Like survivors from a long lost realm, Los Mocosos is back and eager to celebrate their Mission District roots.
Launched as something of a fluke in the late 1990s, the Latin funk band captured the uneasy spirit of a neighborhood caught in the expanding high-tech bubble’s maelstrom. Stylistically omnivorous, Los Mocosos released three albums that brought renewed national attention to the Mission’s creative ferment.
Bassist and producer Happy Sanchez was a founding member but left the band before the release of its third album, 2004’s Greg Landau-produced American Us (Six Degrees Records).
The band dissolved soon afterward, and Sanchez went on to work on a number of other projects, like the Hip Spanic Allstars, which released the 2018 album Old School Revolution. The new music went over well, but he couldn’t escape the sticky shadow of his old band. Whenever he did Hip Spanic interviews, “half the questions were about Los Mocosos,” Sanchez said.
At a Christmas dinner in 2018 with two fellow Mocosos founders, trombonist Victor Castro and saxophonist Gordon “Shorty” Ramos, “I pitched them on it,” he recalled. “One more record. Fifteen years later. Shorty says, we should call it All Grown Up and put a dot on the end of the sentence.”
A blend of original Mocosos and newcomers like powerhouse vocalist Juan “Ele” Perez ended up getting together for one last ride. Released Oct. 2, All Grown Up (Hip Spanic Records) picks up where the band left off, moving gracefully between trenchant social commentary, smooth-grooving party anthems and loving tributes to fellow Missionistas. Originally slated for the street in April with an album release celebration at Yoshi’s, the party is now scheduled for the storied Jack London Square club on Cinco de Mayo 2021.
“What we had planned was to get Los Mocosos get back together,” Ramos said. “We started something and we didn’t finish it. That was the whole idea. Let’s continue this thing. It meant a lot to get the guys back together.”
The reunion didn’t go as planned, but the old-school gatos have figured out how to roll in the pandemic era. They’ve created and released a series of videos, something the old Mocosos never tried, and they’ve done a few virtual performances. “The whole thing has transcended into this whole new way of being,” Sanchez said.
An expression in Spanish that translates roughly as “snot-nosed kids,” Los Mocosos first came together to record a track for a compilation album for the now-defunct Mission-based Aztlan Records, a label that introduced the rock-en-Español movement in the United States. It was just an ad hoc group of musicians who grew up together around the Mission, musicians who had gone on to play with bands such as Tower of Power, Los Angelitos, and Santana.
The tune “Somos los Mocosos” caught on and, at the urging of the record label, the band recorded 1998’s Mocos Locos, which introduced a sound that drew on ska and funk, soul, R&B and jazz. The album featured a cross-section of Bay Area players, and seemed to capture the neighborhood’s verdant, embracing aesthetic with anthems like “Brown and Proud,” and canny covers of cantina standards like “La Boa” and “Volver Volver.”
Suddenly, Los Mocosos weren’t just neighborhood darlings. Tapped to join the inaugural Watcha Tour, an early alt-Latin music showcase, Mocosos held their own, sharing stages with heavyweights like Café Tacuba, Puya, and Molotov. By drawing on so many influences, the group found itself booked into unusual situations, such as salsa clubs and major jazz festivals, such as Monterey, where they were a hit in the summer of 1999.
“At first, I didn’t totally understand the jazz festival thing,” Sanchez told me in the following year. “But I guess the way the whole thing is approached is a jazz concept, with a lot of impromptu ideas coming up. We can have the freedom to improvise and come up with stuff.”
Eventually, the band considered dropping its snotty name and rechristening itself as the Latin Soul Syndicate. That would have worked well on 2001’s Shades of Brown (Six Degrees Records), which boasted a horn-powered Tito Puente meets Tower of Power vibe. But when word started to spread about the name change, the group’s devoted local following spoke up for the original moniker. Hitting the road with Santana brought them more attention than ever.
The group’s third album, American Us, featured a more unified sound, but the centrifugal forces pulling the band apart led its dissolution. While Sanchez left Mocosos after the Santana tour, he never left the Mission. The proprietor of Secret Studios on Cesar Chavez, he’s been a mainstay on the San Francisco music scene since the mid-1980s. And, while recording studios have been struggling to adapt to the social distancing required by the Covid-19, Sanchez has found a way to keep his doors open.
“Drummers come in to practice on a daily basis,” he said. “We’ve tried to make it as safe as possible, but when someone complained, they sent the inspectors. We have a whole education component, so we stayed open as an essential business.”
Much like the situation when Mocosos first got together, the threat gentrification still looms. With radical changes in work patterns, industrial construction is booming in the area, like the city’s new forensics lab. “Our lease is up in a year and a half, and everyone’s working from home and the industrial area is booming,” he said. “They’re knocking down all these businesses, and the rents are going sky high in the industrial area. I’m one of the last places left.”
Sanchez isn’t ready to say goodbye to the old neighborhood. He and Ramos will be celebrating the Mission’s various landmarks and denizens with The Fat Hap & Shorty Show, which premieres on the Los Mocosos YouTube channel Oct. 30. At this point, they’re planning on about 10 episodes taped as they amble about, interacting with artists, musicians and passersby while sharing stories about the district’s rich cultural history.
Their new album is All Grown Up, but the foundational Mocosos still know how to mix it up on the street and have a good time.
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