** Originally published at Thump:
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.