Generación Ruidosón: Creating the Sound of the Border for a New Decade

   By Reuben Torres | Nov 19th, 2019

    Artwork by Alonso Ayala (@ouchal)

The 10s were a decade of oversaturation. Even before the streaming revolution came along in the latter half of the decade, my generation, that is, the generation that came of age in the new millennium, had for years already been bombarded by a wealth of sounds coming from a slew of avenues: p2p networks like Napster, Limewire, and Soulseek, the rise of mp3 blogs, and endless torrents. All of this allowed us to consume every artist and style from across history, in a way that no generation had before. We experienced a kind of flattening in our mode of consumption and subsequent exhaustion as a result. This proved to be a great source of anxiety for some of us who lived through the analog-to-digital transition.

It was this anxiety, I think, that first spurred me and a small cohort of artists and misfits to throw small raves disguised as house parties around San Diego and Tijuana sometime around the start of the decade. At the time, we had the lofty aspiration of creating a musical scene that would speak to our experiences as fronterizos, or border kids. Something that would wade through all the noise.

Up until that point, Gen X had been the only reference point for Tijuana. They were the first generation to introduce the border city to the world as something other than a seedy pit stop for low lives and narcos and instead presented it as an actual vibrant metropolis and unlikely cultural epicenter. They defined what it was to live and experience that geographical limbo, through literature, art, and especially music. The very notion of a true “regional sound” of Tijuana that we aspired toward had already been cemented in electronic music through the legacy of Nortec Collective, who would characterize the clash of cultures in their mix of house, techno, and banda/norteño music. But that narrative was already growing stale for our generation and it was clear that someone needed to break away from it.

That someone was Tony Gallardo. Up until then, he was a virtual unknown in the scene, because, well, there was no real scene of which to speak. He’d been making music as Unsexy Nerd Ponies – a kind of glitchy avant-pop project that was criminally underrated during its time – and performed regularly at our aforementioned parties. After a few years of flying under the radar, he began experimenting with guapachoso sounds. The sawtooth synths and chiptune beats in his songs were replaced by tropical rhythms, cumbia and banda samples, inspired in part by the likes of El Guincho and the burgeoning global bass craze.

The hybrid that Tony explored wasn’t especially groundbreaking, but it hit close to home for a select group of artists, myself included. Our generation had a closer affinity to American culture, as opposed to our Mexican roots. This wasn’t exclusive to the border, but it definitely felt more present there due to our geographical proximity to the US. Even though we’d grown up with the folkloric sounds of our forebears, they somehow felt alien to us. We were culturally uprooted as a result of capitalist consumption, globalization, and, of course, the Internet. But Tony’s approach made these sounds tangible again, somehow, like hardening back to some earlier, more innocent time.

The true seismic shift in Tony’s music came when he began to sing in Spanish, which for him necessitated a new identity. He rebranded himself as María y José, the names of his parents and also two of the most common – if not the most common – in Mexico. It was as rootsy as it could get. Through songs like “Espíritu Invisible,” “Tierra Sagrada” and “Ola de Calor” he spearheaded a new sound, which married the old and the new. We called it ruidosón.

It began as a joke, as it was never really clear what ruidosón was, nor was it meant to be, really. It was a sound, to be sure, and a series of parties. But it also sounded like something that’s been around forever. Like the name of a salsa radio station or a banda channel on cable TV, ruidosón evokes the soundtrack of every Latin American party ever. But really there was a great deal of ingenuity in the name, if you read between the lines. It described a condition, which we were all simultaneously experiencing, a sort of zeitgeist that would ultimately shape the way we made music: that eternal clash between the past and the present, tradition and relentless modernity.

Los Macuanos – a group I created alongside Moisés López and Moisés Horta – was the first ruidosón project to emerge after Tony’s. Our sound manifested all these aforementioned anxieties: political, technological, cultural, existential, even temporal. Early songs like “Alma,” “Ritmo de Amor” and “El Metralleta” – first featured on this very blog – defined what the ruidosón sound would become: ghostly, noisy, unsettling, dissenting, dark, made for the hips as much as the head. But more importantly, it was curious. The music of Los Macuanos, and ruidosón, always presented Mexican identity as a question rather than a statement.  Our first true successor, Santos, would later mold this aesthetic into even weirder permutations (See: Agonía and La Sombra de Satán), featuring a much more prominent guapachoso sound, true to the joie-de-vivre spirit of Mexico, and painting a darker shade on the debauchery of our culture’s eternal fixation with la fiesta.

But it was Siete Catorce who really took ruidosón to unprecedented heights. His music, the most abstract and formalistic of the lot, exposed what was at the core of ruidosón: a total erasure of borders.  The most sublime incarnation of his vision could only be experienced on a sweaty dancefloor. It is there that he perfected the seamless art of crossing musical boundaries in an almost alchemic fashion, going from cumbia to tribal, juke to banda, hip-hop to your hips, his twisted mind to yours, without you ever realizing what went down. Perhaps no other artist defined Mexican electronic music during the past decade better than him.

Ruidosón was our way of breaking through the noise, or rather, embracing it. We assumed the transformation – at once musical and existential – that came with the new millennium and new technology, by exorcising the ghosts that haunted us, of our predecessors and theirs before them. We built a new culture from the ashes of our old, so-called traditions through the appropriation and detournement of its most prominent signifiers, those which supposedly defined our “Mexican identity.” This conflict, both specific to our time and timeless, I assume, will be relived in the coming years. When that happens, I anticipate that we will seem archaic by comparison. Perhaps this is the way it’s always meant to play out. Perhaps we too will become the ghosts to haunt the generations to come.

Reuben Albert Torres is a writer, journalist, musician and audiovisual producer from the San Diego-Tijuana border. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Columbia University, where he completed studies in film and journalism, respectively. He has written about arts and culture for publications like Remezcla and Vice, among others. He served as producer and co-host of the podcast Intelécto Genérico––alongside Tijuana writer and theorist Alfredo González Reynoso––which focused on the condition of the US-Mexico border through the lens of art and politics.

As a musician, Torres has developed several electronic projects such as Los Macuanos and Espectro Caudillo, whose productions appear in films and series like Hecho en México (Pantelion, 2012), 1994 (Vice/Netflix, 2019) and Los Espookys (HBO, 2019).

He currently writes about New York City life and politics at Univision NY.