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"‘Rico Suave’ became an adjective—I think it’s in Webster’s dictionary now!"
——Gerardo Mejia
THE RETURN OF RICO SUAVE
The Artist Presently Known as Gerardo Revives His Music Career While Maintaining His Interscope A&R Post
An exclusive HITS interview by Josh Norek

Eleven years after the success of "Rico Suave" which enabled him to become the first Latino pop artist to score heavy MTV play, Gerardo Mejia is still very much around. Not just as an artist though —Mejia has been holding down his post in Interscope’s A&R department for years, where he has guided and steered signings like Enrique Iglesias and Bubba Sparxxx to much success. Still, it’s hard not to forget the image of our bare-chested protagonist-as-Latin lover from the clich-riddled "Rico Suave" video—surrounded by loose women and a Mexican mariachi band (despite the fact that Gerardo hails from Ecuador), he was a Latino Studies professor’s worst nightmare.

Nevertheless, Gerardo’s first album was a Platinum crossover hit with Latinos and gringos alike. As the very first artist to come out on Interscope, he gained a lot of insight into both the disposability and short-lived nature of success (his sophomore effort quickly plunged off the charts), as well as how things really work behind the scenes. Now applying those lessons learned at his Interscope job, he’s also back with the new album Gerardo, just released by the Universal-distribbed Thump Records. HITS’ own rock en espanol expert Josh "Hip Hop Hoodio" Norek spoke with Gerardo at his Interscope office, where he was greeted by Senor Suave’s six- and nine-year-old daughters, who delighted just as much in showing us their coloring books as watching their daddy get his groove on in the video for his new single, "Ta Canon."

Give us an example of something you learned as an artist that you’ve applied in your position at Interscope.

To take your career seriously and make the right moves. Back in the day, I screwed around a lot—I had a great time, but didn’t take things very seriously. I thought that my success would last forever. Now when I work with an artist, I make sure that they are focused and hungry. Enrique Iglesias is overworked. He often doesn’t want to do everything, but I tell him he has to do all the interviews or the media will think he’s a punk. You can never slack or it’s going to hit you in the ass later.

Mexican-Americans account for some64% of the U.S. Latino population, but are nowhere to be found on MTV in comparison to artists from, say, Latin America or Puerto Rico. Why?

There’s much more to it than racism. I think there’s about to be a resurgence of music coming from the Mexican-American community. But musically, Latinos are not all the same. The Mexican population is predominately on the West Coast and listens to Tex-Mexand banda music. You can’t get salsa played in the West, and you can’t get banda played on the East Coast, unless you have the one thing that works on both coasts—ballads.

I am trying to sign a Mexican rapper right now. But I could care less what my artists’ backgrounds are. Interscope is an American label, and we’re not going to sign anything that won’t sell here in the U.S. The latest group I signed is La Conexion—it’s the first Latin hip-hop album on Interscope, and it’s all in Spanish even though they speak fluent English. This project is testing the waters, as we’re going to start with those in the U.S. who speak Spanish speakers first and work it from there.

Jimmy Iovine thought La Conexion sounded great, even if he didn’t know what they were saying. Jimmy and everyone call me the Interscope Latin guy, but I do more than that, such as signing Bubba Sparxxx. But I do understand the Spanish market from an artist point of view. By meeting radio folks from my own career as a Latino artist, I’m able to use those relationships for my acts like La Conexion.

Do you think Latin artists must fulfill certain stereotypes or expectations to get on MTV or English commercial radio?

We bring flavor to the whole thing. As Latins, we’re accepted by both black folks and white folks. Sure, J.Lo exploits being a Latina bombshell. But I hate when people say there’s not enough roles for Latinos —every time a Latino like Edward James Olmos directs a project, it’s about "the struggle." That’s boring. I’m sick of it, and it turns off non-Latinos from being interested in our stories. Latino directors and artists need to start doing stories or themes about a typical Latino family.

What do you think about Rock en Espanol or Latin alternative music, like Molotov, Caf Tacuba or Puya?

It’s all about the hit song. I’ve had meetings with Latin rock acts. Man came to me, but at that moment it didn’t seem right for Interscope. It doesn’t mean that the right group isn’t out there; I just have to be convinced that it will sell.

Our industry doesn’t have the time to find someone with a great voice and then match them to a great producer and develop the project from scratch. Those days are, unfortunately, gone. I want artists to come to me and show me that they can make success happen on their own. I do believe that in a year or two, you’ll see a Latin alternative rock explosion—and I hope it comes from me and Interscope. A door has to be opened for the genrethat hasn’t been opened yet.

"Rico Suave" was the first video from a Latino artist that I can recall seeing on MTV, but it was filled with sexist cliches.

If you watched the video back in the day, it was cool. Now, of course, the video seems corny and funny. In its time, people loved the "Rico Suave" video. "Rico Suave" became an adjective—I think it’s in Webster’s dictionary now!

Tell me about the new album.

My fellow A&R folks at Interscope were on my case because it was the 10-year anniversary of "Rico Suave." They were telling me I had to do something. I was like, heck no. Then Bill Walker from Thump Records kept calling and asking me to do a track. I said OK, I’ll do a single and video—a parody of "Still Dre." We called it "Sigo Siendo Rico."

The new song was all over Spanish video programs, and the record started selling like crazy. I figured there must still be some love for Gerardo out there. I started making some calls to see if we could do a full album. We did it in just three months, while I was still working by day at Interscope. This is my way to go—it’s my last album, but it’s a great way to get it out of my system. Plus, my little daughters want to see me onstage.

What do you listen to outside of work?

My wife and kids control the CD player. I get to listen to a lot of Britney. Plus, I listen to country music because my wife is from a rural part of Ohio. But in my office, it’s all hip-hop. When I travel, I go to clubs and want to hear house music. I just came back from the Winter Music Conference to polish up my ear on all the latest dance material. My love of salsa comes from my family in Ecuador.

Define your duties at Interscope

A&R. I make sure the artists get their records done. Thank god Enrique is so huge—his album is going to sell 10 million worldwide. I was worried initially about a sophomore slump, but he is totally fulfilling all our expectations. Bubba Sparxxx is doing great, too, and now I’m focused on our new signing La Conexion.

You have a unique double perspective, having been an artist and now moving into the executive side.

Brother, to me it’s easy. I get people who approach me when there are bidding wars just to get my advice. I see these artists at parties, and they say, "I want to do what you did after you were done being an artist." I mean, what are you going do after your career has peaked as a recording act? If you like the business, you stay in it.

I was the first artist at Interscope. I told Ted Fields that I was done with the music thing, that I didn’t have the hunger for it. I told him I wanted to be on the business side and he hired me. My thing is to find songs that will break across different formats—back in the day, even KLOVE was playing "Rico Suave." I want to continue breaking down barriers.

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