Young Guns of Narcocorridos
Call it Mexico's gangsta rap. The lyrics are violent, the language is littered with slang, and making paper is the order of the day pretty much exclusively through drug smuggling. You can even hear the music shaking apart car trunks all over the United States, but that's where the comparisons between gangsta rap and Mexican narcocorridos end. Narcocorrido artists' instruments of choice aren't the sampler and mixing deck: think tuba and accordion, and the rhythmic up-and-down of a guitar. And while most gangsta rappers boast of their own exploits, narcocorrido singers detail the dramas of real-life drug kingpins in Mexico. And singing them can get you killed.
Back in the 1800s, Mexico's corridos ("ballads") were like a living newspaper, and musicians would travel minstrel-like around the countryside, singing the headlines to whoever would listen. Frequently the heroes of these songs were Robin Hood types, stealing from the rich to give to the poor and outwitting corrupt lawmen. The style has its roots in Spanish troubadour music, and it has endured into the 21st century. But in the 1970s, the heroes in corridos began to undergo a subtle but important sea-change. The songs increasingly detailed smuggling drugs across the border, with the characters getting shot up Bonnie and Clyde-style. Bands like Los Tigres del Norte, Los Huracanes del Norte and Los Tucanes de Tijuana were writing the songs, known as narcocorridos (literally, "drug ballads"), though narcocorridos never formed the entirety of any of these bands' repertoires.
Fast-forward to 2010. Mexico is embroiled in waves of violence. Drug cartels control entire regions of the country. And a new crop of singers has sprung up, many of them bilingual and bicultural, born in L.A. and raised in CuliacÃ¡n, as the story often goes. These singers have embraced the narcocorridos as a way of life; romantic songs have become the exception rather than the norm. Singers are frequently paid or "encouraged" to write songs praising cartel members, but they have to be careful. If they're too complimentary, they risk angering rival cartels; if they aren't sufficiently laudatory, they risk pissing off the song's subject. This is no small matter: in 2007, singer Valentin Elizalde was murdered after he mocked drug kingpin Osiel CÃ¡rdenas in his song " A Mis Enemigos." In fact, since 2006, at least 13 musicians have been killed, including Sergio "El Shaka" Vega, Sergio Gomez of K-Paz de la Sierra, and Zayda PeÃ±a, who survived a gunshot wound to her back, only to be fatally shot in the head later in the hospital.
Other musicians have been arrested for associating with the cartels. In 2009, Tex-Mex great Ramon Ayala and Los Cadetes De Linares were arrested for playing a party thrown by the Beltran Leyva cartel. Musicians are frequently invited to play fiestas privadas; they're not told whose party it is until they arrive, and for many, the money is hard to refuse. (They just have to be careful not to get too friendly with the boss's wife; jealousy can turn fatal.) The drug cartels, for their part, actively cultivate relationships with musicians. Besides asking for ballads celebrating their exploits, they frequently launder their money through unregulated ticket sales at music events. Often they'll funnel money to a musician early in his career so they can collect on the favor later.
Yet despite the grisly reality or perhaps because of it Mexicans and Mexican Americans are eating narcocorridos up, thrilled to find music that's as hard as gangsta rap yet also helps them connect to their roots, something that feels like it's truly theirs. And of course, there's the thrill of skirting danger, of partaking however distantly in this world of drugs, guns and rampant machismo. Perhaps it borders on voyeurism, but whatever the draw, it's turning into big money for the musicians, without any radio support. Meet the key players of this new narcocorrido generation, and some of the classic groups who paved the way for it. For an extended listening experience, check out our full Young Guns of Narcocorridos playlist.
The Young Guns