Willie Colon If you don’t know Willie Colon, then you don’t know salsa! As one of he pioneers in this music genre, Willie has broken down a lot of barriers. Check out this interview with this legend as he speaks on hip-hop, today’s salsa scene, the salsa/jazz connection, the creation of salsa, and his new Legends of Salsa Tour.
By William Hernandez
WHO?MAG: Talk to me about the Legends of Salsa tour? WILLIE COLON: I’m working with Cheo [Feliciano] and Ismael Miranda. It’s kind of special for me because we’re all from the New York Mafia. They live in Puerto Rico, but we all know each from way back from New York, especially Cheo. I have to give him his props because he doesn’t get enough credit for what he’s done. When Cheo was with the Joe Cuba sextet, there were only six cats up there kicking ass. Cheo used to play cowbell at the same time as he sung. He has that street thing. I picked it up and learned a lot from Cheo when he was with Joe Cuba. Later on, I was able to work with him with the Fania All Stars. I love what he did with trombones. I wish he would have did “Busca lo Tuyo” that he did with Eddie [Palmieri] and I. He sounds great with trombones. Ismael Miranda. When Hector [Lavoe] used to not show up, he used to be Hector’s replacement. We got a lot of history and it’s great. A lot of people showed up and I think they had a good time.
WHO?MAG: I heard you have a new album coming out at the end of this month. Can you talk about it? WILLIE COLON: I haven’t released an album in about 10 years. I’ve been working on this one for about 2 years now. It’s finally finished. Some of the cuts are like 8 minutes long, 6 minutes long. It’s not a made for radio thing, but everything is changing. We’re going to release it digitally first and then we’ll take it from there. It could be my last recording. I’m pretty happy with some of the things we were able to do. We mixed in a little Reggaeton. We mixed in a little hardcore stuff. There are a lot of solos on it. I’m pretty happy with all the different kind of material we recorded too. It’s about 15 songs.
WHO?MAG: What are your thoughts on today’s generation of Salsa artists? WILLIE COLON: I think there’s a problem. The problem started when the big companies started buying up all the companies and trying to have all the artists and producing a record every six months with every artist and what not, just to mass-produce. If you look at the credits on those albums, it’s mostly the same producers, arrangers, and songwriters. In the days of Fania, there was music coming from all different kind of places. It wasn’t really regulated then. A matter of fact, there was a lot of competition amongst the artists themselves. That doesn’t exist now because these big multi-nationals don’t want the artist to compete amongst themselves because they’ll lose. That’s the reason why Reggaeton has been able to take off because it came out under the radar. I think there is a possibility for a new wave of Salsa to come out from the kids because technology has made it possible for you to record an album in your house if you have a good enough computer. What you need is independent thoughts and independent sounds. That’s truly important for the music to able to evolve to something that’s going to really catch.
WHO?MAG: Being a Bronx native, what are your thoughts on Hip Hop music? WILLIE COLON: Hip Hop is the same kind of thing. It has the raunch and the things that kids want to hear. It has the dirt in it. Hip Hop took a lot from Salsa and other sounds. Those African sounds; the drum sounds. The lyrics not the lyrics per say, but the cadence and the rhyming kind of thing. Salsa is about rhyming too. It’s a coincidence that Hip Hop and Salsa started from the same place, from the Bronx. There’s something very special about it. I think that Hip Hop is a part of Salsa. They’re a part of each other. Just like Reggaeton is related to Salsa.
WHO?MAG: How is your production process? WILLIE COLON: I had little bit of a dilemma when I started working on this last album because last time I was in the studio, I was used to seeing the two reels turning. We used to cut the tape with a razor blade and all of that. I come in and all of that’s gone. It was a shock and took me while to really get up to speed. I had to lay low and study how they did it. I still would like to do it in a way that the music is rehearsed and not have to create it by chopping and splicing and putting it together so that all of the musicians can understand what you’re trying to do to be able to contribute to it.
WHO?MAG: How was your approach to producing Ruben Blades, Celia Cruz, and Ismael Miranda? WILLIE COLON: Well, Ruben basically had a lot of compositions and stuff like that. In those days, I was the boss so I just did whatever I wanted. With Celia I had to have a little more finesse approaching it. It was an honor to have someone of her stature do an album with me. It turned out that Celia was much easier to work with than most of the guys my age. She had been around the block a couple of times. She knows what she wants to get done. She knew how to kind of prime me to get me able to produce the album. That’s how I’m able to do my job. It turned out it was easier to work with Celia than the other guys.
WHO?MAG: You were one of the few, if not only, Salsa artist/producer that had instrumental tracks on every album. How did the idea come about to put those on the albums? WILLIE COLON: : Today that’s weird because the difference between us is how they hold the microphone. For us, we were all musicians. Eddie Palmieri was a pianist, I was a trombonist, Ray Barretto was a conga player. We were musicians and we would listen to instrumental stuff like Jazz and stuff like that. The music came up. One of the first shows that we played Salsa to an English speaking audience, we had a lot of African Americans listen to it and we came up through the Jazz stations. Guys like Symphony Sid would mix us in with different Jazz groups. He’d take it in to Mongo Santamaria. We kind of fit into their format also, since that’s where we came from. It was always wise to throw in a couple of instrumentals.
WHO?MAG: Would you approve or disapprove of your music being sampled? WILLIE COLON: They have. I am one of the most sampled artists. “La Murga” is all over the place. Tego Calderon and all these guys have used pieces of my songs. I would like to get paid for it. It would be nice.
WHO?MAG: I read in a magazine that they said you are the “Quincy Jones” of Salsa. What are you thoughts on that? WILLIE COLON: : That’s a great complement, but Quincy Jones is like a monster. He’s a totally different anima, you know. It’s nice to hear.
WHO?MAG: When you think back on your legacy, how do you want to be remembered? WILLIE COLON: I’ll finish a gig like this and remember all the excitement, music, and all the fun we had and stuff. You go to bed and life is good man.
WHO?MAG: How did the song “Che Che Cóle” come about? WILLIE COLON: During the Vietnam War, I got a job teaching a junior high school so I wouldn’t have to go fight. There was an exchange program with some Ghanese teachers and they would be singing that chant. I ended up putting some music to it and adding some other parts.
WHO?MAG: How did the “El Baquine de Angelitos Negros” soundtrack come about? WILLIE COLON: I was traveling with Hector [Lavoe] for about 8 years. I was really burnt out. My marriage fell apart. I was at the ripe old age of 23. I was going through a divorce and all kind of stuff. I gave the band to Hector and I gave him the book. I told him I’d keep producing him. I went looking for a job as a producer. I got a job at WNET television but didn’t have any money. They had a small budget. All different kinds of people wanted a piece of it. We decided to make it a multimedia project. The dancers wouldn’t dance to it. I was going to write the music. The guys who would edit the film would film it. That’s how the project came about. It was a multimedia project and we got all these different art forms involved. That gave me a chance to work with a string section and stuff like that. What I learned from that I applied to Hector Lavoe’s album, which was my next production. We did “Periodico de Ayer”. We put the strings on it and everybody thought it was great idea and everybody loved it. There was also an influence of strings coming from the Philadelphia sound of disco and all that stuff.
WHO?MAG: What advice do you give to artists trying to get into the music business? WILLIE COLON: Listen to as many different kind of music as possible, not only to just one thing. Listen to everything to give you different kind of ideas and as soon as possible, start writing your own stuff because even if it comes out a little dirty or whatever, nobody has ever done it before so you’re the best who’s done it so far.
*DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF MY FATHER WILLIAM HERNANDEZ SR.