LOS ANGELES – On a dark, lonely street corner, a man in sunglasses leans against his car and waits.
“It’s `bout to go down,” he says to his cellphone, as an ember-red Chevy Monte Carlo with cattle horns on the hood pulls up. Out steps a menacing-looking fellow in ostrich skin boots and a black Stetson.
“Senor Bling,” says the man who was waiting. “The streets is fiendin’ for it.”
Up pops the car’s neon-rimmed trunk to reveal foil-wrapped packages of “it.” Bricks of marijuana? Kilos of cocaine? No, tamales plastered with the logo of the Mexican-American rapper Chingo Bling.
Tamales and masa, their cornmeal base, may not have the street cred of drugs, but Chingo Bling has tried to do for them what Tony Montana did for cocaine. In songs like “Walk Like Cleto,” whose video opened with the street corner scene described above, he mockingly uses hip-hop’s swagger to urge respect for the hard work and home cooking that help Latin American immigrants survive in a hostile world.
Before a recent show near here at the Key Club, the man who styles himself as the Ghetto Vaquero and the Masa Messiah peered from beneath the brim of that black cowboy hat and made clear his intent: “I’m trying to stay current in hip-hop. Lil Wayne has a style, and so does Jay-Z. But I’m not a gangster, I’ve never sold crack.”
“I’m Mexican-American,” he said between bites of chorizo, scrambled eggs and corn tortillas at Pann’s Restaurant and Coffee Shop. “Don’t pay any attention to the stereotypes. Our real hustle is selling tamales, our white powder is masa. I just try to represent that.”
His message is gaining a wider audience. El Real, the new Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, displays a series of movie-style posters, framed in shadowboxes. Along with Tex-Mex music heroes like Flaco Jimenez and Freddy Fender, the Masa Messiah gets his due. “He’s a rapper,” said Bryan Caswell, one of the restaurant’s owners. “But he raps about Tex-Mex issues, about Tex-Mex ideals. His subjects are the family that gets together in the kitchen to make tamales to make extra money. His stuff is funny. But he uses humor to make serious points.”
Chingo Bling is the stage name of Pedro Herrera, a native of Houston whose parents came from the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
Herrera conceived the persona in the late 1990s, while studying at Trinity University in San Antonio and working as a DJ for fraternity parties and radio shows. By 2001, soon after he graduated with a marketing degree, he had begun recording what he calls Mextapes – compilations of Spanglish rap spoofs and raunchy Cheech & Chong-inspired skits – which he sold from the trunk of his car at flea markets.
He found his first audience at those flea markets, before moving on to car shows popular with low-rider enthusiasts, mom-and-pop record stores and bodegas in African-American and Mexican-American areas of Houston. (Herrera calls this the taco circuit, a reference to the chitlin’ circuit that African-American musicians played before clubs and theatres integrated.)
He put his marketing lessons to work. In addition to peddling self-produced CDs at shows and on his website, he began selling T-shirts, colouring books and bobbleheads. In time, he added bottles of habanero-fortified salsa, emblazoned with a photo of himself, in character, wearing a T-shirt that shows him holding one of his own bobbleheads.
“50 Cent wouldn’t sell hot sauce,” he said later as he scribbled lyrics on a napkin while preparing for a lip-sync performance on “Lanzate,” a morning variety show on the Univision network. “It’s not his thing, but I had to.”
As his music evolved, Herrera continued to use food imagery as he began to write about identity and immigration. On the song “Like This and Like That,” from his 2007 album, “They Can’t Deport Us All,” he sings, over a percussive backbeat, of immigrants’ fear of deportation and their hopes of salvation through the underground economy, where it’s possible to earn rent money by selling tamales. “Making paper stacks/ making paper stacks/ slinging masa like crack,” he raps.
Before that, Herrera – who usually steps on stage wearing a golden pendant that depicts a man, woman and chicken running across the border – had already released a 2004 album, “The Tamale Kingpin,” on his own Big Chile label. On the track “Masa & Da Flour” he does a send-up of “Money and the Power” by the Houston rapper Scarface. On “Walk Like Cleto,” an homage to Herrera’s pet rooster (and frequent taco circuit co-star), recorded in a hyperkinetic style that owes a sonic debt to New Orleans bounce music, he rejects stereotypes. “We’re lawn people,” he said. “Or we’re lazy Mexicans.”
Herrera prefers to tell the story another way. “We’re all hustlers,” he said as he navigated Los Angeles traffic to an afternoon meeting at a Chipotle Grill in Beverly Hills where he would confirm plans for a summer tour with Molotov, a band his agent called the Motorhead of Mexico. “That’s what it takes to make it in America.”
“I admire the hustle,” he continued. “The hustle is American. And so are those tamale ladies who work the parking lots at Walmart, who keep their kids in the back seat of their cars, next to the coolers of tamales they made this morning, and whisper – ‘tamales, tamales, tamales’ – as you walk by.”
“Some of those ladies move big product,” he said, slipping into a lingo more often associated with drug dealers. “Back home, you hear people talk about this one lady. You hear people say, ‘She moved 20k last month.’ You hear them say, ‘I heard she split for Cancun with 50 large.’ They respect her. And so do I.”
Herrera’s love of tamales is visceral. In the ‘70s, his mother, Dora Gauna, made tamales for his father, Pedro Herrera, to sell to his co-workers at the body shop of a Houston car dealership, where he pulled dents from Pontiacs.
But his food references are likely to be more metaphoric than literal. And in the past Herrera pushed those metaphors to off-colour extremes.
This was back when reviewers commonly referred to him as the Mexican Weird Al Yankovic, a title he earned by shooting music videos like “Taco Shop.” In that parody of 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop,” Herrera transformed a bikini-clad woman, reclining in a bathtub full of shredded lettuce, into a human taco, as he dribbled her with salsa and strewed her with grated Cheddar.
That kind of routine is behind him now, Herrera said, before he took the stage at the Key Club in West Hollywood, for a show he would headline, with the Beatnuts, a Latino rap duo from Queens.
Over tacos al carbon, which he ate in a derelict bus in an alley that the club uses as a green room, he tried to dispel the notion that his music revolved around food. “I don’t sing about food,” he said. “I sing about my people.”
Like Notorious MSG, the rap group from New York City’s Chinatown that has won a reputation for songs like “Dim Sum Girl” and, in the process, started conversations about the conditions under which immigrants labour, Herrera has honed a persona that lets him move effortlessly from what he calls “Mexploitation messaging” to pointed commentaries about political issues like immigration reform.
As he reached for a second taco, he talked about the work ethic of his parents. And he talked about how songs like “Don’t Stop Believin”’ the power rock anthem by Journey, resonate with Mexican-American audiences.
Such talk brought him right back to tamales. “They’re a resource, a reservoir that almost anybody can tap into,” he said as his band mates tuned their instruments, and well-wishers crowded the bus. “If you can roll tamales, you have a revenue stream.”
“I respect that labour,” Herrera continued as he tossed his mouth grill, inset with Mexican-flag-inspired semi-precious stones, back and forth in his hands. It’s like those ladies who make tamales are earning their citizenship through sweat equity.”