Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano, David Hidalgo, and Louie Perez, four friends from East L.A.'s Garfield High School, formed Los Lobos (Spanish for "the Wolves") to play weddings and bars in their neighborhood. Although they had previously played in straightforward American rock bands, together they decided to experiment with acoustic folk instruments and explore their Mexican heritage, playing norteño and conjunto music on instruments including the guitarron and bajo sexto. They got their first full-time gig in 1978, playing at a Mexican restaurant in Orange County. That year they also released their debut album, Just Another Band From East L.A.
Eventually, Los Lobos' experimentation led them back to electric instruments. They played one of their last acoustic shows opening for Public Image Ltd. at the Olympic Auditorium in L.A. in 1980, where they were booed by the audience. Nonetheless inspired by the energy of the thriving L.A. punk scene, Hidalgo and Perez began writing more driving rock songs and playing Hollywood clubs.
The Blasters became fans and urged Slash to sign Los Lobos. Their second LP, ...And a Time to Dance (1983), was produced by T-Bone Burnett and Blasters saxophonist Steve Berlin. Its divergent collection of dance songs included the 70-year-old Mexican Revolution song "Anselma," which won a Grammy in 1983 for Best Mexican-American Performance.
Berlin joined Los Lobos for How Will the Wolf Survive? (Number 47, 1984) a much-praised album whose title track later became a country hit for Waylon Jennings. The album marked the first time Los Lobos entered the Billboard Top 200. They followed with By the Light of the Moon (Number 47, 1987), an album that featured several socially and politically conscious songs about life in the barrio.
In 1987 Los Lobos recorded several Ritchie Valens songs for the soundtrack to the Valens biopic La Bamba. The soundtrack (Number One, 1987) went double-platinum, and the success of the title track (Number One, 1987) and "Come On, Let's Go" (Number 21, 1987) suddenly lifted Los Lobos out of their bar-band, critics' fave status. The took a noncommercial detour with La Pistola y el Corazón (Number 179, 1988), featuring the traditional Mexican music they had played in the late Seventies. The public largely overlooked the album, though it earned the band their second Grammy.
On The Neighborhood (Number 103, 1990), they returned to more rocking material, working with John Hiatt, the Band's Levon Helm, and drummer Jim Keltner. The album's title paid homage to the deep connections the band still felt with East L.A. In 1991, Hidalgo and Perez wrote songs with the Band for that group's reunion album. The material inspired Kiko (Number 143, 1992), an evocative, avant-Latin-pop album produced by Mitchell Froom. In 1993 Slash released a 20-year-anniversary retrospective of Los Lobos songs. The two-disc set, Just Another Band From East L.A.: A Collection (Number 196, 1993), includes material from the band's debut LP, rare B-sides, live tracks, and the band's hit singles.
Latin Playboys (1994), a self-titled album by an ad hoc group consisting of Hidalgo, Perez, Froom, and Tchad Blake, was a cross between the music of Los Lobos and Captain Beefheart. The muscular funk rock of Los Lobos' next album, Colossal Head (Number 81, 1996), split the difference between Kiko and Latin Playboys.
In 1998 Rosas and Hidalgo released Los Super Seven as part of a loose-knit Latin supergroup of the same name that included Freddy Fender, Joe Ely, and accordion ace Flaco Jiménez, among others. In 2001, they released Canto, which included vocalists Raul Malo of the Mavericks and Caetano Veloso. In 1999 Rosas released Soul Disguise, a gritty, R&B-inflected solo record. For his part, Hidalgo teamed up with ex–Canned Heat guitarist Mike Halby as Houndog for a self-titled blues album.
After this spate of side projects, Los Lobos returned to the studio to record This Time (Number 135, 1999), the final installment in a trilogy of heady, groove-rich albums (alongside Kiko and Colossal Head) exploring Mexican folklore and mysticism. In 2001 they were honored with the Billboard Century Award.
For their next record, the back-to-basics Good Morning Aztlán (Number 82), they brought in British producer John Leckie, who had worked with Public Image Ltd. and Radiohead. 2004's The Ride (Number 75) featured an all-star cast of guest artists including Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Mavis Staples, and Richard Thompson. In 2009, Rhino Records released the greatest hits collection, Wolf Tracks: The Best of Los Lobos, a concise 20-song retrospective collection, which was followed by The Town and the City (Number 142, 2006). 2009 saw the band at its softest side on the children's record Los Lobos Goes Disney, a collection of reworked Disney classics.
More than 35 years after forming, Los Lobos still tour regularly and remain active politically, as in 2008 when they took part in Music for Democracy's Be the Change voter registration initiative. The band announced in early 2010 that Rosas and Hidalgo were playing three dates on the Experience Hendrix Tour, a five-week celebration of Jimi Hendrix.