Border Boyz

As narcocorridos - Mexican drug ballads - get nastier, the crowds in Phoenix get bigger and bigger

The Mexican government doesn't like the songs; it has made numerous attempts to keep them off the radio south of the border.

"Ever since the publicity came out that they wanted to ban them, I guess it's getting bigger," he says.

Interviews with other artists, songwriters, a local club owner and many fans also led to the same conclusion: Narco cultura -- which celebrates macho Mexican traffickers, foul-mouthed swagger and Dodge Ram trucks and other heavy vehicles used for smuggling -- is flourishing in Phoenix among the Mexican immigrant community.

Rey (left) and Oscar Perez (center) made sure the birthday party for their brother featured lots of heavy corridos.
Tony Ortega
Rey (left) and Oscar Perez (center) made sure the birthday party for their brother featured lots of heavy corridos.
Jesse Armenta says white folks don't expect him to be the author of such controversial songs.
Emily Piraino
Jesse Armenta says white folks don't expect him to be the author of such controversial songs.

Last July, the Baja California state government signed an agreement with a radio industry group, creating a voluntary ban on narcocorridos, and asked American stations to stop playing the songs as well.

Some have shied away. Others play the songs incessantly.

Meanwhile, the 30-year-old genre continues to evolve. Several years ago, L.A. artists brought an urban gloss to the music of the Mexican countryside, infusing it with a fashion sense and a posturing not unlike gangsta rap. Some groups have taken to cursing at each other in songs that resemble the back-and-forth insults and threats Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur made in their East Coast versus West Coast rap rivalry before they were each gunned down.

Some of the singers who made their names as narco artists say they don't like the direction the genre is taking, but none of them denies that the music has a deep hold on young Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in the Valley.

On a recent night at El Paraiso, a huge nightclub in west Phoenix that is a kind of sister facility to Club 602 (most big acts play both joints on the same night), about 1,500 young men and women wait patiently through two preliminary acts for the night's real attraction, Los Razos de Sacramento y Reynaldo, a singularly dirty-mouthed narco act from California.

Noah Marin, 30, and Raimundo Ramirez, 24, are wearing cowboy hats and nice jackets, hoping to find dance partners and maybe something more.

The two restaurant workers are among the best dressed in a crowd of 1,500 people crammed into the club on Indian School Road at 43rd Avenue. Marin sings along to a tune played by the warm-up act, checking out the crowd for a dance partner. He makes dessert in an American restaurant and comes to places like El Paraiso every Friday and Saturday. "I love this place," he says. Ramirez, who makes $10 an hour at his job, says the high cover charge doesn't faze him. "It's worth it," he says.

The nightclub is essentially a large warehouse in an industrial district. At one corner of the building is the stage. The rest of the place is a gigantic dance floor, half of it covered with tables. A closed-off second story with no access to alcohol is where the 18-to-21 crowd hangs out, watching the action below through wrought-iron gating. The place was once Rockers, before owner Fito Saenz bought the former heavy-metal sanctuary and turned it into El Paraiso. He also turned the country-western place Toolies, just blocks away, into Club 602. Saenz owns similar, if smaller, venues in several other Arizona cities.

While the songs played on stage can get rough, the crowd at El Paraiso seems harmless enough. The place does have a sketchier side, though -- some of the men have shaved heads and tattoos that suggest gang membership; others sport copious amounts of gold jewelry and wear a practiced "don't-fuck-with-me" look. There's a furor when one young tough walks into the men's rest room and starts talking shit to an older man. But the youngster goes down in a heap after fists start flying and a crowd pours in to see what's happening.

The disturbance was over nearly as quickly as it began. Out on the dance floor, hundreds of couples are moving to the music, and the rest in the room seem ready to take a spin as well. The slightly outnumbered women constantly accept or decline offers from the men.

"The guys are very respectful," says Gloria Hernandez, a 38-year-old from Ciudad Obregon who looks much younger. Guys at "American" clubs, she says, are much more grabby.

Two other young women, Eileen Ruiz and Paola Martinez, both 23, say they come to El Paraiso to dance, but look for love elsewhere. "This is not a good place to find boyfriends," Eileen says. For that, she prefers Axis/Radius, the quintessential techno house in Scottsdale.

Ruiz and Martinez, like many others interviewed, relate that they came tonight to see Los Razos. Most mentioned one song in particular, "La Momia (The Mummy)," as their favorite.

Named after Sarah Razo, a woman who had been a big fan when the group was starting out, Los Razos attained notoriety when members got into a pissing match with a more well-known group, Los Originales de San Juan. Perhaps unwisely, Los Originales took the bait and struck back, calling Los Razos singer Sacramento Ramirez cara de chango (monkey face).

So in retaliation, Los Razos penned "The Mummy." On the album version, its slang-filled Spanish lyrics begin with some talking while the music revs up.

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