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When Camilo Lara and Toy Selectah last worked together in early 2013, they produced Como Te Voy A Olvidar, an electronic reimagining of traditional cumbia music, a style of Latin-American music a bit like salsa. The song spent more than 65 weeks at number one in the Mexican digital charts, so the idea of making a follow-up album was a no-brainer. Six studios, five countries and more than 80 collaborations later – including Boy George, Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz, Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and Jamaican reggae producers Sly and Robbie – the duo have amassed enough material for their debut long-player, Compass. The Red Bulletin caught up with them at Red Bull Studios São Paulo, the last stop on their international recording tour.
THE RED BULLETIN: How do your influences inform your partnership?
Toy selectah: We grew up listening to cumbia, mambo, danzon and a lot of traditional rhythms from Mexico and the rest of the Americas. We listened to that before we listened to rock ’n’ roll.
Camilo Lara: Being born in the mid-1970s, our generation was discovering everything all at once. We were listening to Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses and De La Soul, but also Cypress Hill, and dub and drum ’n’ bass from the UK, and we incorporated those rhythms into the other sounds we’d heard.
Who first had the idea of giving cumbia an electronic facelift?
CL: It all came together in 2001, when Toy produced Cumbia Sobre El Rio, a song by Celso Pina, the first track that really incorporated electronic beats with a traditional cumbia sound. It was the starting point for a whole generation of musicians, including myself. He’s a clever guy and it resonated with a lot of people.
What’s so special about cumbia?
TS: It’s how simple the rhythm is, it’s very pragmatic. It’s a state of mind, more than a certain musical pattern. It’s being from where we are. I would have a hip-hop state of mind if I was from New York, but I’m from Monterrey, so that changes things.
Why did you start working together?
TS: We’ve been making records for years, and we’d never done anything original together, so we started exchanging music. I sent Camilo some beats and he started making stuff from that. He got excited and we started talking about doing a collaborations album, because we hadn’t done that before either. Then Red Bull came in and helped us build this amazing network of different collaborators and musicians, working in creative hubs with people from very different backgrounds and tastes.
CL: The idea was to get into the barrio, the hood, to get a taste of funk or rhyme or Bollywood – pieces of all kinds of rhythm – and translate that into our own sound. The hood is the same in Brazil as it is in Mexico or New York and LA. We wanted to show people that the dancefloor is the same everywhere; it’s a very democratic place where anyone can share music’s energy. We tried to take our music into their hoods. If the collaborator was from India or Japan, or Brazil, we took our music and set it to their pitch. It’s a global album, but it all has a distinctive Mexican flavour.
So what made you decide to call the album Compass?
CL: In one sense, it’s a fellowship. The name is a play on the word compas, meaning ‘buddies’. But it can also be interpreted as compass, because we’ve been looking for people everywhere to translate their music into what we do.
What was it like working with so many famous, even legendary, collaborators?
TS: For me, working with Sly and Robbie in Jamaica really was a dream come true.
CL: I was thrilled to learn that David Gilmore is a fan of my Mexican Institute Of Sound label. I contacted Phil Manzanera from Roxy Music to work on a track. He was recording with David, who joined in, too. The track I sent him ended up being recorded by Boy George. It was crazy. All the collaborations have been fantastic. Toots and the Maytals, MC Lyte, Cornelius, Stereo MC’s, Crystal Fighters, Eugene from Gogol Bordello, Bonde Do Role. We’ve had a blast.
What connects your music and that of all these artists, who come from such a wide range of backgrounds?
CL: It’s in the significance of the music. Keep in mind that jungle, dubstep, trip-hop – all the rhythms that were happening in Brazil or the UK – were also happening in Mexico, so we speak the same language. It’s just music, we all share a beat, you know?
TS: The beat is the force of human nature, the rhythm of the heart. There’s rhythm in all of us.