By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Lupillo Rivera's shout is swallowed up by a deafening roar from the tightly packed audience in front of him. The singer grins at what he sees. Men in cowboy hats and women wearing tight jeans and halter tops fill Club 602, a large nightspot in west Phoenix and one of two big Mexican showplaces that Rivera will pack with fans on this Saturday night.
One of the country's most well-known narcocorridistas, Rivera is so popular that the members of the crowd – mostly low-paid recent immigrants – have forked over $40 each to see the famous singer of drug-themed ballads called narcocorridos. These are short tales set to music that extol the bravery of Mexican marijuana and cocaine smugglers, and tell of their gun battles with law enforcement while set to a bouncy polka beat driven by accordion or brass.
A security guard estimates the crowd at about 1,000 strong. Many sit at plastic tables, nearly every one featuring a bucket filled with ice and cans of beer. Hundreds more fans are jammed together on the dance floor, screaming for Rivera, who had walked onstage tipsily after his 11-piece back-up band started things off with a three-song instrumental intro.
Just minutes earlier, Rivera had soberly given a press interview – in unaccented English – about the changing nature of narcocorridos and their lasting popularity. But now Rivera appears half-drunk, a glass of cognac in his hand, speaking and singing, like other corridor artists, in nothing but Spanish.
His fans seem to know the drunkenness is an act, but they appreciate it. They scream when he reaches for a second glass. "He's not drunk. He's just playing," says Gaston Sanchez, 25, as he watches from the dance floor. The guy standing next to Sanchez, however, isn't acting. He's so drunk he can barely hold his eyes open and keep his feet underneath him. Sanchez finally has to help the hammered fan leave the place after a beer is spilled and angry eyes turn toward the lush.
The sheer alcohol consumption in the place is prodigious (most of it in the form of Bud Light, according to a bartender). But the air is remarkably clean – almost no one in the crowd is smoking. For a crowded nightclub, it's striking how narrowly all human activity in the place is focused on drinking, dancing, and, most intensely, on Lupillo Rivera and his macho songs. Outside, off-duty sheriff's deputies on the nightclub's payroll patrol the building and the parking lot choked with cars and pickup trucks. Just blocks away, the same scene is unfolding – a huge line of people stands outside El Paraiso, a similar club where Rivera will be playing next on this evening.
Both shows are among the biggest in town, and yet go without notice by the English-speaking population and its media outlets.
Knowing that reporters he'd talked to earlier are in the audience, Rivera shouts in Spanish to the crowd.
"The American press wants to know if my banned songs [corridos prohibidos] are popular. Are they popular?"
The crowd shouts heartily, and Rivera's band begins playing one of his drug songs, "El Moreno," about a dark-skinned traficante, or smuggler.
Born in Mexico, Rivera grew up in Los Angeles and transformed the narco style when he performed corridos dressed less like a Sinaloan cowboy than like an L.A. gangbanger. Tonight, he's wearing a natty suit and a black cowboy hat on his shaved head. As the song begins, he gestures as if his hand is a pistol. When he sees a fan mimic him with his own "pistol" – holding it in his belt – Rivera yells to him: "Pull it! Pull it! Pull it!"
Then, continuing in the slang-filled language of the bad-ass Mexican balladeer, he sings:
From the table, El Moreno
Yelled to the barkeep:
Bring me a bottle of tequila
Or you'll be the first one I kill.
After a verse of the song, while the band goes into a flourish, Rivera points his hand pistol. On cue, his drummer begins hammering at a snare drum, delivering staccato "shots." Rivera guns down the audience with a big grin on his face. More shouts come from the crowd.
"I'm Lupillo Rivera, the guy with no hair. I'm the baddest of the singers of banned corridos," he says in Spanish after "El Moreno" ends, and before beginning another narco ballad about the Tijuana drug cartel. "Tell all those radio stations, on the day I die, to play my banned corridos all fucking day long!"
And then, just for good measure, he gets another reaction from the crowd when he yells, for the second time, "Fuck Phoenix, Arizona. It's Phoenix, MEXICO!"
Just a year ago, Lupillo Rivera and his father Pedro, leader of the Rivera clan of narcocorrido stars, downplayed the music that had made them famous. Claiming that the narco style had peaked and that they were more interested in romantic music, the Riveras predicted that corridos about drug smugglers were losing their importance in Mexican music.
But on his most recent trip to Phoenix -- he comes about once a year, he says -- Rivera admitted that the narcocorrido has only gained popularity, particularly in Phoenix. "Corridos are what they always ask to hear," he says of audiences here. And, he added, there's a simple reason for it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For what asshole are we doing this song?
We're doing it for a fucking mummy
What a drag
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
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."
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.
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."
Her brother-in-law, Rey Perez, 25, gets a little defensive when he's asked about the subject matter of the songs and whether they encourage listeners to take up drug use or violence. "People don't listen to Snoop Dogg and then go out to kill somebody to become famous. They aren't that stupid," Perez says. "Let me tell you, I'm listening to corridos. That doesn't mean I'm going to use drugs or sell drugs. If you're smart, you know better than that."
His older brother, Oscar Perez, 32, nods in approval. "We don't do drugs. But when they talk about drugs [in the songs], we love it," says the city employee. "The narcocorridos are the best. They tell stories that are true. I like them especially because the Mexican government doesn't like them. . . . When you listen to Mexican music and you hear about drugs, you get excited and that's when you drink. But it doesn't mean that you do drugs."
Oscar's holding a can of beer when he makes this statement, but he swears he keeps away from intoxicants of the illegal kind. Not that he doesn't see others indulging. Marijuana, cocaine, heroin: Oscar says the drugs are just under the surface in the narcocorrido scene. "You can get any drug at El Paraiso. You just need to go to the rest room. They got a lot of police outside, so I don't know how they do it," he says.
Virginia Barraza, event coordinator for El Paraiso, disagrees. "You can always come and see. We have police and sheriff's deputies outside. We have professional security guards. I don't think anyone's going to take the chance to sell drugs in our rest rooms."
Rey Perez notes that for recent arrivals, the struggles of traficantes against American authorities provide a macho version of what other immigrants have been through. "You want to survive in this country. The people, when they come here, they got nothing. Now they got a house, a car."
Rey and his brother Manual, the birthday boy, are electricians. Although they still have family back in Mexico, they consider themselves successful. "The people here," Rey says, indicating the people at the party, "they got jobs. They aren't into drugs. We just want to drink, listen to the music and have a good time." He adds that it's pointless to try to keep the songs off the radio. "Some people are worried about teenagers hearing the songs, but it's not a problem."
Eventually, after Avila has played nothing but narcocorridos for more than an hour at the request of the Perez brothers, some of the women persuade him to play the more danceable cumbias. It's time to couple off and start moving to something less lyric-heavy.
Avila smiles. He'll play anything they want.
A couple of hundred casually dressed businesspeople from New Jersey are milling about on a lawn at the Arizona Biltmore, sipping drinks after spending the day at an educational seminar. It's a cool April evening, and the Biltmore's Paradise Garden has been prepared for a lavish dinner -- tables with white linen wait for diners, and waiters stand by buffet tables.
The mostly Anglo middle-aged folks don't seem to pay much attention to the small mariachi group dressed in elaborate white outfits as they take their position. Four men with stringed instruments -- guitars and the bajo sexto, a kind of Mexican bass guitar -- begin strumming a lively version of an old mariachi standby.
"Guadalajara, Guadalajara!" the four musicians harmonize.
In such a sanitized, precious setting, it's hard to believe that the band's leader, Jesse Armenta, is famous for writing some of Mexico's most notorious corridos.
Armenta lives in Arizona, but his songs are known throughout Mexico for their controversial lyrics.
"I wrote one of the most dangerous corridos," he says, referring to "El Circo," which he penned in 1996 about two characters who own a circus, Carlos and Raul. They buy up other circuses until they fall on hard times -- one is exiled, the other jailed. The song startled listeners in Mexico, who realized that the song was really about the ultimate drug cartel kingpins, former president Carlos Salinas de Gotari and his brother Raul. After leaving the Mexican presidency in 1994, Carlos left the country rather than face allegations of corruption and theft. "The implication [of Armenta's song] was that they had corralled much of Mexico's drug business and stashed their profits abroad," Wald writes. "This was not exactly news, but it was a shock to hear it sung about on the radio."
Some claim that writing narcocorridos about actual drug figures can be a risky enterprise, but Armenta denies it. "I never went into the street telling people I wrote El Circo' -- it was pretty dangerous back then. But nothing happened. I've been writing a lot of songs about traficantes, and nothing's happened to me." Writing songs instead allowed Armenta to supplement his income as a foreman at a building products company (he retired in 1999 after 30 years on the job). His royalties haven't made him rich -- he still performs in modest-paying mariachi gigs nearly every day. But he's done well enough to have homes in both Phoenix and Payson, and he's put three sons through college.
Armenta's last big drug-themed hit was a corrido about the so-called "narcosaint" Jesus Malverde, recorded by several different groups and, Armenta says, played every day on radio in Mexico and the United States. Malverde is a legendary figure in Mexican narco culture, probably an amalgam of two or more men who lived around the turn of the last century and died in Culiacán. Various stories about his life and death spawned a still-burgeoning cult surrounding the unofficial saint. When drug smuggling in Mexico exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, traficantes began paying homage to Malverde. Before hauling marijuana or cocaine across the border, smugglers would make offerings at Malverde's shrine, hoping that the spirit of the bandit hero would protect them.
On both sides of the border, Armenta says, traficantes were swelling with pride that so many songs were celebrating them. "Especially in the '70s and '80s, there was a lot of work here in Phoenix for musicians, and a lot of traficantes were at the parties." Even today, he sees a lot of drug use among the corrido-loving public. "I can tell you those parties are full of cocaine," Armenta says. "Any time I go to a party, there's drugs all over."
Armenta says he was very careful to study the Malverde legend before writing his popular corrido. He's disappointed that other artists don't seem so careful with their craft.
"You can write a good song, even though it's a narcocorrido, without using bad words," he says, adding that there's little talent involved in stringing together common obscenities. "We like to write good and true stories, rather than just putting together a lot of chingados and cabrones."
He's disdainful of Los Razos and the other narco stars who have turned the genre of telling tales about drug smugglers into profane shouting matches.
But music historian Elijah Wald says he thinks it's important to differentiate between bands like Los Razos and other relative newcomers such as gangsta-narcocorrido stars Rivera and Morales, whose lyrics rarely cause their songs to be bleeped on radio.
"I think [the Los Razos band members] remind people of their favorite uncle. The one their mother didn't especially like, but you loved it whenever he came around. He was so goddamned funny. I think that's very much their image," Wald says. In other words, few take their obscenity-laced material very seriously.
Like others, Armenta notes that the entire narco phenomenon is evolving right under the noses of an Anglo-American population that doesn't have a clue what's going on.
Nearly every day, the famous writer puts on his mariachi outfit and plays with his trio at fancy events like the one at the Biltmore. No one, he says, recognizes him, or realizes what sort of music he's famous for.
"We play all kinds of music," he says, smiling. "But when we're playing for white people, they don't request the narcocorridos. They [wouldn't] know what we're talking about, anyways."
New Times correspondent Dan Cortez contributed to this article.