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Hard Knocks 

Downset’s American prayer

Wednesday, Nov 8 2000
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Photo by Kevin Estrada

Downset vocalist Rey Oropeza has been hanging around a newsstand on Sunset Boulevard for the last hour, flipping through the pages of underground art zines, boning up on media culture with Juxtapoz. “That mag is bugged out,” he says. “We’re talking 50 tabs down the line kinda shit.”

Just the sort of inspiration a muralisto needs when coating freeway tunnels and buildings from Pacoima to San Gabriel with Krylon spray paint. In fact, Oropeza makes no distinction between his graffiti tableaux — celebrated in Downset’s guerrilla-artist manifesto “Pocket Full of Phat Caps” — and the soft-like-a-bomb rapcore of his band. “It’s not a T-shirt, it’s not a commercial,” he says. “Downset is just Downset — it’s a lifestyle.”

Despite his advert-slick spiel, the main reason Oropeza ducked into the newsstand was to get away from cell-phone-wielding pedestrians — a segment of the population he lovingly calls “a buncha suckers.” Since he named his new album Check Your People, you’d think he’d be more charitable toward his fellow Angelenos, but sidewalks filled with human traffic and its unseeing eyes have a certain resonance for him. “During the course of this record, I was homeless, I was fuckin’ broke. But when you’re a starving artist, bro, you do anything — within reason — to play music, you know?”

Downset’s first record, from ’94, is an item-by-item screed of sociopolitical grievances that kicks off with the words “Anger-hostility toward the opposition” repeated over and over. The mantra dissolves in a storm of riffage, making way for the song’s final refrain, “April 29th, Florence and Normandie.” “Ritual” is a rage against the silent crime of date rape, while “My American Prayer” is a roll call of political martyrs from Malcolm X to Ruben Salazar, and so on throughout the album. This soapbox stumper can rant with the best of ’em, but before you yell “De La Rocha wannabe!,” rewind to the first track, “Anger.” You’ll hear, almost as though Oropeza was saying it in passing, “My pops was killed by the LAPD/yes, they killed my daddy/and if I don’t blast ’em back/they’re gonna kill me.” You see, it’s not just a buncha P.C. buzzwords Oropeza is spewing — it’s personal.

Except for the race-empowerment anthem “Sangre de Mis Manos,” ’96’s Do We Speak a Dead Language is less agenda-specific. That may have been a letdown for members of la raza hoping for more clearly drawn issues to rally around, but Oropeza’s not nearly the brown crusader the press has made him out to be. “I used to really wear being a Chicano on my sleeve,” he says. “Where I grew up in the Valley, they were all racists — Latinos hated Anglos, and blacks even more. So I decided that identity politics was not where I wanted to take the band.”

While Downset customarily include one track en español per album, they’ll never cross over into the Latino market like, say, Aztlan Underground and Puya. This fact doesn’t seem to bother Oropeza. “It just didn’t fit into the scheme of things. What’re we supposed to do, throw some bongos in there?”

Less on fire than either of Downset’s first two albums, Check Your People is sludged-out and slowed down with some nu-metal DNA spliced into its hardcore genes, but it’s still a Downset record. Few bands can take something as unoriginal as rap-metal and give it new life, but the ’Set is one of them. This is due in no small part to the muscular, colorful bass inflections of James Morris, the swollen power chords of Rogelio Lozano crisscrossing Ares’ shreddy chugga-chug, and the no-nonsense bash-’n’-crash of drummer Chris Hamilton.

“They’re not even comparing us to Rage Against the Machine anymore, they’re comparing us to Limp Bizkit or something,” Oropeza says, amused. “Nothing bugs me anymore. We’ve been rocking the type of shit we’ve been rocking since the late ’80s. We were the first ones to do rap-metal.”

Oropeza’s claim is debatable. What’s not is the strength of his convictions. Take the time he cut short a Berkeley performance when a fight broke out three songs into the band’s set. He proceeded to chide the crowd, threw down the mike and stalked off the stage.

“Yeah,” he says, laughing at the memory. “I was like, ‘They’re fucking with my show.’” Then there was erstwhile label Mercury’s unceremonious dropping of the band in the wake of industrywide mergers. Though that was just business as usual, it was the nature of the businesses involved that was problematic for the singer. “That whole Seagram’s thing really bothered me,” he says of the liquor giant’s purchase of Universal, Mercury’s parent company. “Alcohol kills way more people every year than any other drug.”

Perhaps being dropped was a blessing in disguise, because Downset was never comfortable at a major where honchos feared that the band’s previous name, Social Justice, would come off as sanctimonious. Another bump in the road: Rolling Stone gave Check Your People two stars. Of course, what that mag knows about next-level hopcore you could squeeze into an atom.

The major-label dream is a bust, but Epitaph — a double boon of indie cool and healthy advances — ain’t such a bad place for Downset to be. Like the track “Coming Back” warns, you haven’t seen these cats’ best yet: “We just want to do music,” Oropeza says. “Heavy guitars are just . . . they’re it.”

 

Downset plays at the Key Club on Sunday, November 12.

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