LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - Last fall, Gerardo Ortiz traveled from Mexico's Sinaloa state to perform for fans in a warehouse east of Los Angeles. The underground event attracted about 3,000 people, most of whom had seen Ortiz's videos online. One of those in attendance that night was Angel del Villar, a local who had co-founded indie Del Records with his brother a year earlier.
"There are a lot of people out there with a lot of talent," says del Villar, who grew up going to the regional Mexican nightclubs in Downey, California. "They're looking for an opportunity, but other people won't take the risk."
Del Villar did. He added the 20-year-old Ortiz to Del Records' budding roster of about half a dozen artists who sing narcocorridos: the tuba- and accordion-based songs about Mexico's drug trade that resemble gangster rap in bravado and popularity, if not in sound. And the risk paid off. Licensed to Sony Music Latin, Ortiz's debut album, "'Ni Hoy Ni Manana," debuted at No. 5 on Billboard's Top Latin Albums chart.
The release scanned less than 3,000 copies in its first week, but it still represents the highest-selling debut week by a new Latin artist this year.
In March, Ortiz performed at Los Angeles' Gibson Amphitheatre at the third annual Invasion del Corrido, a multi-artist concert devoted to the genre. His band was dressed in military fatigues, and Ortiz sported a bulletproof vest.
"There is a lot of violence in Sinaloa, but it hasn't touched me," says Ortiz, who was born in Pasadena, California, and grew up in Culiacan, Sinaloa. "For me, it's more about the culture."
Ortiz says the narcocorridos he writes break from the mold because of his unusual lyric choices -- throwing in Colombian slang when he's singing about Colombian drug dealers, for example -- and his suspense-inducing melodies. He calls "La Ultima Sombra" (The Last Shadow), narrated from a gang enforcer's point of view, "a progressive corrido. The minor notes make it more interesting and intense. It makes you feel like you're in a horror movie."