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By the late 1990s, the genre was ripe for commercial exploitation. Enter Omar and Adolfo Valenzuela. Their clarinetist father in the Mexican state of Sinaloa didn't want them to earn their living performing, as he had done, at the clandestine fiestas of the drug lords, so he took his twin sons north. But on the Internet, the brothers began to notice the vibrant subculture of narcocorridos that was taking off in the Mexican barrios across America. In 2000, they formed Twiins Enterprises, opened a recording studio in Burbank, Calif., and began experimenting with musical twists on the traditional corrido, revving up the beat to Bonneville Salt Flats speeds. They also updated the lyrics to keep up with the barbarism of the cartel killers. Beheadings were passé; killers were chopping their rivals into pieces and dumping them into vats of lye so the bodies could never be identified.
The twins now have more than 20 bands and singers in their stable, and their songs regularly rack up half a million plays on YouTube. Their musicians play nightclub gigs all over Mexico and the U.S. which, more than record sales in this age of free musical downloads and streams, is how the bands and the twins earn their money. One measure of the phenomenon: the twins say they have more than 1.5 million MySpace friends.
Like gangsta rap, the narcocorrido has spawned its own fashion sense. At El Komander's concert in Rialto, most of the men in the audience were dressed like wannabe drug traffickers, sporting Ed Hardy cowboy shirts or T-shirts emblazoned with golden eagles and AK-47s. Many wore heavy gold chains, usually with an amulet of doleful Jesús Malverde, a popular bandit from the 1900s turned patron saint of drug dealers. "It's become more than the music," says Adolfo Valenzuela. "It's a lifestyle."
Inevitably, the narcocorrido craze has caught the eye of advertisers seeking a way to appeal to Hispanic youth. Ford Motor Co. and the sandwich chain Subway are sponsors of a reality show about the Valenzuela brothers. Los Twiins runs on the Hispanic TV channel Mun2, a division of NBC Universal. Sony signed narcocorrido band Cartel de Santa and has released five of its albums, which graft an urban edge onto the beat. The music has also given rise to a film genre. According to Baja Films Internacional director and producer Oscar Lopez, every month big-box stores sell tens of thousands of DVDs of gory Tijuana-made direct-to-video movies whose scripts are based on the latest narcocorrido hits. "Our audience is the illegal immigrant, the second-generation Mexican American who wants to rediscover his roots," says Lopez. "This is real for them in a way that Batman isn't."
It's not just Mexican Americans who provide a market. In the nightclubs, a few non-Hispanic faces are starting to appear, bobbing up and down to the careening narco beat. Promoter Vázquez believes that the narcocorrido, despite the violence it depicts, will find its way into the American mainstream. "Hip-hop was very controversial," he says, "and now you've got 50 Cent a guy who's been shot at I don't know how many times pitching for Vitamin Water, which is supposed to be healthy for you."
Music and Murder
Nobody so far has been daft enough to ask the drug lords publicly what they make of the growing popularity of narcocorridos in the U.S. But they probably love it. Howard Campbell, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, says the cartels regard the ballads as useful propaganda. "The cartels are interested in two things, power and intimidation, and they're trying to influence public opinion to their side," he says. The songs can also serve as martial music: when the Sinaloa cartel tried to muscle into Mexico's Nuevo León state in 2006, gang members jammed police radio scanners to play odes to their boss "El Chapo" Guzmán. The effect was like ominous music welling up in a TV western at the approaching shadow of a gunslinger.