Crooked Stilo are on
‘The Other Side of Hip-Hop’
10/12/08 - LatinRapper.com news
Brothers Victor and Johnny
López were so young when they started stealing cars and taking
joy rides that their little heads barely appeared over the
dashboard. They weren’t even teenagers yet and had to peer
through the openings in the steering wheel to see the road.
One of their capers ended with a televised police chase and a
one-way ticket back to their native El Salvador, courtesy of
their parents, not La Migra.
Victor Miguel and Armida López, a salesman and a seamstress,
had risked coming to this country illegally in 1980 to flee
the civil war back home. They weren’t about to
lose their only sons to the street gangs of Pico-Union whose
members used auto theft as an initiation. So in 1985, they
used their last dime to enroll Victor and Johnny, then 12 and
13, in a military school in San Salvador.
Victor came home with medals and honors two years later.
Johnny came home to discover rap. The younger brother
remembers hearing his first rap song on the radio, something
by N.W.A, the Compton trio that shocked the world with its
gangsta lyrics. The boys were not allowed to live the thug
life, but they realized they could rap about it.
Today, Victor “El Lunátiko,” 37, and Johnny “El Duke,” 36, are
the creators of Crooked Stilo, one of L.A.’s most successful
Latin rap acts.
Their latest album, “Cumbia Urbana,” defines a sound that
blends hip-hop with the traditional tropical music their
parents loved, especially the Colombian cumbia so popular in
Central America. The duo performs later this month at the
Knitting Factory in a BMI-sponsored showcase titled “El Otro
Lado del Hip Hop” (The Other Side of Hip-Hop) that also
features Akwid, La Sinfonia and David Rolas.
L.A. has been overshadowed in bicultural hip-hop since the
early success of West Coast Latino pioneers Kid Frost and
Mellow Man Ace, who used to rehearse in the garage of MC A.L.T.
across from where the Lopezes lived.
East Coast varieties, especially reggaeton, have hogged most
of the national spotlight in the last decade. The scene here
survives in semi-underground fashion. A few years ago, the
industry took notice when Fonovisa, a major Mexican regional
label, started promoting local Latino rap as the next big
thing. But despite the initial success of Akwid, another
brother act, the style never quite broke through.
Crooked Stilo had its debut in 1991 with the self-produced
album “Crooked for Life.” It was sold by the brothers’ cousin
at swap meets, the grass-roots marketplace for immigrant
music, where it was discovered by indie label Underworld 805.
Even the brothers say they couldn’t believe it when the label
ponied up $6,000 for the rights to their music. Even more
surprising was performing later in New York and finding that
fans knew all their lyrics.
“We just kept looking at each other and said, ‘Man, is this
true?’ ” recalled Victor.
They started bilingual, but the label urged them to follow up
with an all-Spanish album because people seemed to like their
Salvadoran lilt and lingo. Their 2003 “El Regreso” (The
Return) included songs such as “La Mota” (Weed) and “Quieren
Pleito” (They Want to Rumble) — plus a parental advisory.
By then, the family had moved to Temple City in the San
Gabriel Valley, finally finding the haven they had been
seeking. But the brothers joke that it was hard to rap about
soccer games and backyard barbecues. “We were still thugging
it even though we were no longer in that [gang] environment,”
said Johnny. It was Fonovisa that finally made it clear they
weren’t getting into Wal-Mart with all that foul language. So
they switched to rapping about partying and girls and soon
were being booked on TV’s “Sabado Gigante.”
The label also helped them hit on the fusion formula that
would make them distinctive. The brothers had already sampled
songs from their father’s old record collection, storing
snippets from Mexico’s La Sonora Santanera, Venezuela’s Billos
Caracas Boys and El Salvador’s Los Hermanos Flores. They
hadn’t used the samples because, as Johnny explains, “we
didn’t think it was hip.”
But when they took a rap version of La Santanera’s “La Boa” to
the label, the reaction was immediate. “This is it,” said
Nelson Hernandez, a label exec.
“La Boa’s” irresistible hook — “Este nuevo ritmo, ya todos lo
saben” (”This new rhythm, everybody knows it now”) — yielded
the title of the first single, “Ya Lo Saben” (They Know It
Now) from their Fonovisa debut, 2004’s “Puro Escandalo” (Pure
In another song, they sampled “El Año Viejo” (The Old Year), a
Latin American standard heard every New Year’s Eve in dance
halls and home parties from L.A. to Lima, Peru. On their new
album, they replace samples with their own original music,
still in a cumbia style, and are putting together a band for
The brothers knew they had hit on something when kids started
telling them that their parents had taken their Crooked Stilo
CDs. Among their biggest fans are Mr. and Mrs. Lopez, who’ve
been married for 37 years.
I met the parents at their impeccable Temple City home. Their
mother always has food for an army because, she explained,
though she has an empty nest she still has “a lot of big
Their sons live nearby and visit all the time with their five
children. The rappers still need to supplement their incomes,
Johnny with a courier service and Victor with a software
company. But now, when the brothers go back to El Salvador,
they’re treated like stars, not delinquents. At concerts,
they’re introduced as the creators of “cumbia urbana.” They
still look at each other in disbelief and say, “We are?”
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