If Los Lobos has learned one thing in nearly four decades together, it’s that playing by the rules is not for them. They tried it for a while, said no thanks, and they’ve been better for it ever since. The 20th anniversary re-release of Los Lobos’ landmark Kiko album by Shout! Factory on August 21—bursting with bonus tracks and a live DVD in addition to the original album—serves as a potent reminder of why going rogue was the best thing this legendary American quintet ever did.
By early 1992, prior to making Kiko, Los Lobos—David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano, Louie Pérez and saxophonist/keyboardist Steve Berlin—was wrapping their second decade together, coming off a five-year period of newfound massive commercial success but lost creatively. Their 1987 remake of Ritchie Valens’ classic “La Bamba” for the soundtrack of the same name earned the band a number 1 smash on the Billboard charts, and the following year’s La Pistola y El Corazón, which found the band revisiting its Mexican folk roots, was also highly regarded.
It was during their earliest years that the group’s particular hybrid of traditional regional Mexican folk music, rock and roll, blues, R&B, country and other genres began finding a sweet spot in the music of Los Lobos. “In 1973, when we first formed,” says Pérez, “we were four guys from East L.A. who were friends from high school who played in local rock bands. Then once we got out of high school you still had four guys who were just hanging out together. So the natural progression of things is to just start playing music again. You’d think that we’d form a rock band but then out of nowhere somebody got this idea of ‘Let’s learn a Mexican song to play for somebody’s mom for their birthday’ or something. Mexican music was largely just wallpaper for us—it was always in the background, and we never paid much attention to it. We were modern kids who listened to rock and roll. Then when we finally dig up some old records to learn a couple of songs, that was a real revelation to us that this music is actually very complicated and challenging. So at that point we were off and running.”
Rather than capitalize on the elevated commercial profile that “La Bamba” had given them, Los Lobos instead chose to record as a followup La Pistola y El Corazón, paying tribute to their acoustic Mexican acoustic music roots. Kiko came next, followed by such equally stunning albums such as 1996’s Colossal Head, 2002’s Good Morning Aztlán and 2006’s The Town and the City, Los Lobos has continued to deliver dependably solid and diverse recordings, a live show that never fails to disappoint, and just enough side trips—a Disney tribute album and a couple of live ones, solo and duet recordings (among them Hidalgo and Pérez’s ’90s diversion Latin Playboys), Berlin’s many production and sideman gigs—to keep their creative juices flowing. 2010’s Tin Can Trust, Los Lobos’ most recent release and first for Shout! Factory, pushed the venerable quintet ahead a few more notches while retaining everything the band’s loyal fans have come to expect.
“There’s this thing that still happens, this musical thing,” says Pérez. “But if you took everything away, even the music, you’d still end up with four guys who were friends and hung out and grew up in the same neighborhood. And you can’t take that friendship away from us.”
“We’re brothers and we all equally recognize that,” says Rosas. “That’s what keeps us going, knowing that we need to help each other and we need to get through this and we work well together. And we keep it real.”
Their debut album was called Just Another Band from East L.A., but they’ve since repeatedly disproven that title—Los Lobos isn’t “just another” anything. “We’re incredibly lucky,” says Steve Berlin. So are we—lucky to have Los Lobos..