This was more than just another amateur video gone viral, however. For those who knew the brothers’ biography, the song and video represented the passing of a musical torch. Their father, Hernán Hernández, is the bassist for Los Tigres del Norte, the towering legends of Mexican norteño music who are so synonymous with Spanish-speaking immigrants throughout the United States that they’re known as “los idolos del pueblo,” the idols of the people. Over the course of four decades and nearly 50 albums Los Tigres have used their music, and their immense stardom, to give voice to everyday stories of struggle, triumph, and loss and to comment on everything from Border Patrol abuses to the United States-Mexico drug war.
Yet on “Arriba y Lejos” ( “Up and Away”), the recent debut album from the brothers, billed as Raul y Mexia, protest anthems take a back seat to well-chiseled party beats and nightclub valentines with sticky hooks. “We decided that in order to make a name for ourselves we couldn’t piggy back on the political music Los Tigres have done for so long,” said Mexia (pronounced mex-EYE-uh), who wrote a song about the Dream Act for the album but left it on the studio floor.
“Arriba y Lejos” is definitely not Los Tigres 2.0. The Hernández brothers may have grown up with their father’s music on repeat and with classic Mexican acts like Los Temerarios and Los Humildes dropping by the house to hang out, but their musical leanings mostly reflect their upbringing as middle-class kids in the tony bedroom suburbs of San Jose (where both brothers still live, now in homes of their own). Their phones are loaded with songs by Nas, Alicia Keys and Swedish House Mafia.
“When people find out who our dad is, they want to know why our music doesn’t sound like his,” said Raul, 25, sitting with his brother at a conference table here in the offices of their label, Nacional Records, which is best known for releasing cutting-edge Latin Alternative music. “They’re like where’s your tejana,” felt cowboy hat, “your boots, your accordion?”
That disconnect hasn’t prevented “Arriba y Lejos” from being accepted by the Spanish-language media titans Univision and Telemundo and magazines like People en Español. The brothers have been careful to connect themselves to the Tigres legacy while simultaneously breaking away from it. In the video for their first single, “Las Escondidas,” set at a quinceañera party where they’re the hired entertainment, they alternate between slick blazers and electric-blue fringe jackets with tiger-skin shoulder patches — a nod to the cowboy chic for which Los Tigres del Norte are famous.
“I was a skater and into rock music and totally not into what my parents maybe expected me to be into,” said Mexia, 33, who eventually gravitated to hip-hop, memorizing Luke Skyywalker and Gucci Crew records. “My dad would come home from tour speaking Spanish, and I would only want to speak English. He’d be like, ‘Mijo, come over here, let me teach you how to play this song, let me tell you about Mexico,’ and I was like, ‘Aw come on, Dad.’ I just wanted to be out on the streets with my friends.”
As much as their father tried to pass on the musical traditions he was raised on in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, he eventually accepted that they belonged to different worlds.
“They are U.S. kids,” Hernán Hernández said, switching between Spanish and English by phone from his home in San Jose. “They grew up in a much more diverse world than I did. They have some Mexican friends, but they also have friends who are Asian, black and European. They have to express themselves in a way that’s authentic to how they grew up.”
The elder Hernández — who has posted his own YouTube video in support of his sons’ new album — has been living and making music in California since he was a teenager in the late 1960s, when he and his cousins first crossed the border to play a San Jose music festival. He spends much of every year on the road throughout the United States, Mexico, and Central America, surrounded by the working-class people who see themselves mirrored in Los Tigres del Norte’s songbook.