There once used to be something called “diggers,” people who loved music, just like you and me, but they had a very special way of expressing this affection. They didn’t care much about current hits or classics, instead they were constantly on the search for forgotten, obscure tracks from bygone eras that never made it to the charts.
They were called diggers or vinyl archeologists, because they dug through piles and piles of old dusty records, looking for that perfect beat to sample, loop and re-contextualize in a whole new format.
Nowadays, with the unstoppable advances in digital music, for most of us, vinyl-digging sounds like a soon-to-be-extinguished anachronism. But there’s still plenty of renegades around, keeping this art alive, going through the crates of mom and pop record stores that somehow still manage to keep their doors open.
Chico Sonido is one of them. He has not only made a career out of it, as a DJ and producer, but spearheaded the new cumbia movement. Now, he has released his first solo record, self-titled and on sale through Kin Kon Records.
UNWILLING CUMBIA PIONEER
Chico Sonido is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of this current trend of new-school cumbia. But it was never his intention to kick-start a whole movement, in fact, he didn’t even like cumbia! “I’m from Northern Mexico where cumbia wasn’t very popular among the youth. I’m from the MTV generation, I grew up listening to The Beastie Boys and Nirvana. Cumbia was just music for weddings” he says.
Originally from a Mexican small town in El Valle Del Yaqui, Raul Espinosa, aka Chico Sonido, discovered cut-and-paste music in 1995 while living in London, when “Chemical Brothers were big and there was all this music coming out from labels like Mo’Wax and Ninja Tune” he says. The following year, he moved to Monterrey, and started DJing but it wasn’t until around 2002 that he began to do beat production and remixing and then, along with another Monterrey DJ known as Toy Selectah, and a bunch of other friends, he founded the DJ collective Sistema Local.
In 2001, Toy participated in the ground-breaking Barrio Bravo with Celso Piña, an album that’s considered the foundation of the cumbia renascence. “At first I didn’t even like it,” says Chico Sonido, but when Sistema Local, traveled to cumbia’s motherland, Colombia, the following year for a show “that’s when I first felt ‘the click’, it suddenly started to make sense. When I saw the reaction of the people to our first cumbia experiments I realized this fusion had a future” he says.
At that time, the few people that were experimenting with cumbia were mainly Europeans living in Latin America, like Dick el Demasiado (a Dutch in Argentina) and Señor Coconut (a German in Chile). Then the British group Up Bustle and Out went to Mexico searching for new sounds for their new album and they discovered cumbia sonidera. “Toy sent them some of the cumbia remixes we were doing and they invited us to work on their album,” remembers Chico. That album, The Mexican Sessions, didn’t come out until 2007 and it includes one of neo-cumbia’s biggest hits “Cumbion Mountain,” the song that introduced the English-speaking half of the world for the first time to the sound of cumbia.
“Originally I was supposed to do just a remix of one of their tracks,” says Chico Sonido, “I started it on my computer, then Toy helped me with the production, then Blanquito Man added some vocals, in the end it was a complete different song”.
In 2005, Chico Sonido relocated to Los Angeles and there, with Toy, who was at the time working for Machete Records, they released a 12’’ white-label vinyl with the first cumbia mash-ups. “I used the same riddim of ‘Cumbion Mountain’ and added the vocals from the ‘Milkshake’ song, Toy made a mash-up with a Missy Elliot song and then there was “Cumbia from the Bronx” by Blanquito”. Only 300 copies of that record were printed but it was enough to start a whole revolution.
BEYOND CUMBIA…AND INTO PSYCHEDELIA
Maybe because he was so involved in the birth of this current global trend of cumbia appreciation, people would expect Chico Sonido’s first album to keep exploring that particular sound. However, for his debut, he decided to dig deeper into another section of the record stores: he went for Mexican 70’s funk and psychedelia.
“There’s an era in Mexican music called ‘The Black Hole’, that was in the 70’s when rock was prohibited and it went underground. There was a lot of censorship from the Catholic conservatives and the government that pushed rock music to filthy, almost clandestine venues called ‘Funky Holes’. I was always very interested in the music from that era. There was a lot of funk being produced which never had any commercial success”.
Chico Sonido’s self-titled debut CD (out now on Kin Kon Records) is the result of his archeological “adventure” through the Mexican dark ages. Fifteen tracks of carefully researched musical excavations that sound old but fresh at the same time. They also sound raw, gritty, as if the whole album was recorded exclusively using two turntables, a mixer and a pile of 45’s as the only instruments; even when in reality computers and samplers were involved and it even has Kinky’s Ulises Lozano adding some keyboards to the mix.
“I wanted it to be my statement. The album of Chico Sonido. That album is me. I wasn’t expecting to be recognized as a cumbia DJ, that just happened. It was never my intention to get married to any genre, particularly not cumbia, which I didn’t even like in the first place. For me cumbia was an adventure. This album was a different adventure. Maybe I’ll do a cumbia EP in the future, I don’t know…” It will just be another adventure in the life of vinyl superhero Chico Sonido and his wheels of steel.