a group of six adults and one child poses for a portrait behind a backyard bonfire
Top row: No Sé Discos artists Kaczynski Composite Sketch, Chebaka, and 2 Butch. Bottom row: No Sé Discos founders Angel Ledezma, Jorge Ledezma (with daughter Oona), and Lupe Martinez. Credit: Carolina Sanchez for Chicago Reader

Musicians such as Woody Guthrie, Victor Jara, and Chuy Negrete have championed the working class in their struggle for dignity, justice, and fair pay by telling their stories in song. In Chicago, Brandon Johnson’s victory in the mayoral election demonstrated the power of the working class (and of young people), and he’s named his transition committee “Chicago for the People.” In the world of indie music, “working class” is sometimes just a costume worn by kids with rich parents or trust funds, but on May 1—also known as May Day or International Workers’ Day—the Empty Bottle hosts a celebration for the working class with music from the working class. That celebration is a showcase of artists on Brighton Park-based label No Sé Discos

Allá, Chebaka, Kaczynski Composite Sketch, 2 Butch
No Sé Discos label showcase and triple release party hosted by Existential Crisis Unit. Mon 5/1, 9 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, free (RSVP), 21+

My interview with label cofounder Jorge Ledezma is supposed to dig into the history of No Sé Discos and what he calls its “cosmic sounds from the working class.” But before we do that, I want to know how he got to be so down with the cause. How did he pick that slogan?

“I am living it, we are living it,” he says, “as people, as a family, as artists, as Brown people living in Brighton Park. Nothing is fancy. We are living a simple life and trying to just make it every day. I went to the food pantry yesterday so we could save some money, so we could try to do what we love. We also feel the inequality, the fact that we’re basically lower-income Brown people.”

Ledezma is a musician and producer, and he’s part of a tropicalia-influenced Latine psych-rock band called Allá with his wife, Lupe Martinez, and his older brother, Angel. He and Lupe also have a six-year-old daughter named Oona. “We’re a family and trying to do all these things as a family, and you realize all the things that are stopping you from just trying to make art and connecting with your community and having a family that has dinners together and weekends. I know so many Brown kids that didn’t have that. Lupe and I didn’t have that. My brother Angel and I didn’t have that, because my father worked all night. So we value that stuff.”

Of course, our society doesn’t value those things—at least not for working-class people. “They don’t say it, but there are policies and other things in place that you’re like, ‘This job doesn’t pay much, so I have to work more, but that means less time with my kids,’ and it just becomes this cycle,” Jorge says. “I feel that. We’re not immune to it. So that’s why I’m down with the cause.”

a man in a brilliantly colored lucha libre mask clutches his face and looks to the heavens
Chebaka met Jorge Ledezma while they worked at Whole Foods. Credit: Carolina Sanchez for Chicago Reader

Jorge, Angel, and Lupe launched No Sé Discos in 2021, having arrived at the idea of starting a label the year before. But that idea had been incubating for years—at least since 2017, when Jorge got to talking music with his friend Chebaka, an up-and-coming Mexican hip-hop artist from Waukegan who worked with him at Whole Foods. They confided in each other about feeling like outsiders with their out-of-the-box music and art concepts. 

Allá’s music, Jorge explains, isn’t necessarily Latine, and its strong experimental bent further confuses listeners who expect something specific from Brown artists. “It’s not Latin rock; it’s not alternative Latin music. It’s a kaleidoscope of all kinds of music, some in Spanish,” he says. “We felt like the weirdo Brown people.”

Chebaka suggested collaborating with Allá. “This is all happening while we’re at work,” Jorge says. “This is where the working-class part happens. We’re not emailing each other about it—we’re working.” He started sending Chebaka unreleased Allá music to play around with. “Even though we don’t do hip-hop, we’ve always wanted to,” he says. “Plus we have so much music, a library of stuff—so I sent him some tracks, a little bit of everything. I was shocked at what he did with it.”

Chebaka used his phone to rap absurd, philosophical verses over those Allá tracks. Ever since the sessions for the band’s 2008 album, Es Tiempo, Allá had been recording mostly at home, but Jorge knew Matt DeWine at Pieholden Suite Sound through Angel, and he helped Chebaka book studio time. With Jorge on electronics and Angel on drums (among other musicians), they recorded on and off throughout 2018 and 2019, piecing together Chebaka’s album Hard Working Mexican. It’s finally coming out May 1, and it’s one of three releases No Sé Discos is celebrating at the Bottle.

It’s taken five years, but Hard Working Mexican has finally made it from the studio to the public.

“It was awesome being back in the studio,” Jorge says. “Chebaka was so prepared. He embodies what we’re into—respecting the process and enjoying the process of writing music. He’s the past, present, and future. He’s willing to experiment and work hard.”

After Chebaka finished his album in 2019, he and Allá discussed their options for releasing it. The band had withdrawn from performing and studio work, and because their network in the music community was all but gone, they decided that a DIY approach would be the best way to maintain the control they wanted. “That’s when the concept began about creating a label so we could put music out ourselves,” Jorge says. 

left-hand photo is a woman and a man standing back-to-back in a home recording studio and right-hand photo is a man standing against a backyard fence
Lupe Martinez, Jorge Ledezma, and Angel Ledezma, who also make up the band Allá, prefer collaborating with other working-class people. “We need less talking and more making,” says Jorge. Credit: Carolina Sanchez for Chicago Reader

The pandemic ended up delaying Hard Working Mexican, and then other projects intervened. In early 2021, the National Museum of Mexican Art invited Chebaka to do a presentation as part of its streaming series. He asked Allá for help, and they came up with the idea of using his older recordings to create a video album. Titled Everything Will Be Streamed, it ended up nearly an hour long, and it debuted on the museum’s YouTube channel on February 13, 2021. 

“It’s DIY, shot all over Pilsen, Little Village, Brighton Park, my backyard, my house and basement, the laundromat, even Discount Mall,” Jorge says. “We really wanted to give it flavor.” 

No Sé Discos debuted with the compilation You Are Essential in fall 2021.

The first formal No Sé Discos release ended up being an October 2021 compilation called You Are Essential, which featured musicians who were working risky jobs during COVID: Allá, Chebaka, and London pop maestro Nayfo. It included two tracks that also appear on Hard Working Mexican

But before Jorge, Angel, and Lupe could start the label together, they needed to make some big changes in their lives. For one thing, Jorge couldn’t keep working nights at Whole Foods while Lupe worked mornings in retail. The situation reached a breaking point in late 2020.

“Basically, during the pandemic, we were there, all working,” Jorge says. “It just became a quality-of-life thing. It was a good-paying job and all that stuff, so we had to do soul-searching. We had not made music in a long time, so it was tough.”

At that point, Jorge had held down one job or another at Whole Foods for 27 years, but he wanted to be there for his family and also have time for music. “I remember thinking, ‘This is my last holiday at this company.’ It became impossible, and it felt like we were living in a weird lockdown of retail nonsense,” he says. “I snapped and thought, I can’t do this.” 

With support from Angel and Lupe, Jorge quit Whole Foods and used what would’ve been his retirement funds to buy a two-flat that would serve as the family’s home, studio, and rehearsal space. They call their enclave Allálandia. Lupe committed to keeping the job she had, and Angel agreed to help them afford the building by renting the basement. Everyone knew they were taking a risk, but they also wanted to get their music—and the music of other working-class musicians—out into the world. 

That transition also made No Sé Discos a reality. “It’s been a huge adjustment but also made us stronger, for us and for other people,” says Jorge. “I regret not leaving sooner. You don’t just do it for yourself—you do it for your family.”

Jorge didn’t stop working, of course—he got a new job as a support staffer at Brighton Park Elementary. Because his hours are similar to the hours Oona spends in school, he gets to see a lot more of her—the four of them can even have family dinners. “Next thing you know,” he says, “I’m doing after-school art and music programs, supervising all recess and fun activities, and even doing some student outreach. It’s fun!”

three people sit on a trampoline one of them is holding a traffic cone to his mouth like a megaphone and a little girl is bouncing in the air behind them
Brothers Angel and Jorge Ledezma (at left and right), Jorge’s wife, Lupe Martinez (center), and Lupe and Jorge’s daughter, Oona (airborne), share a two-flat they own in Brighton Park that also houses studio and rehearsal space. Credit: Carolina Sanchez for Chicago Reader

Jorge and Angel Ledezma were both born in Chicago in the late 70s and grew up in Rogers Park. Their first exposure to music was through their father’s love of the Beatles, especially Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “Early on, the Beatles knocked us on our asses, and we were hooked,” says Jorge. “My brother and I would stare at the cover for hours. That shit blew us up. We wanted to hear more music like that. And we were really young, maybe five or six. 

“My brother and I made little tape loops where we would sample stuff off TV and movies and then create a collage,” Jorge continues. “We figured out how to do it with a microphone so we could make these little cassettes of all these weird TV shows that we would cut up, and we would laugh and laugh. Then we’d play it backwards and laugh some more.” 

This would lead them to create imaginary bands and later join real bands. In high school, Jorge played drums in an avant-garde trio called Jazz Discharge. In 1999, Angel drummed for established punk group the Vindictives. For much of the 90s, Jorge played in space-rock band Defender, and both brothers were involved with that group when they started Allá in 2001.

The brothers were working on music for Allá when they first met Lupe Martinez at an open mike at Subterranean in 2004. (At the time, and for a few years afterward, she was in the band Almost Rosario.) Her golden voice seemed like a match for their compositions, and soon she made Allá a trio of young Mexican Americans.

Allá’s debut album, Es Tiempo, came out on Belgian label Crammed Discs in 2008, and they spent more than just seven years of their lives on it—it eventually cost a total of around $40,000 to produce. It features nearly two dozen guest musicians, and its intelligently crafted songs combine electronica, jazz, Krautrock, pop, funk, and other sounds. To help pay for the album, Jorge got a promotion to manager at Whole Foods, gave up his apartment, and moved in with his parents in Wheeling.

Allá intended their debut album to be a career-making masterpiece, but the “career-making” part didn’t work out.

Allá didn’t have the time or the money to make another Es Tiempo, but they released the covers collection Digs in 2009 (also via Crammed) and a homemade electronic album called Feed the Dragon Volume One in 2013. That period was a prolific one for Allá, but most of the material they recorded (including the other two volumes of Feed the Dragon) never came out. Their attempts to break into the music business petered out after they lost their publicist in 2016. No Sé Discos has issued some of the band’s work from that time, and the label has plans for further such releases. But You Are Essential remains the clearest expression of its mission statement.

“It’s something we are proud of,” Jorge says. “Being working-class people—Nayfo is a teacher in the UK, Chebaka and I worked retail—we dedicated the project to essential workers. There’s a whole manifesto in it too, written with all of us. We handmade the covers at home. We worked with as many people as we could who we felt were on our side.” 

a woman in a colorful blouse looks at the camera through the metal railing of a front porch
Electronic artist 2 Butch came to Chicago from East Los Angeles. Credit: Carolina Sanchez for Chicago Reader

No Sé Discos hasn’t sought out artists. Either artists approached the label or they met organically. “The artists we enjoy working with, they have to be working-class people,” Jorge says. “Meaning they have to earn everything they do. They have to really want to actively learn how to do every part of it, you know, not just make the music.”

The label values artists who like collaborating and enjoy every part of writing, recording, and releasing music. “Those are the people we want to work with,” Jorge says. “We need less talking and more making.”

a man in a padres baseball jersey stands in the middle of a neighborhood street at dusk
Sorcerer is the creative engine of Kaczynski Composite Sketch. Credit: Carolina Sanchez for Chicago Reader

No Sé Discos’ current roster consists of Allá, Chebaka, and Nayfo, of course, as well as four acts that aren’t on You Are Essential. Bilingual producer and rapper Sorcerer, who came to Chicago from Venezuela as a kid, leads Kaczynski Composite Sketch, and he’ll release the album Deviled Ham on Rye via No Sé Discos on May 21. Electronic artist 2 Butch, who moved to Chicago from East Los Angeles, dropped a collection of ten tiny tracks called Wrestling With Pigs (made with a micro keyboard and an old laptop) in March 2023. Santrio is a Latine artist from Little Village who began releasing R&B-flavored dream pop as Mán Cub in 2018, and he’ll make his album debut with No Sé Discos later in 2023. First-wave Chicago postpunk group Stations, now based in Tennessee, issued a long-lost single last year that they’d recorded in 1982 with the legendary Martin Hannett, and they have plans for a bigger release called Ghostland. The label will announce at least one more signing later this year.

Sorceror says he made Deviled Ham on Rye with a broken laptop and a pirated digital audio workstation.

Allá had previously worked with Nayfo, and they met Santrio playing shows. Jorge got to know David Stowell of Stations when Stowell tended bar at Whole Foods. Kaczynski Composite Sketch and 2 Butch—the other two artists celebrating releases at the Empty Bottle showcase—heard about No Sé Discos online. They’re both making their live debuts. 

Wrestling With Pigs was inspired, says 2 Butch, by the way pigs can be cute and disgusting at the same time.

Allá and No Sé Discos have created a tiny but self-sufficient subculture, a rich cultura alternativa. “Our biggest influence is Asco, young Chicano artists in the early 70s from Los Angeles,” says Jorge. “They felt they would never be accepted by the art world, and they created their own public art shows and art spaces.”

Being Chicano, of course, involves constantly negotiating between Mexican and U.S. identities. “Chicano means looking at things, letting go of some traditions, bringing in new ones, and holding on to the ones that make sense for you,” Jorge says. “We are Chicano futurists. Chicano, for me, means creating your own culture with the two worlds you’re living in.”