|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. Were 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 Downsets guerrilla-artist manifesto Pocket Full of Phat Caps and the soft-like-a-bomb rapcore of his band. Its not a T-shirt, its not a commercial, he says. Downset is just Downset its 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, youd think hed 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 youre a starving artist, bro, you do anything within reason to play music, you know?
Downsets 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 songs 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. Youll 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 dont blast em back/theyre gonna kill me. You see, its not just a buncha P.C. buzzwords Oropeza is spewing its personal.
Except for the race-empowerment anthem Sangre de Mis Manos, 96s 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 Oropezas 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, theyll never cross over into the Latino market like, say, Aztlan Underground and Puya. This fact doesnt seem to bother Oropeza. It just didnt fit into the scheme of things. Whatre we supposed to do, throw some bongos in there?
Less on fire than either of Downsets first two albums, Check Your People is sludged-out and slowed down with some nu-metal DNA spliced into its hardcore genes, but its 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.
Theyre not even comparing us to Rage Against the Machine anymore, theyre comparing us to Limp Bizkit or something, Oropeza says, amused. Nothing bugs me anymore. Weve been rocking the type of shit weve been rocking since the late 80s. We were the first ones to do rap-metal.
Oropezas claim is debatable. Whats 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 bands 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, Theyre fucking with my show. Then there was erstwhile label Mercurys 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 Seagrams thing really bothered me, he says of the liquor giants purchase of Universal, Mercurys 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 bands 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 aint such a bad place for Downset to be. Like the track Coming Back warns, you havent seen these cats best yet: We just want to do music, Oropeza says. Heavy guitars are just . . . theyre it.
Downset plays at the Key Club on Sunday, November 12.