A Ballad of Blood
On November 25, 2006, another young musician joined the 27-club. El Gallo de Oro, or The Golden Rooster as he was known, was shot to death after leaving a concert. His body was struck 20-times from the onslaught of gunfire unleashed by a sicario hit team. In America, this would have made headlines for days but in Mexico, it was just another Saturday.
The Golden Rooster was Valentín Elizalde Valencia, a banda musician who made a name for himself in narcocorrido – a subgenre of music that highlights the lives of cartel bosses and high-level drug dealers. What’s unique about this subgenre is that the content is not a fictionalized version of cartel life. The ballads detail real events as they happened and praise the cartel members involved as larger-than-life folk heroes.
Elizalde’s alliance was to the Gulf Cartel (CDG) and what led to his murder was the song “A Mis Enemigos”. It was a ballad that taunted Los Zetas, a rival of CDG. Another narcocorrido singer, José Alfredo Rios Meza, known as El Komander, had been warned to stay out of Reynosa for similar reasons. When Meza arrived in Reynosa to perform a scheduled show, he immediately flew back home citing safety concerns.
Narcocorrido can be a lucrative business. Though there is a consumer market for it that provides some generous incentives, an artist who dabbles in this business can make a living without having any real notoriety in the mainstream. This is because for many artists, they are paid directly by bosses and dealers to create songs in their honor. Direct income from the source of inspiration. The problem with this business model is that it’s not sustainable. Narcos come and go, and when a musician aligns themself with one, they become targets of another.
New Hustle, Same Danger
Narco rap is rooted in border towns across the U.S.-Mexico border where narco-culture still has a significant influence on local communities. But it’s in South Texas, specifically in the Rio Grande Valley, where narco rap first crossed the border. MC’s like Big Los have been able to make a healthy living with narco rap but the risks remain.
Narco rappers, like the banda singer, would get paid to make anthems about the bosses and dealers that were prominent in their area. But it was their respective platforms where the genres diverged. Hip-hop is a global market, plain and simple. This, in a sense, made narco rap in South Texas what Gangsta Rap became for Southern California in the 90’s – a legitimate career opportunity.
The main obstacle for narco rap is that it was still niche. Its dialect, cultural references, and iconography are heavily pulled from the genre’s Mexican origin. Narco rap needed balance. Take for instance companies like 88rising. A self-proclaimed “hybrid company”, it markets and promotes Asian hip-hop artists like the Higher Brothers and Rich Brian (formerly Rich Chigga). These artists – among others on the imprint – were packaged with Western sensibilities to attract American consumers but not alienate them.
This is the blueprint Dro Fe – who hails from the Rio Grande Valley – has designed for narco wave. His long and grueling career has been a constant evolution of the narco sound and lifestyle. In 2013, Dro Fe dropped his Narco Wave EP and introduced hip-hop to the first inklings what would become narco wave.
Chase The Money, Chase The Money
Dro Fe has since dropped multiple projects, each with a more precise and nuanced presentation of narco wave. And where narcocorrido and narco rap failed, Dro Fe thrived by restructuring the business model of its predecessors. Instead of relying on cartel bosses for inspiration, he pulls from his own experiences. Lyrics of paranoia, moral ambiguity, and bravado dripped in thumpy subterranean beats. But at the core, narco wave isn’t about becoming or sanctifying a cartel boss, it’s about the Mexican “everyman” struggling to survive in a seemingly un-survivable environment.
By not explicitly aligning himself to a cartel boss, Dro Fe has avoided life-threatening positions that other narco rappers have pitted themselves in. This has afforded him the artistic freedom to craft the stories and sound of narco wave to appeal to anyone willing to listen. The benefits of a lone wolf approach have allowed him to build relationships with whomever he chooses and align himself with the right people in the industry to take his career to the next level.
For many Mexican-American artists who do find success, they eventually adopt personas that identify more with black and white audiences. Dro Fe seems to pivot this trend and narco wave is at the forefront of promoting the modern Mexican-American hustle. Ultimately, Dro Fe has created a lane for Mexican-American MC’s to succeed in without compromising their DNA.
And with Dro Fe’s recent jump in exposure – he boasts two billboards in the heart of Hollywood – narco wave has graduated from hustle to proof of concept. Will the next generation of Mexican-American rappers surf the wave? Only time will tell.