It’s been a few months since NorteñoBlog checked in with Hyphy Music Inc., the Fresno, California-based indie label devoted to (mostly narco-)corridos. Despite the label’s bud-bating logo “Kush Style,” adopted by owner Jose Martinez to distinguish his label as a mellow alternative to the gory Movimiento Alterado, I’ve previously chided the label on its lack of a distinct brand identity. (Seems like a weird thing to care about, I know.)
Recently, though, Martinez seems to have settled into a niche: His acts are all about HUSTLE. They play fast and work hard, and they sing about playing fast and working hard. Just like in rap, where the nonstop grind of the gangster becomes a metaphor for cranking out endless musical versions of that selfsame metaphor (a meta-metaphor?), Hyphy’s bands embody the gritty work ethic of the narcos they chronicle. That they sometimes sing about other subjects is the exception proving the rule. This extreme focus can lead to repetitive music, sure; but at their best, Hyphy acts create exciting micro-variations driven by morally fraught jitters. They know that, if their energy flags, a rival will quickly step in to fill the void. It’s music as an energizing and sometimes exhausting fight for life.
Un ejemplo: the accordion-slinging corridero Martin Patrón (aka Martin Lopez “El Patrón”) has just released his debut album Trap Corridos, hustling another term of art from U.S. rap. It comes only a decade and change after T.I.’s Trap Muzik, but whatever; the word “trap” still has currency in this year of “Panda.” Also like “Panda,” my transcriptions of Sr. Patrón’s songs remain sketchy-to-nonexistent, but a round of Hasty Cartel Googling reveals “M100” is probably about a Sinaloa Cartel honcho, and “Hijo de Joaquín” is probably about El Chapo’s kid. (St. Louis pride being what it is, arguments for the late Joaquín Andújar, himself no stranger to hustle, will be entertained.)
So don’t invite Patrón to play Career Day at your local high school. But the music’s the important thing: an irresistible blend of spiky tuba/drum/sexto counterpoint, topped by Sr. Patrón’s accordion, alternately spitting out impressive flourishes and chromatic Jackson Pollock splatters. He’s a fine singer, too, with a rich and resonant voice. A couple Facebook comments suggest he sounds like the late Tito Torbellino. Check out the Pick to Click single “El de la Rueda” (not a Torbellino cover) and see if you agree:
¡VALE LA PENA!
More focused in sound but less so in subject matter are Los Elementos de Culiacán, a bass-anchored quartet hailing from both Culiacán and Badiraguato. Recall the moment from Elijah Wald’s book Narcocorrido where he’s just befriended the locals at a Sinaloan truck stop by playing some guitar blues for them. They’re standing around laughing, when one of them asks where Wald is headed.
“It was like something out of a movie: Smiles froze on faces. One guy’s eyes actually narrowed into slits. The party was over. No one asked me why I was going there: no one had anything more to say.”
Well, Wald made it out alive, and 15 years later so have Los Elementos, who just released their seventh album in three years, Entre Rifles y Costales. Now, “seventh album” is a little misleading, since Los Elementos’ discography is a typical mix of hastily released product: two plain old studio albums, one plain old live album, two albums con tololoche (a stand-up bass and point of pride for those who play it), and (deep breath) two more live albums… con tololoche. NorteñoBlog has not thoroughly cross-referenced all seven albums to map the overlapping songs, but rest assured my tireless team of fact-checking interns is on the case. The new one features some typical narco fare, including the AK-toting title video. But Los Elementos are capable of thoughtful songs detailing the plight of poor Mexican folks and the stark choices they face: see “Cuando Niño” from their first album. They also do jaunty love songs like “Cuando Tus Labios” — add a sax on the riff and it could’ve come from the comparatively lovey dovey streets of Ojinaga. Worth checking out, if not quite as exciting as Sr. Patrón.
And then there’s Tite Chavez, from Yakima, Washington of all places. Norteño must be El Norte wide: a round of Hasty Demographic Googling reveals Yakima’s more than 40% Hispanic or Latino. Even better, the interns are pretty sure these are photos of the same Tite and his younger brother Jovani getting baptized at Yakima’s Mormon mission church earlier this year. Since I balance church life with a love of corridos, this fills me with unreasonable joy.
For his first album Lo Que Esta de Moda, Chavez leads the sextet Minuto Violento from his nimble accordion; brothers Jovani and José fill out the band, along with three family friends. The album is a varied and likable collection of unapologetic corridos — witness the single “Buena Coka,” where our hero gets to party with bikini-clad ladies on a big boat — and friendlier stuff like a remake of “Flor Entre Mariposas.” Their glorious single “El Dollar” features Raul Nava, one of the few(???) harpists(!!!) on the norteño scene, normally of Los Canarios de Michoacan. (That’s the Chavez family’s home state.) NorteñoBlog tries to avoid Picking to Click twice in the same post, BUT LISTEN TO THE HARP:
So there you have it: Hyphy Music Inc. appears to be going strong, never flagging in its devotion to hustle and releasing good shit.