The Tragic Artist Deaths That Reshaped the Future of Regional Mexican Music

Art by Alan López for Remezcla.

On June 11, 1994, Selena’s sparkling synth-cumbia “Amor Prohibido” became the biggest song in Latin music. That same week, her fourth album, also titled Amor Prohibido, became her first no.1 hit on Billboard’s Latin Albums chart. It had already topped the magazine’s Regional Mexican Albums chart for nine weeks, and continued to rule that chart for the rest of 1994. Mixing together cumbia and ranchera, synths and guitars, and a strutting Barrio Boyzz duet with a bittersweet Pretenders cover, Amor Prohibido cemented Selena’s status both as a crossover sensation and as the most prominent artist in the nascent format known as Regional Mexican music.

Selena was already big in her native Texas — she’d drawn more than 60,000 fans to the Houston Rodeo’s “Go Tejano Day” concert — and her star quickly rose throughout Mexico and the rest of the U.S. The Los Angeles Times promised “Never Heard of Selena? You Will,” pointing out her small role in a forthcoming Johnny Depp film, Don Carlo and the Centerfold (later renamed Don Juan DeMarco). As summer turned to fall, her album’s second single, “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” also hit no. 1. Then, in its November 12 issue, Billboard created a new chart. The Regional Mexican singles chart tracked a subset of 70 Mexican American radio stations. In December, the third single from Amor Prohibido, a soaring synth-ranchera ballad called “No Me Queda Más,” topped both tallies.

You probably know what happened next. On March 31, 1995, Selena died at the age of 23, shot by her fan club president. In death, Selena became the face of musical mexicanidad, and she remains a legend. Urban Outfitters peddles her T-shirts to the masses.

Two decades later, another untimely death sent musical mexicanidad shooting off in a different direction.

On March 14, 2015, a little more than four years ago, the no. 1 Hot Latin song was Ariel Camacho’s “El Karma,” a terse, death ballad about an unfortunate drug trafficker. Camacho played one of two guitars on the track; the only other instrument was a virtuoso tuba that doubled as bass line and soloist. This sound was called sierreño. It was stoic and distant, both ancient and modern, and alien to most people in El Norte. Making its popularity weirder was the song’s fatalistic moral: Karma comes and goes, but no one can escape the reaper. Proving its own point, the song hit no. 1 because its 22-year-old singer had just died in a freak car accident.

Dying young wasn’t all Selena and Camacho shared. Both achieved fame playing to audiences of Mexican Americans, as part of the U.S. format called Regional Mexican. But in the years following their death bumps, their disparate genres’ paths diverged. Selena’s poppy genre of Tejano fizzled after a couple years. Camacho’s drumless sierreño genre has grown in the opposite direction: It now contains several subgenres, and some of the biggest Regional Mexican stars have hopped aboard the sierreño bandwagon.

These differences are more than flukes of history. They demonstrate important changes in how the format has been constructed, and in how the industry has measured its ever-shifting audience. The changing fortunes of Tejano and sierreño reveal different ways of being Mexican in America.

Art by Alan López for Remezcla.
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Regional Mexican isn’t a musical genre. It’s an industry format comprising several Mexican and borderland genres: Tejano and sierreño, yes, plus norteño, banda, mariachi, cumbia, and fads like grupero and duranguense. (Chicagoland holla!) In format terms, it’s surprisingly young.

Two generations ago, Regional Mexican radio didn’t exist. Even the term “Regional Mexican” didn’t exist. In Billboard, it appeared in 1984 — possibly by accident. In an article with the doleful headline “Mexican Industry Hanging In There,” Enrique Fernandez wrote, “Regional Mexican music, such as rancheras, also has dropped in sales.” The next year, Billboard debuted its Regional Mexican Albums chart.

Before 1984, Billboard writers referred to “regional styles” and “regional melodies.” Everyone agreed the genres in question included both Tejano border songs and certain Mexican styles. But in the decade that followed, as Mexican immigration to the U.S. more than doubled, Mexican genres like norteño and grupero helped new immigrants hang on to their homeland. Tejano was for, well, Tejanos — second and third generation Americans, largely bilingual and more assimilated. Ironically, Tejano’s techno-cumbia crossover ambitions limited its appeal to a skyrocketing demographic.

When the Regional Mexican singles chart debuted a decade later, in November 1994, the radio format was still coalescing around different regional tastes. Remember that Selena feature in the L.A. Times? Another article from the same day’s paper explained Tejano to an audience of mystified Angelenos. The author listed the variety of Tejano subgenres — from “polished radio pop,” to the accordion-based conjunto of “Tex-Mex legends” — concluding, “[I]t all fits comfortably onto a Tejano radio format.”

But it didn’t fit everywhere. The program director at KLAX, which had become the no. 1 station in L.A. by playing banda and norteño, said, “Nothing against Tex-Mex, but it’s not part of our format. We don’t think there’s a market for it.” Meanwhile, the no. 1 station in San Antonio, and the two biggest Latin stations in Houston played only Tejano music — no banda, norteño, or mariachi. Although some Regional Mexican stations had broader playlists than others, the chart was effectively a mashup of two formats, one based in Texas and the other in California. It represented a coherent nationwide “Regional Mexican” audience that didn’t exist.

Two years later, that began to change. Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which let radio companies copy successful formats on as many stations as they wanted nationwide. In 1997, the trade magazine Radio & Records started tracking Spanish radio as nine distinct formats, including separate designations for “Regional Mexican” and “Tejano.” Regional Mexican followed the L.A. model, and consistency was key. According to a dissertation by UT Austin’s Melanie Morgan, radio station owners “are motivated to keep single formats like Regional Mexican as consistent as possible across all markets to facilitate multimarket advertising agreements.” L.A.’s blend of banda and norteño had proven popular in cities with lots of recent immigrants, but Tejano couldn’t break out.

For a while, Selena’s phenomenal post-mortem popularity disguised Tejano’s decline. Two weeks after she died, her songs made up half the Regional Mexican top 10. The issue of People magazine displaying her cover image promptly sold out, revealing an overlooked audience and compelling the launch of People en Español. EMI cobbled together an album of remixed hits and English-language songs called Dreaming Of You. The week it dropped, it outsold every album in the U.S. It remains the highest-selling Latin album of all time.

The boom didn’t last. In the late ‘90s, Tejano journalist Ramiro Burr’s headlines — “Tejano Market Hits a Lull;” “Tejano Loses Some Appeal On the Radio” — portrayed a depressive downward spiral. In 1999, the Houston Press finally threw all f*cks out the window and went with “Roll Over, Selena.” “The Tejano scene is all but gone,” wrote Russell Contreras. “Selena is dead. Mazz has broken up. Emilio sings country songs in English. The Tejano Superfest, as far as anyone can tell, no longer exists.” Presumably somebody figured that out.

Four years after Selena’s death, the biggest Texas-born act on Regional Mexican radio was norteño septet Intocable, who didn’t consider themselves Tejano. Lead singer and accordionist Ricky Muñoz told Billboard the band was “more traditional Mexicano,” dismissing late-‘90s Tejano as “a bunch of keyboards.” Intocable’s decision, says Morgan, was “calculated to appeal to audiences … drawn by Regional Mexican radio, younger and continually replenished by new immigration streams …” Even the site of Selena’s triumph, Rodeo Houston’s “Go Tejano Day,” now rarely features Tejano acts.

Tejano and Regional Mexican have never fit together well. Morgan writes, “tejano and norteño have been locked in a … rivalry for decades, a rivalry that has been exacerbated by the rise of Regional Mexican styles,” and these musical rivalries double as “different ways of identifying as Mexican.” She adds that, for radio advertisers, the bilingual Tejano format is less predictable and therefore less desirable, because its audience often strays from Spanish-language media to other formats. Regional Mexican is easier for advertisers to target, and for media companies to replicate nationwide. And that means it can break new, region-specific genres — like duranguense a decade ago, and like sierreño now.

The internet also changed everything. Two weeks after Ariel Camacho died, downloads and YouTube clicks drove “El Karma” to top the Hot Latin chart, which had begun measuring streams and downloads along with airplay. The song became a radio staple. His follow-up romantic ballad, “Te Metiste,” stayed in the Hot Latin top 10 for months. But when DEL Records released Camacho’s third single, “Hablemos,” it didn’t bode well for his enduring success. Camacho y Los Plebes had recorded the ballad before signing with the powerhouse DEL label. Camacho was young; he hadn’t left behind vaults of unreleased gems.

Art by Alan López for Remezcla.
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But an ironclad axiom of the Regional Mexican biz is: Never underestimate Angel Del Villar’s business acumen.

The man signed Gerardo Ortiz and Luis Coronel based on their YouTube videos; he has a knack for milking social media trends before anyone else realizes they’re trends. Long story short: After mourning, Del Villar swiftly replaced Camacho with another teen singer and guitarist, José Manuel, who had posted Camacho tributes on Instagram — sort of like when Judas Priest hired Ripper Owens. Capitalizing on tragedy, the trio became Los Plebes del Rancho de Ariel Camacho. Their first single was “DEL Negociante,” a corrido tribute to Angel Del Villar’s business acumen. Driven by Camacho nostalgia and tens of millions of streams, this self-fulfilling prophecy became an online and radio hit. After one album, José Manuel and his rhythm guitarist left DEL, accusing Del Villar of labor exploitation. (Manuel has since returned to the fold). Del Villar paired their remaining tubist with two more guitarists, including another internet-savvy teenage frontman. Ulices Chaidez y Sus Plebes quickly scored sierreño hits of their own.

Other labels followed DEL’s lead. A 2017 Billboard article titled “Youth Jolts Regional Mexican” listed seven acts under the age of 21 with recent Hot Latin hits. All but two had jolted the format with sierreño.

Two years after Ariel Camacho’s death, sierreño had infiltrated the Hot Latin chart. Chaidez and the young band Alta Consigna scored romantic hits. An edgy underground sensation, El Fantasma, sang a banda ode to his .45, released the year before as a sierreño song. And the biggest Regional Mexican star, Gerardo Ortiz, dropped his first sierreño ballad, “Para Qué Lastimarme.” These sierreño trends — teen idols, low budget indie corridistas, and bandwagon-jumping superstars — are still shaping the format, and now there’s a fourth: corridos verdes, songs about how high the singers are.

Ortiz’s latest hit, recorded before he left DEL in March and sued Del Villar, covers all four trends at once. It’s a duet with the green young sierreño band T3R Elemento, called “Aerolinea Carrillo.” Ostensibly a memorial to a highflying drug trafficker in the Juárez Cartel, it’s also a subtle tribute to Ariel Camacho, who’d covered the same territory in his song “El Señor de los Cielos,” and without whose life — and death — Regional Mexican radio would sound far different.