That's partially because country music has long been an uncool but hugely successful component of the pop music world. Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks sell so many millions of records that they don't need to be down with urban hipsters. While Americans and Europeans making electronic music have long incorporated surprisingly esoteric styles into their work -- think of the scratchy blues recordings on Moby's Play -- country has been pretty much off-limits. But norteño has a unique cultural resonance with the Nortec Collective members, especially when it comes to the narcocorridos, the norteño ballads about Mexican drug traffickers.
One of the top-selling groups in Mexico is Los Tigres del Norte, the Grammy Award-winning kings of norteño. In his book Narcocorrido: A Journey Into The Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerrillas, journalist Elijah Wald describes Los Tigres as being "like Willie Nelson and the Rolling Stones combined, the enduring superstars of down-to-earth, working-class pop." Wald profiles a musical culture that spans back to the Mexican Revolution and incorporates pot farmers, tequila smugglers, and militant folk heroes from Pancho Villa to Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. Referencing this legacy, the visual component of a Nortec Collective performance includes images of pickup trucks and grimacing, sombrero-wearing villains projected on screens above the dance floor. Their mascot is a tiny cowboy with mustache bristling beneath his black hat. He's got an AK-47 in each hand and a marijuana leaf emblazoned on his shirt.
"It's all around us, you can't escape it," says Nortec Collective member Roberto Mendoza on the phone from his job at a cultural center in Tijuana. He records as Panoptica and formed another group, Fussible -- one of the first Nortec projects -- with Pepe Mogt and Jorge Ruiz in the late Nineties. "Norteño is the biggest-selling music over here," he says. "Los Tigres del Norte sells more than Ricky Martin."
Growing up in Tijuana, Mendoza and his companions -- Nortec artists Terrestre, Bostich, Hiperboreal, et al. -- couldn't get away from the norteño sound. But they tried. At first they were punks, New Wavers, and techno heads. The oldest member of the collective, 44-year-old Ramon Amezcua (a.k.a. Bostich), produced compositions for a local ballet company, then started playing his homemade drum and bass at raves. Others made industrial tracks and ambient electronica, but each experiment eventually fell apart. "We were really fed up with doing something that we didn't feel was our own," says Mendoza. So he and his Fussible bandmates began dipping into cha-cha-cha and samba styles. Ironically, playing with rhythms already popular among Latin music fans gave them a new appreciation for their local culture. "There's a bunch of Europeans trying to emulate this Brazilian music," says Mendoza, citing the popularity of bossa nova among house and downtempo producers. "Why aren't the Brazilian people doing this themselves? We had to do this on our own before somebody else came here -- an American or a European -- and took it to another level."
So they began collecting sounds. Fernando Corona made field recordings of norteño bands playing in seafood restaurants for his Terrestre project. Amezcua purchased banda tapes from local studios. The collective teased out the tubas, accordions, bajo sextos, and guiros and fed them into their laptops and samplers. They reconstructed these elements over instrumental drum and bass, techno, and house tracks, and released the Nortec Sampler compilation on the Mexican label Mil Records in 1999. This was followed by a deal with Palm and the U.S. release of Tijuana Sessions, Vol. 1.
In both Mendoza and Amezcua's view, Nortec is an evolution of norteño, the next step for a century-old genre. "It's a part of the history here in Tijuana," says Amezcua. "Even the classical musicians, when they talk about Tijuana, they reference Nortec music." Both artists hear subtle, unexpected references to contemporary electronic sounds in the recordings of norteño superstars like Los Tucanes de Tijuana. Though the two camps haven't yet collaborated on record, they have lent equipment and software to curious local norteño musicians.
Corona's not so sure of this link, though, and recalls the laughter of norteño artists he has played his tracks for: "What the hell are you doing with our music, kid?" He left the collective in 2001 on amicable terms to spend time on a side project -- Murcof, a merging of sparse techno with minimalist classical music. But he still mines the Nortec aesthetic as Terrestre and recently scored Nicotina, a film from the producers of Amores Perros. Both the soundtrack and the movie will be released in Mexico this October.
The Nortec Collective, however, isn't the only one changing the music: Los Angeles corridistas are updating traditional narcocorridos with contemporary gangsta lean and American slang. One young artist interviewed in Narcocorrido compares the surge in popularity of norteño music with the rise of hip-hop artists Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. Considering the iffy prospects of so many generic electronic DJs and producers, hooking into the sound of Mexican gangsta country and turning crowds out in Mexico City, Colombia, and Argentina doesn't seem like such a bad idea.
"For years the people of Tijuana, we didn't identify with anything," says Amezcua. "Tijuana is a place with people from different cities in Mexico. Only a few people are from Tijuana. Now we are very proud to identify with norteño sounds and banda. We are proud of everything now." He pauses and laughs. "Maybe even the drug dealer culture here. It's part of Tijuana." Nortec Collective plans to release its second album, Tijuana Sessions, Vol. 2, this fall.