Border Boyz

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

For what asshole are we doing this song?

We're doing it for a fucking mummy

What a drag

Jose Avila is surprised by some of the people who want to hear the baddest narcocorridos.
Tony Ortega
Jose Avila is surprised by some of the people who want to hear the baddest narcocorridos.
Dancing couples stop and stare after Lupillo Rivera hits the stage.
Kevin Scanlon
Dancing couples stop and stare after Lupillo Rivera hits the stage.

Let her rip!!

The song itself then gets going, referring to the rival singer who has besmirched them.

Now this asshole's really done it

This fucking loser

Ungrateful dog

He takes me for an asshole . . .

You call me a fucking old man

But you're the one shitting standing up

But if you suck my big cock I'll catch AIDS.

You know you're infected with it . . .

You're a fucking mummy

From a famous museum

With that dick of yours that won't stand up

Your asshole gave you away . . .

I know the real reason you're pissed

Because in Mexico they love me

Not merely because I'm humble . . .

But because I sing with balls

Viva Jalisco, you fuckers

I'm proud to be from Michoacán

See you around, fucking retard

Whenever you want, fucking asshole.

At midnight, the quintet finally appears as hundreds push toward the stage. Couples had danced to the earlier acts, but now the crowd simply stands and stares, engrossed by lead singer Ramirez and his aggressive style.

He does not disappoint his fans when he begins:

"You're not going to fuck with me! I'm the baddest of the bad!" The crowd roars as he accepts drinks from outstretched hands, gulping from beer after beer.

The place is going wild, but there's an inescapable fact: Los Razos is five chubby middle-aged guys who play accordion and guitar.

The corrido musical form is about a century old, a ballad style that for many poor Mexicans was a kind of newspaper for the illiterate. In stanzas of three or four lines each, the traditional corrido singer establishes a date and place, and then spins a tale about a famous event or legend. Pancho Villa was immortalized in hundreds of corridos. The songs have told tales of fights over women, famous gun battles, even important horse races.

Then, in 1972, a group of youngsters who called themselves Los Tigres del Norte (the Tigers of the North) recorded a corrido about a pair of drug smugglers -- a man and a woman -- driving to Los Angeles with marijuana stashed in the tires of their car. The woman, Camelia, ends up turning on her fellow traficante in a murderous rage.

Seven shots rang out, Camelia killed Emilio,

The police only found the discarded pistol,

Of the money and Camelia nothing more was ever known.

"Contrabando y Traición (Smuggling and Betrayal)" was a huge hit that catapulted Los Tigres to superstardom -- a position they have never fallen from. It became the basis for a film and spawned an entire musical genre. (Los Tigres del Norte play the Civic Center this Saturday, April 19.)

The capital of narcocorrido culture is Sinaloa, the coastal Mexican state about 500 miles south of Arizona. Narco songs became popular in Mexico as this center of the country's drug-running and lawlessness grew more notorious.

Yet despite the exciting subject matter, many young Mexicans living north of the border couldn't get past the corny oompah-pah sound of corridos -- which they associated with their parents and with other forms of ranchera or norteño music reflecting a poor, rural lifestyle. In American cities, the children of immigrants instead tended to gravitate toward rap music and urban musical icons. Young mexicanos growing up in L.A. or Chicago were more likely to identify with Snoop Dogg than the idol of their parents, ranchera star Vicente Fernandez.

That all changed in 1992 with the shooting death of Chalino Sanchez. An immigrant from Sinaloa, Sanchez had begun writing corridos in L.A. in the late 1980s. He made a modest living by creating songs on commission for people who wanted to hear themselves lyrically immortalized. Gradually, he became a popular singer on his own. Not because he had a good voice (he was known for his unpolished sound), but for how authentic he seemed. The man dressed like he'd just walked out of the Sinaloa uplands, a pistol in his belt and a cowboy hat on his head. He barked his songs in a hoarse croak.

One night in 1992 at a concert in the Southern California desert town of Coachella, someone jumped onstage and opened fire, wounding Sanchez in the side. Sanchez, in turn, pulled a pistol out of his belt and began firing back. His weapon was no prop.

Word of the shooting spread quickly, but four months later, just as Sanchez's legend was growing, he was shot again -- this time fatally -- after a concert in Culiacán, the state capital of Sinaloa.

Seemingly overnight, the narcocorrido became the rage among both young and old. Though he had to die to do it, Chalino Sanchez had single-handedly made the music cool for young people living north and south of the border, oompah beat or not. His rhythms could be heard blaring from car radios in cities across Mexico, as well as north of the border wherever Mexican immigrants settled.

Elijah Wald -- a music historian who documented the musical style by researching his book Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerrillas hitchhiking around Mexico and the southwestern U.S. for more than a year -- explains that for many young people living in the States, Sanchez's music made them feel less uprooted and more Mexican. "This is not dope-smoking music. There's nothing menacing about the sound of an accordion polka. The music is really saying that this is down-home."

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