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Latinos with a mission

Los Mocosos' American Us

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Manny Martinez has a mouth on him faster than you can say "Psychofunkapuss"--the name of his last band. The bilingual rapper, born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico, now fronts Los Mocosos, an irreverent, high energy Latin rock band from San Francisco's Mission District. Their breakthrough 2001 debut on Six Degrees Records, Shades of Brown, included "Mi Barrio Loco," a scathing satire about gentrification in this traditionally Chicano neighborhood:

"The Mission District was puro Latino / now it's yuppies with their capuccinos / The hood is starting to lose its charm / as I wake to the sound of a car alarm / The rents were cheap so in they creep / They move north while we go south."

Sticking to their guns, their new release American Us keeps one foot over the line of social commentary and even radio decency at times. Martinez says coming up in the Reagan-Bush era shaped more than his musical taste.

"I'm a child of the '80s, that was a very strong influence for me. People were so much more willing to express themselves. 9/11 screwed things up, people are so scared to talk against the government."

As a consequence, Martinez wrote "Senor Presidente," an open letter in the form of a cumbia, to speak directly in Spanish to the nominally bilingual Dubya. Then there's "The Beast," a reggae song about police brutality but with the carefree, summer vibe of a UB40 tune:

"Keep your hands down at your side / don't try to look him straight in the eye / To him we're all alike / we're all a gang / Don't reach for your wallet / you'll hear a bang."

Los Mocosos' Brechtian critique isn't reserved just for The Man, however. They also take on the fishy ethics of thug life in "Bacalao." That's the Spanish word for codfish, but from the streets comes the proverbial meaning of "a person who thinks / that the world owes them something, so their personality stinks."

But American Us proclaims more than the coming of age of a band. The proud-to-be-Brown anthem "In The House," about Latinos taking their rightful place at the American table, hearkens back to Public Enemy with a jamming salsa bridge. "Blind Faith" is what keeps any hardworking, hometown band together in today's music industry, and this closing track plays the Mexican blues rock card as well as Santana or Los Lobos. Musical manifestos should all be this much fun.

Los Mocosos also succeed with unpredictable covers, like Nirvana's "Come As You Are" (which they are performing now in their live set) and, from Shades of Brown, their funky, retooled version of WAR's "Spill the Wine." Where Eric Burdon sang this psychedelic sexual fantasy as a "fair-haired leaping gnome," Martinez personalizes the lyric for an added twist: "This really blew my mind...the fact that me, a dark-skinned bald-headed Puerto Rican from New York, could be the star of a Hollywood movie." Similarly, on American Us, he liberates the '60s soul/pop standard "I'm Your Puppet," making it just as sexually exuberant by adding a bouncy rap lyric in the break.

It's about time Los Mocosos recorded "Bandolera Era," the snappy merengue with plenty of fire that has been a fixture in their live setlist for several years now, and which opens American Us. Their show this month in Greensboro at the Eastern Music Festival held new surprises, including a cha-cha-shag ("North Carolina's greatest natural resource," a listener quipped), an as-yet unnamed salsa tune, and their showstopping tribute to Tito Puente from Shades of Brown.

"[That song] will always mean something to us. It's because of Tito Puente that Carlos [Santana] blew up when he did. He was an inspiration because he was fearless, and so charismatic," says Martinez, who also plays Puente's main instrument, the timbales.

New "Mocosa" Ayla Davila, a Bay Area session musician with a music degree from Berkeley, replaces Happy Sanchez on bass in the 9-piece ensemble that also features brass, keyboards, turntables, electric guitar, drums and latin percussion, but other than that the lineup remains stable. And getting better all the time, which is no mean feat.

With blending all the rage these days, Los Mocosos is not just another fruity frappaccino selling out its roots as a refreshing consumer product. It's a musical diary of guys who came up in the barrio listening to doowop, R&B and Chicano Power bands on the radio, who remember taking girls to the dance in their lowrider cars and paying their musical dues in bands from Malo to The Drifters. There is struggle and authenticity here, and a voice that is earnest but not weighed down. EndBlock

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