Two brothers, two cultures, one sound

Times Staff Writer

At first, Sergio and Francisco Gomez don't object to the idea of posing for photos on the streets of their old neighborhood, in the mixed black and Latino area near the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The inner-city scene just south of downtown seemed a perfect setting for the two brothers who catapulted this year from anonymity as local party DJs to one of the country's hottest new Latin acts -- Akwid, a fusion of their hip-hop nicknames, AK and Wiked.

But before heading out to their old turf with a photographer, the boys balk. Francisco leans over and whispers his concern to his older brother, seated next to him in a booth at a Mexican restaurant in Echo Park, a few miles from where they grew up. After the two confer privately, they politely nix the shoot in their old 'hood.

The problem, they explain, is Francisco's oversize football jersey. It's typical hip-hop fashion, and Sergio is wearing one too. But Sergio's is white. Francisco's is red, a color linked to one side in a longtime rivalry among two African American gangs, the Crips and the Bloods.

Many people may be vaguely aware of this risky practice of using blue or red bandanas as flags of gang affiliations. But for the Gomez brothers, respecting those neighborhood allegiances remains a vital consideration of daily life.

"We've never been affiliated with anything like that, so we don't have a [personal] problem with it," explains Sergio.

"But we are conscious of what's there," adds Francisco, the one who remembered not to provoke his former neighbors.

Growing up, the Gomez brothers were not just conscious of black culture. Like the children of many Mexican immigrants who have settled in the predominantly African American neighborhoods of South Los Angeles, the boys had come to adopt the style and music of their new neighbors and classmates.

At home, their family played strictly Mexican pop music, the cumbias, nortenas and banda tracks that compose the running soundtrack for blue-collar Latino life in L.A. But at school and at parties, the boys switched to the soundtrack of urban youth everywhere, dominated by rap and hip-hop in English.

For years, they tinkered privately with blending the disparate musical streams of their upbringing. They never imagined they would come up with a formula for a banda/rap fusion that would turn them into hometown celebrities, so popular they can no longer go to local swap meets without being mobbed by fans.

The Gomez brothers have caused a minor sensation with their new album, "Proyecto Akwid." Released in June on Univision Records, part of the media family that includes the leading Spanish-language television network in the U.S., the album has stayed in the national Latin top 20 for nearly six months, selling more than 225,000 units.

Akwid's success has now traveled back across the border, taking the duo on tour earlier this year to major cities such as Guadalajara, not far from the town of Jiquilpan, Michoacan, where the brothers were born. This was the first time since childhood that Sergio and Francisco, now in their 20s, have returned to the country of their birth.

Millions of immigrant offspring make that journey back to the homeland. But only a handful have ever returned as stars.

It's been quite an awakening for the pair who were 5 and 3 when their parents brought them to L.A., where they grew up ashamed of being Mexican.

"When you're small, it's hard to admit to your friends that you listen to the Spanish songs your parents listen to, that you like it too," says Sergio. "You wouldn't tell 'em that, you know, because you'd get clowned, probably for the rest of your life."

"For some reason," Francisco interjects, "when you're raised here in the States, they make you feel that being Mexican is wrong.... They make you feel embarrassed by it."

"But you get over that," says Sergio, switching to Spanglish to reinforce the idea. "Pierdes la verguenza de todo eso [you lose all that shame] as you're growing up. And I think that's exactly what we did with our music. We took that [away]: It's OK to be a wetback, a Mexican, whatever. This is the new generation that exists between both cultures."

While the brothers experimented in obscurity, the music executive who would hold the key to their fame was looking for a group that would be that cultural bridge.

Guillermo Santiso, former head of the Mexican regional label Fonovisa, knew that the young generation of immigrants was being lured away from its Latin roots by rap and hip-hop. Many young Latino artists were busy aping black rappers and getting nowhere, just as the Gomez brothers had done with a previous album in English under the name Juvenile Style.

Santiso didn't want an imitation. He was looking to "expand the banda base." After he met the Gomez brothers a year ago and helped them develop their concepts, the new sound was born.

"These guys came up with exactly what I wanted to hear, which is a mix of cultures," says Santiso, who now manages Akwid. "We had built this regional Mexican business with people coming from the ranchos and gave them the opportunity to feel proud of music nobody wanted anything to do with.

"Now, their kids were growing up in a very urban culture, so the goal for me was trying to get the right balance. Akwid were the first ones able to combine both things, Mexican music and the street culture, in a way that had mass appeal."

The brothers came up with a signature sound in the first single, "No Hay Manera" (There's No Way). Lyrically, it's a standard bit of hip-hop braggadocio that heralds the group's own arrival with "a new sound," one that "many have attempted but only Akwid has accomplished."

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The label is trumpeting the album as the launch of a new movement in urban Latino music. Critics are not so sure.

La Banda Elastica, the L.A.-based bible of alt-Latino music, trashed the album for its "precarious command" of Spanish and its "simple and predictable rhymes," dismissing it as inferior to the main strains of Latino rap, such as Cuba's Orishas or Spain's La Mala Rodriguez.

"As innovative as the sound may be," writes critic Juan Data in Spanish, "it ceases to be surprising on second hearing, and what remains is a mediocre record saturated with all the negative cliches of the genre: rap machismo + Mexican ranchera machismo = overdose of machismo."

The brothers had not seen the harsh review until the interview, and a Univision label executive warns that they won't like what they're about to read.

"Is it worse than the one that lady did in San Francisco?" asks Sergio, trying to assess the damage in advance.

Being half of the most courteous rap duo in the business, Sergio requests permission to look at the magazine. "Do you mind?" he asks, before reaching for the glossy publication.

With just a couple of expletives to express their dismay under their breath, the brothers brush off the critique.

"It's just their opinion," shrugs Francisco. "Everybody else likes it."

"Maybe we should pay them a visit," jokes Sergio, in his best dead-pan gangster impersonation.

After lunch, the two stroll to a grimy nearby underpass beneath Sunset Boulevard and pose for that photograph as cars race by. They're wearing impeccably white K-Swiss shoes, which they change every week for new ones because "they've got to be fresh." The two then don matching pairs of black leather gloves, standard for their publicity shots.

Over the roar of car motors amplified in the underpass, the brothers admit they're never heard of Orishas, the acclaimed black Cuban rappers. They simply don't care to compare themselves to others in the field.

"As Juvenile Style, we truly didn't have an identity of our own because we were trying to do what somebody had already done a long time ago," says Sergio. "But once you break out of that and you mature into who you're going to be for the rest of your life, it's a lot easier to make your music your own way."

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