Joe Bataan talks about his iconic LP Riot and starting Ghetto Records
by Oliver Wang
THERE’S A RIOT GOING ON
Joe Bataan’s first two albums for Fania, Gypsy Woman and Subway Joe, were almost like a single album split in half — both featured similar kinds of ballads and boogaloos. With Riot!, his third Fania album, Bataan began to come into his own as an artist and was moving in a new directions, especially on stage.
Wax Poetics: How was Riot! a different album than your first two LPs?
Joe Bataan: When we came across the song “Riot!” it was the first chance that I had to perform, really perform, on stage. And you gotta understand, the kids I had in the band at that time, they didn’t know their left foot from their right. You had to see what went into developing each and every one of those guys in their own particular section: on how to dance, how to be personable, how to dress, and how to capture the audience. Kids didn’t have the confidence until they finally saw it with the audience, and that was true with me. You never know what you can do until the audience accepts you, and we were getting this kind of reception that was tremendous; it made us feel that we could do anything on stage.
So you started to put more time into your stage show?
[With] choreography, the only group that ever did it was the El Gran Combo, and I learned it from them.
You mean, El Gran Combo from Puerto Rico?
Yeah, [I learned] choreography from them, but I put it on my own style, up. And the wildness that we put onstage…back then, most groups would just sit up there and play, maybe move side to side, and that was the extent of it. We jumped off the stage, the trombones did their own little thing, the conga played with his feet, we put lights under the drums so they would shine in the dark. Whatever we thought would be a novelty and bring down the house, we did. I learned from the Fillmore East, watching the Who. I said, “These guys are burning guitars; what can we do?” We got a smoke machine, and we almost burned down the damn club. [laughs]
As you and folks like Ray Barretto and Johnny Colon were helping to push Fania forward, were other Latin labels like Tico, Cotique, et cetera, losing out?
Yes, definitely. Especially Alegre and Tico. Those big bands couldn’t sell a lick because things were changing. I mean, they sold a standard copy, but the sales weren’t going overboard like they had started to for guys like Willie Colon, myself, Johnny Colon, Tito Rodriguez, Joe Cuba, you know?
How did you get along with these other guys?
I knew all of them, we played together, we met each other. In those days, it wasn’t surprising to find a band playing maybe three or four times a night, so we had to see these guys; they were like our neighbors. We always trying to outdo the other, though. [laughs]
So it’s friendly competition.
Who did you get along with best in terms of other major players?
Well, at one time it was Willie Colon. Of course, there was Ralfi Pagan. I don’t think I particularly got along with anybody real close…just ’cause I was always in a state of competition. I was always trying to reach, and reach, and reach, and reach, always trying to perfect whatever I did, so it didn’t allow me any time except for listening to what the other guy was doing.
While Bataan was still under contract with Fania, but on the outs with the label, he created his own imprint on the down low: Ghetto Records. Due to limited distribution, only a handful of Latin aficionados even know of the label’s existence, fewer still know of the drama surrounding the label’s creation and eventual demise.
Tell me about Ghetto Records—you started it while you were still signed to Fania but not recording for them, right?
Yeah. I started Ghetto Records to show that it could be done. It was out of rebellion, of course, like most of my life was. That’s when I became a threat to the industry, especially [to] Morris Levy with Roulette Records and Jerry Masucci of Fania.
What was the first album on Ghetto Records?
Paul Ortiz [Y La Orquesta So]. I produced them and Paul Ortiz became a big hit, because the guy sounded like me. I had a big hit with Oritz: “Tender Love.”
This was sweet soul?
Very, very, very romantic cha-cha ballads, yeah.
How many albums did you end up overseeing on Ghetto?
I think three: Ortiz, Papo Felix, and [Eddie] Lebron.
As in the Lebron Brothers?
No, totally separate.
If you were still signed to Fania, how did you manage to get distribution for your records? Couldn’t Masucci have shut you down?
Yeah, he tried to put a wrench in it, but of course [the distributor] didn’t care, as long as they could sell a record. I learned that in this business, if you’re selling records, nobody cares, they’ll take it. They’ll probably get threatened by the other guy, but they’ll sneak it, they’ll take 100 [units] here, and 200 there.
Where did you get the capital to get this done?
I started the label with this guy who was a drug dealer, George Febo. Of course, I ain’t ask where [the money] came from.
How did you know Febo?
Through the streets, like anybody else, you bump into one guy… We knew everybody in the streets: we knew the drug dealers, and the pimps…that was just a way of life, it was nothing strange about it.
What was Febo’s interest in starting a label?
I think he just wanted popularity; his thing was just to be noticed, and a way to watch his money probably. Of course it backfired. When he got smart, he tried to ease me out of it…sort of bought me out. Like a lot of people, he took my ideas and decided to do it himself.
Did he continue to release records on the label?
Yeah, I think he had Candido, Richie Ray, and I think there were a couple other albums. He had some success, then it started folding. That’s when he gave it back to me…it was sort of a setup because I didn’t know the phones were tapped and all that. He was involved with a lot of drugs, and apparently he got hot and I think was under federal investigation. I wasn’t involved [in the investigation], thank God.
Did you end up releasing more on Ghetto?
No, it was in total shambles financially. [Trying] to make ends meet without any capital was just too difficult.
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