By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Cracking the established L.A. record-distribution system was nearly impossible, so the racks (or raquitas) at car washes, bakeries, butcher shops and, above all, swap meets became their primary outlets. For most Angelenos, the dozens of swap meets dotting the Southland are places to unload unwanted junk - or pick up someone else's. But for many Mexican immigrants, who don't understand banking or have no hope for a business loan, swap meets are a shot at capital formation. They get product directly to the public, without having to rely on advertising, big distributors or credit lines.
"People who want to open a shop go first to the swap meet," says Abel Orozco, who also owns one of these small labels, Discos Linda. "Those of us who have record stores, dancehalls, distributorships, started in the swap meets."
If distribution was difficult, airplay on Mexican radio was impossible. "We didn't have money to give [DJs] cars or cocaine. They never played us, and they still don't," says Rivera. "This is why artists record these corridos prohibidos - drug ballads. You don't need promotion to sell what's prohibited."
Rivera had learned this lesson in early 1989, after releasing on a lark a corrido about Panama's General Manuel Noriega. "Before that, I had made a cassette for $14,000, with a musical director, with a mariachi, very good songs that weren't corridos. It didn't even sell 100 cassettes," says Rivera. But he sold 7,000 Noriega cassettes in the first two weeks alone. "I told myself that's the way to go. People buy stories."
It wasn't long after the release of the Noriega corrido that Chalino began coming to Rivera with his stories of bad men. The fit was perfect. "Other people had recorded corridos, but no one was recording corridos that were so personal, about common people," says Rivera. "You'd be biting your nails waiting to hear what happened to the main character."
Acuario was a good fit for Chalino, too, because as his popularity grew it became clear that he horrified the established music business. His voice, by industry standards, was famously bad. "I don't sing," he would say, "I bark." Rough, moaning and reedy, Chalino's voice was an echo of immigrants' rural roots. And that was about the last thing the Mexican music establishment was interested in. Mexican pop was far removed from Mexicans' daily reality - either at home or in the U.S. That was really the whole point. In a poor culture, the music industry put a premium on puff and polish; the idea was to lose - or deny - any vestige of poverty, of the rancho. Male singers looked like playboys and tried sounding like opera stars. In this world, Chalino's raspy voice and menacing valiente look went over like battery acid.
"He had a voice you had to get used to," says Angel Parra. "The bad sound at first, the rough production, the way he'd slur his words, all this made him difficult for many people to understand. Then he'd do strange things that people [in the industry] weren't used to. For example, instead of saying 'te fuiste' ['you left'], he'd sing 'te fuites.' That's how it's said in the hills. He knew how to say it correctly. But he'd say it that way so that people, campesinos, would hear it the way they were used to."
The Mexican music industry was too distant from its public - at least the Mexican public living in L.A. "Most of the people in L.A. are campesinos," says Fernando Gonzalez, promotions director for Culver City-based Musart, one of the Southland's large Mexican labels. "All these people come from villages, ranchos. They saw Chalino as a singer from the pueblos. We didn't realize it. And the campesinos buy records."
What the campesinos wanted, Chalino delivered - literally. His friends remember him tooling around L.A. in an old green Oldsmobile, then a Cougar, then a Chevy truck, laden with boxes of his cassettes. Then, in 1990, he persuaded Orozco to let him play at El Parral. So many people came that Orozco had to close the doors. From then on, Chalino had club owners avidly bidding for him.
As his popularity spread, he began to clean up his corridos. "He didn't want problems with anyone," says Nacho Hernandez. "Before, he'd record a corrido about someone who died and take his side. In the song he'd insult the guy's rival or opponent. Sometimes the other guy would get mad. So he stopped singing that so-and-so, who killed this guy, was a coward."
As a performer, Chalino had a distinctly American, democratic ethic. He dressed like his audience: a cocked cowboy hat, large belt buckle, cowboy boots, and usually gold chains and watches. He often tucked a gun in his belt. He broke, too, with the traditional Mexican entertainment style, where the singer was the star, the audience the adoring public, and everyone knew his place. He would pose for photographs with fans while he was singing (something every ranchero singer in L.A. does now).
"Chalino liked people surrounding him when he sang. He started this tradition of people dancing while the singer sang," says Emilio Franco, owner of El Farallon, a club in Lynwood where Chalino often appeared. "If there were 200 people in the hall, he'd mention them all. 'Here's to my compa so-and-so, and my compa sitting over there.' He mentioned me one time."