Alternative Album category at the 46th annual Grammy Awards.
"It's hard to believe, even for us," says Francisco over the phone as he cruises through L.A. in his car. "To get this kind of support while trying to create a new genre is almost inexplicable." Akwid's music combines the basic patterns of hip-hop programming and traditional Mexican rhythms with the horn accents and percussion of northern Mexico's banda. The duo write and produce their own hooks and lyrics; look like Kid Frost's little brothers; and sound like they're from a generation that grew up listening to Snoop Dogg and N.W.A. alongside Los Tigres del Norte and Los Cadetes de Linares. They even sample Mexican superstar and romantic crooner Juan Gabriel on the album's first single, the bombastic "No Hay Manera."
"A lot of things have happened in a few months," says Francisco, who accepts that Proyecto Akwid's 200,000-plus sales -- which certifies it as "platinum" in the American Latin market -- means that there's a huge number of bootlegs being sold, too. At least the latter, more dubious distinction helps spread the word. "At a certain point we'd heard that our album was also at the top of the piracy chart, which is not a lot of fun, because piracy is hurting us all. But it is inevitable," he adds, emphasizing his gratitude to "all those that are supporting us by buying legal CDs."
Francisco believes the massive response to Proyecto Akwid has to do with its daring musical character. He doesn't want to give credit to the extensive publicity campaign that Akwid's record label, a division of the powerful media corporation Univision, may have waged on the group's behalf. "I think people like us [are successful] because we dare to do music without rules," he says. "We like to mix, and we put a lot of heart in what we do because we are for real."
They weren't looking for labels when they began working on the album in 2002. A friend of theirs, Nelson Mendoza, knew some people in the record industry and, after listening to some of the group's tracks, felt the urge to pass them on. "When [Fonovisa Records veteran and founder of Headliners Records] Guillermo Santiso heard the music and said, 'This is the next thing,' they came looking for us, and not the other way around," says Francisco. Proyecto Akwid was released in June 2003 on Santiso's Headliners Records and was distributed through Univision Records.
The members of Akwid are quite like TV characters. They represent the stereotypical role Mexico has reserved for the man as the household dominator. Their Spanish lyrics are explicit and rude, but not necessarily gangsta. "Some people have called us machistas, and some other names. All we have to say is that's the way we grew up, that's the way we are," says Francisco about the kind of reaction they get with songs like "Siempre Ausente," where they warn their girlfriends about questioning their motives too much: "It's not your business where I've been/And where I'm going to be/It's not your business where I am/Don't ask who I'm with/Don't ask me who's her/Told you many times, I need a couple to be happy/I'm back now, you have me now, but not for long." And on and on.
Akwid's lyrics are not that controversial in comparison with, say, Molotov's "Puto" ("Fag"), and can be easily interpreted as fun, if macho. "We're having fun, we really like to go out with more than one girl, and all we're saying is 'Wait for your turn,'" laughs Francisco, who sounds like an authentic teenager but refuses to reveal his age; he does acknowledge that he's in his midtwenties, and that his brother Sergio is two years older.
"A lot of people like the songs, and some don't like them ... but more than 200,000 people can't be that mad at us, don't you think?" asks Francisco rhetorically. "We're only taking hip-hop's rhythm. Our lyrics aren't related to it -- we don't talk about gangs, or drugs, or nothing, just about funny things."
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The Gomez brothers once had a tough time selling people, even their friends, on the mix of genres they were planning for the band, which has since been tagged in the recording industry as "urban regional." Born in Michoacan, Mexico, the brothers immigrated with their family when they were three and five years old, respectively. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, the two represent a new era of bilingual Latinos: more inclined to communicate in English than Spanish, and more influenced in general by American culture. They formed Juvenile Style, releasing two underground albums in 1995 on which they rapped in English, Time 2 Expand and Brewed in South Central. But around 2000 they decided to switch to Spanish and changed the name of the group to a combination of their rap names, DJ AK (Francisco) and DJ Wikid (Sergio). In short, Akwid.
Before Proyecto Akwid put the group on the map in 2003, Akwid released an album called 2002 A.D. under the labels Banyan and 2-K Sounds, the former with EMI Latin distribution. At the time, 2-K Sounds licensed the songs from Banyan. Now Banyan has licensed the songs to yet another label, Aries Music, which is also distributed by EMI Latin. Though it went unnoticed when it was first released, 2002 A.D. is now being repackaged to satiate market demand for new Akwid music; nine out of its 21 songs will be rereleased with new production and guest appearances from other L.A. rappers -- Dyablo, Seven, and Mr. Sancho among them -- on March 9 as part of a new CD called Hoy, Ayer and Forever.
When the duo began singing and rapping in broken, slang-ridden Spanish, they went back to their roots and silenced the critics who once accused them of mimicking black music. They still rely heavily on hip-hop beats, but by incorporating Mexican horns and percussions, they have created a distinctly Chicano style of rap. "The place where we grew up helped us mold our personalities," says Francisco. To him, all Akwid is trying to do is to encourage young Mexicans to be themselves. "A lot of people are afraid of saying they're Mexican, or feel embarrassed to admit they're illegal [immigrants]," he says. "By having fun we're trying to tell them they're not alone in feeling those kind of things."