I discovered Los Lobos‘ Kiko while snooping through my uncle’s record collection. I was 12, and at that age I wasn’t remotely interested in his assortment of traditional Mexican records. To me that stuff was obsolete — who wants to listen to boleros, corridos, and norteños? There’s nothing exciting about accordions, trumpets, and flutes, and there certainly isn’t anything amusing about listening to someone sing in Spanish. Where are the guitars? Where’s the rock ‘n’ roll? That’s the kind of stuff I was looking for in my uncle’s record collection, yet what I found was something far better. Kiko, with its surreal album cover of a giant lime-green wooden chair inside a purple room, snuck its way into my psyche. Its sound and message crept in like the slinky cat perched on a windowsill found on the back of the CD. That message was telling me that I was missing something by ignoring the traditional Latin music I grew up with.
Los Lobos, the little band from East Los Angeles, created an album that didn’t recycle roots rock, country, R&B, or the Latin sound, but instead redefined it by stretching each of the genres’ artistic potential. Los Lobos have combined distinct sounds on previous albums like How Will the Wolf Survive? and By the Light of the Moon, yet on Kiko, the band made more than an artistic statement. They had broken away from their association to the Ritchie Valens’s hit, “La Bamba” that had brought them mainstream acclaim but branded them as a soundtrack cover band. What I found on Kiko was an ambitious, experimental record with gorgeous narrative lyrics and carefully adorned arrangements. I may have not recognized it at the time, but to me, Kiko is a milestone album, a precursor and introduction towards my love for Latin Alternative music. This is why Los Lobos’ Kiko is such a special album.
What makes Kiko exceptional is not just the ability to redefine a genre, but its inherent influence on a generation of artists. Bands like Ozomatli, Quetzal, and even Wilco owe a trick or two from Kiko. Ozomatli’s career is dependent on Los Lobos right down to the Southern California band’s offbeat lyricism to its rhythmic cumbias. Quetzal’s Latin soul on 2003’s Worksongs works the same career blueprint of Los Lobos. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot owes its sonic structure more to Los Lobos and producer Mitchell Froom than they do to Radiohead. It’s easy to compare Wilco’s direction on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to the English band, and although it does merit some reference, it’s obvious Wilco recognizes the impact of the East Los Angeles band. It was apparent at the inaugural Austin City Limits Festival in 2001, when Jeff Tweedy became a spectator during the Los Lobos’ explosive set.
Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrotlacks the mystical imagery of David Hidalgo and Louie Perez’s lyrics. Take for example, “Angels with Dirty Faces” and “Saint Behind the Glass”. These songs balance Mitchell Froom’s atypical arrangements with stark, reverent storytelling that charters back to a time when elders shared their life stories. Los Lobos are not novices at lyrical storytelling. Their entire catalogue is working proof, however, on Kiko it came together with such craftsmanship. “Wake up Dolores” is a folk song with razor sharp guitars and an ancient Aztec mantra as the chorus. On “Reva’s House” and “Wicked Rain”, Los Lobos deliver roots rock with a psychedelic haze. But nothing comes delectably close to “Kiko and the Lavender Moon”, one of the most unacknowledged rock songs of the 1990s. David Hidalgo has said that the band’s music is best when it has a spontaneous, childish charm. Granted, in 1992, the pre-alternative era was not suitable to Los Lobos’ surrealist tale of a demon-like creature. The song although dark, achieves the childish nature that band wanted.
Los Lobos refined their childish storytelling on 1995’s Papa’s Dream, an inventive children’s album, then later expanded their more adult-oriented experimental sound on Colossal Head, This Time, and the brilliant Good Morning Aztlan. The songs found on Kiko proved to me that Anglo bands were not the only artists that could create a record that had the ability to echo a musical past and mirror a promising glimpse of its future. It’s a prime example of an album that brings people together and inadvertently makes a Mexican-American boy discover the value of his heritage.