Unlike other immigrant groups in the United States, such as Puerto Ricans, Mexicans did not participate in the foundational years of hip-hop in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and whereas other Spanish-speaking countries like Spain, Colombia or Argentina saw the birth of a domestic hip-hop scene in the early 1980s, in Mexico itself, this, too, was late in developing, and the influence of US hip-hoppers in the early years was slight. The Sugar Hill Gang, Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, Run-DMC, L. L. Cool J., Erik B & Rakim and many other prominent acts from the 1980s, who influenced the birth of a hiphop scene in many Spanish-speaking countries, were never widely received in Mexico during that time. It was not until the early 2000s, when the influence of musicians such as the collective Native Tongues (A tribe Called Quest, de la Soul, etc.), was translated by the healthy Spanish hip-hip scene and triangulated via the internet, that international influence began to become significant.
Before the arrival of the internet, the first outside influences on Mexico were those of the Los Angeles hip-hop scene of the later 1980s and early 1990s, including the Mexican-American rappers Kid Frost, Psycho Realm and the Mexakinz, as well as other Latino artists such as Cypress Hill and Mellow Man Ace. The television show Yo! MTV Raps was broadcast in Mexico at this time also, but the language barrier and an element of cultural deference toward the United States prevented it making a full impact. Mexican hip-hop, like Mexican culture, its economy, education, social habits and many other aspects of Mexican life, has been deeply affected by the country’s geographical proximity to the United States. The ambivalent attitude held by Mexico toward its northern neighbor has helped mold many aspects of contemporary Mexican identity as well as Mexican idiosyncrasy. Although the physical closeness to the country where hip-hop was born might have been expected to nurture a more solid, prolific hip-hop scene, in reality it worked the other way around. Language and the eternal deference that Mexicans hold toward any American product, whether in culture, politics or sports, served as a clear obstacle to hip-hop from the beginning (Paz 1950).
Mexican audiences first had contact with a form of rhyming style with Puerto Ricans Wilfred And La Ganga (‘Mi abuela’) [My Granny], Panamanian El General (‘Te ves buena’) [You Look Hot] or Ecuadorian Gerardo (‘Rico suave’) [Tasty Smooth], who first struck Mexican radio waves and local TV music outlets/channels with their suggestive choreographies and their singing style between 1989 and 1990. Language was not a problem in these cases, as it had been with rap made in Spanish from the United States.
Around the same time, during the early 1990s, the Mexican music industry produced very popular, localized products (among whom Caló was the most important), built upon the commercial success of international acts such as C + C Music Factory, Milli Vanilli, MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Snap and Technotronic. All of them released their most successful singles in 1990 and all were part of the major record labels of the time (EMI, Arista, Columbia, Capitol and so on, all of which had and still have a major presence in Mexico).
Caló were Mexico’s own hip-house group. With catchy hooks and accompanying dance moves, Lengua de hoy (Language of Today) (Polygram 1990) was their first and most successful record. It sold millions of copies and toured all the major late-night, sketch, comedy and variety live shows of the time; most of the country’s tape players of the time constantly had some of the songs from that album (‘El Capitán’ [The Captain], ‘No puedo más’ [I Can No More], etc.). Although the front man rapped and the record was sold as hip-hop, it had little to do with hip-hop’s four basic elements. Caló were never serious about a message or had any solid connections with society; they never represented union or creative/artistic expression. They were far removed from the urban periferia, the area that Derek Pardue describes, in his entry on Hip-Hop in Brazil in this encyclopedia, as ‘the keyword that indicates not only a working-class, poorly serviced suburban area of the city but also a dynamic subjectivity of marginality,’ where hip-hop was nurtured in its essence. Caló represented chart popularity, which translated – as it always does – into industry profit.
Credit for being the first genuine Mexican hip-hoppers may go to Cuarto de Tren or Crimen Urbano, who appeared in the late 1980s. They never went beyond their own circuits and were not innovators, but in historical terms they occupy the pioneer position. Sociedad Café (previously known as Brown Society, a reflection of the identity inertia which affected all the early Mexican hip-hop artists following the Chicano hip-hop wave of the early 1990s) may also be included in that first generation of Mexican hip-hop.
Some other, localized moments in the 1990s are central to an understanding of Mexican hip-hop chronology. The now defunct hip-hop outfit from the 1990s, Control Machete, probably the most famous Mexican hip-hop group to date, produced their two most successful records during that time. Hailing from Monterrey (Nuevo León state), next to the Mexican/US border, Control Machete’s Mucho barato … (Very Cheap …) (Universal Latino, 1997) and Artillería pesada, presenta (Heavy Artillery, Presents) (Universal Latino, 1999) are important landmarks in Mexican hip-hop. Cypress Hill’s first producer Jason Roberts worked on both and they sold millions of copies. They are the only two hip-hop records from the 1990s published through mainstream labels and mainstream promotion channels in Mexican hip-hop history. Because hip-hop never fully entered Mexican music markets, Control Machete’s music was always linked to the northern rock scene in Mexico and they were always presented in rock bills. Apart from them and Cartel de Santa, all other hip-hop achievements in Mexico were independent of the commercial industry. Still today, in the early twenty-first century, the majority of Mexican hip-hop artists produce and pay for their own records; and all use public platforms and social media to promote them and sell them.
Several other important hip-hop crews, all independent and self-sufficient in their productions, were also founded in the 1990s. La Vieja Guardia crew, with DJ Aztek 732 and MC Luka, are still active in 2012, as are Los Caballeros del Plan G, from the northern state of Nuevo León. Serko Fu, one of the most skillful contemporary MCs, is an important part of Los Cabal-leros del Plan G. Last but not least, another crew from the 1990s, Life Style, no longer exists, but it saw the rise of two of the most successful Mexican hip-hop artists today: Akil Ammar and Bocafloja.
Mexico’s Ministry of Culture is very far from declaring ‘rap an authentic expression of Mexican identity,’ as Abel Prieto did in Cuba back in 1999. But Cuba’s Festival Internacional de Hip-Hop was crucial for the conception of today’s Mexico City’s scene. After being invited to Cuba in 2002, Akil Ammar and Bocafloja returned to plant the seeds of the circuit that today has grown into one with major concert venues as well as some press coverage. Along with Magisterio (Ximbo and Van-T), La Vieja Guardia, Nedman Guerrero, Big Metra and Sonido Liquido Crew, they are the first architects of the Mexico City’s hip-hop scene.
As of 2012 there are still no radio stations, publications or venues dedicated solely to hip-hop. The basic infrastructure was built from scratch by hip-hop artists such as Ammar, who ventured into the hip-hop business by bringing other artists to play in Mexico. Around 2001 these entrepreneur rappers visualized the underground hip-hop players who could have a response in Mexico without having any airtime or press coverage. They took the risk of bringing the first internationally recognized hip-hop artists to Mexico: mostly Spanish MCs (El Chojin, Frank T, Falsalarma, Nach, etc.) or talented underground US artists such as Bahamadia and Afu-Ra.
Although Mexican hip-hop has not exploded into a recognizable commercial force as it has in Brazil or Spain, it is nevertheless true that around 2009 mainstream venues, radio programmers and some indie or rock magazines started opening up to some forms of local or foreign hip-hop. Unlike Spain, Germany, Japan, Cuba, France, Colombia or Brazil, where hiphop arrived as a new form of urban muscle, allowing youngsters to have their own local style of hip-hop and their own infrastructure since the 1980s, Mexico’s hip-hop scene is still fighting for a place in the national mainstream circuit.
While Colombia had major break-dance contests in the late 1980s, Mexico has yet to hold one. Besides private events, Method Man is the first member of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan to visit Mexico and it happened in October 2012. Public Enemy exploded in Brazil (Chang 2007) at that time also, but did not visit Mexico till 2011. Important hip-hop movies such as Beat Street (1984) and Breakin’ (1984) never had a commercial or underground impact in Mexico. It was not until 2005 that the Red Bull Academy came to Mexico and organized the Batalla de los Gallos (battle of the roosters or freestyle cockfight). This set a very important precedent in Mexican hip-hop, as it showcased rap battles around the country for the first time, filtering the most agile rappers through the various battle stages and then sending them on to the international version of the contest, thereby uniting the most skilled freestyle rappers around Latin America and Spain. The international events held between 2005 and 2009, as well as the national battles, helped rappers to get to know each other and to network for future collaborations. Batalla de los Gallos gave initial exposure to some of today’s major MCs: Eptos Uno, Eric El Niño, T-Killa, Hadrián, and helped establish brand new hip-hop groups such as Soul Compas (Mexico and Puerto Rico) possible.
As in many other parts of the world of hip-hop that lies outside the US mainstream circuit, the underground rappers in Mexico have adopted hip-hop culture as a way to express reality and survive. It has become a liberating exercise, a way to keep one’s dignity, sanity and identity (McFarland 2002). In hip-hop culture all around the world, Mexico included, young, segregated sectors of the society are provided with a space and stage to express their perspectives, views and voices. As Tony Mitchell wrote in 2001, ‘Hip-Hop and Rap cannot be viewed simply as an expression of African American culture; it has become a vehicle for global youth affiliations and a tool for re-working local identity all over the world.’
It is clear that hip-hop has had a consistent characteristic throughout its history: a relentless agenda always challenging the domestic status quo (Chang 2007), and Mexico is no exception.
Mexican hip-hop, like any other kind of cultural construction, is articulated within the local context: lack of opportunities, corruption, widespread impunity for all manner of activities, oppression, violence of all sorts, unemployment and other aspects of Mexico’s present day are all covered throughout the national hip-hop scene.
Akil Ammar’s ‘Yo no voté por ti’ (I Didn’t Vote for You), released a few weeks after 2012’s controversial presidential election, serves as a good example of how Mexican hip-hop takes a precise angle on the uncomfortable contemporary political reality. Using language as the main weapon, the song reveals a much more articulated form of lyrical communication. Akil Ammar, ‘as a verbal architect, constructs his rhymes by consciously stretching the limitations of the standard language’ (Spady et al, 2006).
It is fair to say that, just as Eminem helped erase the racial barrier by demonstrating skills and strong content and by garnering ‘major support from hiphop underground fans who are always sniffing out the “inauthentic”’ (Osumare 2007, 8), so also Emcee Residente from the Puerto Rican duo Calle 13 has helped erase the language barrier by demonstrating amazing rhyming skills in Spanish. Emcee Residente has unquestionably had a major impact on Mexican hip-hoppers. It is clear that right after the mainstream exposure of Residente’s rhymes and ways of framing Spanish words and phrases, other Mexican hip-hoppers started bending, cutting and inverting words to satisfy their raps.
Tino el Pingüino, Mike Díaz a.k.a. Phontenak, Eptos Uno and C-Kan are just a few examples of Mexican rappers playing and discovering the flexibility of Spanish. All of them belong to the youngest hip-hop generation in Mexico.
Hip-hop as a movement of social identity and artistic manifestations through urban and city experiences has always based its musical and lyrical contents on the occupation of public space and the use of inspiring mind states of oneself and the group. Mexican hip-hoppers define over and over the idea of suburbs, ghetto and periferia. By doing so, they reposition themselves as authorities on what ‘reality’ means to the marginal side of the urban Mexican reality. It is important to recognize that because hip-hop has always been an ‘un-educated’ form of verbal, physical, written and technological expression, contradictions are abundant all over. And contradictions are often a symptom of naïveté. It could be said that the Mexican hip-hop scene is only in its infancy, characterized by the innocent moment of independently producing music and then selling it by one’s own means – much as happened during hip-hop’s birth in New York circa 1980.
What US rapper Chuck D calls the ‘soft colonialism factor’ in contemporary hip-hop, a ‘certain sound and production formulae taken from mainstream American hip-hop intended solely to be reproduced throughout the biggest hip-hop markets around the world’ (personal communication with author, 2009) has not struck the Mexican hip-hop scene. Its absence allows the scene to maintain a very healthy, young identity imbued with the local or traditional values in Mexican society.
Mexico’s hip-hop scene is firmly alive in the solid, independent underground circuit, far from the abusive record deals, the major companies and the mainstream media. It lives in the periphery venues that saw a business opportunity by opening their doors to the hip-hop events. With the internet and all the free digital tools it offers, hip-hop truly evolved into a global network of communication and artistic expression. It is clear now that hip-hop has become one of the most penetrating, popular art movements of the last 30 years, and Mexico has not escaped its influence. As hip-hop becomes adopted as the common language between people who speak different native tongues, Mexican dancers, rappers, DJs and graffiti writers have entered the global dialogue. Whether hip-hop in Mexico will explode or remain as a timid, underground urban force remains to be seen.
Chang, Jeff. 2007.
It’s a Hip-Hop World
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Dávalos, Felipe. 2012a.
Apunte histórico-seudocrítico sobre la escena del hip-hop mexicano
[Pseudocritical-Historical Notes About the Mexican Hip-Hop Scene]. Part 1. Online at:
Dávalos, Felipe. 2012b.
Apunte histórico-seudocrítico sobre la escena del hip-hop mexicano
[Pseudocritical-Historical Notes About the Mexican HipHop Scene]. Part 2. Online at: