You can’t make a playlist of perfect summer songs without “Tres Delinquentes.” That might seem like a mildly hot take to anyone who didn’t sweat through the L.A. heat wave of 1996, but you understand if you were there. Or just ask Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier, who used it as his at-bat music for years.
That was the immortal season of “California Love,” “Tha Crossroads,” the Lakers stealing Shaq from Orlando, and the debut single from Norwalk’s Delinquent Habits. For months, their Spanglish fusion of regional slang, lowriding Chicano culture and a Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass sample boomed at every intersection.
It was No. 1 on Power 106 and constantly played on MTV and The Box. It distilled the diversity and sabor of the city, especially when combined with the unforgettable video featuring mariachi bands, midget tossing, a vintage Ford Fairlane, and Mexican heritage moshing with ’90s L.A. rap aggression.
“Tres Deliquentes” went platinum and became indelibly ingrained into the municipal hip-hop fabric. But after a minor classic second single, “Lower Eastside,” Delinquent Habits almost entirely disappeared from public view.
In the mid-’90s, artists were forced to rely almost entirely on terrestrial radio, MTV, print publications and big-box retailers for sustained relevance. You couldn’t just go on SoundCloud or YouTube.
“Part of it was circumstantial,” the group’s Kemo tells me two decades later. “Our label, PMP, was going under and our second album [in 1998] got no promo.”
He’s wearing a red and black Pendleton buttoned to the top. Aside from flecks of gray in his long black hair and goatee, he appears practically identical to the Kemo in the “Tres Delinquentes” video.
I ask if he believes the radio cold shoulder stemmed from subtle prejudices against Latin rappers. After a golden era including Mellow Man Ace, Kid Frost and Lighter Shade of Brown, apart from DH’s mentors Cypress Hill, Latin rappers essentially vanished from L.A. urban radio after the passage of the Telecommunications Act, which consolidated and homogenized the airwaves.
“I don’t know if you can call it discrimination, but as soon as you went a little deeper with the Latin thing, that shut off some of the airwaves,” Kemo says. “You saw the budgets weren’t the same. The majors weren’t putting any more dollars into West Coast Latin hip-hop.”
Merely getting a release for their eponymous debut was fraught with difficulty. After forming in 1991, the trio of Ives Irie, Kemo and then-producer O.G. Style got dropped by Ruffhouse and Geffen before signing to PMP, which partnered with Loud for distribution. Sen Dog of Cypress Hill helped broker each deal and executive produced their first two records.
It’s still slightly mystifying that “Western Ways Part 2,” their 1998 collaboration with The Beatnuts and Big Pun, never got more traction. Or that DH’s first indie record, 2001’s Merry Go Round, produced an underground hit, “Return of the Tres,” that mass media ignored.
After DH’s fourth album in 2003, Kemo went solo while Irie continued making music under the Delinquent Habits name. A reunion finally occurred in 2013, after Kemo was diagnosed with throat cancer, from which he’s since fully recovered. They’ve toured constantly ever since but finally dropped the strong comeback, It Could Be Round Two, in March — their first album together in a decade and a half.
“We’ve always made positive, uplifting music for underdogs,” Kemo says. “We got back for that same reason. We want to help people understand that you can’t give up, you have to grind it out. Everything is attainable but nothing is easy. You got to fight. You got to keep pushing. That’s our story.”
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Bizarre Ride show on RBMA Radio. Follow him on Twitter @passionweiss.