Photo courtesy of Little Jesus

A Road Map to New Music in Mexico

When you walk on the streets of many Mexican cities it is very likely that the first thing you will hear blasting from the speakers of a passing car, or from the window of a building is a reggaeton song from J. Balvin or Karol G. A quick look at Spotify’s 2020 countdown confirms that with the exception of 1 or 2 tracks from “Regional Mexicano” acts such as Christian Nodal and Banda MS or cumbia legends Los Angeles Azules, foreign reggaeton has pretty much covered all of the landscape of mainstream music in Mexico.  

However, it would be completely inaccurate to tell visitors that the only music that is heard in Mexico is Ozuna’s style of reggaeton. This roadmap will take you on a tour through a series of artists and scenes that although cannot beat the virality of Bad Bunny, have huge followings and are key to understanding the new sound of Mexican music.

New trends in Cumbia Sonidera

We will begin with mainstream reggaeton, whose ubiquity is starting to modify the way Mexicans create music almost by way of osmosis. One of the most clear examples of this can be seen in the cumbia poblana scene and one of its most iconic artists of the moment Raymix. 

“Te Fuiste” is a trademark poblano cumbia that subconsciously carries the same type of U.S. pop meets reggaeton melodies as Major Lazer’s “Light it Up” or Karol G’s “Tusa”. Raymix is not the only example of this. Grupo Alcalde La Sonora, is a grassroots sonidero cumbia band that also introduces pop reggaeton melodies subconsciously in their track “No Me Llames Más”, and that is probably the reason why their song is being heard in almost any cumbia party you go to in Mexico. 

This subtle crossover between pop reggaeton and both the “poblano cumbia” and “cumbia wepa” scene seems to be telling many artists that this can be a fresh ground to explore once reggaeton’s gold mine starts to dry up. This can be the reason why in the past years artists such as Paulina Rubio or Tomasa del Real are starting to dip their toes on new electro cumbia experiments. 

Regional Mexicano that loses its macho-themed vibe

We just mentioned that mainstream reggaeton is changing the way Mexicans are making cumbia. Well, it seems that something similar is happening within the “Regional Mexicano” universe. “Regional Mexicano” is a big tag that major labels use to box all kinds of music genres that have a connection to Mexican Folklore and the musical heritage that comes from Pedro Infante’s movies. In the 90’s this tag was used to describe bands from the “grupero” movement such as Bronco and Límite, but nowadays it is more focused on describing all kinds of music related to banda, the big brass ensembles of the North of the country. 

One of the next big things in Regional Mexicano is Natanael Cano & his corridos tumbados. Corridos tumbados can be quickly described as a Mexican approach to L.A.’s G-Funk, using corrido culture instead of RnB and Funk as the musical template (you should watch this 6 minute documentary to know what corridos tumbados are all about). Just as Raymix’ music subconsciously introduces Karol G-fueled melodies into his songs, Natanael Cano does the same with the trap flow coming from Texas and L.A.’s rap scene.

Although Natanael Cano is amazing, my favorite example of the way mainstream reggaeton and trap is changing the way Mexicans make music comes from Marca MP and their hit “El Güero”.

At a first glance, this is your average banda song and video. You have 10 guys drinking beer in a parking lot, filling up the floor with trash as the song advances. However, once you get into the music, the melodies reconfigure soft reggaeton styles to transmit a sort of indie, vulnerable and almost feminine vibe that makes the song appropriate for being part of Juno’s soundtrack. I am excited to see whether the blueprint laid down by Marca MP’s “El Güero” will lead to the appearance of a range of artists that create banda music that strays away from its usual macho-centered energy.

There is always an indie songwriter from the border that conquers Mexican hearts

Now that we are up in the North of the country we should talk about another phenomena where corrido melodies, indie vibes, and mainstream reach also converge. Every once in a while, Mexico sees the appearance of a northern singer-songwriter that uses nostalgia and a broken heart to conquer the whole country. Back in the 2000’s this was achieved by Tijuana’s Julieta Venegas. Some years later this role was assumed by Carla Morrison. Nowadays this role seems to be taken by Chihuahua’s Ed Maverick.

Just two years ago he gained national recognition because of the way he gave Juan Cirerol’s take on Northern folk guitar music a bedroom feel. His viral success led him to break the record of most nights sold out at Mexico City’s Teatro Metropolitan in 2019. “Ropa de Bazar” is one track that stands out from his concerts, not only because of its great emotion, but because its live instrumentation using a Tuba makes it another blueprint on how to create an indie take on banda brass ensembles.

Mexican hip hop matures beyond the 90’s boom bap sound

We are going to take a short break from sensitive music and go to the opposite pole: hard hitting hip hop. In the 2000’s Control Machete became Mexico’s hip hop superstars. Despite their success, the rest of the scene remained pretty much on the underground and stuck on a 90’s boom bap sound. This finally started to change a couple of years into the 2010’s. On one side, classic hip hop heads got their revenge once La Banda Bastón, an underground rap group that had been working in the scene since 1997, managed a big hit with “Me Gustas” on their 2013 “Todo bien album”.

This success was reinforced with the kick ass viral rap battle their MC Muelas did against Eric El Niño. On the other side, the indie scene embraced hip hop when laid back – almost stand up comedians – rappers Lng/Sht and Sabino gathered big crowds at their concerts. After those elements put hip hop on the map, it was time for Aleman to come and make the Mexican scene embrace the new trap flow when his track “Rucón” became viral.

This 2020, Aleman is closing the year with a statement to secure his place as the torch carrier of Control Machete’s crown. He just put out a video for “Mi Tío Snoop”, a full-on G-Funk collaboration with the one and only Snoop Dogg that is simply amazing. 

Cumbiaton and pop define the sound of Mexican reggaeton

We can’t end our tour through Mexico’s musical landscape without doing a stop on the local reggaeton scene. When reggaeton first hit the country in the “Gasolina” years local artists had a very rough feel as you can see with La Dinastía and Big Metra. Then that sound evolved into a thriving local “cumbiaton” scene headed by Pablito Mix

In recent years, Mexican reggaeton has left the rough sound behind and focused instead on trying to crossover to mainstream circuits. One of the big ambassadors of this new wave are the Ghetto Kids. After starting their career as a Dj + drummer setup that played Skrillex and moombahton tracks, they nailed it when they decided to go full on Major Lazer’s “Lean On” on their track “Coqueta”. However, for the new Mexican reggaeton sound to mature, it would need the re-introduction of some of the rough cumbiaton reminiscences of Pablito Mix’s style. The result of this was Ghetto Kids’ super viral track Tra Tra Tra – which became so huge that it also got a remix featuring Guayna.

Besides Ghetto Kids there are many other local reggaeton artists that make up for this very effervescent scene such as Charlie Gynn’s or Sailorfag. Yet, the template for the Mexican reggaeton sound is probably best found in Uzielito Mix. His music is a J. Balvin type of reggaeton with a trademark clipping synth and just a few amounts of cumbia. “Se Menea” must be his most iconic track, not only because of how it bangs on the dancefloor but also because its video was recorded with a full crew of dancers in the middle of the UNAM (Mexico’s National University) without the University’s administrative personnel having any idea of what was going on at the moment (a quirky event that filled the pages of some local newspapers).

Mexican indie post-Zoé scene that is inspired by European references

To close up this Road Map I would like to stop at the only scene of this list where the connection with the U.S. is not so prominent. I’m talking about indie music, especially that one that in many ways is still trying to find the next band to headline festivals once Zoé is no longer available. 

Around the 2010’s the Mexican scene was still hugely influenced by what was happening in NY with The Strokes and Interpol. By the second half of the 2010’s that energy started to evaporate as many iconic rock venues such as Mexico City’s El Imperial shut down. Once the focus on this type of rock got lost, the main source of influences for the post-Zoé scene switched to Europe. 

On one side, there are many artists like Camilo Séptimo, Odisseo or Technicolor Fabrics whose music seems heavily influenced by Daft Punk’s legacy via Phoenix’ rock approach to their French Touch sound. On the other side, there are others that are heavily influenced by the Spanish indie scene, the one that emerged from the Razzmatazz club in Barcelona around the 2010’s with artists like Lori Meyers and Love of Lesbian and that today is carried on by artists like Cariño or Carlos Sadness. In this vein we can find artists like Drims or Clubz. However, it’s Little Jesus who has the best chance at becoming Zoé’s future substitute, especially because of their track “La Magia”, a song with the same sweet – euphoric – epic credentials as The Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition”.