Straight Outta South LA: Chalino Sánchez and the Birth of Narcocorridos

When Straight Outta Compton hit theaters this summer, millions of people from around the world were introduced to the improbable story of five African-American men from Compton whose rap group N.W.A. would take the world by storm. The movie has been so popular – albeit controversial – that there’s already talk of a follow-up sequel, which would focus on the lives of Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg. And while the film has also received criticism for omitting incidents of violence against women, at its core, Straight Outta Compton is a story that captured the social and racial climate of South Los Angeles during the early 1990s and the complex environment that these men were living in.

The Compton of today has changed substantially since then; today, Latinos are the largest ethnic group in the historically black city, representing an estimated 65% of the population. But even in the 90s, as gangster rap was arriving on the international scene, just a few blocks away another seminal DIY music movement was coming to life. In local south LA bars and nightclubs, a first-generation Mexican immigrant from Culiacan, Sinaloa named Chalino Sánchez was creating the narcocorrido genre that would also soon rise to national and international acclaim.

Chalino’s narcocorrido emerged as a way to make sense of the world that he and other Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles and throughout the Southwestern region of the United States were living in. He was the voice of a population who had sacrificed nearly everything to immigrate to the U.S. only to be exploited by employers who often refused to recognize their humanity.

Like N.W.A., Chalino’s lyrics were infused with provocative content that described embellished tales of shootouts with the police, immigration, murder, love, and survival, through first-person accounts on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. And like N.W.A.’s leader, EAZY-E, who’s drug dealing exploits were chronicled in the film, Chalino’s music career was also predated by a life of crime and violence.

Chalino first arrived to South LA in the mid-1980s after fleeing what some reports have described as the murder of a man who violently assaulted his sister in his hometown. He initially lived with his aunt in southeast LA and worked a series of odd jobs and as a drug and human trafficker along the U.S.-Mexican border with his brother. It was, however, while doing a stint in a federal prison for a low-level offense where he began to write lyrics about the hardships that he and his peers were facing. While never receiving any formal musical training, his voice and style reflected what writer Elijah Wald has referred to as a “valiente fresh off the Sinaloan rancho.”

South LA nightclubs slowly began to replace gangster rap with narcocorridos.

This new wave of music was backboned by a strong accordion sound, which created a seamless, danceable polka-inspired rhythm and featured a tempo and speed that emulated the way narcos (Mexican drug dealers) chose to live their lives – fast, daring, and unapologetic.

For Chalino’s early listeners, many of whom were undocumented and had worked as campesinos in Mexico before immigrating to the U.S., listening to narcocorridos provided a sense of nostalgia and a way to briefly escape the harsh realities that they were experiencing. Even though the glorification of the violence, misogyny, and drug trafficking in Chalino’s songs didn’t always represent the realities of his audience – many of whom worked in the service industry, garment factories, and at construction sites – he soon developed a loyal fanbase.

As a method of sales distribution, both N.W.A. and Chalino initially sold their music from the trunk of their vehicles, at house parties, or at shows. However, both gradually began to use indoor swap meets throughout south LA as venues for the small-scale distribution of their tapes. The Compton Swap Meet, Slauson Swap Meet and the Alameda Swap Meet (all located within a 5-10 mile radius of one another), became places where people could go for the latest N.W.A. and Chalino recordings.

Kendrick Lamar danced on the roof of the Compton Swap Meet in his video for “King Kunta.”

During this era, South LA was predominantly African-American and most clubs and music venues in the area appealed to the strong popularity of the emerging gangster rap scene. But as Mexican immigration and Chalino’s popularity increased, South LA nightclubs slowly began to transform into venues where narcocorridos were replacing gangster rap. Although there is no concrete evidence to report these claims, people speculate that prior to this demographic shift, Chalino and N.W.A. could have performed in the same venues on multiple nights.

Lyrically, narcocorridos and gangster rap glorified and spoke to a range of issues, but many of their songs revolved around themes related to the U.S.-Mexican and the south LA drug trade.

For example, one of Chalino Sánchez’ early songs, “Contrabando en la Frontera,” produced in the late 1980s, draws on the experience of a Mexican drug trafficker who attempts to cross the border with one hundred pounds of marijuana concealed inside of a black coffin. The transaction, the song later describes, is unsuccessful as U.S. border agents realize that the coffin’s cargo isn’t actually a corpse.

Similarly, N.W.A.’s seminal, late 1980s, classic record titled “Dope Man,” was also one of the first representations of the intricate Compton drug trade. The celebrated “dope man” in this song peddles crack cocaine, expresses a sense of hyper-masculinity through sex with a woman, and outwits an undercover police officer. The song was heralded as violent and graphic by mainstream U.S. media and, as the N.W.A. film shows, would eventually add to a list of N.W.A. songs that would be banned by many radio stations across the country.

But while the sales distribution and lyrical content of the genres shared parallels, their music videos often painted contrasting images.

The music video for N.W.A’s “Express Yourself” song incorporated an element of openness and “ownership” that narcocorrido music videos did not have. The “Express Yourself” video depicted a scene where N.W.A. members convert the White House into the “Black House,” which represented a public and celebratory reimagining of U.S. society, and its most powerful institution.

But Chalino’s music videos illustrated an almost entirely different picture.

Songs like “Andrez Gonzalez” and “Renato Avendano” portrayed a private reality – one set in an undisclosed bar with a twelve-person brass ensemble. These songs represent a form of expression that was not rooted in the openness of N.W.A.’s music videos, but instead in intimate settings that could have potentially represented protection from many of the dangers that Chalino and other Mexican immigrants were navigating.

Today, many of the communities that Chalino Sánchez and N.W.A. chronicled through their music have been completely transformed. But the effects of Chalino’s and N.W.A.’s early rise to prominence created a legacy that rappers like Compton native Kendrick Lamar, and other popular narcorrido singers, like Larry Hernandez and El Komander, have used as a springboard for their success.

The irony is that the two men who were at the forefront of the narcocorrido and gangster rap movement, Chalino Sánchez, and, EAZY-E, are not alive to see how their music genres have evolved. Chalino Sánchez was fatally gunned down in his hometown in Sinaloa in 1992 after a performance and EAZY-E passed away due to complications with AIDS in 1995. Both men were 31 years-old, but their message and voices will continue to be inextricably linked together for years to come – in south LA and beyond.