INTERVIEW: Josh Norek of WEXT’s “The Latin Alternative”
Josh Norek is the co-host of the new weekly radio show, “The Latin Alternative,” debuting on WEXT at 8pm on Saturday, July 4.
He’s also the director of the JN Media Group (a bilingual music public relations company), the co-founder of the Latin Alternative Music Conference and a founding member of the Latino-Jewish rap group Hip Hop Hoodios.
While Norek lives and works in Los Angeles these days, his roots are right here in Nippertown.
NIPPERTOWN: How does a kid from Delmar get into Latin alternative music? What was it about the music that first attracted you?
NOREK: I grew up in Slingerlands, or as I call it “Slingerlandia.” My family is Jewish, but I have extended family from Colombia and always embraced español. When I was 14 years old, I started translating Tom Petty and John Mellencamp songs into Spanish for fun. My Spanish teacher at Bethlehem High School, Marta Meacham, encouraged me to mix my love of music with Spanish, but I never thought it would lead to an entire career as a Latin music executive, political activist (I also serve as deputy director of Voto Latino, the Latino youth civic engagement organization co-founded by the actress Rosario Dawson) and recording artist.
Believe it or not, I owe part of my music industry career to growing up in Bethlehem. When I was in 9th grade, I founded a ‘fanzine’ that was a parody of Rolling Stone. It was called ZedNosh, and I somehow conned Bethlehem Central High School to pay for its production. Spin Magazine publisher Bob Guccione, Jr. became a big fan of ZedNosh and I wound up becoming his personal intern at age 17.
More after the jump:
Back in 1995, I decided to take a leave of absence from Cornell University with the intention of spending my sophomore year of college in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Instead, I wound up working for Warner Music Argentina and helping with the marketing of artists like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day in Argentina. Having interned at Spin Magazine at such a young age is basically what got me the gig.
During that time in Argentina, I was first introduced to the musical genre that truly changed my life: ‘Rock en Espanol’ or Latin Alternative music. As soon as I heard Los Fabulosos Cadillacs’ song “Matador,” I became an instant ‘convertido’ and decided that my life’s mission would be to introduce this music to a wider audience in the United States.
Latin Alternative music is just so much more compelling and stylistically diverse than 99% of what I hear in English. You have this fascinating cross-cultural pollination: salsa with metal, funk with cumbia, hip-hop with tango. The genre is much more open to experimentation, and also the artists tend to be much more politically and socially conscious than your typical American artist.
When I graduated college, I was only 22, but I became the publicist for a lot of major Latin rock bands: Maná, Fabulosos Cadillacs, Café Tacuba, Molotov, as well as Latin pop artists like Enrique Iglesias. Being bilingual gave me an advantage over other publicists, and a lot of Latin record labels needed help marketing their Latino artists to a broader, English-speaking audience.
Over time, I decided I could also help artists by providing them with business and legal consultation. I went to law school at night while running a PR firm, so I also now do record contracts and trademarks for many artists. I still serve as VP of Nacional Records, the Warner-distributed home to Grammy Award-winning acts like Manu Chao, Aterciopelados and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.
NIPPERTOWN: How did you hook the radio show up with WEXT?
NOREK: This is actually a really funny story and demonstrates what an incredible station WEXT is. Two years ago, I was reviewing radio airplay reports for Manu Chao. Most public radio stations that play Latin Alternative music are in places like California or Texas.
But all of the sudden, I saw that Manu Chao was getting 20 spins a week in my hometown – something I never in a million years could have imagined back when I was an Albany resident. I called up the station program director Chris Wienk and asked him “Who are you, and when did an Albany station start spinning Latin Alternative music?”
Chris Wienk and his colleague Dave Michaels are incredibly open-minded. They invited me to guest host a one hour Latin Alternative special when I was back home for a visit, and it was well-received by WEXT listeners. Wienk asked “So where can we pick up a syndicated Latin Alternative show to air on the station?” He was genuinely perplexed when I informed him that such a show didn’t exist. Then I added “But we could start one.” The rest is history.
I’m extremely proud of both the station and Capital District listeners for taking the lead and making Albany the first city in America to debut the show.
NIPPERTOWN: What kind of features will you have on the show?
NOREK: Each show is co-hosted by Ernesto Lecher and me. Lechner is by far the most important music critic for the Latin Alternative genre – he writes for the LA Times and Rolling Stone, and is originally from Argentina. He has brilliant insights and a very poetic voice. It is a true honor to work with him.
We have two recurring segments on the show. The “Spotlight Artist” segment is fairly in depth and profiles the history and career of a key act in the genre. Initial spotlight artists on the show will include Manu Chao, Café Tacuba and Los Lobos.
The other recurring segment is called “Homegrown” and focuses on a U.S. based Latin Alternative acts. There are so many great up-and-coming bilingual artists coming out of NYC, LA and Austin – even in places like Nashville and New Haven. We had to let American audiences know about these acts.
NIPPERTOWN: So is “The Latin Alternative” only airing on WEXT? Do you have plans to go to other stations as well? What about possible syndication?
NOREK: The show is co-produced by WEXT 97.7, but we have syndication plans and already have commitments to air it in California, Oregon and Texas in the coming months. As a recovering upstater, it warms my heart to see such a great national response to an Albany-produced program!
NIPPERTOWN: Did you have a difficult time deciding which songs you would include in the first show?
NOREK: Not really. Ernesto Lechner and I realize that the audience for the show primarily consists of two groups of listeners: ‘Anglos’ with little prior exposure to Latin Alternative music, or Latinos who are English-dominant and consuming English-language media.
While there is a lot of amazing music out there, we knew we had to come out swinging and win folks over quickly. So we’ll be playing many of the most important artists and songs in that very first show. Once we have the listeners hooked, we can dig deeper and expose them to some of the more underground music coming out Colombia, Mexico, Spain, Cuba, etc.
NIPPERTOWN: What’s going on with your group the Hip Hop Hoodios? Any plans for new recording?
NOREK: Hip Hop Hoodíos just released our fourth album and first-ever best-of, “Carne Masada.” It’s had a great response and recently debuted at #8 on the iTunes Alternativo chart – not bad for a Latino-Jewish rap group, I suppose. We have some amazing collaborations on the record, including members of Grammy Award-winning acts like Ozomatli, Santana and the Klezmatics.
My bandmate Abraham Velez just had a baby, so we’re not doing much touring these days and are largely focusing on film/tv licensing. In the past year, we had songs featured in the Warner Bros film “Pride & Glory” and the MTV show “Life of Ryan.”
Most importantly, we’re backing up “Carne Masada” with a Reverse Madoff Digital Moneyback Guarantee – if you buy the album on iTunes or Amazon and don’t like it, you can email us the receipt, and we’ll refund your money. This is something Hip Hop Hoodíos feel strongly about – how many crappy albums have you paid full price for and later felt ripped off? We wanted potential fans to know it’s safe to check us out. If they hate us, c’est la vie.
NIPPERTOWN: What are some of the other ways that you’ve been spreading the word about alternative Latin music?
NOREK: I suppose that outside of the radio show, the most important project I’m involved with is the Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC), which returns for its 10th year in New York City on July 7–11. We have panels for the music industry during the daytime and massive free concerts in Central Park and Prospect Park at night. Last year we had 1200 attendees and 25,000 concertgoers.
While Latin Alternative music still isn’t getting much commercial radio exposure, you’d have to be blind not to see that young folks of all races and creeds are drawn to it.