The latest "Unplugged" special by bilingual channel MTV TR3s stars Los Tigres del Norte (The Tigers of the North), the icons of Mexican norteño music who have long sung about heroes, anti-heroes and immigration and political concerns. Having a group of men in hats and boots featured on a channel associated with rock and pop music is not common. But then again, in their 30-years-plus career, Los Tigres have become folk heroes. They also happen to be the top-selling regional Mexican band that performs everything from danceable cumbias to hard-hitting corrido.
In their "MTV Unplugged," recorded live in Los Angeles in February, Los Tigres shared the stage with the likes of Zack de la Rocha, Juanes, Paulina Rubio, Argentine rocker Andrés Calamaro and René Perez of rap duo Calle 13. The album, out on Fonovisa, debuted at No. 3 on Billboard's Top Latin Albums chart.
Billboard.com chatted with Los Tigres leader Jorge Hernández on what it means to be a rock star when you're a regional Mexican band.
Billboard.com: Who came up with the idea of doing an "MTV Unplugged" special?
The people at MTV came to us with the proposal. At first I was a little bit skeptical, given the music we do. But then, we spoke again with Jesús [Lara, Tr3s SVP Music & Talent Strategies] and we've been talking about it for like two years.
Was it initially conceived as a collaboration with friends?
No, but as things developed I thought we needed to make it more interesting and invite friends. During that time, all those immigration issues arose here in the U.S. and we thought it'd be interesting to work with others who had worked or advocated for immigration rights.
But not all your guest artists are involved in immigration rights.
No, but that was the beginning of the conversation. Then, as it got bigger and we started dreaming, others became involved. The first person we called was Juanes. Then, MTV suggested Zack de la Rocha, who I knew precisely because of his work with migrants.
Every guest sings a Tigres del Norte song along with the band. How were the tracks selected?
We sent them a list of the songs that fans have most requested from us through the years and asked them each to choose. And we made the arrangements so that each would be identifiable with each artist and their repertoire. For example, with René from Calle 13, we changed the instrumentation of "America." He wanted the tempo to be quicker and we also added trumpets and violins, which we normally don't use.
There are several very socially-minded tracks on the set. Did you want to convey a social message?
Not initially. That came later. Because we didn't know what songs they would choose to sing. In the end, we realized that many of them had chosen songs that had clear messages for the audience.
Immigration, as it is, is a very hot topic now. What are your thoughts on the matter?
We haven't recorded anything lately that directly pertains to that, but I'm in the process of choosing songs and topics that speak about this, because it's a problem that hasn't been solved and that we need to solve as soon as possible. There are so many, many families where the children remain behind because their father or mother have been deported. This is a huge problem.
One wouldn't think that regional Mexican music and rock could necessarily go well together, and yet here we are.
We've always been linked in one way or another. For example, "Contrabando y Traición" [the song on which the novel "La Reina del Sur" is based] -- a year after we released it, it was recorded by [Mexican band] La Lupita in a rock version. And that began the conversation between us and rock, because the stuff we talk about is linked to those genres. And Mexican rockers have always paid us homage. Acts like Molotov, Julieta Venegas, El Gran Silencio, Maldita Vecindad, all have recorded our music.
Given all that's going on in Mexico with the drug trade and its ensuing violence, what are your thoughts on narcocorridos, or those songs that talk about the exploits of drug dealers?
We think they're out of context with what the Mexican corrido really is. The Mexican corrido has existed for many years and has little to do with these young acts who want to get famous by talking about things they shouldn't talk about. We never thought our genre could come to this. Of course, it's not our business what others do, but I think their way of interpreting the corrido is mistaken.
There are some laws under consideration in Mexico to rate music as if it were film -- giving it an R rating, for example.
There has to be a change. They should be more energetic about applying the law in the language used for these songs.