Countless classic folk ballads revisit the theme of the smuggler, the bandit, the outlaw; this crosses dozens of cultures and scores of centuries.
However, the 20th century’s mainstream fixation on facile futurism and mass-produced modernity largely ignored the outlaw ballad tradition…with a few notable exceptions.
Such as the corrido. Simultaneously cultural, communication, and artistic expression, the corrido brought stories far and wide. Songs were fluid, usually belonging only to the current singer, who would pass it on the the next singer down the line. Of course some details would become lost or exaggerated, names could be mistook, the usual pitfalls of the oral tradition…but the songs told the stories, and bound the communities, and immortalized the historically significant.
The music speaks of the lifestyle of the smuggler as artist, often relaying the stories of legitimate efforts at commerce frustrated by the laws of the state (both the US and Mexican governments). Some of the heros include unlikely characters like Miguel Correge, who was a silversmith and jewelry maker, busted when he attempted to export his unique sterling silver rings and other jewelry items to the US because he had no export license. Instead of attempting to secure the legal documents, he resorted to smuggling. The short story: he became a poster child of the narcocorrido even though he had nothing to do with drugs.
The outlaw was only one of the subjects that could be described in a corrido, but he (or she) was undoubtedly a favorite subject. The song could praise or condemn, or remain objective — tell the story, and let the audience come to their own conclusions.
Some may say that this grand Mexican form has passed its prime with the coming of the electronic age, that radio and recording made the passed-on storytelling song quaint and inefficient. However, the power of the corrido pops up right when you think it has faded; the protest songs and counterculture chic of the 1960’s dovetailed with the birth of the narcocorrido, the drug ballad.
Los Tigres del Norte were the first stars, with hits on both sides of the border; catchy, danceable corridos norteño telling authentic stories of life, love, survival, and (most importantly) drug smuggling.
They may not have been the first, but they certainly were not the last. The narcocorrido took off in the following few decades, spurred by various conditions including rising political and cultural awareness, the increasing power of the drug cartels and smuggling industry, and broadening audience for Latin music in general, especially among the expanding Mexican-American population.
Narcocorridos became a uniquely Mexican reply to the semi-concurrent hip-hop boom of the 1980s and 90s. Though originally rural and festive, norteño nevertheless shared much with rap’s often grim urban ghetto tales. Most striking was an empowering shared realism, from the gritty authenticity of poverty and criminality to often an almost domestic sense of family. And of course there were over-the-top wardrobe, but that’s entertainment and fashion for you…
Unavoidably, there was a very dark side to the festivities. Government, religion, civic leaders and more condemned the music, linking it to drug violence. Musical purists simply bemoaned the decadence of a classic art form. And the actual drug lords quickly got into the game, setting up narcocorridos for promotion and propaganda (again, just as brazen and artless as the parallel Gangsta culture).