The name Ritchie Valens still carries weight in 2011, despite the fact he only had an eight month long recording career, and died in a plane crash back in 1959. How is that possible? It’s all about making the most of the time you have while you’re here, and with his hit song “La Bamba” he created an earthquake in rock and roll that’s still throwing out aftershocks. You might know the Los Lobos cover version better, but it wouldn’t be a hit if the man born Ricardo Esteban Valenzuela Reyes hadn’t done it first. Valens himself credits the original version to a Mexican folk song from Veracruz, but he transformed the original ballad into an up-tempo dance song that rocketed him to fame and stardom the teen idol might have found overwhelming if he had lived long enough to enjoy it. Still he managed to hit the Billboard Charts three times before “The Day the Music Died,” and is widely credited as the progenitor of Mexican and Spanish sound in rock music, opening the doors for thousands of artists who followed.

Now I wouldn’t have been surprised by any rock artist from pop to heavy metal paying tribute to Ritchie Valens, but for Mr. Miranda & Mute to do it caught me by surprise. It’s not wrong in any way for hip-hop to pay respects to his legend, but hip-hop is often by nature insular and looks to its own recent history for inspiration and homage, much like Kyle Rapps saluting KRS-One. It’s a bold move for Miranda and his producer to step outside of that box, and since he was already going there anyway Miranda released this EP on May 13th – the date of Valens’ birth. Obviously there is a certain amount of sampling one would expect from his tracks, but Mute gives everything the necessary rap spin and then leaves it up to Miranda to fill in the blanks lyrically on “Funky La Bamba”:

“Whoever said Mexicans couldn’t make hip-hop
probably wasn’t speaking about us, y’knahmsayin? But listen
Flow livin, my soul’s given the city challenge
You slow driven, I’m cold spittin for Ritchie Valens
Get your weight up homey or catch a hurt muscle
Some kids be goin overboard like they Kurt Russell
If I say a hot line and you snatch that
You can call it payin homage but I call it ass capped
I’m goin off with the homey Mute
What you cats think are dimes man to us yo are only cute!”

Clearly the song is not literally about Ritchie. It’s mostly a braggadocious freestyle with Miranda daring people to take him on as an artist, but it’s still the “La Bamba” beat and the way Mute flips it that makes it hit hard. “Bit of a Rattlesnake” is a more direct approach as Miranda makes no bones about who he’s giving props to or why over subtle Spanish guitar:

“I wanna take time to reflect on a legend
who made great music and was set on perfection
But sometimes, every good thing must fall
And it’s a sad number when you gotta make that call
But man, you were a person who truly showed passion
Nephew ain’t here, runs through me slow crashin
Wishin you had lost that coin toss, rode the bus
You’d be alive so you could roll with us”

Miranda is referring to the urban legend that Valens and Buddy Holly bandmate Tommy Allsup flipped a coin for the last seat on a small plane that wound up crashing near Clear Lake, IA on February 3rd, 1959 – killing all on board including Valens. It sounds too fantastic to believe that Valens’ life was literally decided by heads or tails on a coin flip, but Allsup and those who alive who knew about it assert that it’s true. Holly and J.P. Richardson a/k/a “The Big Bopper” were also on that fateful flight. The five tracks of “The Ritchie Valens EP” do its namesake justice, particularly the somber and epic six minute long “Ritchie’s View.”

For what it’s worth though it almost seems unfair to single out Valens, given the other people on that plane were just as influential to rock ‘n roll. In truth this EP is only four songs though, as the “Intro” is samples and newscast snippets mixed together, and not a rap song as such. In that view perhaps the EP is almost underdone – as a tribute more material might have made a better case for his impact. The lingering feeling that Miranda could have broadened the scope and sampled from Holly and Big Bopper is hard to shake – I would have loved to hear what he and Mute would do with “Chantilly Lace” for example. As is often the case with Bandcamp it’s hard to grouse too much about an EP that’s being given away for free – this is one I would have paid $5 for. Miranda may have limited his scope but he does his subject justice.

Mr. Miranda & Mute :: La Bamba: The Ritchie Valens EP
7Overall Score