How did a scary Mexican gangsta-rap group end up on one of TV's hottest shows?
Last night, on AMC’s cult-hit TV show Breaking Bad, audiences got more than their weekly fix of Bryan Cranston teaching high school chemistry by day and cooking crystal meth by night. They also got a taste of an underground music genre called narcocorridos, or “drug ballads.” And it’s safe to say that if Ice Cube and Eazy-E grew up south of the border, N.W.A. probably would have sounded a lot like this.
Before the opening credits of last night’s episode, the real-life Mexican trio Los Cuates de Sinaloa (the Sinaloa Twins) appeared onscreen in a music video for a song called “The Ballad of Heisenberg” — a seemingly happy little tune peppered with harrowing inside jokes about this season’s twisty storyline, including the rise of Cranston’s drug-dealing alter-ego, Heisenberg. Watch the clip below, then read about how it all happened after the jump.
The show’s music supervisor, Thomas Golubic, says the idea started when Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan (The X-Files) stumbled across a bunch of narcocorridosvideos on the internet and decided to create a fake one for the show.”These videos are all over Youtube,” says Golubic, who was nominatedfor a pair of Grammys on his last gig, HBO’s Six Feet Under.”They’re homemade, cobbled together from news report images of cocaineseizures, discoveries of machine gun stockpiles, and dead bodies.They’re real-life outlaw ballads and they’re absolutely fascinating. Itseemed appropriate for Breaking Bad because we’re dealing with the same world, just on the other side of the border.”
Golubic says that Gilligan wrote the lyrics for his own narcocorridoabout Cranston’s character and then brought it to an L.A. producer andSpanish radio station programmer named Pepe Garza, who rewrote the songto fit the format of the genre. “The songs are essentially just likeAmerican gangsta rap,” says Golubic. “They’re tough and they use diceylanguage and not a lot of radio stations will play them. One thing thatPepe told us was that there’s a formula. Heisenberg couldn’t be thehero in the song like Vince had wrote it. The cartel had to kill him inthe end. The cartel has to win in these songs. It’s like Smokey and the Bandit. The Bandit has to get away. If Smokey gets him, it’s not satisfying as a song.”
Next, Golubic contacted Sony/BMG Latin, one of the few American labels that produces narcocorridos,and the label offered one of its up-and-coming acts, Les Cuates deSinaloa. “They’re these three good-looking young guys with two acousticguitars and an electric bass,” says Golubic. “They couldn’t be sweeter,but then you listen to what they’re saying in these songs and they’rejust brutal tales of drugs and violence and murder.”
Les Cuates all grew up in the Sinaloa region of Mexico, the heart ofthe country’s bloody drug war. And even though they’ve since immigratedto the U.S. and are based in Phoenix, their songs still have the samechipper-on-the-outside/horrifying-on-the-inside flavor.
Last September, Golubic and his show’s producers went to Albuquerque, where Breaking Badis shot, and filmed the video for “The Ballad of Heisenberg” thatappeared on this week’s episode. The result, with its cut-rate, cheesyf/x, looks like something you could have made on your laptop 15 yearsago. Which was entirely intentional. That’s exactly how the real narcocorridosvideos look. The shoot took two days and Golubic says there was onlyone minor snag: “The guys in the band don’t speak much English and theyhad a really hard time saying the name ‘Heisenberg’.”
Now that the show and the Los Cuates video have aired, Golubic has himself become a convert to narcocorridos.And he hopes that viewers who caught last night’s episode and dug theclip might head over to Youtube to dig deeper. “The music’s totallyvibrant and the culture is really fascinating…it just happens to bein the news for all the wrong reasons.”