Toy Selectah, Dr. Cumbiaton

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For the past few of years we’ve been immersed in this neo-cumbia craze. Suddenly, apparently out from nowhere -and from everywhere at the same time-, DJ’s and beat producers coming from the hip-hop, electronica and dancehall camps have all started to experiment with this traditional Afro-Colombian folk rhythm. Even though from a mainstream-pop perspective this is still a very underground movement, neo-cumbia is at the verge of exploding to massive proportions. Some even predict (and hope) the days of reggaetón sovereignty are counted; cumbia will eventually overthrow it in the Latin urban space.

That is now, but back in 2003, during an interview to promote Control Machete’s last album, Uno, Dos: Bandera, DJ/Producer Toy Selectah (back then still Toy Hernández) matter-of-factly mentioned to me his new-found interest in cumbia mixed with modern beats. Little I suspected at the moment that he was actually anticipating the future of a whole continental scene he would practically kick-start.

Five years later we met again, this time in San Francisco, where he was a guest DJ at Tormenta Tropical (maybe the best new school cumbia party in the US), along with LA’s Chico Sonido and SF local cumbia heroes Oro11 and Disco Shawn of Bersa Discos. (Check out Toy on Bersa Discos #5 release, out now.)

After Control Machete broke up, Toy has not stopped for a second. He has worked with everyone from Julieta Venegas to Calle 13, was responsible for reggaetón’s explosion as A&R for Machete Records, and formed an urban cumbia band out of his native Monterrey called Sonidero Nacional. After five years, we had a lot of catching up to do: from the status of rap en español (what the hell happened?), to what will explode after cumbia (revertón, anyone?) and his other million projects.


It was the year 1997 when I first met Toy at some classy hotel in Buenos Aires. Thanks to MTV, Control Machete had recently become the first transnational success of the new Latin American hip-hop scene and this was their first South American tour. That same year the Chilean hip-hop scene exploded with Tiro de Gracia’s breakthrough debut Ser Hümano, while in Argentina the first serious hip-hop compilation was being released by a major label. In Spain 7 Notas 7 ColoresHecho Es Simple was establishing new record sales for a rap album. It all seemed to point in one direction: rap in Spanish was going to be the next big thing but…

RE: What ever happened to rap in Spanish?
TS: Hip-hop is huge all over Latin America! Even what’s now happening with cumbia, is all part of the hip-hop phenomenon. Like it or not, that is hip-hop. We might expect all hip-hop to be like Mos Def but you know what, maybe this was the hip-hop that belonged to Latin America, mixed up with reggae and cumbia.

RE: But from a music business point of view, we could argue what Spanish-language rap wasn’t as big as it seemed it was going to be ten years ago.
TS: But look at Spain. Every time a new album by Nach, or La Mala or Tote King comes out, it goes straight to the top-5. We are talking about real hip-hop supported by multinational record labels. In the United States well…love it or hate it, that place was taken by reggaetón. Why hip-hop wasn’t as successfull in Latin America for the record labels as it was in other countries? Maybe because we expected it to be like American hip-hop. And that’s impossible.

Purists told us that Guru and Premiere were hip-hop, sure, but that’s not all there is, hip-hop expresses itself in different ways in every country. Right now in Mexico there is a new generation of rappers that I find very interesting, Bocafloja, Niña Dioz, Serko, Sekreto, Milkman


Toy Selectah has always been ahead of the game. He was there at the moment when rap en español started crossing borders and getting credibility from the industry as a viable music genre with Control Machete. He was there setting the blueprints for the neo-cumbia movement where he is regarded as the maximum pioneer. And also, he was right at the eye of the hurricane when reggaetón blew up worldwide, not as an artist this time, but as A&R for Universal’s Machete Records, the label that released some of the most successful reggaetón artists like Don Omar, Wisin & Yendel, Luny Tunes and an apparently infinite etcetera.

RE: How did the whole Machete Records thing happen?
TS: One thing leads to the other. Machete for me was like if Universal Records came and payed me to take an MBA in Latin urban music. Like, I went to school and got my diploma with Control and now Universal sends me to study a master degree in business administration and artist development. It was a rich and great experience that lasted from 2004 to 2007.

RE: 2004 was the year reggaetón crossed over to the gringo market with “Culo” and “Gasolina”.
TS: Yes, that was when the CEO at Universal decides to start this new label. I was the A&R and Gustavo López [now president of Fonovisa] was the president. Together we created the concept. Gustavo suggested the name Machete, in part because of Control (Machete) and also because in Puerto Rico machete means cock. So it was a very strong name. At first I didn’t want to be associated with the name but then Gustavo asked me “what’s the best thing that happened in your life?” Control Machete!

RE: And what was once going to be a rap-en-español and reggaetón only label, ended up releasing Menudo…
TS: Machete stopped being an urban music label. That’s why I left. When I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do anymore, I told them, you know what, I better go back to México. My three-years MBA was over. If now Machete is releasing Menudo (more accurately MDO), I couldn’t care less.

RE: Before going into Machete Records you where doing plenty of production for other artists from different genres like Gustavo Cerati and Los Tetas.
TS: That was like doing internships in between my degree with Control and my MBA with Universal. To be honest with you, I don’t thing I’m very interested in doing that anymore.

RE: If Cerati comes up tomorrow and asks you to produce his new album what would you say?
TS: I don’t know güey…

RE: What if M.I.A. asks you?
TS: Oh yeah, I’d do it for M.I.A. If Damon Albran comes and asks me to produce the next Gorillaz, hell yes I’d do it! If Calle 13, or Bonde do Role come, sure! But if it’s rock, they better go with Sacha Triujeque.

RE:What if Fermín and Pato [from Machete] approach you to do a new album together?
TS: If Fermín and Pato… nah, they are too old, they are not gonna come. They want to stay in their comfort zone.

Remezcla: How did the whole neo-cumbia phenomenon start?
Toy Selectah: Híjole güey, it was very spontaneous. We all started getting deep into MySpace. I think it’s still barely starting. Definitely that vinyl release we made with Sistema Local when Chico Sonido moved to Los Angeles was a stepping-stone for the whole movement, it had the first cumbia mash-ups like the one with Missy Elliot and the “Milkshake” song.

RE: That was in 2005, right?
TS: Yes, around 2004 or 2005. It was then when Sonido Martínez (from Argentina) showed up online and right after that, all the rest started to come out.

RE: But Sonidero Nacional already existed.
TS: Oh yeah, of course. That started with [the collaboration on] Celso Piña’s “Cumbia Sobre El Río” That was the foundational song of the new cumbia. It was a very significant song because it had the roots  of traditional cumbia together with hip-hop and reggae. And it was a massive success. Even Pablo [Lescano, from Damas Gratis] says that’s the song that started it all. That was when everybody started adding powerful baselines to cumbia beats.

RE: “Cumbia Sobre El Río” was also the first international crossover cumbia song;  it appealed to the selective hip-hop and rock en español audiences as well as the traditional cumbia dancers.
TS: Absolutely. That’s when it was established the idea that a cumbia crossover was possible. It could be trendy and played on MTV while still being cumbia.

RE: I think that neo-cumbia happens because of this new Latin American generation that grew up surrounded with cumbia as the dominant lower-class dance music but they see it from a hip-hop perspective. The whole concept of music recycling; this is something that couldn’t have happened 15 years earlier.
TS: Exactly. This is the hip-hop creativity but it’s not happening only with cumbia, it’s happening with all other modern music styles, rock, pop, electronica… You can call it neo-cumbia or mash-up, but from my point of view it’s all hip-hop.

RE: Another distinctive characteristic of this movement is that it mostly developed online, thanks to MySpace, some blogs and free MP3s. There are almost no official releases available.
TS: That’s why I say that this is barely starting and I think it’s gonna be huge! Every time I release a new remix, there are 160 DJs I know that if I send them the track, they will be playing it the next day.

RE: But people hear that at the club and they want to buy the song and it’s not available anywhere.
TS: Right! So they have to come back next week to the gig to listen to it again. That’s how the whole reggaetón thing started with DJ Playero before the record labels got interested in. Now Sonidero Nacional will be releasing a compilation of remixes through Universal.

RE: And that can be the next big crossover for this hybrid genre.
TS: That will be the CD that takes the genre to the mexa paisas and it becomes massive. It will happen, you’ll see. There are some compilations coming out already, there is one in Belgium, there are the Zizek releases, the stuff that Bersa Discos is publishing…

RE: You also released a mixtape for Diplo’s Mad Decent label.
Download Mad Decent’s MexMore mixtape here.

TS: I met Diplo a long time ago and I was the first one to introduce him to cumbia. I met him at the backstage of M.I.A.’s first concert in New York and then I took him to Argentina and showed him Zizek and he flipped out. Now I’m going to release an album with his label as Toy Selectah, not as Sonidero Nacional. Sonidero Nacional is more pop, we have no shame in remixing Julieta Venegas, Miranda!, Shakira, Juanes… it’s mainstream. Toy Selectah is more experimental. It’s what’s coming after neo-cumbia, it’s the post-neo-cumbia.

RE: There is this cycling phenomenon in the music industry where “first world” DJ’s and producers become infatuated with a certain “third world” rhythm and they start sampling it and remixing until the whole thing becomes a cliché and it burns out. Eight years ago it happened with bossa nova, a couple of years later it happened with tango, then with baile funk… Do you think the same thing will happen with cumbia?

TS: Look, I just took  Steph and Dave (Dewaele) from Soulwax to buy cumbia records. No doubt tomorrow there’s gonna be a track by them with some cumbia sample. And I wonder, is this good or not? But you know what? I’m not staying stuck in cumbia, I’ll keep on moving forward. By the time that happens I’ll be beyond that, experimenting with something else. I don’t know, maybe ravertón.

RE: The other face of that same phenomenon is that DJ’s from Latin America who probably used to look down on genres like cumbia, suddenly start jumping on the last wagon of the train when they see that European DJ’s are spinning it.
TS: We are malinchistas. Everywhere, not only in Mexico.

RE: I t’s like Up, Bustle and Out have to come down from England to tell us that our cumbia is cool for us to realize that.
TS: Yes, and Diplo has to come to Mexico to tell them that he likes what Toy is doing for people to pay attention to Toy. Dude, I play more frequently in London that in Monterrey!