By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Welcome to Tijuana. Tequila, sexo y marijuana.
In 1957, jazz bassist Charles Mingus recorded an album about Tijuana. He called it Tijuana Moods, and it’s a classic rendering of a Tijuana that may never have existed. It is the Tijuana of North American tourist myth and frat-boy sexual fantasy; the Tijuana of donkey shows and johns pimping their sisters to Navy men on weekend shore leave; the Tijuana where everything is cheaper, everything more transgressive. The licentious evil twin of its conservative Protestant sibling, Tijuana lurks one border fence, one border wall and a fleet of migra trucks away to the north.
The album jacket of Tijuana Moods — which has just been reissued in a double-disc “complete edition” by BMG France — describes the record as a re-creation of “an exciting stay in Mexico’s wild and controversial border town.” Mingus had headed south after splitting with his wife, and the songs promise sonic evocations of what he found: strippers (“Ysabel’s Table Dance”), street singers (“Los Mariachis”), gambling houses (“Flamingo”) and affordable cultural keepsakes (“Tijuana Gift Shop”). Tijuana was the same thing for him that it’s been for so many U.S. thrill seekers since Prohibition made Tijuana’s Agua Caliente casino into Hollywood’s most popular party back lot in the ’20s, a city synonymous with what Mingus called “wine-women-song-and-dance.”
The album art is priceless, too: a cigarette-smoking Mexican stripper flashing her rose-pinned garter while leaning on a jukebox.
When I show the album to Jorge Verdin, a Tijuana-raised graphic designer and musician who polished his design chops at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he laughs. “She looks like she’s from the Moulin Rouge at the turn of the century,” he says. “That’s funny. This is exactly the kind of stuff we’re all in dialogue with.”
The “we” Verdin refers to is a tight-knit collective of musicians, visual artists, architects and fashion designers who rally around a flag they’ve dubbed Nor-Tec, which stands for the merger of norteñoand techno — the music and culture of northern Mexico cut-and-pasted into techno’s raves, breakbeats, sequencers and drum machines. Nor-Tec has no manifesto, but just about everyone involved agrees that what they’re after is giving voice to the modern Tijuana they all grew up in — a relentlessly misunderstood metropolis that now houses well over a million people, a border that is crossed legally more than 50 million times a year, a city that is both capital of bling-blinging narco traffic and one of the global economy’s most bustling maquiladora manufacturing hubs.
The Nor-Tec response to Tijuana is art that is both local and global, art that bears the low-tech influence of the makeshift domestic culture that extreme poverty brings (hillside colonias built of scrap metal and cardboard boxes, no water), as well as its trickle-down transformation by the wired winds of economic change (Internet links, samplers, cheaper computers, vaqueros wearing Versace). Nor-Tec artists are critically conscious of Tijuana’s past, but obsessed with reconstructing its future with their own hands.
Though Nor-Tec has gained the most attention as a sparkling mextronica musical movement (Nor-Tec remixes of Beck and Titan have been cropping up on stateside radio, and the first Nor-Tec compilation will be out next January through Palm), it encompasses an entire aesthetic that includes a proposed 2001 interactive architecture installation at the San Diego–Tijuana border checkpoint, a series of gallery shows featuring Nor-Tec art, a string of satirical Nor-Tec T-shirts (Star Warsreborn as Estar Guars, the lower-class Mexican slur naco re-imagined as an AC/DC logo), and an entire line of Ester Zavala’s cyber-norteñoclothing (you guessed it, tech ponchos, mesh rave serapes, and parachute dresses with vaquero arrow stitches).
At a recent Nor-Tec show at the Roxy that featured DJs Bostich, Terrestre and the now-L.A.-based Plankton Man, Verdin and his partner, Fritz Torres, screened high-gloss digital collages that made their own comment on Tijuana’s place in the global-pop marketplace. There was a mock Macintosh ad, with a cactus instead of a computer, that read, “Piense Diferente. Piense Nor-Tec,” a Day-Glo “original gangsta” portrait of slain narco-corrido king Chalino Sanchez, and a blurred black-and-gray field stamped with “There is no such thing as a donkey show.”
“We take the local vernacular,” says Verdin, “then process it on a G3.”
But for all its artistic tentacles, Nor-Tec began as a purely musical experiment in 1999, the brainchild of local Tijuana electronica stalwart Pepe Mogt. Looking for new sounds to incorporate into his own electro outfit Fussible (which he helms with Jorge Ruiz), Mogt began playing with old norteñoand banda sinaloense albums, isolating track after track of snare-drum rolls, tuba hiccups and accordion giggles, then logging them onto his hard drive and processing them through an analog synth. He would hand the raw material over to his friends Bostich and Panoptica — both already-known entities in the nearly 20-year-old Tijuana electronica scene — who each would come up with something different. Fussible went ambient (“Trip to Ensenada”), Panoptica stuck to slo-core minimalist German techno (“And L”), and on “Polaris,” the unofficial Nor-Tec rump-shaker anthem, Bostich went full-on drum ’n’ tuba.