The Dummy Guide to Mexico’s 3bal sound

Guillermo Martinez de Velasco on the music scene that's sprung up amid Mexico's drug war.

For almost six years now, Mexicans have been living amidst a combination of mass executions and extortion that has come to be known as the ‘drug war’. I don’t understand why they call it a war. This term implies at least two antagonistic parties, which in Mexico is not the case. When state officials and the army work in collusion with obscenely violent drug organisations, it’s hard to tell who is fighting who. The situation is particularly tense along the United States border where daily killings are the norm. Given the circumstances, who could possibly imagine the emergence of a vibrant and extremely popular electronic music scene here?

Like all things in this country, the origins of 3bal (pronounced tribal) are not clear. Initially called Tribal Gurachero, the genre is traced back by some to one producer, Ricardo Reyna in Mexico City, who started mixing traditional pre-hispanic music with tribal house. However, half a decade into the growth of the scene, one might conclude that contemporary 3bal is a mix of pretty much everything a dance-minded teenager from Mexico would be exposed to on the internet: Kuduro, cumbia, two-step, house, techno, and generally all things bass, are present in this peculiar sound.

Teens in places like Monterrey, Ciudad Juárez or Tijuana spend a lot of time indoors. When high unemployment, mafia-imposed curfews, and vigilante police units are a reality outdoors, teenagers can interact in two forms: online, and in improvised parties that take place in anything ranging from an indoor tennis court to someone’s living room. The focal points for the growth of the scene have so far been file sharing sites and the local tinaguis or street markets. DJs (most under the age of twenty) upload mixes for people who run pirated CD stands. In turn, the stand-owners download, burn, and sell them. This is how 3bal managed to spread amongst the border’s working class and ultimately into the parties of Mexican communities in the southern United States.

Although sonically diverse, 3bal reflects the reality of growing up surrounded by violence. It speaks about the normalising process that makes people accept death as something immediate; of seeking a way for life in an awkward age, to find a voice in places where it normally wouldn’t; of carving out fun in an otherwise hellish place. The deep, haunting basslines alongside pre-Hispanic sounds conjure images of the death-and-sacrifice-centered cosmology of the Aztecs, which contrasts heavily with the cheerful lazer-like synths that seem to come straight out of nineties techno and rave music. The Afro-Cumbian influenced percussions work well by providing a guiding rhythm for the two. In such a paradoxically tight-knit and spread out scene, another identity marker is, of course, dress. Music videos like 3bal Mty’s Inténtalo (watch it below) showcase the bota puntiaguda, or pointy boots, that seem to have taken the scene by storm.

Although new to most North American and European audiences, 3bal music has now been well established for a good three years in Mexico. Most 3bal music is self-released online, though there are some independent labels such as Choles Records and Cocobass that issue good EPs and compilations. The recent international jump the scene’s young DJs are making will be interesting for this style of music. As it caters to audiences that are not cultural constituents of the society that gave birth to it, one can only expect exciting mutations. Most 3bal musicians live and work in their communities, however a few artists have managed to score big label deals and play outside of the genre’s typical venues. Last year’s Mexico City MUTEK festival focused more on local experimental acts like Tijuana’s Mock The Zuma.“We haven’t seen a group like this, that is young and has such a vision,” said the festival’s organiser to in an interview for the *LA Times. One thing is certain: this year, more people will be shaking their hips to the sounds of 3bal than ever before.

Here are the key players that exemplify the evolution and diversity of the 3bal sound:

  • DJ taCk
    Eduardo Díaz lives in Monterrey and is seventeen years old. His fast-paced and stuttering synths caught the attention of Texas-based Choles Records which decided to feature him in their ‘Rave Azteka’ compilation.

  • Mock The Zuma
    Mock the Zuma is one of the scene’s most peripheral musicians. His style is darker and features less of the traditional percussions of 3bal. He recently appeared in the Ministry of Sound’s Dubpressure radio show.

  • 3bal MTY
    3bal MTY is a collective made up of DJs Erick Rincón, Sheeqo Beat and Otto. These three kids form a central pillar of the scene and have been incredibly influential on its internet dissemination. Inténtalo is the first 3bal music video ever to be made.

  • Erick Rincón
    Spearheading the 3bal MTY crew is Erick Rincón. “A total kid prodigy” is how London’s Pollinate Records (which he is now signed on to) describe him. He’s 19.

  • Sheeqo Beat
    Sheeqo Beat has been around the scene since it started and he’s remixed everyone from Daft Punk to Tijuana’s Los Macuanos.

  • DJ Otto
    Oh is exemplary of Alberto Presenda’s sound. His songs constantly oscillate between clean house and techno beats to the fuzzy, quasi bomb-raid siren-synths that the 3bal crew has come to be known for.

  • DJ Tetris
    DJ Tetris is to 3bal music what El-B was to dubstep. He began mixing long before there was a scene.

  • Los Macuanos
    “Los Macuanos invoke the spirits of their country’s past, resulting in a macabre rendition of traditional Mexican sounds. A hauntological feast, equally suited for the ears and the hips” states their official Soundcloud page. They call their particular brand of music Ruidosón and, in Tijuana, it is quickly emerging as a subgenre.

  • Chico Ye
    Tlazolte (listen below) is straight off of Chico Ye’s new album ‘El Sonido Matador’ on Choles Records. He is also featured in El Rave Azteka. In Tlazolte he strips down 3bal to a minimum. This is not the synth-laden 3bal of Monterrey. The south Texas native gives us a lighter side of this music. Both the name and the voice samples in the song are in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.

  • Mexicans With Guns
    Mexicans with Guns has been making music out of San Antonio, Texas for some time. Initially he was a dubstep producer and his remixes of bands like Rainbow Arabia and Animal Collective gave him some exposure. He is now on Stones Throw Records and exemplifies the sound north of the border. Although all of the influences of 3bal are present, so are those of southern hip-hop and the production legacy of DJ Screw manages to creep up here and there.

Popular Features

More Features