Nic Harcourt, Finding and Sharing Little Gems
days from noon to 3 p.m. EST and streamed live on the station’s Web site, and you’re just as likely to hear Aterciopelados, Jorge Drexler, Ozomatli and Pacha Massive as you are Arcade Fire, Ry Cooder, Patty Griffin and DJ Shadow.
On this day, on a whim, Harcourt dropped a song from the “Babel” soundtrack onto his free-form playlist: “Cumbia Sobre el Rio,” by Blanquito Man — “blanquito” more or less meaning little white guy. Apt, given that Harcourt himself is what you might call a wispy gringo.
Or, as the 49-year-old gatekeeper says off air: “I’m just a [expletive] English guy.”
Harcourt grew up in the British Midlands playing soccer, working in a plastic-bag factory and listening to the Beatles, punk rock and a heavy diet of heavy metal. He’s a high school dropout who played in a band and followed an eventual ex-wife to Australia, where he spent a half-dozen years absorbing the music of Midnight Oil and INXS. A dozen years ago, when he was working at his first and only other radio job, as a deejay for a modern-rock station in Woodstock, N.Y., all he knew of contemporary Latin music was rock en Español. And he didn’t like it. “It just sounded like noisy rock being sung in Spanish.” And Harcourt doesn’t speak Spanish. And yet, he’s become the most important and supportive figure on U.S. radio for Latin alternative music. KCRW, which broadcasts only in English, plays more alternativa artists — and more often — than any other radio station in the country. And it does so in the second-largest radio market, which regularly accounts for 30 percent of U.S. sales of Latin alternative music.
“Nic gets this music, and he really supports it,” says Tomas Cookman, president of Nacional Records, the leading Latin alternative label, with a roster that includes Colombian rockers Aterciopelados, electronica outfit Nortec Collective and Sara Valenzuela, former lead singer of the Mexican altpop group La Dosis. Two years ago, Nacional even partnered with KCRW on “Sounds Eclectico,” a compilation of live alternativa recordings produced by Cookman and Harcourt. Nic Harcourt is el jefe! “It’s weird, isn’t it?” the deejay says. “I find it really ironic myself. But it says more about the state of the industry than it says about me. Spanish-language radio is the same as Anglo radio: It’s run on the bottom line of appealing to as many people as you can who will buy mattresses and beer. There’s no adventure. There’s nobody willing to take a shot at doing something different. Most of the radio stations are owned by big corporations that don’t care what they’re playing. The music is just what’s in between commercials.”
Whereas, Harcourt says, “I’m fortunate to be able to just play what I want to hear.” And: “I keep getting turned on to Latin alternative music.”
Latin alternative is a nebulous genre. It’s easier to say what it isn’t than what it is: It isn’t regional Mexican music (Juan Gabriel, Vicente Fernandez), which accounts for about half of all U.S. sales of Latin music. And it isn’t Latin pop — your Shakiras and your Marc Anthonys, who account for about 40 percent of U.S. sales.
It’s the left-of-center stuff that often blends the traditional with the modern, including elements of rock, hip-hop and electronica. It’s Pacha Massive, a Bronx-based group whose bilingual music mixes cumbia, hip-hop, funk and dub reggae. That blend clearly speaks to Harcourt, who says the only criterion he has for adding something to his playlist is this: “I just have to like it; it has to touch me in some way.”
Songs from Pacha’s new album, “All Good Things,” have been played 51 times by KCRW this year. No other radio station has come close. (The second and third most supportive stations — KYSP in San Antonio and KEXP in Seattle, public-radio outlets both — have played Pacha Massive’s songs 52 times combined this year, according to the band’s label, Nacional.)
Alternativa is a genre that generates plenty of critical acclaim and even has its own annual confab, the Latin American Music Conference in New York. Yet it can’t find a home on commercial Spanish-language radio save for a handful of crossover success stories. Among them: Julieta Venegas, a Grammywinning accordion-rock star whose music Harcourt started playing several years ago, before Latin pop radio caught on.
“Julieta was somebody whose music I really connected to,” Harcourt says. “She had that great mix. What attracts me to Latin alternative music is that the people who are making it are connecting to their heritage, whether it’s music from Chile or Tijuana. They’re mixing that with the music they grew up with, whether it’s R.E.M. or the Smiths or something else. It just fascinates me; there’s something musically that really speaks to me.”
Harcourt’s earliest exposure to the music came when he moved to California nine years ago, hired by KCRW because of his reputation for identifying important new artists, such as Moby and Alanis Morissette. Longtime “Morning Becomes Eclectic” producer Ariana Morgenstern shared some music she thought he might like. Two artists in particular caught Harcourt’s ear: Juana Molina, who is something like Argentina’s answer to Bjork or Beth Orton, and Mexican rock band Cafe Tacuba.
“I was hearing something I hadn’t heard before,” Harcourt says. “It made me want to explore it. And being in Los Angeles, it just made sense.”
Latinos account for nearly 47 percent of the Los Angeles County’s 10 million residents, according to a 2005 Census survey, and four of the top 10 radio outlets in the market — including the top two — feature Latin music.
Ten percent of the KCRW audience is Hispanic, according to a station publicist, but Harcourt says he didn’t start spinning alternativa as a marketing decision.
Frank Gironda, who manages the Mexican band Kinky, a favorite of Harcourt’s, agrees: “I don’t for a minute think it’s a business calculation. He’s driven by passion and enthusiasm.”
Harcourt looks the part of a music industry guy. He wears tortoise-shell-frame eyeglasses and a thin goatee. His brownishblond hair is artfully tousled and nearly shoulder-length, with a touch of gray around the temples. There are silver rings on his fingers, including one on his right thumb, and he has various bangles and leather straps around his wrists. There’s also a tattoo peeking out from beneath the rolled-up sleeve of his Italian sweat shirt.
He does not appear to be particularly impressed with himself. “We have an audience that’s inquisitive and responsive to hearing different stuff. I’m just the guy who gets to play the music I like, and thank God there are enough people who agree with it.”
Morgenstern, who has produced “Morning Becomes Eclectic” since 1983, is Harcourt’s secret weapon. She introduced him to Dido, a British performer whom Harcourt broke in the United States. She advocated for Norah Jones early in the chanteuse’s career. And she also brought Jorge Drexler to Harcourt’s attention, before the Uruguayan troubadour won an Oscar for “The Motorcycle Diaries” soundtrack.
“Sometimes the person at the forefront is the one getting all the credit,” she says. “But that’s part of my job. I give Nic a CD and then he takes it further. It’s tremendously gratifying to me.”
Harcourt has parlayed his status as a tastemaker into outside work as a music supervisor and consultant for various Hollywood productions, including “Love Monkey,” a short-lived CBS series about the music industry. He’s busy with two movie projects and he’s been hosting “Breakfast With the Arts,” a TV interview show that airs Sundays on A&E.
He also finds time to forage through several hundred albums each week in search of the next new thing to put on his “Eclectic” playlist. Anything is fair game. Almost. “I won’t play AC/DC,” Harcourt says. “It doesn’t fit into what we do. But I’ll play it in the car, barreling down the highway. It’s the perfect car music.” Bueno.
“I’m fortunate to be able to just play what I want to hear,” says Harcourt, here behind the mike at his “Morning Becomes Eclectic” radio show.