Trombonist, bandleader and salsero supremo Willie Colón was the original badass, long before a score of gangsta rappers. Nicknamed “El Malo,” he came of age in the burnt-out Bronx of the 1960s, and his half-mocking Mafioso persona graced early LPs like the 1969 classic Cosa Nuestra. Colón backed up image with artistry. Collaborating with soulful singer-poets Héctor Lavoe and Rubén Blades, Colón formed the holy trinity of salsa. It was Colón’s alchemical mix of Cuban rhythms, subtle Brazilian chords, Puerto Rico’s folkloric bomba and powerfully precise horns that gave birth to all-American Nuyorican salsa. After adding strings and synthesizers to salsa’s swaying, energetic beat, Colón continued to innovate, lyrically and sonically juxtaposing tropical dreams with stark snapshots of rebellion and social struggle. Nowadays adopting a crisp linen suit, Colón is a silver-haired elder statesman, once running for Congress and currently taking the Venezuelan strong-arm government to task for oppressing its people. The former bad kid from the Bronx is right when he says that no political movement has been as successful as salsa in unifying Latinos. Colón’s roles as activist and salsero are two sides of the same coin.