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Latin soul legend Joe Bataan discusses his storied career, unveils exclusive MP3

May 27, 2010 |  5:03 pm

Joe Bataan’s life story reads like a biopic waiting to be filmed. Born in Spanish Harlem in 1942 to an African-American mother and a Filipino father, he learned to sing in the street corner doo-wop style then popularized by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers and a bunch of other groups united by their supernatural harmonies and affection for proper nouns. Falling into a life of petty crime, he drew a five-year sentence in an upstate New York prison for riding around in a stolen car (it remains unknown whether he was the driver).

Drawn to music while incarcerated, he taught himself to play the piano and formed a band within six months of his release. Amalgamating American R&B with the traditional Latin rhythms percolating through his heavily Puerto Rican neighborhood, Bataan emerged as one of the progenitors of Latin soul, setting exotic melodies to English lyrics about gypsy women and the everyday struggles of ghetto life.

First building on the boogaloo style then in vogue, Bataan later infused salsa into his repertoire, helping to coin the term “salsoul” on his 1973 album of the same name. Seamlessly adapting to disco as it swept the New York club scene, Bataan flashed his versatile and visionary nature, even incorporating the nascent hip-hop sound on “Rap-O Clap-O,” one of the first rap sounds ever laid to wax. Following his 1981 album, “Bataan II,” Bataan retired from music, spending most of the next two decades as a counselor for troubled youth.

Returning in 2005 to discover a new fan base partially incubated by the Internet, Bataan has spent the last half-decade recording new music and performing to shows across the globe. In advance of a date Sunday night at Santa Ana’s Galaxy Theatre, Bataan spoke to Pop & Hiss about his legendary career and unveiled an exclusive MP3 for “Chicana Lady.”

-- Jeff Weiss

Was it difficult to return to music after a 20-plus-year hiatus, or was it one of those "riding a bike" type things where you were able to pick up where you left off?

It was definitely difficult -- you're rusty like everything else that you don't do for a long time. It was a matter of regaining my endurance and my voice, and sometimes it wasn't there. I had to go through a trial-and-error period. But I was able to get back with the band and set up a formula again, and the Lord blessed me and gave me another chance. The reviews were great and after being underground for so long, it's been immensely gratifying to see people really appreciate my music.

You were one of the first and greatest Latin soul singers. How did you come about your style when there were few predecessors?

It stemmed from my black and Filipino heritage -- growing up in Spanish Harlem, my roots were Latin, but the influences that I heard on the radio were pop. There seemed to be no place for me in Latin music. I couldn’t dance, nor could I speak the language. When I formed my first band, it was my only hope to get into the industry. The competition was so great at the time: Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, the Flamingos. They were all great artists and Latin music was very territorial.

What I realized was that no one was doing the Latin sound with English lyrics, and when I found out that I had this unique gift to write and infuse the Latin sound with the English lyrics, the rest was like history because it was virgin territory. It allowed me to project what I was doing and get people to listen to me. Had I been forced to go up against Smokey Robinson and the rest of the greats, I might have been lost in the shuffle. Because my style was unique, it allowed me to have my place in history -- of course, you never know what history will say about you until many years later.

I had no idea what I was doing when I coined "salsoul." I loved Latin soul and I loved Motown and I figured the quickest way to break through was to merge them and bring it to the world. Of course, it fell short in a lot of areas, but I think the true test is that my music has lasted for so many years. I might never have had a major hit like Elton John or the Beatles, but they've survived for 44 years, transmitted from neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend, and through the Internet.

You also recorded one of the first rap records ever. How did that come about?

In 1978, I was at a community center and saw a bunch of kids talking on a record. There was no name for rap at the time, but thousands of kids were dancing, stomping their feet, and dancing to the beat. There was no instrumentation, just a backbeat, so I figured that it was something new. When I tried to get my group together to go to the studio, they'd never heard of rap and didn't want to emulate it, and they just didn't show up. So I decided to do it myself, and it turned out to be one of my biggest hits. I was at the forefront of rap before anyone thought to put it on record.

When I was shopping "Rap-O Clap-O" around, no one would listen to me, because at the time, no one had ever released a rap record. Consequently, they kept on throwing me out of offices. When I finally got it released, Sugarhill Gang ["Rapper's Delight"] and The Fatback Band's "King Tim III (Personality Jock)" beat me in stores by a month, so I narrowly missed out on having the first recorded rap song. It was one of the most exciting parts of my life though -- I got to tour Europe extensively. I went overseas for a week and didn't come back for nearly six months. It ended up laying the groundwork for me as an international artist.  

You seem to have always been ahead of your time. Beyond just talent, what do you think it was that allowed you to always be in front of the trends?

That's a big compliment for someone to say about me, but I do think that I was at the forefront of a lot of things. It might be because I'm such a radical and so argumentative. Some might say that those tendencies stopped me my blowing up, and that might be true. But I was always my own man and I felt like I had to protect myself from the wolves in the industry. I had to be careful and was always sure to protect my copyright. I might not have gotten paid like everyone else, but I never got taken advantage of. At least, if I made mistakes, they were my own mistakes.

What are your plans for the future? Have you been recording new music?

I'm trying to put on the Joe Bataan story as a musical. Ideally, I'd love John Legend to play me. Obviously, the "Fela!" musical has had a great deal of success. I've had a lot of experiences in my life, from my time in prison, to my travels behind the Iron Curtain, to the time I spent with Angela Davis, to my involvement in the attempts to kill the boogaloo, to two near-death experiences that I've had and survived. I'm still able to give amazing performances and my energy level hasn't drained a bit. I'm extremely grateful to be able to keep on doing what I'm doing.

Download: (Pop & Hiss exclusive)

MP3: Joe Bataan - "Chicana Lady"

Joe Bataan plays Sunday, May 30 at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd. Santa Ana, $25, 5 p.m.

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