Deportation took this young producer from Oakland to Mexico, where he is now conquering D.F. with psychedelic tribal techno.
It was 3AM on a Saturday morning by the time we made it to Del Valle, the middle-class mid-section of Mexico City. We inched our way into a tacky, vacant bar where Siete Catorce was scheduled to play a late-night set. Ten Foot, a prominent DJ from London, was playing before a crowd of about eight, and when the Mexicali electronic music producer walked in he went straight for the DJ table. The two hashed it out, and before long, Siete had assumed the position in front of his PC laptop. We were there to watch him make music live on his screen, mixing and manipulating original tracks with nothing but a laptop and a mousepad.
It was a weird, soggy summer night. There were a few strewn about tables, fluorescent lights, people smoking indoors (which is illegal here, but only incidentally), and furtive passages to the restrooms to "powder noses." The bar wouldn't have been out of place tucked away in LA's Koreatown district, and it was a perfect place to dance to Siete Catorce's mix of tribal, techno, and "emo broken beats."
A few minutes into his set, I was dancing. A few minutes more and everyone in the bar was dancing.
Dawn approached, and he kept playing. Thin and wily, basked in the glow of his laptop screen, Siete hopped and swayed through his set. Only after every authority figure in the place, from the bartender to the promoter, told him he had to stop, did Siete stop playing. The speakers rested. People were panting, walking around in circles. The young DJ turned to the nearest girl next to him and asked, still bobbing, "Was that good? Did you like that?" But he already knew the answer.
It was good. The girl by his side knew it. I knew it. Even the angry bartender knew it.
Since moving to Mexico City from his native Mexicali—thanks to the release of his EP with local label NAAFI—Siete Catorce has torn through town, playing wherever he can, and frequently winding up crowd-surfing during his sets. From that nameless bar in Del Valle, to the it venue of the moment, Bahía, to Mexico City living rooms dusted with cigarette smoke, he's been dazzling audiences with a sound that marries Mexican tribal jubilance (à la 3BALL MTY) with an unmistakable feeling of sadness, rage, and foreboding.
It was about time somebody did it.
Life in Mexico is hard right now: traffic is bad, the rainy season was devastating, no one has money, people get paid shit. Encounters with cartel or state violence are basically considered normal. Some economists already think Mexico is slipping into a new recession, even though the cost of food and transportation continues to rise. But night after night, weekend after weekend, the party rolls on. In Mexico City, Siete Catorce (or "7:14") has been there for us consistently.
"My music is very Mexican but also very tripped-out"—ondeada—Siete Catorce told me. "I like the vibe here. It reminds me of when I lived in Oakland, even in the weather a little bit. I like the vibe of a city that's always busy."
Marco Polo Gutierrez was born in Mexicali but was raised mostly in Oakland, CA. He identifies strongly with the Bay Area in his music, tastes, and cultural stance. This got us talking. I went to school in the Bay and spent childhood summer vacations visiting relatives in Northern CA. During one YouTube-scrolling hangout session, we confirmed that we could both rap along with "93 'till Infinity."
"I was born in Mexicali, and when I was two, I went to live in Oakland," Siete said during a rainstorm in early July. "I lived there till I was 14 or 15. I came over here because they deported my mom, and so, the whole family came back."
Mexicali is the vast desert sister city to Tijuana. Singer-songwriter Juan Cirerol is from there, and there's a significant Chinese-Mexican population, but other than that there's not much going for it. It must have been a tough place to adapt to after feeling the freedom and mobility that comes with life in Oakland.
"Well, over [in Oakland], you're in the ghetto. It's dope because there are cultures from everywhere. And you grow up exposed to all that. I just hung out with my cousins. They were stoners and listened to rap and hip-hop. And that's the environment I grew up in."
His sound, he explains, is deeply rooted in the all-night birthday and quinceañera parties among relatives that marked his childhood—the hours and hours of cumbia. It's an experience that almost any Mexican kid can tap into, but in his case, one that is marred by the trauma of a parent's expulsion from the United States.
In 2007 Siete's mother was deported. He tells me she had to visit a sick relative in Mexicali and used a sister's passport to cross back to the U.S., and was caught. His entire family followed her to Mexicali. This was around the same time that the Baja drug-smuggling corridor erupted in internal warfare—one site of unrest within a country-wide drug war that was getting increasingly out of control. All across northern Mexico, many young producers and musicians at the time were literally retreating to their bedrooms for safety. They dabbled across genres, from sad-core garage to hard-core club. In the process, they developed the personalities that would later become an Erick Rincon or a Dani Shivers, names now defining music in Mexico today.
Siete Catorce started playing piano at the age of five. Once he settled in Mexicali, he downloaded Ableton Live and started taking his first cracks at house and electro. "Then I started making glitch, glitch-hop, dubstep, stuff like that," Siete said. "But that was a long time ago, when no one listened to Skrillex or anything."
He explains his start as a producer in recognizable steps: first came the teenage boredom, then the isolation; followed by an introduction to raves, a few lessons in desktop mixing, and a period of dancing around genres and scenes before finally finding a sound. In this case, it was thanks to a cumbia remix he did for the cura of it—the shits-and-giggles.
"You could say that what changed everything was when I remixed a track by Celso Piña, 'Cumbia del Poder'," Siete said.
The remix of the Celso was driven by a dubby boom with some hip to it. A DJ in Canada picked it up, and then the music site Generation Bass posted it, Siete recalls. Then, in April 2011, he was invited to open at a party for experimental electronic music in Tijuana.
"It was the first time I played only my own tracks." But by the next day, he explains, he was turning into Siete Catorce.
"That's where I found the tribal or pre-Hispanic sound, tribal guarachero, and I liked that a lot, too, but I hadn't picked it up totally until I heard the ruidosón guys," Siete said. "My style had been pure party, cumbia and dubstep, and when I went to that party [in Tijuana] I was really impressed because what they were doing was so dark, but it was fun."
With the spooky cumbia club music known as ruidosón, Los Macuanos, Maria y Jose, Santos, and other artists in the Mexican border city with San Diego were building a scene and sound that managed to both reject and build upon the previously dominant border electronic genre—nortec. Ruidosón had more partii and more politics. And it made sense for the times. Its artists were directly firing off at the bloody government of ex-president Felipe Calderon, and then the Institutional Revolutionary Party, after the old shady suits of the PRI retook the presidency in 2012. They were doing it on their Tumblrs, in their lyrics, and at the party.
Siete undoubtedly belongs to the group. But at the same time, he may be more strongly influenced by the Monterrey leader DJ Javier Estrada, who was already mixing cumbia beats with a prehispanic tribal and weirdly Mexican bro-step, breaking into an entirely new area of music no one before would have considered possible.
The young producer, still a teenager, started making what he refers to "tribal ondeado," or "trippy tribal," a theme that runs through his sound to this day. There are elements of terror, rage, and nihilism in his cumbia-based hybrids, as heard in his signature track from the 2013 EP, the unsettingly creepy "Verdad."
Mexico City tastemakers began to take notice. He made his first appearance here last November during the Estado live series organized by Mexican Jihad, held at the outdoor plaza below the Estela de Luz monument near Chapultepec Park. The month-long festival highlighted four identifiable electronic music-producing regions in Mexico—Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana-Mexicali, Mexico City, and Monterrey—which were represented each Saturday night by three artists at a time. Representing the ruidosón wave, Siete Catorce played alongside DJ Nombre Apellido (Moises Horta of Los Macuanos) and Santos.
The trip marked not only his Mexico City debut, but his first time on an airplane. ("It was suave," he said, or cool.)
That night, incidentally, I was at the San Diego/Tijuana border visiting family, missing an event I knew would be major. The Estado series saw a generation of border producers dropping sounds on a major political landmark with a sketchy history: the cold and phallic Estela de Luz monument, built during the bloody Calderón administration. It's an unholy place that quickly mutated under the pressure of the public into a space for protests and vigils.
The ruidosón sound has been buzzing in Mexico now for three years, with Siete Catorce now suddenly at the forefront. So far it has materialized organically as part of a broader Mexican electrónica movement, and most incredibly, it continues to mature with finesse, avoiding the siren song of compromising situations or over-branding. As with Los Macuanos, Santos, María y José, and brother producers Mock The Zuma and Wyno in Ciudad Juarez, Siete Catorce's music runs with an hypnotizing anger fed I think in part by the persisently disappointing political and security situation that just seems to keep everyone in Mexico down.
But all that energy is delivered with a force that make your hips want to move. How can I put it? Like, if a quienceñera dance party turned into a Hitchcock film, Siete Catorce's music would be the soundtrack. Does that make sense?
On Twitter and Facebook, Gutierrez outwardly wears his heavy teenage angst in a way that doesn't feel fake. He expresses sky highs and low lows, both of which are worrisome in their own ways. I try to remind myself that a lot of artists in his generation are confronting demons, feel they're in battle against darker forces, or just really hate everything, and that's at least a stance I can respect.
In July, Siete Catorce told me he makes dance music but it's "to think to at the same time." On Saturday, he'll have a good audience for that, as his Siete Catorce will briefly step aside for the presence of Den5hion during a showcase set at the annual Mutek Festival in Mexico City, the premiere platform of contemporary electronica in the country.
"Let them trip a while," he says.
Daniel Hernandez is editor of Vice México. Follow him @longdrivesouth.
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