After 10 Years of Hits (And a Few Controversies), Gerardo Ortiz Has Zero Regrets

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Even before his voice changed, Gerardo Ortiz knew he wanted to be a musician. While performing at a baptism party in Sinaloa, Mexico, at the age of 8, a label executive asked if he wanted to record his first album. Since then, he has helped transform the regional Mexican genre by creating a musical fusion of provocative corridos and emotional ranchera ballads with bachata, urbano and drug ballads known as narcocorridos.

Over his 10-year career, the Mexican American artist, now 31, has earned six No. 1s on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart and eight No. 1s on the regional Mexican albums list. His most recent LP, Más Caro Que Ayer, released in 2020 through BadSin/Sony Music Latin, debuted and peaked at No. 7. By the end of 2010, Ortiz was the top-selling regional Mexican act, and he won six honors at the inaugural Billboard Mexican Music Awards the following year, including artist and new artist of the year. The two-time Grammy Award nominee has earned 2.1 billion career on-demand streams, according to MRC Data.

While the past decade has brought Ortiz ample success, it also has come with “a lot of ups and downs,” he says: from having to defend his “Fuiste Mía” music video after a petition asked YouTube to remove it because it “promoted and incited violence against women” in 2016, to his 2019 legally messy departure from DEL Records, his label home for nearly his entire career. “I’ve learned that I’m not perfect and that actions have consequences, but I’ve been able to navigate those obstacles with professionalism and by continuing to deliver hits,” he says.

What has remained a constant is Ortiz’s steadfast fan base, which he considers a barometer for plotting his next musical moves. With over 5 million listeners on Spotify and nearly 8 million collective followers on Twitter and Instagram, he stays current with his fans by regularly checking his DMs and replying on social media. “They are the ones that give life and credibility to my music. That’s all that really matters to me as a songwriter,” he says. “They’re No. 1, always.”

Ortiz says he is focused on returning to the stage as states loosen their COVID-19 restrictions. In honor of his career milestone, he launched his X Aniversario tour on May 16 in Florida to support Décimo Aniversario, an 11-track album released in February that features a Sinaloan band and traditional mariachi rhythms. He spoke to Billboard about his “rancho” roots, his influences, his fans and other keys to his enduring career.

How would you describe your decade in music?

It has been an adventure, to say the least. Ten years ago, my music gained force on both sides of the border because my movement was different. I was singing corridos, and they were getting a lot of radio airplay, which surprised many people. It has been 10 years of ups and downs. I’ve had many wins, but I’ve encountered controversy and many challenges.

How has your songwriting process evolved?

The old Gerardo wasn’t conscious of what he was writing. I would write in the moment — whatever came to me. I would record the song without questioning any of the lyrics, and that was that. Now I take my time writing a song. I know what I want to write, what I want to modify in a song, and I’ve learned to be more in control of that process. I’m a better storyteller overall. But sometimes, I do miss that spontaneity, because I took risks with my lyrics. There are times when that old Gerardo comes back, and it’s a nice balance.

What has helped you remain consistent?

Knowing what my fans want and letting them determine the direction of my music. That has been my strategy since the beginning. My music has stayed true to my essence, texture and color. I sing about topics that resonate with my fans. When you truly know your fan base, that’s key to remaining a constant in this industry. If I see that they like something, I keep giving them that. The way I know they like something or not is by reading the comments they leave on social media, which has been a blessing because you can see their reactions in real time.

You’ve said that “Quién Se Anima” marked a before and after in your career. Why?

It was the first corrido that marked a new era for my songwriting. I had been writing corridos that were very rancheros — local to people who lived in pueblos or worked the ranches in Mexico. They were the only ones that really identified with those types of corridos. But “Quién Se Anima” was my first modern corrido. It was more contemporary and mature, and about two compadres just wanting to have a good time and live a good life. People our age on both sides of the border could relate to that storyline.

Narcocorridos are often criticized for glamorizing drug trafficking and its criminals, but they are a big part of your musical DNA. What has that songwriting style taught you?

I’ve learned that the type of corridos that resonate with fans are more emotional and nostalgic. For example, the part of “Más Caro, Que Ayer” that connected with the fans wasn’t about the controversial character [Rafael Caro Quintero]. It was the part about returning home to your land. I sing, “Que bonitos se ven los cerros cuando voy a mi ranchito.” [“The hills look so beautiful when I visit my ranch.”] In that moment, I’ve touched a very sensitive part in people because they start imagining their little rancho. It’s a very powerful hook that resonates strongly with my fan base.

Who is your springboard for new ideas?

Now, I’m more in tune with my brothers who are musicians. I have a piano in my house, and my brother [Oscar Ortiz, who wrote Gerardo’s single “Estar Con Otra”] will start playing his own stuff and I start singing some of my new stuff. It’s great because they give me honest feedback. They’re not afraid to tell me how they really feel about something I’ve written.

How involved are you in the production of your music?

I’ve always loved to be involved. Even when I’m just starting to write a new song, I’m already thinking of the arrangements. I decide if a song will be a ballad, if it will be accompanied by a mariachi or if it’ll be a banda song with drums and guitars. I plan all of that while I’m writing.

What distinguishes your sound from other regional Mexican artists who play banda music?

I like to add guitars and drums or even a piano to make them sound more pop. I’ve been doing that since the beginning of my career. You can listen to an album from 2010, and I was doing that then. Banda artists don’t typically add guitars or drums — they’re mainly using wind instruments. That’s a touch that makes my music a bit more unique and, at the same time, makes my music a bit more digestible for those who don’t traditionally listen to banda.

What has been the biggest lesson of your career?

Knowing that I’m not perfect, and understanding that I’ve made decisions that have directly impacted my career and have had major consequences.

What was the biggest challenge?

Having to defend my music and my movement. My music videos have been taken down from YouTube because of graphic content, and I’ve also been banned from playing in certain parts of Mexico. When your movement doesn’t represent what is considered the norm, it doesn’t sit well with people. It’s like that in politics, it’s like that with other controversial genres, and corridos aren’t the exception. But I’ve been able to navigate those obstacles with professionalism and by continuing to deliver hits.

You’ve collaborated with many artists outside of the regional Mexican genre, in bachata and urbano. Why have you embraced those styles?

I love that there’s so much respect and camaraderie on the urban side. You don’t see that often in our genre. When I collaborated with Darell and Gente de Zona, we each did our own thing without stepping on one another’s toes and had so much fun.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Everything that has happened in my career has made me the artist I am now. The good and the bad moments have been instrumental to my growth. So I wouldn’t advise my younger self to do anything differently.

Corridos Without Borders

Gerardo Ortiz has helped usher in a regional Mexican music renaissance by collaborating with bachata and urbano acts from Prince Royce to Gente de Zona.

When Ortiz released his first collaborations — bachata versions of his hits (“Sólo Vine a Despedirme,” “Eres Una Niña”) in 2014 and a duet with Royce (“Moneda”) in 2017, which topped Billboard’s Tropical Airplay chart — they came across as unprecedented and daring. A bona fide regional Mexican act known for bold corridos, Ortiz navigated the tropical realm with ease. “Bachata was happening at that time and I didn’t want to stay behind,” he says. “I had an itch. I thought, ‘I have to do a bachata,’ so I released two songs and my fans embraced them.”

Before that, regional Mexican artists mostly stayed in their lane as traditionalists. Only a handful, including Ortiz, Roberto Tapia (who also collaborated with Royce in 2014) and Joan Sebastian, who worked with The Black Eyed Peas’ in 2013, experimented with different sounds. Collaborations with nongenre acts have since become more prominent. In the past year, Banda MS and Snoop Dogg’s hip-hop fusion track “Qué Maldición” debuted at No. 4 on Hot Latin Songs; Karol G recorded her first corrido, “200 Copas,” with rising tumbados singer-songwriter Danny Felix; and Carin León and Adriel Favela featured on Spanish rapper C. Tangana’s bold album, El Madrileño. Most recently, Ortiz released the trap song “Billetes de 100” with urbano artist Darell and the mariachi-infused reggaetón track “Otra Botella” with Gente de Zona.

Ortiz’s experiments within the regional Mexican genre have contributed to its recent popularity on Billboard’s charts, as well as the global growth of its fan base on music streaming services. “I always have fun with these collaborations, and it’s liberating to step out of your comfort zone once in a while,” he says. “Our genre has had many great moments, but right now, people are listening to our music in countries we never thought we would reach. We’re finally getting more visibility.”

This story originally appeared in the June 5, 2021, issue of Billboard.

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