Abraham Quintanilla III remained at the forefront of Latin pop for years on end, primarily as a producer with a long track record, but also as the brother of Selena, as a hit songwriter, and as a polarizing troublemaker.
His recording career began alongside that of his iconic sister, with the release of Selena y los Dinos (1984), the first of many albums that he would produce and co-write. As Selena's star rose, so did his. And when her star went dark, following her tragic slaying in 1995, Quintanilla withdrew from the limelight for a while, co-writing occasional songs for Selena followers like Thalía and Olga Tañón. In 1999, he returned to the big time with A.B. Quintanilla y los Kumbia Kings, a bilingual hitmaking collective that fused traditional Mexican music (cumbia, above all) with urban American styles (hip-hop, funk, R&B, reggae), topping it all off with a slick sheen of easily enjoyable pop accessibility. Los Kumbia Kings, always preceded in billing -- or, later, "presented" -- by Quintanilla, scored too many hits to list, and following their debut album, they began hitting number one with regularity. The group unraveled, however, following the release of their fourth album, 4 (2003), as all the leading members of the group, including frontmen Frankie J and DJ Kane, left bitterly and mounted recording careers of their own. In the media, this bitterness was always coupled with references to "the business" and how they'd learned a lot in Los Kumbia Kings. The subtext, it's safe to deduce, is that the guys weren't getting paid their fair share by Quintanilla, who had a track record of co-writing songs that may have not been his to begin with -- and so it has been argued to no clear resolve. In any event, penny-pincher or not, Quintanilla proved himself to be a savvy producer and co-writer, as no matter whom he worked with, he scored hits. For instance, Los Kumbia Kings remained successful even after their mass regrouping, and following another intra-group feud over money, Quintanilla enjoyed instant success with a new group of his, the Kumbia All Starz.
Born on December 13, 1963, in Toppenish, WA, Abraham Quintanilla III (aka A.B. Quintanilla) grew up in Lake Jackson, TX, along with sisters Selena and Suzette. His father, Abraham Quintanilla, Jr., is Mexican-American, and his mother, Marcella Ophelia Zamora, is Mexican-Native American. Selena, of course, would go on to become an iconic -- and, in turn, tragic -- tejano goddess, but in the beginning, she fronted Selena y los Dinos. The group also included siblings Suzette and Abraham, as well as guitarist Chris Pérez, whom Selena would marry, and keyboardist Ricky Vela, who wrote many songs for her over the years. They performed at the Quintanilla family's restaurant, Papagallos. When the restaurant went out of business, however, the family had to declare bankruptcy and give up their home. Undaunted, they loaded up their instruments in a rickety bus and moved to Corpus Christi, a city near the Texas-Mexico border, where they performed anywhere and everywhere they could.
In time, Selena y los Dinos were offered a recording contract with a local independent label owned by Freddie Martinez, Freddie Records, and made their recording debut with a self-titled album in 1984. A decade later, Freddie would release Mis Primeras Grabaciones (1995), essentially a repackaging of these recordings, some of which are in English, for the Quintanillas are native speakers, with Spanish as their second language. Quintanilla produced Selena y los Dinos, along with his father, and wrote a couple of the songs. He also produced and co-wrote the group's follow-up albums, Alpha and Muñequito de Trapo, both released by GP Records in 1986. One of his songs, "Dame un Beso," became a modest hit and helped Selena earn her first accolades: a Hispanic Music Award (Female Vocalist of the Year) and two Tejano Music Awards (Female Vocalist of the Year, Performer of the Year). And the Winner Is... (1987), another GP release by Selena y los Dinos, capitalized upon the acclaim showered on the young singer, only 15 at the time. The group's final independent albums, Preciosa and Dulce Amor, both released by RP Records in 1988, brought with them more accolades, including a Tejano Music Awards nomination for Quintanilla (Songwriter of the Year).
By this point Selena was a rising star amid the tejano scene, and EMI took note, signing her to its Latin division. Selena (1989) was her EMI Latin debut, and no longer billed, Los Dinos were history. The album was produced and co-written by Quintanilla, along with Pete Astudillo, who, in addition to Vela, would co-write almost all of Selena's songs over the years. In time, Astudillo would go on to a solo career of his own. Mis Primeros Éxitos (1990) followed and was comprised of past hits re-recorded for EMI, while later that year the label released Ven Conmigo (1990), Selena's first album to reach sales of gold status, thanks in part to the popular -- and enduring -- song "Baila Esta Cumbia," written by Quintanilla and Astudillo. Entre a Mi Mundo (1992) was even more successful, boasting the single "Como la Flor," yet another Quintanilla/Astudillo hit, one that would become Selena's signature song. Live (1993), recorded at a concert in Corpus Christi and produced by Quintanilla, won a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Album, while Mis Mejores Canciones: 17 Super Exitos (1993) compiled the highlights of her EMI releases to date. Amor Prohibido (1994) then broke her into the mainstream. The album was a sensation, spawning several number one hits and ousting Gloria Estefan's Mi Tierra from number one on the Top Latin Albums chart, a position Amor Prohibido would maintain for a record-breaking 78 weeks. Tragically, Selena was murdered by Yolanda Saldívar, the president of her fan club, on March 31, 1995. She was only 23 years old.
Quintanilla, who had been with his sister every step of the way as her producer and songwriter, was devastated. At the time of her death, he had been working with her on an English-language crossover album, later assembled, along with previously released material, and released as Dreaming of You (1995). Quintanilla withdrew from music-making for a while, only surfacing from time to time as a co-writer -- Thalía's "Amandote" (1995), Cristian's "Esperándote" (1996), Olga Tañón's "Siempre en Mi Corazón" (1997) -- and producer, helming much of Veronica Castro's Tocada (1997) alongside Juan Manuel. At the end of the decade, he staged his return to the limelight with a group of his own, A.B. Quintanilla y los Kumbia Kings. A large group that often went uncredited (and allegedly underpaid), the original Kumbia Kings lineup included Quintanilla (bass, background vocals), DJ Kane (born Jason Cano; vocals), Frankie J (born Francisco Javier Bautista; vocals), Baby Drew (born Andrew Maes; vocals), Cruz Martinez (keyboards), Alex Ramirez (keyboards), Roy Ramirez (percussion, background vocals), Frankie Aranda (percussion), Jorge Peña (percussion), Jesse Martinez (drums), and Robert del Moral (drums). Cruz Martinez and the two Ramirez brothers, Alex and Roy, had been part of the successful tejano group La Sombra, led by Tony Guerrero.
A.B. Quintanilla y los Kumbia Kings debuted with Amor, Familia y Respeto... (1999), released by EMI Latin. Vela co-wrote several of the songs, as did Luigi Giraldo, a studio hand who would collaborate with Quintanilla for many years to come. A few special guests were featured, including Sheila E., Vico C, Roger Troutman, Nu Flavor, Fito Olivares, and Ricardo Muñoz, the latter of the popular tejano band Intocable. Singles included "Azúcar," "Fuiste Mala," "Se Fue Mi Amor," "Reggae Kumbia," "Te Quiero a Ti," and "U Don't Love Me," and this bounty of hits helped Amor, Familia y Respeto... break into the Top Ten of the Top Latin Albums chart. Moreover, the album was nominated for a Grammy (Best Tejano Performance), a Latin Grammy (Best Tejano Performance), and a Billboard Latin Music Award (Album of the Year by a Group); it won a Billboard Latin Music Award for Album of the Year by a New Artist. The follow-up album, Shhh! (2001), also billed to A.B. Quintanilla & los Kumbia Kings, entered the album chart at number two, subsequently hitting number one. Cruz Martinez was now co-writing most of the songs, along with Giraldo and Quintanilla. Hit singles mounted, among them "Think'n About U," "Shhh!," "Boom Boom," "Mi Gente," "Insomnio," and "Desde Que No Estás Aquí," and a remix album, All Mixed Up (2002), was issued in the midst of all of the ensuing commercial success.
While All Mixed Up (2002) tided over hungry consumers for a while with a single of its own, "La Cucaracha," Quintanilla brought together his most star-studded cast of collaborators yet for 4 (2003), another hit-rich chart-topper. Some of the brand-name artists heard on this album include Juan Gabriel, El Gran Silencio, Aleks Syntek, and Ozomatli. Two especially big hits resulted, "No Tengo Dinero" and "Don't Wanna Try," and another round of gap-filling product followed soon afterward: A.B. Quintanilla III Presents Kumbia Kings (2003) repackaged English-language highlights from the group's back catalog, whereas La Historia (2003) repackaged Spanish-language ones. As this stream of best-ofs was buying time, Quintanilla had a small crisis on his hands: most of his Kumbia Kings were jumping ship, allegedly because they weren't happy with their pay -- that is, assuming they were being paid at all. (DJ Kane successfully sued for his fair share and was awarded $100,000.) In subsequent media appearances, practically all of the departees referred to their stint in Los Kumbia Kings as a cold lesson in "the business." Lead vocalists Frankie J and DJ Kane both went on to mount instantly successful solo careers. On the other hand, Andrew "Baby Drew" Maes, Alex Ramirez, Roy Ramirez, and Frankie Aranda banded together as K1 (aka Kingz 1 -- a clear allusion to their past) and debuted with Nuestro Turno (2004), on which they tellingly go to great lengths to list detailed songwriting credits, giving every person his due.
Left without any lead vocalists or much of a band, Quintanilla regrouped, literally, recruiting a new lead vocalist, Pee Wee González (born Irvin Salinas), in addition to numerous other replacement members. Among them were brother-in-law Chris Pérez, formerly the guitarist of Los Dinos, and also Abel Talamantez, formerly a singer in latter-day Menudo. On Los Remixes 2.0 (2004), another compilation released to buy more time, Quintanilla debuted a few songs recorded with the new Kumbia Kings lineup. "Sabes a Chocolate," originally a hit for Menudo, was released as a single; it was Pee Wee's debut and charted modestly. Quintanilla unveiled his new Kumbia Kings at length a few months later on Fuego (2004), and in addition to the new group members, it boasted a couple guest features: Belinda ("Quien") and Noel Schajris of Sin Bandera ("Parte de Mi Corazón"). Pee Wee ended up stealing the show, however, with "Na Na Na (Dolce Niña)," a star-making hit that enjoyed a long shelf life and won the hearts of a legion of young girls. The 16-year-old heartthrob thereafter became the new face of Los Kumbia Kings, besides Quintanilla, of course, as he persisted to "present" the group.
Unsurprisingly, some gap-fillers successively hit the retail shelves. Duetos (2005) mined the back catalog, gathering up any guest-feature collaborations that hadn't already been compiled on the previous two best-ofs: "No Tengo Dinero," featuring Juan Gabriel and El Gran Silencio; "Reggae Kumbia," Vico C; "Mi Gente," Ozomatli; "Fuiste Mala," Ricardo Muñoz of Intocable; "Llévame al Cielo," Aleks Syntek; "Together," Roger Troutman; and "Azúcar," Fito Olivares. Also unsurprisingly, a few new songs were added as enticement for anyone otherwise not interested in previously released material: two stellar Selena remakes -- "Baila Esta Cumbia" and "I Could Fall in Love" -- along with a sad tribute co-written by Ricardo Montaner, "Don't Cry Mama." A CD/DVD repackaging of Fuego then showed up just in time for the holiday shopping season. It added the stray hits "Sabes a Chococate" and "Baila Esta Cumbia" to the original track listing, along with a live version of "Na Na Na (Dolce Niña)" for Pee Wee fans. The DVD features videos for the singles. And if that weren't enough, the CD/DVD Kumbia Kings Live followed (2006), showcasing the new group performing old favorites.
Just when everything seemed to be running so smoothly on the surface, with Kumbia Kings Live winning a Latin Grammy (Best Tropical Regional Mexican Album) and Pee Wee all set as the group's new superstar draw, controversy erupted. The facts of the matter are debatable, and no doubt twisted, but the short of the story is this: a feud broke out between Quintanilla and Cruz Martinez, the only remaining members of the original Kumbia Kings lineup, and evidently it boiled down to a fight over money, as both argued their respective cases on Univision's Cristina, slinging ugly accusations back and forth in the process (even Martinez's wife, grupero star Alicia Villarreal, took part in the brawl). Consequently, Quintanilla left Los Kumbia Kings -- yes, the group he had "presented" on album after album -- and proceeded to form his own group, confusingly billed as Kumbia All Starz; notably, Pee Wee and Pérez joined him, along with songwriter Luigi Giraldo, leaving the leftover Kumbia Kings for Martinez. Quintanilla debuted his new group shortly thereafter, with Ayer Fue Kumbia Kings, Hoy Es Kumbia All Starz (2006), a skimpy album boasting a new, radio-ready Pee Wee single, "Chiquilla," presented in no less than four versions.
Around this same time, Quintanilla had incited other news headlines, this time with an offensive video posted on YouTube. The video was short, filmed in an airport in Mexico City, apparently on a cell phone, and it finds Quintanilla complaining about the security there, ending his short rant with the fateful address, "f*cking Mexicans!" (too, he drops the "N" bomb, in reference to himself, though no one seemed offended by that). It didn't take long for the Mexican television media to pick up the video, add subtitles, and flog it, sowing a lot of ill will toward Quintanilla on behalf of the nation of his ancestors. Mexico's ANDA organization (Asociación Nacional de Actores de México) demanded an apology, while a number of Mexican-American performers spoke out against the incident, including the well-regarded, highly influential norteño group Los Tigres del Norte. The ill will was sown so deep, in fact, that during a concert in Monterrey, Mexico, the Kumbia All Starz were booed off the stage. Quintanilla did issue an apology for his statement, but the public was unsympathetic, especially in light of the innumerable past accusations against him of bad character. In any event, the controversy didn't seem to affect sales stateside, as Ayer Fue Kumbia Kings, Hoy Es Kumbia All Starz hit number two, "Chiquilla" rode the singles chart for months, and young girls continued to pledge their love to Pee Wee. ~ Jason Birchmeier, Rovi