From the vantage point of NAAFI’s rooftop headquarters near the sprawling Chapultepec bus station in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood, the megapolis with which the project has become intrinsically intertwined over the last decade feels empty. The COVID-19 crisis is taking shape in Mexico, it’s still several days before the federal government declared an official state of emergency on March 30th.
Creative director Mexican Jihad and A&R head Lao a.k.a. Alberto Bustamante and Lauro Robles are reflecting on the significance of NAAFI X, the entity’s 10th anniversary compilation. We smoke and occasionally look out over the CDMX skyline. With the fresh cancelation of a four-continent, 30-gig anniversary tour, NAAFI’s present feels uncertain, and talk turns to the past and future.
“One time I read or heard something that really comforted me that said an artist’s career begins to come together after ten years,” says Robles, who is also one of the most active producers for the electronic music collective, record label, cultural office, creator of zonas de disturbio. (NAAFI has cycled through these tag lines and more throughout the years. “From corny to ridiculous,” quips Bustamante.)
The idea of NAAFI just getting started is wild because it’s hard to imagine what it has yet to accomplish. In 2010, Bustamante and Fausto Bahía a.k.a. Tomás Davo threw their first party at the regrettably-named defunct CDMX electronic music club Rhodesia. They amassed a crew of talented producers like Paul Marmota, Zutzut and Lao who were raring to connect dots and analytically beatmatch between unexpected electronic genres; perreo, tribal, kuduro, industrial. NAAFI built an unprecedented reputation for wild, crashing parties at home and on the global club circuit, and found itself reckoning with U.S. and European critics eager to simplify the rare internationally successful Mexican DIY project into a statement on Latinidad itself.
It was stand-out music and importantly, well marketed. NAAFI is one of the few party institutions that has been nominated for major design awards, honors garnered by a decade-old gimmick of appropriating governmental and militaristic iconography that lends itself to loaded, if open-ended political commentary. The label has also collaborated with some of Mexico City’s most visually recognizable artists like graffitero Zombra, whose brick-printed Moonrise brand sweatsuits turned NAAFI members into Trump’s “big beautiful wall” itself back in 2017.
NAAFI was subsequently welcomed into the bureaucratic fold of some of Mexico’s most prominent cultural institutions. These experiments became the best proof of its expert trafficking of ritmos periféricos into central culture hubs. Mexicali’s Siete Catorce took his first plane ride to echar un set at the foot of the soaring light sculpture Estela de Luz for NAAFI’S 2012 open-air “E-S-T-A-D-O” parties. DJ Blass brought OG sandungueo to contemporary art temple Museo Jumex as part of its 2015 NAAFI residency. The collective has distributed merch from logo beach umbrellas to drug baggies, and released a three CD anthropological exploration of tribal music for Mexico City’s Centro de Cultura Digital. These days, it speaks to the maturation of the label’s catalogue that its artists like Debit, Tayhana and Lechuga Zafiro have established themselves individually, their fan bases having grown beyond the NAAFI umbrella.
The confounding blend of projects is perhaps only similar to the now-splintered crew that NAAFI sees as its frontera forebearer, Tijuana’s Nortec Collective. There is an expansive vision, to say the least, of how NAAFI can evolve. “It became clear to us that our business profile was more like Gwenyth Paltrow, more lifestyle,” Bustamante only half-jokes.
Celebrating a decade of creating unique nightlife spaces feels bizarre in the time of social distancing, particularly in a Mexico City whose street symphony has been greatly imperiled by COVID-19. For awhile, NAAFI used the city’s first logo after officially changing from Distrito Federal to Cuidad de México [CDMX], sharing the winged Ángel de la Independencia logo with the city. “NAAFI represented CDMX as the city turned into that brand,” says Bustamante. They riffed for years that NAAFI had inspired enough club kid visitors to the capital to qualify as a tourism office. At one point, they weighed opening their own Airbnb. “That’s a good joke,” Robles sighs.
But in another way, there are few sounds better suited for end days. Take NAAFI X, the anniversary compilation the crew released independently on Bandcamp (a last-minute swerve after the coronavirus crisis dissolved a distribution deal with Mexico City platform Onda Mundial one week before its release.) The muted but accelerating phase one anxiety on the day of our interview was well soundtracked by “Oração,” Uruguayan producer Lechuga Zafiro’s reverent collaboration with baile funk innovator Linn Da Quebrada. Quebrada sings, “That we have other problems and found new solutions/And that you live in them, through them and in your memories.” Elsewhere, Lyo Xs (f.k.a. Oly), Wasted Fates and Omaar are among those delivering the crashing club bludgeons for which the collective’s producers are best-known. Critics have been calling NAAFI’s music “apocalyptic” for years—perhaps we’re only now qualified to know how apt that description is.
Disaster angst is not the only way the collective has forecasted the zeitgeist. NAAFI fans were eager to point out parallels between Bad Bunny’s currently ubiquitous YHLQMDLG album and Zutzut and the other NAAFI beatmakers’ work circa Pirata 2, a 2015 bootleg compendium of thrillingly inter-lacerated reggaeton, dembow and hip hop party anthems that brought the group to its high water hype mark. “Those sounds are only now coming into the mainstream, the collective sensibility three four years later,” says Bustamante. “It’s like Lauro says, trust in this project.”
If we’re still digesting NAAFI’s impact, NAAFI wants to help. Like a federal government’s overblown bicentennial campaign, the crew sees its 10th year as an opportunity to recreate their own history. They’ll solicit throwback #NAAFI10AÑOS memories from acolytes via social media, and both Bustamante and Robles are enthused about the prospect of someone making a NAAFI documentary or even a fictional movie, à la Hari Sama’s cinematic tale of 1980s Mexico City punk underground Esto No Es Berlin.
As aficionados of their country’s rich history of countercultures, NAAFI doesn’t want the lessons they learned while building a globally-recognized, Mexican-born music project lost to future generations of restless cultural producers. “If no one is going to come tell your story, the best strategy is not to wait, to do it yourself, in your own way,” says Robles. The cover of NAAFI X, designed by Argentinian artist Jusomor, echoes that desire to reclaim history, an enigmatic structure in the shape of the logo of Mexico’s governmental anthropology agency, overrun by vegetation. “It’s a fake archaeological site,” explains Bustamante. “Again, inventing your own story.”