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At night, a person drives a classic car down a street, street lights blurred in the background.

Cruising down Crenshaw Boulevard

Photo © Brian Crawford, ATOMIC Hot Links

  • How Urban Corridos Became the Soundtrack to South Central L.A.

    Urban corridos were bound to happen. Mexican and Black hip-hop culture live side by side in many Los Angeles neighborhoods, although sometimes our music gets along better than we do.

    In South Central, which I call home, the pounding bass from a passing car can feel like a mini earthquake. Walking down Crenshaw Boulevard, it is near certain you will hear a Nipsey Hussle rap coming from one way and a Fuerza Regida corrido the other. But hearing a legit fusion of the two genres in the same track—something that feels natural to young Mexican Americans—surprises others and is scorned by older generations.

    Growing up, I often heard our experiences reflected in hip-hop’s lyrics and became heavily influenced by rappers like Tupac, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, N.W.A, Kendrick Lamar, and Nipsey Hussle. As a teenager in the 2010s, I began following rising artists like Gerardo Ortiz and Regulo Caro who were pivotal to my generation’s involvement with traditional Mexican ballads, or corridos. For two centuries, these songs have acted almost as news reports, as their lyrics cover historical and community events, sometimes to subversive effect. At today’s warehouse parties, from our makeshift stages, nearly dark except for sets of strobe lights, playlists incorporate both hip-hop and corridos. To some, these genres sound completely different, but if you’re young and grew up in South Central, there’s a good chance they both speak to you.

    Many of our families migrated from Mexico in the 1990s. For people like me, our identities have always been contested. At home, I spoke the colloquial Spanish my family taught me from the southern region of Jalisco. At school and with my older cousins, I spoke English and picked up the slang of my peers. Our family carne asadas were filled with the smell of grilling meat, the spiciness of my mom’s famous pico de gallo, fresh beans out of the pot, and the sounds of accordions, guitars, and strong bass lines of traditionalcorridos performed by Antonio Aguilar, Los Tigres del Norte, and Chalino Sanchez coming out of my uncle’s boom box.

    As my cousins grew older, hip-hop made its way to my ears. We rocked retro Jordans and hung up SLAM magazine posters featuring Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and a rookie named LeBron James. Our gatherings culminated in a game of basketball. One day, after our scrimmages in the street, we were playing video games in my cousin’s bedroom. He put on 2Pac’s “Hit ’Em Up.” The way Pac rapped scared me at first, but then I felt like I could do anything, that I was the toughest one in the room.

    In the backyard, my parents and grandparents would sing corridos, loudly enough that it filtered into the house where we children congregated. Through those songs, I understood the adult world, and how my elders were often homesick. Those songs of migration and loved ones left behind made them feel closer to Jalisco and reminded me of what my family endured to live in the United States. 

    Take “La Jaula de Oro” by Los Tigres del Norte as an example:

    Aquí estoy establecido
    En los Estados Unidos
    Diez años pasaron ya
    En que cruce de mojado
    Papeles no he arreglado
    Sigo siendo un ilegal
    Tengo mi esposa y mis hijos
    Que me los traje muy chicos
    Y se han olvidado ya
    De mi México querido
    Del que yo nunca me olvido
    Y no puedo regresar
    De que me sirve el dinero
    Si estoy como prisionero
    Dentro de esta gran nación
    Cuando me acuerdo hasta lloro
    Aunque la jaula sea de oro
    No deja de ser prisión

    Here I am established
    In the United States
    Ten years have now passed by
    In which I crossed as a wetback
    I still haven’t fixed my papers
    I am still an illegal
    I have my wife and my children
    Which I brought very young
    And they have now forgotten
    Of my beloved Mexico
    Of which I will never forget
    And I cannot go back
    What good is all the money
    If I am like a prisoner
    Inside of this great nation?
    When I remember I weep
    Although the cage is golden
    It doesn’t stop being a prison.

    In middle school, I followed the careers of corrido singers Regulo Caro and Gerardo Ortiz. Both had strong ties to the northern states of Sinaloa and Sonora in Mexico. They sang of events there, and their lyrics taught me of what my family had sacrificed. Through these songs, I developed an awareness of my identity that left me, an Angeleno, conflicted at a very young age.

    My corrido identity and my hip-hop identity were two separate entities which intersected every so often, but never enough to matter. Kendrick Lamar and 2Pac were in my headphones, followed by Chalino Sanchez and Gerardo Ortiz, but I thought the two genres never directly communicated. My homies in high school were like me: we discussed corrido lyrics as often as the latest drop from our favorite rapper.

    In the summer of 2015, just before my senior year of high school, the biopic film of Compton rap group N.W.A, Straight Outta Compton, hit the theaters. The film proved extremely influential to street culture in South Central and the surrounding neighborhoods, with the opening lyrics to the title song, courtesy of South Central’s very own Ice Cube: “Straight outta Compton, crazy mother*cker named Ice Cube/ From the gang called Ni**az With Attitudes.” You saw people swagging in their “Straight Outta [Insert neighborhood here]” hoodies and sweatshirts. Even my high school caught onto the trend. Virtually everyone wore “Straight Outta Hawkins” sweatshirts in the Vermont-Slauson neighborhood.

    In the summer of my second year of college, I made a visit to my local barbershop. This was where we picked up new music. As we bet on games of pool and waited for our cuts, “Radicamos en South Central” by Fuerza Regida dropped. The song starts with a loud and heavy melody played from a tuba followed by an urban take on the requinto, a twelve-string acoustic guitar, and the now famous line: “Radicamos en South Central/ El negocio anda fuerte/ Esta zona controlamos.”“We ride around in South Central/ The business is strong/ We control this zone.” Finally, I had heard the name of my neighborhood in a corrido. The song felt like home, like my hood.

    “Radicamos en South Central” is a direct play on “Straight Outta Compton.” Listening closely, we understood what N.W.A’s song and the film had meant to the corrido’s creation, and the imagery it offered of South Central Avenue spoke volumes. Online, fans created cover art for the song incorporating the font and appeal of the Straight Outta Compton billboard. The corrido felt like it was written for us—all of us.

    Los azules lo rodearon
    Sabían donde estaba el clavo
    Y en la escuelita se aventó un buen rato
    Ahora lo verán contento
    En su Ram por la Central
    Bien agusto chicoteado

    The blue ones circled him in
    They knew where the nail [drugs] would be
    And in the little school [prison] he has spent quite some time
    Now you’ll see him happily
    In his Ram on Central [Avenue]
    Very chill and cool

    This corrido reflected my own community. It spoke of a specific person. But that man, challenged by circumstance, stood in for so many of us who would do whatever it took to feed our families. “Radicamos en South Central” offered me a space in corrido culture. The urban regional corrido had emerged, and, for the first time, I felt my hip-hop and corrido identities directly intersect.

    The artists who produced this music grew up in neighborhoods full of young people like South Central, whether from Santa Ana, Yuba City, San Bernardino. We shared a language of Spanglish and slang: troka (truck), clika (clique), iced out (wearing diamonds), tumbado (dropped, usually in reference to the effects of being under the influence of any substance). Their songs explored themes of betrayal, violence, courage, and growing up in the hood with big dreams. Young corridistas adapted this genre for a youthful L.A. by merging the familiar sounds of countryside guitars and the bajoloche (acoustic bass) slapped to the tempo of hip-hop.

    For us to occupy this blended sonic space offered a form of resiliency. This is an often-overlooked space where joy may be cultivated for young people. This music connects us to our heritage, allowing us to present the sounds that shaped our lives. The result is a beautiful collage of country hillsides in Mexico, the smell of a wood fire burning on a cold winter night, the hustle of the city, young people filling night clubs to see their favorite grupos, and the hip-hop we consume on a daily basis.

    Suddenly, our stories were worth singing about, and today this brings me confidence. The remix to Natanael Cano’s “Soy El Diablo” points to the resiliency that our people are often celebrated for. Here, Bad Bunny exclaims:

    Esto es pa toda mi raza
    America es nuestra casa
    Aunque pongan mas alto el muro como quiera se traspasa!

    This is for all my people
    America is our house
    Even if they build the wall higher, it will still get trespassed!

    These new songs remind me of where I’m from, and that the struggles of my parents continue through us.

    But today, as I navigate my social media feed, I see the disregard many older Mexican people have for our youthful music. Many attempt to discredit the genre. They claim that our corridos aren’t authentic or “real,” that our artists don’t sing well. Perhaps our elders do not fully understand the stories in the songs. At their core, corridos exist to inform the community. In the 1910 Mexican Revolution, people learned of important events through corridos. In the same way, urban regional corridos inform the community about the lives of young Mexican Americans.

    Isaiah Andalon, a young corridista from north of downtown in Highland Park, believes that urban regional corridos are an evolution of music.

    “Corridos went from a traditional sound to talking about our stories now,” he says. “It’s this side of the border’s stories… Corridos tumbados (urban regional corridos) is Mexican American/Chicano, their version of what they think corridos should be.”

    Though hardly identical, the street life and culture of young Mexican Americans and young Black Americans is informed by how we interpret our worlds. I wish I could say that our artists sing about positivity all the time, but many of our artists grew up in the streets, and that comes with stressors which manifest in the music. We have listened to hip-hop for a long time. The themes run parallel.

    This becomes apparent in how both forms address betrayal. In “Niveles,” Hijos de Garcia sing:

    Siempre tienes que fajar un arma como guardaespaldas
    Porque hasta tu propia gente puede darte pu
    Luego, luego se nota cuando est
    án buscando tu espalda
    Con la derecha saludan y la izquierda te disparan

    You always have to carry a weapon as a bodyguard
    Because even your own people want to betray you
    Quickly you can tell when they’re looking for your back
    With the right hand they greet you and with the left shoot you

    In “My Homie,” ScHoolboy Q, a South Central native, deals with the betrayal of one of his life-long childhood friends: “You were my mane/ N***a I wouldn’t figure you would be on that stand/ Putting my life up in your hands, pointing your finger like damn!”

    While themes of betrayal and the pain resulting from it are rampant in both genres, there are also instances when artists celebrate the strength of our communities. In 2016, as a response to what many saw as a racist presidential campaign run by Donald Trump, YG and Nipsey Hussle released their protest song “FDT”. With the chorus powerfully exclaiming, “F**k Donald Trump!” Nipsey Hussle called for the unity of Black and Brown people echoing 2Pac’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” in order to combat the rhetoric employed by the candidate: “It wouldn’t be the USA without Mexicans/ And if it’s time to team up, shit, let’s begin/ Black love, Brown pride in the sets again.” As a high school senior, listening to two of the most important faces of hip-hop call in Brown people to fight a common enemy gave me hope that coalitions between Black and Brown people were tangible. The sea of young Black and Brown faces occupying public space as a form of protest in the music video is also a testament to how I understand and experience South Central.

    Mural of a Black man with beard and diamond earing, with a golden halo behind his head.
    Mural at Nipsey Hussle Square, Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard
    Photo by Bryan Cantero

    As corridos tumbados evolve, they sound more and more like the Los Angeles I know, the words a mix of the Mexican Spanish and English slang I use with my homies. The melodies sound like those of my favorite hip-hop artists, and the corridistas are dressing like the rappers I grew up listening to: designer clothes, baseball caps, and retro Jordans. Natanael Cano, one of the best-known interpreters ofcorridos tumbados, is often seen wearing the latest Supreme drops and baseball caps. This trend is alien to older generations who are used to cowboy boots and cowboy hats, the norteño clothes worn by traditional corridistas. But as more young Mexican Americans adapt or reinterpret the genre, the influence of Black hip-hop culture will continue to shape our culture and lifestyle.

    At the same time, I believe it would be a stretch to say the Black Americans and Mexican Americans understand each other. With the urgency surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, I think about the responsibility of urban regional corridoculture to challenge anti-Blackness within our non-Black Latinx communities. As a community that borrows directly from Black hip-hop culture, we must show up for Black Americans not only in victory but in times of hurt and unrest as well.

    Often non-Black Latinx communities downplay how we perpetuate anti-Blackness while also consuming and appropriating Black culture. While urban regional corridos do indeed tell Mexican American stories and are a U.S.-Mexico transnational phenomenon, it is shaped by Black hip-hop culture because we consume the latter. The long histories of racism and anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric rampant in the foundation of this country shape the physical, cultural, and sonic environments from which these musical expressions emerge. Our histories in this country, often overlapping although not entirely similar, should be the basis from which we challenge anti-Blackness in our communities.

    “We definitely gotta check our people,” Isaiah Andalon says. He referenced the murder of Vanessa Guillen, a Latina woman killed by a fellow U.S. Army soldier in April 2020. Some Latinos in Los Angeles, seeking justice for the victim, perceived little support from the Black community. “It was crazy hearing a lot of Latinx people saying like, ‘Oh, you know what, next time we’re not gonna go support you guys. You guys didn’t come out for us. Why should we come out for you?’”

    This sentiment is often expressed on social media by Latinx people. Anti-Blackness had masked itself in a “what about us?” attitude that was harmful in seeking justice for both George Floyd and Vanessa Guillen. As a teenager in high school, I was heavily involved with the Fight for the Soul of the Cities, an organization that focuses on social justice initiatives in our communities. Our focus was directed at combating the Los Angeles Unified School District Police Department’s involvement with the federal 1033 Program, which supplies police departments with military-grade weapons.

    At a time when the policing of young Black and Brown bodies often turned fatal, a group of Black and Brown kids from South Central and East L.A. demanded that our humanity be respected. We understood the responsibility we had toward one another, and I saw firsthand the transformational power of coalitions between our communities. It isn’t enough for Latinx people to “not be racist.” We must actively challenge anti-Blackness in our communities, as uncomfortable as this can be.

    The urban regional corridos movement is evolving every day, and perhaps this blending of our musical cultures will make a difference in our shared community. I am at home here. Artists like Fuerza Regida, Herencia de Patrones, Hijos de Garcia, Legado 7, and Natanael Cano document our stories and perspectives. Their songs amplify the lives of young Mexican Americans by revealing what concerns us today. While these urban ballads are extremely important in telling our narratives, it is imperative that we, as a young genre and culture, acknowledge and invite Black voices as we have grown up listening to and often idolizing iconic Black rappers. Only then will we create substantial coalitions between Black and Brown communities and, in doing so, demand respect for our humanity. 

    Two young men pose with their arms around each other, each making a “rock on” hand sign.
    Natanael Cano (left) and Bryan Cantero
    Photo courtesy of Bryan Cantero

    Bryan Cantero is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a master’s student at CSU Los Angeles in Chincanx/Latinx studies. All translations of lyrics by the author.

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