OZOMATLI with WOZANI at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Wednesday (September 12). $12. 416-870-8000.
ozomatli bassist and co-founderWill "Wil-Dog" Abers knows precisely when he realized just how volatile his sprawling salsa/hiphop mob could be.In July of 2000, the seven-piece group was onstage with Rage Against the Machine in a protest outside the Democratic National Convention in their hometown L.A. As Al Gore was being nominated to battle George W. Bush for president of the United States, Ozomatli were midway through one of their explosive Latin funk meltdowns, mashing up salsa, hiphop, ska and samba beats. Then the cops pulled the plug.
The riot that followed turns up in a pair of harrowing interludes on Ozomatli's new Embrace The Chaos album. The raw clips capture the scene as the group tries to lead protestors away from police but are ultimately surrounded and blasted with tear gas and rubber bullets.
"The cops actually figured that Rage would be the ones to wind the crowd up, so they made them go on first and us last," Abers explains from Santa Monica. "When Rage played, not much happened. People were really peaceful and restrained.
"Then we went onstage, ripped through one and a half songs and then the police cut the power without any warning, called it an unlawful demonstration, and gave 10,000 kids 10 minutes to leave an enclosed area. Five minutes later, tear gas starts flying, cops on horseback start billy-clubbing people and shit just erupted.
"We grabbed our drums, jumped off the stage and onto the street and started banging away, thinking that if we made a line, people would follow us. They did, but then the cops surrounded us and started firing rubber bullets. It was insane, and I don't think you can go through something like that without a major change happening to you."
It was with the energy of that moment fresh in their minds that Ozomatli returned to the studio to finish work on their sophomore disc, Embrace The Chaos.
As the title suggests, the disc is a propulsive and incendiary collision of sounds. Like a younger, hipper Los Lobos with a kicking horn section, the group once again energize traditional Latin salsa and ranchera rhythms with underground hiphop and the occasional drum 'n' bass break.
This time out, though, the mix is more refined, a move that reflects the group's inspired choice of producers. For each genre they pillage, Ozomatli have gone to the source to get the sound right, recruiting Los Lobos' Steve Berlin to record high-octane salsa stompers, Beastie Boys engineer Mario C to tailor funk tracks, and legendary New York hiphop whiz Bob Power to cut the raw beats and rhymes.
The result is that a hiphop joint like 1234, with De La Soul on guest rhymes, sounds like the real article, even with the salsa horns blaring in the background.
"Each of the guys we worked with knows their sound so well," Abers agrees, "so each brought his own thing to the record. Steve was all on this live thing, with us in this big room playing tracks live and capturing that energy. Mario's got a more piecemeal approach to recording, and Bob knows what will move the masses. We just plugged our shit in and let them do their business.
"The most important thing is that you can put the album on and listen to it start to finish. That's really hard for us because the songs have all this different shit going on and to make them hang together is a bitch.
"We're not settling, though. The thing with this group is that everyone's always searching for that next cool thing, and the easiest way for us to show that is to put it in our music."