Tattoos creep up and down Pepe Aguilar‘s forearms. On the left, in hues of gray and black: the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s most revered icon; Aguilar’s father, Antonio, imposing atop a rearing horse; and Quetzalcoatl, the Mayan feathered serpent.
On his right arm there’s a skull punctuated with red and green, the symbol of the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday, and an elaborate dragon that snakes around Aguilar’s arm and shoulder all the way up to his clavicle.
“I like dragons,” he says, rolling down the sleeves of the denim shirt he wears over a plain black T-shirt. “I like that they symbolize strength, deity, transformation.”
Transformation is a familiar theme for Aguilar. A rocker at heart, he is the son of the late Antonio Aguilar and Flor Silvestre, two of Mexico’s most celebrated film stars and performers of ranchera, the traditional folk music that dates back to the Mexican revolution in the early 20th century. “It’s complicated to have two artists as parents,” says Aguilar as he enjoys lunch in his office in affluent Parkway Calabasas, just outside the Santa Monica Mountains, northwest of Los Angeles. The walls of his office are adorned with artifacts of his life similar to those on display at the Grammy Museum downtown: charro (cowboy) outfits, Billboard Latin Music Awards and black-and-white photos of a family that’s known throughout Mexico as “La Dinastia Aguilar,” the Aguilar Dynasty.
“Each of us has to create his own history,” says Aguilar, looking around the room. “It took me many years to realize there was a different formula [than what my parents did]. I’ve spent many years doing things in a completely different way.”
No path has been quite as different as the one he’s taking now. At 46 years old, Aguilar will release MTV Unplugged on CD and DVD on Oct. 21, making him the first ranchera act to record within a franchise long associated with rock and pop.
The set is being released independently on Equinox (Aguilar’s own label) and Seitrack (his management’s label). It’s the first release in the MTV Unplugged series not negotiated directly with a major, although the set is distributed by Sony.
The 13-track album was produced by Meme del Real, the keyboardist in the acclaimed Mexican alt band Cafe Tacuba. Guest performers include Spanish pop star Miguel Bose, Mexican alt act Natalia Lafourcade and rocker Saul Hernandez. On the other end are Mexican cumbia acts like Amandititita and Los Angeles Azules.
Aguilar sings both pop and ranchera on MTV Unplugged, and he offers guest spots on the recording to his two youngest children, Leonardo, 15, and Angela, 10 (see story, page 78).
“MTV took me out of my comfort zone, and I really enjoyed taking them out of theirs,” Aguilar says, laughing. He explains that he added a big brass band from Sinaloa and a conjunto norteño, one of the accordion-based ensembles of northern Mexico and Texas. “It was wonderful to see Mexico sound like this on MTV Unplugged — and doing it with my family was amazing.”
Aguilar’s musical career has always been a family affair. “I don’t remember ever not singing,” he says. “I was put on the stage when I was very young, with my little charro suit and my little horse. That’s how I started.”
But Aguilar has always loved rock, especially Pink Floyd and The Who. In the 1980s, as a teen, he formed his own rock band, Equs, and quietly released an album, even as he continued to share the concert stage with his famous dad. Eventually, the family business won out. In 1990, he released his first traditional Mexican album, Pepe Aguilar Con Tambora, and immediately struck a popular chord, thanks to his velvety voice and distinctive interpretation. Aguilar was a mariachi singer who could croon.
Aguilar has ruled Billboard‘s Regional Mexican Albums chart three times and has placed nine top 10s on the Hot Latin Songs chart, including 1998’s “Por Mujeres Como Tu” (“Because of Women Like You”), which married traditional mariachi with string-heavy pop arrangements. Thanks to Aguilar’s contemporary take on traditional music, radio stations that had never played mariachi opened up to the genre.
He didn’t stop there. After leaving an onerous deal with Mexican indie Musart, Aguilar launched his own label and cut licensing and distribution deals for all his subsequent albums, retaining ownership of his masters.
And now — after 24 years, more than two dozen albums, six Grammys and three Latin Grammys — he’s taking an unexpected plunge into a more mainstream audience. The notion of making MTV Unplugged hadn’t even crossed his mind until Alex Mizrahi, president of OCESA/Seitrack, Aguilar’s management, brought it to the table.
“Regional genres are becoming cool,” says Mizrahi, who manages mostly rock and alternative acts like Zoe and Alejandra Guzman. So cool, that in 2011 MTV tapped norteño band Los Tigres del Norte for its Unplugged series. Mizrahi thought Aguilar, a ranchero star with a rock soul, was a natural to “defend” the format, and he pitched the idea to Marc Zimet, vp music and talent for Viacom International Media Networks, the Americas.
“Pepe was so honest, and very candid and straightforward about how much he wanted to do this and reinvent his music,” says Zimet. “It’s almost like you could see the teenager in him, which for all of us was infectious.”
The key was bringing in del Real to bridge both worlds and produce. The collaboration wasn’t seamless. Aguilar had self-produced most of his albums to date, so giving up the creative reins proved difficult. But as a result he suddenly found himself in uncharted territory, from singing African- and Latin-influenced cumbia to recording a homage to late Argentine rock legend Gustavo Cerati.
No moment better illustrates the shift in Aguilar’s approach than the opening number of MTV Unplugged, which he sings alone in a spotlight, accompanied only by del Real on guitar. “We both felt naked,” says Aguilar. “Having him produce this for me is a big deal. He’s a huge name in his world, and this is a new adventure for him. And I’m starting a path as an interpreter who’s more chameleonic, who doesn’t carry labels – and who has no fear.”