Erick Rincón, DJ Otto and Sheeqo Beat brought the hyperactive, homegrown electronic dance sound known as tribal out from the Mexican underground. What’s next?
“What’s new with you guys,” I ask the members of 3Ball MTY, hoping to break the ice.
“Well Don Omar, the reggaeton star is doing a remix, and we’re planning to do a song with him. We’re trying to put something together with Shakira,” says Erick Rincón, the bespectacled and floppy-haired one of the three.
Judging by the way Rincón casually dropped the names of two of the biggest Latin music stars in the world, you wouldn’t guess that just a few years ago he was an anonymous teenager making weird electronic music on a home PC in Monterrey, Mexico. But much has changed for Rincón and the rest of the pint-sized threesome in a few years. Under the guidance of industry vet Toy Selectah, 3Ball MTY has blasted out of the Mexican underground to hit number two on the Billboard Latin charts with their major-label debut album Inténtalo (not to mention number one on the Regional Mexican chart). The album’s lead single, also called “Inténtalo” (meaning, roughly, “give it a try”) is getting regular radio play across the US and Mexico. And from the look of things, that’s just the beginning.
Rincón, DJ Otto and Sheeqo Beat are 18, 19 and 20 years old respectively, and they look even younger. On their first trip to New York this summer for the Latin Alternative Music Conference, they seemed relaxed amongst the hordes of industry insiders as their handlers ushered them from interview to interview unfazed. “We aren’t overwhelmed by fame,” says Otto. “This is something we’ve always wanted and worked for. If you think you are a superstar you won’t enjoy it. We’re just having fun.”
It’s tempting to look at 3Ball MTY (that’s pronounced tree-BALL Monterrey, by the way) as just a group of fresh-faced rookies, but they take their mission very seriously: to make tribal (pronounced tree-ball in Spanish, hence 3Ball) music bigger than the Beatles. But they don’t see any reason why they have to sell out just because they’re cashing in.
“We can be in both worlds,” says Otto. “The alternative and underground field – that’s where we came from, and we love it. We like to play illegal parties and stuff like that, it’s cool. But we also like to play stadiums.”
Before Otto and company were invited to play stadiums, they played at sweaty underage clubs and at quinceañeras for Monterrey teenagers decked in neon colors and skinny jeans. They say their music style, tribal guarachero (often shortened to plain old tribal), arrived in town around 2005, an import from the club scene in Mexico City. When it first arrived, it was called tribal pre-hispanico –minimalist rave music with an off-kilter 6/8 groove, lots of percussion and flute samples that recalled Mexico’s indigenous roots. The genre’s founders were people like DJ Mouse, DJ Antena and Ricardo Reyna, whose track “Danza Azteca” (below) is considered the genre’s foundational tune.
In the hands of Monterrey’s teenage producers, the sound of tribal music changed. They kept the music’s rolling triplet feel, but they took out the flutes and pre-Hispanic sounds, replacing them instead with the sharp-edged synthesizers present the city’s local brand of cumbia. “A lot of people didn’t like the pre-Hispanic music, so we made it more digestible for people,” explains Otto.
The result was a homegrown, hyperactive style of electronic music that kids went crazy for. Unlike other styles, tribal became a meeting ground for all different subcultures. In a country where punk-emo tensions led to actual riots in 2008, tribal parties became common ground for all flavors of counter-culture: the Rastas, the skaters, the emos, and especially the cholombianos, kids from rough neighborhoods who combined gangster aesthetics, a love of cumbia and stranger-than-fiction hairstyles. Tribal even became popular with young cowboys from the ranches outside of Monterrey, who developed their own surrealistic fashion style, including the botas picadas or “Mexican pointy boots” used by dance crews and made famous by a Vice mini-doc. (“They’re not very practical,” points out Erick Rincón. “You can’t drive. You can’t go up the stairs.”)
Meanwhile, producer Toy Selectah got wind of the first-generation tribal music being made in Mexico City, and hatched a plan. Toy was a veteran of the pioneering ‘90s and ’00s Mexican hip-hop band Control Machete, and had since graduated to producing acts like cumbia legend Celso Piña, as well as doing A&R for the Mexican branch of Universal Music during the mid-aughts reggaeton heyday. He had also become a touring DJ and a prominent figure in the growing “global bass” scene, closely monitoring the rise of global urban party sounds like funk carioca, kuduro, and Baltimore club.
“I had been traveling around the world listening to all these different rhythms,” says Toy. “And then I heard tribal, which was electronic music with Mesoamerican musical history built into it. It wasn’t just something imported from the Caribbean or all about a connection to Africa, but something really pre-Hispanic in a way. I thought, this is a missing link. Here is a music that can connect me to my very own baile funk, with something that is Mexican. I had the idea that a Mexican reggaeton – something modern and urban and Mexican — was coming, and this was it.”
Toy invited some of the Mexico City producers to his studio to share his vision of a global tribal takeover. They looked at him like he was a crazy person. Undeterred, Toy looked up Erick Rincón, Sheeqo, and Otto in his hometown of Monterrey and set up a meeting. From the first moment, they became a team. “Even though they hadn’t been around the world, they understood how their music fit into this greater story. They were just 15, but they had a vision beyond Monterrey. They wanted it,” says Toy.
The thing to realize about Toy is that he has a rare passion for the labyrinthine workings of the music industry. He lights up when talking about artist development and promotion, and speaks with reverence about industry gurus such as Clive Davis. So with 3ball MTY, he knew exactly what he needed to do to bring the tribal sound to a new level. “I did my homework. I did the 35 things I need to do to develop an artist,” says Toy.
It takes a creative mind to see the bizarre teenage sub-culture of tribal and envision a pop sensation, but Toy says he never bought into the conventional wisdom that the so-called “global bass” sounds had limited industry appeal. “I always told Diplo we need to do more. It’s great that you say moombahton is great, but what are you doing to make moombahton explode? You can’t sit and wait for it to explode. We need to get our tracks into movies, stuff like that,” says Toy. “With 3Ball, we ultimately did more than people have done for other genres. We went the extra step,” says Toy.
Quoted in a Fader story from 2010, Toy prophesized that tribal would evolve from club music into a more pop-friendly style. “In two, three years, there’ll be tribal guarachero singers and MCs and songs with the rhythm,” he said. It turns out that it’s a prophecy he helped fulfill, by seeking out singers to drop vocals on 3ball’s debut. Eight of the thirteen tracks on Inténtalo have singing on them. Now, a host of reggaeton musicians hungry for some freshness are hopping on their productions as well. MCs Jowell & Randy have a tribal/reggaeton song called “Bailalo a Lo Loco” coming out, and an “Intentalo” remix by Dominican rapper Sensato has been making waves in New York, where Mexican music rarely gets much love in the Caribbean-dominated scene. On their visit to New York, 3Ball stopped by La Mega, the Dominican-centered station where they’ve been getting some airplay for an on-air chat with Pollito Vega Jr.
According to Toy, the group is looking past the Latin industry as well. In the EDM world, club-centric tribal beats have natural crossover potential, and they hope to one day have a Top 40 artist singing on a tribal track in English. At the same time, they’re interested in continuing to work with people from the electronic scene that have shown them love since the beginning, people like João Brasil, Buraka Som Sistema, and Diplo.
3Ball’s world-straddling attitude was built right into their New York agenda. They played Central Park’s Summerstage concert series, opening for Mexican rock legends Kinky. But they also played shows at Brooklyn’s scrappy Death by Audio and at the alternative #FUTUREROOTS series at SOBs, to crowds of scene-savvy global music nerds. And in September, they’ll be back in NYC for the Latin pop festival Megaton Mundial at the Mets’ Citi Field stadium.
Meanwhile back home in Mexico, 3ball says the poseurs are multiplying at alarming rates. “Back when we started, there were 20 producers making 3Ball,” says Sheeqo Beat. “Now there are hundreds. Everybody wants to make tribal in Monterrey. It’s no problem for me, but people should do it with their hearts and not just because they want to be famous, because fame isn’t important. We used to put out all our songs online for free. We never thought once, “Hey, I want my song to be played on the radio.”
For years, the 3Ball kids made tracks for the sake of the party alone. They appear to be committed to maintaining that attitude while working from within the industry. As children of the anything-goes, everything-mashed-up YouTube age, they don’t see alternative culture and mass culture as inherently conflicting. They were raised well after the peak of the major labels’ stranglehold on musical creativity. Instead of buying CDs as the mall, they grew up trading samples and tracks online freely in the internet’s open cultural marketplace. Long before they had a record deal, the producers of 3Ball had their tracks snatched off Soundcloud and played at niche parties from L.A. to Lisbon. If Shakira and Don Omar want to come on down and dance, why not? Press enter, let the drums play on.
But don’t get them wrong, the 3Ball kids aren’t total hippies. Even though they’ve been happy to share their music, they’re ready to share the throne. “What we did with tribal music was to trailblaze a new space. New groups can cross over to this path we’ve created,” says Sheeqo Beat. “But we are the pioneers here, and we’re going to maintain it.”