Border Boyz

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

Although the music glorified dope smuggling, Wald explains that for most Mexicans the drug problem was something happening "en el otro lado," on the other side of the border. That their heroes happened to be carrying drugs was less important than that they were defying authorities in a country ruled by a corrupt government, Wald says. Meanwhile, the traficantes reveled in hearing themselves sung about, and encouraged artists to compose corridos about their exploits.

To immigrant teenagers in the States, Sanchez "was suddenly a gangster hero... Shaft and the Godfather and Bruce Lee all at once," Wald says. "For a poor Mexican kid in the barrio, those were your heroes. Now your hero was a Mexican. That turned everything around."

Many young artists rushed to fill the void left by Sanchez's death. Known collectively as Chalinitos, these imitators rerecorded Sanchez's songs, sometimes even creating duets with the dead singer. Two of the most prominent Chalinitos, U.S.-raised Lupillo Rivera and Jessie Morales, a 19-year-old who goes by the stage name El Original de la Sierra, have further transformed the musical genre by dressing like L.A. gangsters.

Rivera is adored by female fans around the country.
Kevin Scanlon
Rivera is adored by female fans around the country.
The Club 602 dance floor gets heavy use.
Kevin Scanlon
The Club 602 dance floor gets heavy use.

As Wald points out in his book, the young American narco stars have made the style their own, singing not only about Sinaloan gun battles but about the U.S. urban scene, where drug dealers are known as "ballers." In a Rivera corrido, the singer explains the lingo:

A baller, gentlemen, throws balls in the park,

I am also a baller, but of another sort.

If you do not understand me, friends, allow me to explain:

The little balls I throw are of pure white powder,

It is a very good vitamin to get you stirred up,

And a toke of marijuana will serve to relax you.

Rivera and Morales have branched out into other forms of music. Rivera increasingly features ranchera music; during his recent concert at Club 602, he blatantly argued that he should assume the throne as king of Mexican pop music from the aging Vicente Fernandez. Morales is marketed as a heartthrob and records romantic songs.

Each, however, is still firmly associated with the music of drugs and guns.

In Phoenix, Rivera and Morales and other Chalinito acts from L.A. and Mexico play to huge crowds. On local radio they find a home on La Campesina, the longtime Spanish-language station owned by the United Farm Workers. The station is known more for its outreach to recent arrivals than for rough music, but every day at 6 p.m., DJ Juan Olivas plays nothing but corridos on one of the station's most popular shows, "Las Perrones."

The title translates roughly to "The Most Bad-Assed."

"Corridos, corridos, corridos. That's what they asked for as soon as I got here," says Jose Avila. It's the mobile DJ's third gig of the day, and he's set up in the backyard of a home just blocks from the swank Phoenix Country Club downtown.

The corrido blaring on Avila's four speakers can be heard a block away. But the party is small, a birthday celebration with just 40 people or so milling around, drinking beer. For four hours' work, Avila will be paid $150.

Avila plays many kinds of events, and he's been surprised by some of the people who have requested to hear some of the most hard-core narco songs. "A woman who is real strict with her daughters, she has this big, nice house. She asked me to play a party there," Avila says about another recent gig. He laughs as he explains how socially conservative and upstanding this woman is. Her daughters wouldn't even be allowed to come to the party. Avila figured the woman would mostly want to hear cumbias, very danceable, upbeat songs popular in Mexico. "She surprised me when she asked me to play corridos. And she said she wanted the heaviest ones, the baddest ones. It was weird for me," he says with a laugh. "They danced to the cumbias and other things, too, but mostly they wanted to hear corridos. It just shows you how popular they are."

Tonight, at the backyard birthday party, he's also been asked to spin narco songs in great abundance. He prepares to play a corrido on Jessie Morales' latest CD -- "Manuel Salas," which Morales put on the album at the request of the family of a slain drug dealer. "I dedicate this song to the people of Michoacán," Avila says in Spanish, knowing full well that his employers this night are from the central Mexican state.

Avila goes through his CDs, naming off the ones he's been specifically asked to play: discs by Rivera and Morales, as well as Edgar Aguilar, who goes by the name El Narquillo (the little narco), and a Chalinito from Sinaloa who goes by the name El As de la Sierra (the Ace of the Mountain Range).

Karina Castro, 23, says she's more partial to other banda music -- songs played by brass instruments -- but it's her husband's birthday, and she knows what he likes. "The narcocorridos are very popular," she says, "you hear them everywhere you go."

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