After first appearing at the 2014 EMP Pop Conference in Seattle, this article ran last spring at Maura Magazine; I reprint it here with their kind permission.
Here’s the story of a band from Modesto,
A small city east of San Francisco.
Led by the brothers Guajardo,
They’re known to the world as Los Amos.
They got started back in the mid-’90s
Playing los narcocorridos,
And over the course of a decade,
Los Amos altered their appearance
From flashy-shirted, big-hatted cowboys
To black-suited, no-hatted tough guys,
Los Amos’ transformation was dramatic,
And their music changed right along with them.
This transition was shaped by two forces:
The demands of their well-structured business,
But also their repeated incantations
Of one magic word from the Bay…
HYPHY HYPHY HYPHY HYPHY HYPHY HYPHY HYPHY HYPHY HYPHY HYPHY HYPHY
But before we get hyphy, we need to answer this question: Why were some guys in Modesto, California, playing corridos—Mexican story songs about the drug trade—for a living in the first place? The answer lies with two names, corridistas you’ve probably heard of, immigrants to los Estados Unidos, legends in their field.
In the late ‘60s the band Los Tigres del Norte settled in San Jose, an hour south of San Francisco at the lower tip of the Bay. As San Jose’s population expanded, Los Tigres became the popular face of corrido. They sang songs of smugglers and gangsters and lobbed critiques at two national governments. Los Tigres identified profoundly with the plight of the Mexican immigrant. And yet something about them remains undeniably… what? Stodgy? Showbizzy? Disconnected somehow from the younger generation. Los Tigres can come across as the Springsteens of norteño—both gifted and ambitious, applying the music of their roots to big important social themes, which in turn makes them seem daddish and corny. So then they duet with members of Rage Against the Machine, as though that’ll somehow help.
A young corridista named Jessie Morales (aka El Original de la Sierra) once told Billboard magazine, “I respect Los Tigres, but it was never like Chalino Sanchez’s music. His music was pura raza [literally “purebred,” though Billboard translated it “of the people”]. Just corridos and songs of the real people of the pueblo that struggled in their work, in drug trafficking… He was more raza than Los Tigres…”
Chalino is our second corrido legend. He came to L.A. in the ‘70s, fleeing trouble in Sinaloa. After working odd jobs for several years, he started writing corridos. Immigrants would commission Chalino to set their stories to music, and though he wasn’t much of a singer, he’d record their corridos to cassette. Spanish language radio never played him, but Chalino was soon an underground phenomenon, raking in cash for his concerts. His music was simple and unsophisticated, which led some to call him “authentic.” Chalino cultivated this image, posing for photos with horses, trucks, and especially guns like the one he would famously wear onstage. Though his songs could sometimes be violent, the violence lived more in his image—the feeling of no separation between Chalino the man and his songs. And sure enough, in Coachella in 1990, he got into a gunfight from the stage. In 1992, Chalino Sanchez was murdered in Sinaloa.
After he died, Chalino fever quickly spread throughout L.A. and the Mexican diaspora, giving rise to a host of imitators and a new wave of narcocorrido. Writing for L.A. Weekly, Sam Quinones called these imitators “Chalinillos,” wryly observing how “urban kids imitated Mexican hicks.” Young Mexican American men who’d been listening to gangsta rap music put on cowboy hats and started blasting narcocorridos.
So, 1995 in Modesto, Los Amos (“the masters”) got started, playing narcocorridos to a newly receptive audience. They wore flashy matching suits like Los Tigres but their songs dealt with fewer big issues, instead wallowing in the sordid first person details of nihilistic gangland killings. Over spritely accordion waltzes, they cheerfully alluded to feeding their rivals to crocodiles and killing their traitor brother in prison. Over the course of 10 albums on three different record labels—Mar was the first indie, then the major label Universal, then back to the indie Eagle Music—their focus gradually shifted to the sordid first person details of nihilistic substance abuse.
Comparing their album covers across this period, the first change you notice is the Los Amos logo. It gradually got bigger and more metallic looking with little sparkly accents. Blinged out, in other words. Their look changed, too, from narcocorrido’s flashy cowboys to a more urban sensibility: Plain black suits with a Hummer, amid landscapes of concrete and steel—notably, in 2007, the dread-filled bathroom of a club. “Desmadre en el Baño” is one of those songs about everyone in line for the bathroom, trying to get a line in the bathroom. Their music was still pure norteño—accordion polkas and waltzes—though faster and wilder, even artless, with no affectation in the singing.
The movements here are worth noting: Los Amos sped up traditional narcocorridos, moved them to the city, and started singing about taking drugs instead of selling them. In other words, they shifted from drug production to drug consumption, better reflecting the environs of their mostly Mexican-American audience. Though a step removed from Chalino, this was still his legacy, part of what made Los Amos “pura raza.” The band told the stories of their own Bay Area pueblo without articulating the stories’ larger implications. Lead singer José Guajardo told Billboard, “When Los Amos sing about those real things, people say, ‘Those cabrones are singing the truth.’” Indeed, fans of Los Amos consider them “puro,” although the nature of their purity changes—depending which internet comment you read, they’re puro corrido, puro Nuevo Leon, or weirdly enough, puro hyphy.
That’s right, hyphy. In 2008 came Los Amos’ breakthrough, the apotheosis of their party style. They finally found a name for it in their small radio hit, “El Hyphy.”
Hyphy, you’ll recall, was the name of an underground Bay Area rap movement. Coined by Keak da Sneak in the ‘90s, around the same time Los Amos got together, it first meant “hyperactive,” then expanded to connote not just the music but a culture that promoted going dumb, smoking weed, and ghost riding the whip (that thing where you fix your car so it’ll drive itself down the street). As depicted in the music of E-40, Mac Dre, Federation, and others, hyphy was vibrant and lively. The apex of hyphy’s national attention came with TVT’s great compilation Hyphy Hitz in 2007, whenceforth it went back underground. (To an extent. As you read this, DJ Mustard is busy making every other song on rap radio sound like the lowest common denominator of crunk and hyphy, and E-40 has recorded two albums. But I digress.)
Apart from the rap scene, the word “hyphy” entered the Bay Area vernacular, suggesting partying, goofiness, and pride in northern California. Guajardo told Billboard, “People started to hear us play and they compared the adrenaline to American hip-hop.” More specifically, Los Amos’ producer Juan Ramirez tells me that when they’d play “Desmadre en el Baño,” fans would tell them, “You guys play hyphy.” “The audience came up with the name,” he says, so Los Amos claimed the word “hyphy” in the name of Bay Area norteño. The three-minute song “El Hyphy” demanded its audience jump and shake up beers. It was about twice as fast as typical norteño. The video featured a repeated shot of a female fan whipping her long hair around wildly.
In 2008 Los Amos released the album El Hyphy on Ramirez’s label, Solo Records. That’s record label number four, if you’re keeping count. The album is both delightful and awful, full of seriously hot accordion and robust profanity. It’s also sometimes deplorable. And it’s not just the nonstop drug abuse! The song “El Mounstro” is the sophomoric tale of having drunk sex with a woman, then finding her unattractive in the morning, and puking and otherwise excreting all over the place because these guys are apparently like 12 years old. In other words, bro-norteño.
Because English phonemes work differently than Spanish ones, Ramirez added a pronunciation guide for “hyphy” — “(jai-fi)” — on the cover of the album. He envisioned all this as the start of a movement; he called it “El Movimiento Hyphy,” a pithy brand name that spread—sort of. In 2009, at least seven groups besides Los Amos put out records that blatantly called themselves hyphy:
•There was 420 (pronounced “cuatro veinte”), maybe the only hyphy band with major label distribution—they were on Fonovisa, the LA indie that had just been bought by Universal, and was home to Los Tigres.
•Los Capos de Mexico had been releasing violent corridos for years. When they went hyphy, their look changed in much the same way as Los Amos’.
•Rafaga Norteña claimed hyphy but their hearts didn’t really seem in it. With their smiles and their handsome striped neckties, they looked like the genre’s Mormon missionaries.
And then there were the bands on Solo Records. You can always tell who Juan Ramirez produced because of his “(jai-fi)” pronunciation guide. Los Pezados del Hyphy, La Plaga del Hyphy, and Los Vaquetones del Hyphy all presented themselves as urban, dark, and edgy—a new riff on Chalino’s rural, sun-kissed, but no less edgy persona. (Los Vaquetones, the fratboy comedians of the bunch, also stuck out their tongues and flashed metal horns a lot.) “Urban, dark, and edgy” was about all that hyphy took from hip-hop, with the exception of one more Solo Records band, Los Narquillos del Hyphy. The cover of their album El Burro Hyphy depicts six scowling men standing around the disembodied head of a donkey. A grill gleams across the donkey’s teeth. Besides that, any hip-hop influence only flexes itself in that Los Narquillos are “urban” and the report of gunfire appears in their music. The music is equally rock-inspired, with its aggressive drumming and references to tattoos. El Burro Hyphy is a laugh a minute, and if you see it you should probably buy it.
One Bay Area norteño band refused to get hyphy, though — the band who arguably created the style and then turned their backs on it. Los Inquietos Del Norte (“the restless ones of the north”) had been making music as long as our heroes. Like Los Amos, they started out on corridos but soon hit the stronger stuff, playing hard, aggressive norteño. Unlike Los Amos, they founded the label Eagle Music—which, you’ll remember, was the label that released several Los Amos albums, including the pivotal Desmadre en el Baño. Aside from an affection for Mekons-esque country rock numbers with violin, Los Inquietos’ music and outlook is hard to distinguish from Los Amos’.
The two bands shared another bond: Producer Ramirez had worked with Inquietos before he signed Los Amos. He and Inquietos’ drummer had tinkered with the band’s drum kit, trying to get a sound that was both more metal and more disco. (“Kool and the Gang and all that stuff,” says Ramirez.) But Ramirez soon left Inquietos and lured Los Amos away from Eagle to his own label Solo Records. Under Ramirez’s tutelage, Los Amos took up Inquietos’ heavier, dancier sound, the sound that became known as “hyphy.”
Ramirez says he “tried really hard to market [hyphy] as a movement, but you need to go with one of the big guys” — meaning one of the major labels. Ramirez had big crossover dreams. He planned to recruit bands from South America and even fixed his sights on that elusive goal: breaking the language barrier. Since hyphy wasn’t traditional norteño, maybe it could “appeal to people who didn’t speak Spanish.” Alas, Solo Records and Hyphy Movimiento lasted about 18 months before petering out in 2011.
Ramirez thinks his plan might have worked if Inquietos had fully joined the movement. “The movimiento didn’t go further because Inquietos didn’t wanna cooperate… They just wanna be them. If you don’t [align yourself with] a style that’s OK, but when it’s a movimiento you’ve gotta work together to make it bigger.” Despite their reticence, in a 2009 press release Inquietos called themselves “los precursores del movimiento ‘Hyphy,’” and they spoke to Billboard for that hyphy article mentioned earlier, but the word “hyphy” appears nowhere in their discography — no album covers, song titles, or even lyrics. It’s like they briefly tried to reap the benefits of hyphy without ever committing to the movement.
Hyphy didn’t completely disappear, though. While Hyphy Movimiento was on the way out, a youth counselor and band promoter named Jose Martinez started his own norteño record label. Martinez was working in Fresno, a couple hours southeast of San Francisco. He settled on “Hyphy Music Inc.” for the name, along with the logo “Kush Style.” “‘Hyphy’ to me means absolutely nothing,” he explains. “You can define it at will. ‘Hyphy’ can mean anything: it can mean high, it can mean mellow, it can mean I’m happy, it can mean excited. ‘Kush Style’ is more of a mellow movement, it doesn’t have the accelerated pace that the hyphy music does. It has nothing to do with Hyphy Movimiento.” Martinez also appropriated “hyphy” to contrast his label with El Movimiento Alterado, the major label style of horror-corridos that got big when El Movimiento Hyphy was fading. Martinez, like many people, considers Alterado too graphic and violent.
As luck would have it, Solo Records had folded and Los Amos found themselves without a label, so they released Bien Hyphy y Bien Alterados on Hyphy Music Inc., their fifth label. It was their first and only album with a tuba player, and it does not sound kush style. Esteban Guajardo plays bass along with the anonymous tubist, creating spiky basslines and cool glissando effects, and Jose Guajardo’s accordion is off the rails. The songs are Los Amos’ most generic, but the wild arrangements feel like elbows thrown in every direction.
This brief union of the two hyphys didn’t last. Juan Ramirez relocated to Austin, TX, and set up shop in a fancy new studio, where Los Amos have recorded their two most recent albums for labels number six and seven, ND Orion and Michoacan. (Ramirez also used this studio to record Amor, Amor, the 2014 album by Chihuahuan romantics Conjunto Primavera. It won the Latin Grammy for Best Norteño Album.) Los Amos still advertise themselves as hyphy, as do their labelmates Los Vaquetones del Hyphy, whose Vaquetonishness continues unabated. One album cover shows the lead Vaqueton with tongue and metal horns out, dressed as — why not? — a condom. Other bands have disowned hyphy, changing their names when necessary — Los Pezados del Hyphy became Los Pezados del Norte, for instance.
The most successful of all these groups remains Los Inquietos, whose Eagle Music now boasts major label distribution. Their rocking, urban, debauched music is hyphy in everything but name, and their 2013 album hung out on Billboard’s Latin Albums chart for half a year. I mean, who wouldn’t want to buy an album called Los Psychos Del Corrido?
Meanwhile, Hyphy Music Inc. soldiers on, albeit in the norteño trenches. The record label handles its own physical distribution — which means that on one of the days I called Martinez he couldn’t talk because he was delivering CDs — and for a business so dependent on digital sales, Hyphy’s online presence is hard to pin down. Its biggest acts are hatless and polished accordion slingers, but Hyphy also releases a lot of old-school corridos about the lawless Sierra. Martinez claims, “Whenever someone buys Hyphy Music stuff, we’ve earned people’s trust,” but it’s hard to discern any kind of brand identity people would actively seek out, unless it’s “narco music that’s less gory than Alterado.” At least with Alterado artists you know what you’re getting. With Hyphy Music’s artists, you may think you’re getting hyphy, but you’re not, in any sense of the word, because to Hyphy Music’s owner, the word “hyphy” means absolutely nothing.
Or does it? Inherent in “hyphy” is another movement: a very gradual shift from Mexico to the U.S., in both lyrical content and extra-musical iconography. As often as not, hyphy songs take place within the U.S., without reference to Mexico. And this again mirrors hyphy’s audience, and increasingly norteño’s audience, many of whom are inside the United States for the long haul. Martinez says Hyphy Music Inc. sells more than 90% of its music within the U.S., thanks to the poorer condition of the Mexican economy and the rampant piracy there. That figure only represents sales, not total fandom, but if you’re selling music for a living, you aim for the people who purchase it.
So even a nearly discarded phrase like “hyphy norteño” ends up telling a wholly expected story. As immigrants and their children assimilate into a new country, they borrow cultural matter. Sometimes norteño groups borrow a word from hip-hop; sometimes bandas borrow chord progressions from doo-wop. To be “pura raza,” musicians make impure art for their impure audience. And it turns out hyphy’s audience has pretty universal pop music tastes: sex, drugs, volume, speed, and whatever else “hyphy” means, if indeed it means anything at all.