No norteño act is more renowned than Los Tigres del Norte, a group of Mexican-American brothers based in California who began their recording career in the early '70s and enjoyed widespread acclaim over the following decades, recording regularly for Fonovisa Records from the '80s onward. The group is centered on lead vocalist and accordionist Jorge Hernández (the oldest of 11 children), who is joined in Los Tigres by his brothers Hernán (bass, vocals), Eduardo (accordion, saxophone, bass, vocals), and Luis (guitar, vocals), as well as his cousin Oscar Lara (drums). In 1968, they left Mexico for California (along with brother Raúl Hernández, who would leave the group in the '90s for a solo career) in search of better means of supporting their family following an injury that prevented their father, D. Eduardo Hernández, from ranching any longer. Their hometown is Rosa Morada, which is located in the municipality of Mocorito in the western state of Sinaloa. Their moniker arose when an immigration official called the boys "little tigers" (a nickname for kids) as they crossed the border, eventually bound for San Jose, which became their longtime residence.
During the early '70s, Los Tigres became the first act signed to Fama Records. Founded by Art Walker, Fama grew to become the leading Spanish-language record label on the West Coast. Walker, a local impresario, first heard the group on a live radio presentation recorded at the local Parque de las Flores on Keyes Street in San Jose and, impressed with what he heard, he decided to make them the foundation of Fama. With his guidance, Los Tigres adopted an electric style, trading in their traditional acoustic sound for one incorporating bass, drums, and electric guitar. The group also adopted a modern approach to songwriting, emphasizing contemporary social themes common to Mexican-Americans.
Their breakthrough hit, "Contrabando y Traición" (1972), is emblematic. Like most of the group's songs, "Contrabando y Traición" is a corrido, which is an age-old style of narrative song common to the mestizo cultural area of North America, including the northern states of Mexico as well as the southwestern ones of the United States. Traditionally, corridos feature a salutation or prologue; a story, often a legend or ballad of a hero or criminal native to northern Mexico; and in conclusion, a moral or lesson. However, "Contrabando y Traición" is a thoroughly modern corrido, as it features a pair of lovers who traffic marijuana across the border in the tires of a car.
The song became a sizable hit in Southern California and set the course for the long, continuing success of Los Tigres, who went on to write a multitude of notable contemporary corridos about the drug trade (i.e., narcocorridos) and immigration. Corridos Prohibidos (1989), in particular, showcases the former, while "Jaula de Oro," one of their most well-known and frequently compiled songs, is an example of the latter. The song, whose title translates to "Golden Cage," details the plight of an undocumented worker in the United States: he swam across the border ten years prior but still doesn't have his papers; his wife and kids have long since forgotten about Mexico, while he longs to return yet cannot; he asks his son if he would like to go back to Mexico, and his son responds, in English, "What are you talking about, Dad? I don't want to go back to Mexico — no way, Dad!"; and transcribed, the chorus laments, "What good is money/If I'm like a prisoner/Inside this big nation?/When I remember I cry/Although the jail may be made of gold/It's still a prison."
In the '80s, Los Tigres moved to Fonovisa Records and furthered their success. Beginning with Jaula de Oro (1984), the group would regularly top the regional Mexican album chart stateside, and this success was acknowledged in 1987 when they won the initial Grammy Award for Best Mexican-American Performance, for Gracias America...Sin Fronteras (1986). They subsequently would be nominated over a dozen times, and that's not even counting the Latin Grammys. Los Tigres were later honored with El Mas Grande Homenaje a Los Tigres del Norte (2001), a tribute album featuring many of the biggest names in Mexican pop/rock, such as Julieta Venegas and Molotov. Furthermore, beginning in 2003 Fonovisa began to compile a series of greatest-hits compilations titled Herencia Musical.
Throughout their long and storied career, Los Tigres, also known as Los Idolos del Pueblo and Los Jefes de Jefes, maintained a respectable image, never glamorizing the drug trade nor any other criminal activity. They refused to be photographed with so much as a gun in sight. This air of respectability helped them expand their audience demographically as well as internationally. By the early 2000s, Los Tigres had begun touring globally and their shows often reflected the diversity of their fan base. Amid all of this activity, they continued releasing albums on an annual basis and branched out into cinema as well, with DVD videos becoming a regular addition to their CDs. In total, they've released over 50 albums, recorded over 500 songs, and appeared in over a dozen films. In 2006, Fonovisa reissued some of these films as CD/DVDs, complementing the films — cine de frontera classics such as La Banda del Carro Rojo and La Muerte del Soplon — with thematic compilations of Los Tigres favorites. In 2011, Diego Torres, Zack de la Rocha, Andrés Calamaro, and others would help the group celebrate their career on the spirited live album MTV Unplugged: Los Tigres del Norte and Friends.
After a four-year break from studio recording, Los Tigres del Norte issued the full-length Realidades in October of 2014. It was their 23rd album to reach the Top Ten on the Top Latin Albums chart, tying the record originally set by Los Temerarios. The album entered at number three. On November 13, 2015, the group released the single "Tu Carcel," written by Marc Antonio Solis (who appears on it as well), an artist Los Tigres consider the "poet of the century." It was followed three weeks later by a live album, Desde al Azteca.
In 2016, Los Tigres del Norte submitted a request to perform at Folsom Prison. It took two years to get permission, but on the 50th anniversary of the norteño legends playing their first show in the United States — at another prison in the town of Soledad, California — they received permission. They played the show in mid-April, marking the first time a major act performed at Folsom since Johnny Cash took the stage there nearly half a century before. Los Tigres made it a special show for the inmates, and even brought one of them on-stage to play accordion on their reading of the Cash classic "Folsom Prison Blues." ~ Jason Birchmeier