January 19th, 2011

Como Se Dice Gangsta (en Mexicano)

Late last week I came across an entertaining collection of Mexican pro-w33d songs. Among them was a narcocorrido by El Tigrilla Palma entitled El Rey de la Kush (take that, Dre!). Enjoying the juxtaposition between traditional musical style and utterly contemporary slanguage / thematics, I couldn’t help tweeting that it seemed “so gangsta” in its way. (Actually, the tuba-playing alone might deserve the “gangsta” tag — listen to those runs!):

Shortly after that tweet, however, Mexican music maestro Toy Selectah let me know in no uncertain terms (via DM, tellingly) that there’s gangsta, and then there’s gangsta. He messaged me a couple YouTube links that made the Tigrillo track seem quaint. Exhibits A & B:

Suffice to say: these are amazing to mis ojos Americanos, especially how they re-imagine gangsterhood in a post-hip-hop, post-Hollywood world. Cowboy hats and blinged-out kevlar, Scarface scenes and gunhands, and a glut of straight-up gun pr0n. These guys are ballers, luxury branded blin-blineo on full display in every way. See, e.g., how El Komander styles himself “El Sr de las Hummers” —

The production values are high glossy, the music uncompromising and hard. While the instrumentation and arrangements seem to hew fairly closely to traditional models, the vocalists are spitting some hardcore lyrics. (“The most gangsta shit in Spanish I ever heard!” said Toy via DM.) Even if you don’t understand Spanish — and I confess I can hardly follow this very closely — you get the gist.

The “Carteles Unidos” of Movimiento Alterado kinda make gangsta rap look like pure theater. (More vids along these lines here.) And while these are plenty theatrical in their way — spectacular, sin duda — they also seem fairly serious. Less like Vybz Kartel, more like cartel vibes.

They also seem serious about their music industry game, and here again we see some borrowing from rap — in particular, horizontal branding and vending. They’re working all the angles of contemporary music industry, to be sure. See their slick website, including an in-house/site store, where they’ve embraced the diversified portfolio of products that hip-hop entrepreneurs first put together: direct marketed DVDs, clothing, etc. The site features a “lifestyle” tab, as well as a “fashion” tab (leading to a curious slideshow). And their YouTube game is tight: vivid videos accompanied by links to mediafire DLs as well as Amazon/iTunes stores for buyables. And in 2011, they’re coming to a House of Blues near you! If I were in direct competition with these guys, I’d be more than a little worried by their drive to “take over” —

"taking over the music industry" never seemed so threatening

The blurring between reality and theater here is, of course, at least as disturbing as in gangsta rap, and I suspect that many Mexican viewers/listeners are ambivalent about this stuff, repelling as it tantalizes. For my part, knowing that US drug users are, essentially, paying Mexicans to kill other Mexicans in order to feed our dirty, insatiable habits, I look at these videos with my own mix of horror and fascination. What a sensational mediation of the terrible, terrorized world we’ve made.


  • 1. Marlon  |  January 19th, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    I’ve fallen into a guilty YouTube hole that is watching those home-made narcocorrdio videos filled with slideshows of cell-phone pictures of SUVs and insane weapon arsenals. Reading the comments, which tend to be made up of death threats and vtriolic arguments between cartels about who carries grenades and who has the assault weapons, makes any internet arguments our side of the border (Bieber sucks?) look very tame. But yes I agree, it is really very distrubing/saddening also #realtalk

  • 2. Anita  |  January 19th, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Have you heard DJ Muggs’ “El Barrio”? not the same thing, of course, but…really interesting. like global exis of solidarity based on criminality, but only because “el mundo es un barrio, homie…”

  • 3. wayneandwax  |  January 19th, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    That Muggs track connects these dots pretty well, doesn’t it? Thanks for the link, Anita.

  • 4. Boima  |  January 19th, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    In a similar vein but definitely a lot less sinister, and a lot more funny is Hyphy Corridos from Alta California. I don’t know if the movement is still going strong, but in May of 2009 this was the jam at San Leandro High School.

  • 5. wayneandwax  |  January 19th, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Jajaja, that’s awesome. And they picked a waltz for ultimate cognitive dissonance!

  • 6. Marlon  |  January 19th, 2011 at 11:48 pm

    As a side note, dude in carteles unidos has the sickest looking double bass I’ve ever seen.

  • 7. DJ FLack  |  January 28th, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Did anyone catch this awesome “narco corrido” intro (with subtitles) to Breaking Bad from last season?


  • 8. cybergriff  |  February 1st, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    I just lectured my first American Popular Music and Global Resonances course of the semester yesterday and got more hung up on my “Musical Elements vs. Non-Musical Elements” spiel than usual. I introduce these categories as “what we hear” vs. “what we think we hear” as a way to get some critical listening happening. For whatever reason, it didn’t click this time.

    Tomorrow I’m going to have them listen to a couple of these… before I have them watch the videos. I got a hunch it’s gonna wreck some minds and open up a path towards the critical listening idea.

    Thanks folks,

  • 9. wayneandwax  |  February 1st, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Great idea, Griff! You should let us know if you encounter any interesting reactions! It’s quite a funny, blurry line sometimes between what we hear and, as you put it, what we think we hear. I’m not sure that “non-musical” really gets at all that we “think we hear,” though such elements are certainly part of our imaginative engagements with music. (You should have them read Feld’s communication essay, or at least parts of it.)

    For what it’s worth, I’m a little skeptical of this line at all — and a bit of a musical imperialist — so I tend to regard the ontological category of the “extramusical” or “nonmusical” as more instrumental, perhaps, than strictly descriptive.

  • 10. cybergriff  |  February 2nd, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    I “hear” you… As I say, this is just how I introduce the idea of critical listening–we take it in a number of directions from there. It’s primarily a gambit with which to introduce musical terminologies/jargon to this non-majors class. What does “violent” sound like? What do we mean when we say “smooth?” That kind of thing. Otherwise, I think I’m with you. What is the Charles Ives line? “What does sound have to do with music?”

    Thanks for this.

  • 11. cybergriff  |  February 3rd, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Well, I’m glad to report that the experiment had it’s desired effect. I started by talking about “musical sound” to approach your point Wayne, then I asked them to visualize the music’s context–“what non-sonic elements might we associate, etc.”–as we listened. We have a Latina in the class who sort of grinned through the whole thing looking down at her desk and when we got done listening, she smiled a knowing smile and said something like: “this is Banda music, but I won’t say any more.” We went on to brainstorm what we heard: “accordion, rural, old fashioned, tuba, cheesy, Spanish, Mexican, fast, loud” I think that was the extent of it. When I hooked up the projector and played “El Komander” the reaction unfolded slowly as we saw the whips, gats, Ferrari logos, blow, benjamins, babes, and other gangsta signifiers. The guns were the major thing that elicited the slowly building gasps and giggles, but the frame that really brought it home was the giant mound of cocaine on the guy’s desk–the class erupted into laughter.

    I think I’d prefaced the exercise well enough that they got the point: how do these sonic, visual, textual elements work together… Afterward we talked about how nothing is incommensurate. We make sense out of disparate images all the time (especially in music videos), and given time this would would make plenty of sense to our mind’s eye, mind’s ear, etc. as well. We talked a bit about the music business and how it’s their job to build a narrative or a look or anything that hits us and is striking enough to leave an impression that is appealing. They’re good at their jobs–probably as good as the narcocorridos are at theirs.

  • 12. wayneandwax  |  February 4th, 2011 at 12:14 am

    “nothing is incommensurate” — luh dat.

    especially that it highlights how “building a narrative,” while it may be standard industry procedure, is also a commonplace consequence of any schmoe’s encounter with sonic form.

  • 13. wayneandwax  |  March 2nd, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Here’s an interesting post reflecting on “El Soundtrack de La Guerra del Narco” which includes a Movimiento Alterado track, notes that they are of particular interest for glorifying the hitman, and considers their oeuvre to constitute “un documento fiel del lado más obscuro de nuestro país” / “a faithful document of the darkest side of our country”:

    Los narcocorridos tienen una larga historia y era de esperarse que la nueva racha de violencia se viera reflejada en este género. El Movimiento Alterado es un colectivo de artistas de corridos “pesados” que tratan de ser mucho más explícitos que los narcocorridos clásicos. Claro, la glorificación del narco y la violencia están ahí, pero esta es una nueva generación de músicos que busca abrirse camino apostando por letras ageradoras y que además tienen un nuevo héroe: ya no el traficante en sí, sino específicamente el sicario. Antes de condenar a estos músicos, es importante pensar en porque su mensaje atrae a tanta gente y si los valores que resaltan (machismo, dinero, violencia) no son también los mismos que se enaltecen en muchos otros productos culturales mas mainstream. El Movimiento Alterado es un documento fiel del lado más obscuro de nuestro país: “pa dar levantones somos los mejores siempre en caravana toda mi plebada bien empecherados blindados y listos para ejecutar.”


I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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