My most powerful memories revolve around music and my earliest memories revolve around two songs: Stevie Wonder’s “I just called to say I love you” and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody wants to rule the world”. When I hear the former, I think of being cramped in the back of my dad’s red Ford Escort driving…somewhere. The latter reminds me of the wood paneling of the Woodriver Apartment complex that we lived in in Corpus Christi, Texas. What got me to finally sleep by myself was a boombox that my parents got me where I could pop in Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous”, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie soundtrack, or the top-40 station…well, that and the incessant crying of my infant sister. But I digress…
I inherited my love of R&B from my mother; growing up in Saginaw, Michigan in the 70’s, she was fond of Gloria Gaynor, Chic, Sister Sledge and everything disco (in addition to the compulsory tejano groups becoming any Mexican-American at that time). My mom told me that for the most part, she didn’t like school except for choir, and I would inherit that love of singing throughout my life. As such, when I heard the song “Mowtownphilly” by a group called Boyz II Men, I went deep into a rabbit hole of what would later be called “New jack swing” (a subgenre of R&B popular in the early to mid 90’s). This was years before the internet, so I didn’t know much about these groups other than what was in the liner notes, so I obsessed over the songwriter credits and names like “Tony Rich”, “Babyface” and my personal musical heroes, “Jimmy-Jam and Terry Lewis”. I saw those names on other artists’ catalogs and learned that singers and songwriters weren’t mutually exclusive; that producers often wrote songs and could win awards of their own. In the 6th grade, me and a group of friends covered “I Swear”, which had hit the charts when All 4 One covered it earlier that year, for a choir performance.
7th grade: new school and new discoveries. My older cousin brought me a double-cd that I just had to listen to. It was 2pac’s “All Eyes On Me”. Down another rabbit hole, only this time it was West Coast G-funk inspired rap. I never caught onto the Bad Boy roster, which I think was mostly due to the disco samples. I repped the West Side and devoured artists like Cypress Hill, Kid Frost, Richie Rich in addition to stalwarts like Snoop, Dr. Dre and the Death Row roster. Mostly though, it was 2pac and “Me against the world” is one of those albums that I still find myself digging into as I inch closer to middle age.
After football practice one day, I was in the locker room changing while listening to some tunes when one of the coaches grabbed my headphones, asking what I was listening to. It was Pac’s “Hit ’em up”.
“Does your mom know you’re listening to this,” he asked.
“Yeah, she bought it for me,” I answered.
He didn’t believe me, so he confiscated my discman and told me to have my mom write him a letter saying I had permission to listen to “that” music. I went home and told my mom and she was LIVID. See, I never hid what I listened to from my mom and she never censored my music choices. She wasn’t always happy if there were curse words but she never really cared because she knew I was obsessed. Plus, I got her to actually fall in love with 2pac after I showed her “Dear Mama”. Now I don’t remember exactly what she wrote in that first letter, but I do remember that she proceeded to write a 3 page letter about how I was an honors student who never caused trouble and how dare this football coach judge my listening habits because that meant he was judging her parenting and he had no right to censor what I listened to. I asked her to reign it in, as I didn’t want her telling him off to result in me doing black halos after practice, so she wrote a shorter letter. I took it to him, he read it, and gave me back the discman without a word. I took music seriously and was staunch about listening to whatever the fuck I wanted to.
But by and large, outside of tejano bands, I never really saw any music groups who looked like me and my friends. Late high school I’d started listening to rock music, mostly metal. Yeah, hip hop had some Mexican representation (like Cypress Hill and Kid Frost), but metal was pretty god damned white. Then in high school, a friend introduced me to Deftones’ “Around the Fur”. The opening track slapped HARD and that riff (which would be the first riff I would learn to play by ear) just hypnotize me. Down another rabbit hole I went, but first I wanted to know what these fuckers looked like and…
I felt like I knew these guys personally. Chino, the lead singer, looked just like my cousin Sergio while Stephen Carpenter looked like my classmate Eric. That these So-Cal skater punks could write some fuckin heavy-ass riffs while Chino screamed/whispered his way through their catalog was just the thing I needed in high school. You could sub any of my JNCO or dickies wearing friends in that band and no one would bat an eye. It was the first time I saw brown dudes in bands. Incubus, Sevendust, Fear Factory and fuckin even Coal Chamber had a pretty diverse band (and I even went so far as to rip off their guitarist Meegs Rascon’s move of painting my nails cause it looked cool while playing guitar).
I saw a good amount of these bands live because, get this, they actually would make the journey down to the Rio Grande Valley and play. No one EVER fuckin played the valley because most acts would go as far south as San Antonio then turn right the fuck back around (and even that was rare as they mostly stuck to Dallas and/or Houston). I saw Coal Chamber open for Slipknot and busted a dude’s nose with my elbow after he kept using my shoulders as his own personal spring board. I pulled a friend out of a dangerously collapsing mosh pit during a Sevendust concert. I saw the band Kittie and they were more terrifying than 90% of bands full of dudes (and I also had a mad crush on their guitarist Fallon Bowman, who cemented my love of brown women). But it was the Deftones and that weird genre of rap/rock/nu-metal or whatever the fuck that first opened my eyes to the fact that people who looked like me could be musicians and I was super happy that they played the Villarreal Convention Center in my town (fun fact: Incubus opened for them that tour so I got to see them right before “Morning View” blew them the fuck up). At a lyrical level, these bands were even broaching subjects like sexual abuse and mental illness, which I still firmly believe was one of the good things that came out of that movement.
But the late 90’s were fuckin weird. That genre that started more punk than anything started to morph into something more insidious, misogynistic and mostly just lame. Sure you had bands like Korn who were ok, but then you also had your Limp Bizkits who were just god awful and made that whole scene just look like one giant frat party. It always made me angry that Fred fuckin Durst’s band got so big when all he did was mercilessly rip off Chino Moreno’s fashion sense AND musical sensibility (seriously: Durst is the Diet Rite to Chino’s Coca Cola). Musical fads shifted and by the early 2000’s that nu-metal scene was largely a joke-and it was, because by its very nature it was an attempt to put a label on what was actually a dynamic and largely diverse musical landscape and almost all of my friends who were into those bands ended up starting their own bands at one point or another.
Because that’s the point of that thing called representation: it’s a moment where you recognize you and give yourself permission to do the thing that you’ve been dying to do. And when you’re a young, pissed off, sad bastard who lives in a place that feels like its the end of the fucking earth, it makes a world of difference when you go from consuming the thing to making a thing. In my case, it was the Deftones and you would be hard pressed to find a better album to listen to than their unassailable album “White Pony”.
Edit: just so we’re clear, I don’t consider the Deftones a part of the whole nu-metal scene and they’ve been very adamant about distancing themselves from those other bands. I only speak of them as a larger entity because they largely broke through around the same time. I would never sully the Deftones’ name by calling them nu-metal because they’re better than that.