Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe were very instrumental in Salsa's success during the late '60s and throughout the '70s and '80s. Under the banner of Fania Records, this duo pushed the boundaries of traditional Salsa, and, in turn, became worldwide superstars, touring Central and South America, and cities all across the Eastern Hemisphere, most notably, Paris.
To get a grasp of just how big these guys were, consider this: The Fania All-Stars shut down Yankee Stadium in 1973. The damage the stadium sustained during the show, caused by those in attendance dancing the night away, put Bronx Bombers' last month of home games in jeopardy. It was an electric time in New York City. Willie's revolutionary trombone-backed production shifted Salsa's mambo and boogaloo (Latin R&B) to a more street-oriented sound, with lyrics that reflected the harsh realities many artists skirted around. With the help of Hector's beautiful voice, the duo were able to have commercial success and still stay street.
They produced powerful love ballads, chaotic Latin Jazz instrumental tracks, and street tales that told of the barrio's ills on numerous classic LPs. They provided a soundtrack for a generation of Nuyoricans that gave them something to identify with. The Bronx was diaspora for transplanted Puerto Ricans, and Willie and Hector were able to tap into the streets like no one else—an attribute that can easily be seen on their album art.
They were Gangstarr, they were the Neptunes and the Clipse, they were Puffy and Biggie, Dre and Snoop. Meet salsa's original gangsters.
Angel Diaz is a Staff Writer for Complex Media. Follow him @ADiaz456.
El Malo (1967)
Willie was 17 years old when he started to change the game like a young Nasir Jones. El Malo was the first project he and Hector Lavoe worked on, and it was a beautiful fusion of cultures: American, Puerto Rican, and African. From the first track, you can hear the reason Willie was signed at such a young age: his revolutionary trombone playing . He didn't introduce the trombone to salsa music, but he popularized it by making it a focal point. However, Hector Lavoe stole the show with his voice. The name of the album translates to: The Bad One, and title track talks about the baddest man on the block. These two would become the Guru and Premier of Salsa.
That album cover is amazing and the title translates to cookin' up and/or puttin' in work. The title track is a tale of a pickpocket by the name of Vincente who's love of putting in work resulted in him being apprehend by the police on the corner of 110th and Lexington. Willie's style of Salsa was a stew made up of Jazz, Mambo, and African-inspired percussion, and by the time this album dropped their style was becoming successful, hence the image of the duo robbing a safe. They were doing the AfroCaribbean thing better than nearly anybody during this period and were on their way to stardom—Hector, especially, who was becoming Salsa game Michael Jackson. The genre still hasn't recovered from his death at the hands of AIDs in 1993.
Coso Nuestra (1970)
This was the album that cemented Willie and Hector's legacy. Cosa Nuestra was a play on the old mafia saying, and it fit with their style of music. Like hip-hop is to the black inner city youth, this new, brash Salsa belonged to the Latino inner city youth. The music made about everyday life in NYC barrios was being accepted the world over. “Che Che Colé” was the monster hit but the power ballad "Ausencia" is the song that showed their versatility. With Willie's revolutionary trombone playing, and Hector's classic voice, they showed that they could do it all. Cosa Nuestra was their Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life. Not only was it their best-selling, it was their first masterpiece. This joint played in the clubs, on the radio, and in the streets. Hector and Willie were on their way to becoming legends.
La Gran Fuga (1970)
The Big Break is Willie's Yeezus. It transcended the genre but, at its core, was still a record you could dance to. This album paid homage to its AfroCaribbean and Latin American roots with tracks dedicated to Ghana, Colombia, and Panama. La Gran Fuga is short and sweet. Each of the eight songs vary in sound and depth. The poster plays up Colon's gangster shtick and is a subtle shot at the older Salseros who said the way Willie played the trombone would never last. Willie and Hector were moving closer to rarified air with every release. This LP was them pushing the envelope, exploring the totality of their artistic freedom.
Lo Mato (1973)
All good things must come to an end. By 1973, Willie was getting fed up with Hector's lifestyle. Already a legend to those familiar with the genre, Lavoe was on a one-way ticket to a casket. Sex, heroin, and salsa ruled his world and he would later die from AIDS in 1993. Lo Mato was the beginning of the end. Listening to to record, you would never know that Willie and Hector's relationship was on the rocks. This record gave the world "El Dia De Suerte"—a track Puerto Rican rapper Big Pun would sample in "100%"—and one of Hector's most personal songs. In it he sings of the death of his parents while hoping his bad luck will one day end.
The song gave fans a glimpse into the deep depression he was battling, and yet Hector's voice laced the track with beauty and passion. Lo Mato also gave the streets "Calle Luna, Calle Sol," a ballad warning of the ills of the ghetto. The chorus says to keep your hand on your knife when walking through certain hoods because they've killed the best of the best. This album marked the last time they would tour together, effectively ending one of the greatest creative partnerships in music history.