Spend any time lurking NAAFI's Instagram, and among images of the Mexico City-based label and DJ collective's roughly dozen members you'll notice a strange fascination with inanimate objects. A promotional image for an event with Mykki Blanco this April features a table covered in an assortment of powder eyeshadows, lipstick, and brushes; photos of a plastic tennis racket, a hand-held lemon juicer, and a metal shower drain advertise different installments of the collective's monthly radio show on London internet radio station NTS. And then, of course, there's the endless stream of NAAFI-branded merch and ephemera: not just tees, sweatshirts, and hats, but also stickers, business cards, lighters, dimebags, wristbands, rugs, beaded handbags, and beach towels. This self-referential visual identity has become as much a trademark of their brand as their championing of regional club sounds from Mexico and greater Latin America, including reggaeton, cumbiaton, perreo, tribal, and whatever experimental combinations of those sounds (and others) their friends happen to be dreaming up.
When I met up with NAAFI at a restaurant in Austin during SXSW this year, co-founder Alberto Bustamante—who DJs under the name Mexican Jihad—explained their visual choices as a response to these plugged-in times: "At the beginning, as we started getting press around the project, everyone was linking to us and describing us through the internet. I wanted to separate us from that, and really emphasize the physicality of music. So most of the images you see coming out of NAAFI are pictures of actual objects, or actual situations or events that we produced."
NAAFI was born out a string of late-night house parties its founders started throwing back in 2010, mostly as a way of playing their tracks for their friends in a city otherwise dominated by American exports like EDM, house, and techno. Now that they've graduated to playing clubs, museums, and festivals at home and around the globe, NAAFI retains this emphasis on the here and now, each late-night sound-clash and release vibrating with the built-by-hand allure of a bunch of people putting their heads together in real-space. In addition to his musical contributions, Alberto—a licensed architect—masterminds the art; Tomás Davo runs the day-to-day operations of the label; Lauro Robles DJs and produces under the name Lao and does A&R. During our conversation in Austin, the three of them even invited their tour manager for the SXSW trip, Mariel Calderón, to speak as a representative of the group (Paul Marmota, the fourth founder, was nowhere to be found, though Zutzut, a Monterrey-based DJ, did arrive at our table and start chiming in midway through, unannounced).
"Collaborating is a survival strategy to keep growing our projects with the resources we have in front of us, and that's mainly personal and human relationships," Davó explained. Below, all five NAAFI members open up the power of teamwork, infiltrating a capitalistic music industry, and the disruptive effects of what Alberto describes as their "promiscuous and opportunistic" business model.
THUMP: How did NAAFI come together?
Alberto: It started in the summer of 2010. Originally, it was a bi-monthly party that we used to host in different areas of the city. The idea was to showcase underrepresented talent and sounds from Mexico City and from other parts of the world—and also to create a party space that wasn't really available for us.
Lao: We started throwing parties at our houses. Because we were living together, sometimes we weren't even going out to parties—we were just waiting for people to [come to] the after-party at our house, because we wanted to play our tracks for our friends. Now, almost six years later, it's almost the same essence. When I do a track, it's because I want to watch my friends dance to it.
Alberto: It started growing organically, and developing as a network of different artists from different parts of Mexico. Eventually, we decided to formalize it more as a proper label. Right now, we're operating more as a production office, working closely with cultural institutions and museums.
How did you all meet?
Tomás: Alberto and I are actually from the same state, though we'd never met. He moved to Mexico City [for school] a year before I did, and and we met through a friend from University. Lao is from Mexico City; we actually met through the internet.
Lao: I had this blog. I was blogging music from Mexico and from the world. I think we started working [together] after the third or fourth NAAFI party. NAAFI started as a real-world interaction—a party that was happening in the real world. And I think SoundCloud, the blogging platforms, and what I was doing—it was a good complement for that.
What was the electronic music scene in Mexico City like at the time?
Tomás: I think when Lao was starting his blog and we were starting our party, there was no scene that we felt proud of. So both of the projects started because of a lack of that space. And now it seems that the industry has shifted in Mexico—that there is a scene for us.
Alberto: We have been involved in many sides of the music industry: there's producers and there's DJs, but we also have worked as promoters and as music journalists. So we all build together. Now there's more media and different outlets and other scenes that are developing, but at the time when it started, it was definitely more scarce.
"It's pretty obvious that capitalism is only for the western world."—Tomás Davo
What was the dominant club music in Mexico City?
Lao: Electronic music was considered something new, but it also had kind of a cheesy stigma—even though in the early 2000s, there was a healthy scene doing more experimental stuff. Then, in the late 2000s, early 2010s—after that "indie dance" scene with acts like Justice, Ratatat, and Chromeo [happened]—brands started working with electronic music, because they knew it was easier to book electronic DJs than bands, and to produce parties rather than concerts. By then, the clubs started establishing specific music, like house, disco, tech-house, and minimal techno. And there is always going to be psy-trance or a rave scene in Mexico, which I'm pretty sure is bigger than any other scene.
Tomás: It used to be the biggest scene, before EDM.
Lao: It's the same American festival model—the same culture being exported to the Mexican market. After electronic music festivals had this explosion in Mexico City, it became easier to [find] things like controllers and headphones [in music shops].
Alberto: Even though EDM is cheap and really commercial, it means that this whole generation is growing up consuming electronic music. For our generation, it was a choice; you could look for electronic music, but you weren't really surrounded by it. EDM may not be the best music, but it means that people are now ready to consume other types of electronic and club music.
Lao: It was a pretty short time before people started experimenting outside of the mainstream electronic music sound. Now, I can say there's a healthy juke/footwork scene—like Ten Toes Turbo, and some other labels. There's what they call Rhythm and Bass; it's this R&B-based music sound that our friends Finesse Records in Monterrey are pushing.
Were there some overlooked sounds coming out of Mexico that you wanted to highlight?
Lao: I mean, the Tribal boom that happened a couple of years ago was just a glimpse of what [was] happening in that whole scene. [Real Tribal] is a whole different context and environment, though: it's mostly a DJ-scene, here in the States and near the border. They don't even dance to that music—they're super-drunk underage kids.
Zutzut: You don't have as many vocals. [During] the boom, producers said to those kids, "Oh yeah, we're going to do it with a singer," and they did it for radio and stuff, but Tribal is actually not like that. It's more raw and hardcore.
Lao: And I would also say [the same thing] about perreo. It's something separate from reggaeton.
Zutzut: I think reggaeton is like MCs, producers, and what everybody knows. And perreo and cumbiaton are more like bootleg culture. It's just DJing; there's not that much original production.
Lao: Some tracks aren't even tracks—just tools for DJs to mix live.
Zutzut: I think you can make the same distinction between hip-hop music and Jersey club. Jersey club [producers] are chopping [hip-hop] tracks and making it their own vibe.
Alberto: It's very young music that really young promoters put out—sometimes in illegal places. It has no media recognition. They don't play it on the radio.
Is the idea to raise awareness of these genres outside of Mexico?
Alberto: More than championing the genre and exporting it, we like the conversations that can happen around addressing the specific sounds. For example, when you talk about perreo, you end up having conversations about class division, machismo, violence, and safety in club spaces.
Tomás: And this conversation that Alberto is talking about, it's something that can happen one-on-one—like we're [doing now]—but it's also something that can happen at the party, where this music is mixed with foreign music, and it's just like a big clash of sounds. That's where people participate in the conversation in a very sensorial way.
Lao: Club music is global. You don't need to think of exporting it or pushing it—just presenting it. These [genres] are nearer to me than the fundamentals of techno music—so for me, it's just using the rhythms that I can use in the club as that: club music.
Zutzut: A lot of those scenes—they don't need to be "rescued." Of course, we like to invite some of these people to play or put them in front of different crowds, but a lot of those Tribal kids, you tell them, "Oh, I played your stuff in Europe," and they're like, "Oh cool." The people who play reggaeton—they have their own scene that is super strong, and they're happy there.
Lao: People are saying, "Oh, you're mixing electronic music with a vocal from Panama"—but if you think [about it], there were people that were doing it in the 90s. The early guys doing reggaeton mixtapes, they would take a melody from a 90s house hit and drop Jamaican drums on it and they would rap over the track. We're doing it with different stuff or newer stuff, but everything has [already] been done in a way. Putting reggaeton drums over a track—you can do it with anything. But the track that you choose—that's what gives you your signature. Why did you choose [those two things] and make a bridge between them?
When you guys started NAAFI, were there any other artists that created a model for what you wanted to do?
Lao: You know the band "Molotov"? They dropped their record label for their last record, because they realized they didn't need it. They had been playing around for almost 20 years, and they were super famous. In the end, it was just better for them to make their own record, print their own CDs, and sell them outside of a concert.
Tomás: We're actually very naive, Alberto and I, and it's still experimental, and we're still finding out what the music industry is. And I feel like the industry doesn't know where it is at the same time, so there was definitely not a model that we could have copied.
Mariel: And I think something very important for why NAAFI is thriving so much is that within the team, there's not only [people] making music, but [people doing] everything behind the scenes that goes with it: the art direction, the whole networking part, the distribution, [throwing] the parties, doing all these things that are needed to be in touch with the global scene.
Lao: I was talking about this at some lectures—like giving tips for producers and other musicians on how to make [things] work, at least in Mexico. In the end, the music industry right now is not helping you—you just need to build it yourself. You can build your own music industry.
Alberto: We're promiscuous and opportunistic.
You guys have collaborated with other experimental club music collectives, like NON and Teklife. Is there something in the air that's causing these like-minded crews to arise?
Alberto: I think it's our response to capitalism. [Collaborating] is a survival strategy to keep growing our projects with [the resources] we have in front of us, and that's mainly personal and human relationships. We see collaborating as a way to exist, to participate in a market economy. We're seeing that at different levels of consumption and production—not just with music, but also with food and clothing.
Zutzut: People like NON—these are people you can feel more related to sound-wise because they are in a situation more like yours in your daily life. Their daily struggles are related.
Lao: What we have in common with those labels, and with many others, is that we are working with identity. This cheesy kitsch aesthetic of Mexico, for example—in the city, nobody has this hat or these huaraches. I think Teklife, NON, the ballroom houses in New York, a lot of people around the world—they work with their identity [in a way] that is responding in a more honest way to [their] context, [reflecting it] in a contemporary way.
Alberto: Most of the people involved with NAAFI are not your typical guys. Most of us are very weird, most of us are very nerdy, most of us don't come from Mexico City. There's people from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua; there's people from Monterrey; there's people from Oaxaca. And now we have expanded NAAFI to include projects that are not necessarily from Mexico. We are working with Lechuga Zafiro from Uruguay, Imaabs from Santiago de Chile, Füete Billëte from Puerto Rico, and with Zakmatic, who is originally from Las Vegas but was based in L.A. for a while.
What makes banding together and operating as part of a larger crew advantageous from a business perspective?
Tomás: It's taking advantage of capitalism and making the best out of it. It's pretty obvious that capitalism is only for the western world, and whoever has to live by those rules but is not a westerner—they have to deal with a whole different side of the coin of capitalism.
Alberto: It's more like a response to that capitalism—like, what other way do we have? We do have to flirt and negotiate with brands once in awhile, but we don't really have access to that infrastructure—it's like an illusion that it exists, or that you have access to it. In the end, it's more about survival, and how you manage to do things with your own limitations.
Lao: I think [there was this] alternative way of thinking from the late-90s made the kids think that if you are an artist, earning money is bad and it's wrong, because you're capitalizing on something that should be for free. For example, even though I studied at this super posh film/cinema school, all the kids were like, "Oh, I'm such an artist that I'm not charging for my job." Not true—because you'll do it if your parents are paying for your rent. In the end, if I need to do some stuff I wasn't thinking about doing, I would do it, because I love what I do. I think that's a smart way to use what we can call capitalism: I think it's more disruptive if you use it and infiltrate it.
I know you had a residency at a museum. For the parties, do they tend to be in real clubs, or illegal spaces—or is it everywhere?
Zutzut: It's always in different places, and I think that's part of the vibe of the NAAFI parties.
Lao: As Alberto said, NAAFI is promiscuous and opportunistic. We did that thing in the museum just for the fact that we had the opportunity to do it. Or we can go and play in a posh club and we can make this place look [so crazy] that they are not going to allow us to get inside after that.
Alberto: And that promiscuity has taken us everywhere, from galleries to…
Tomás: …Miami Art Basel.
Zutzut: In these cases, the underground guys are like, "NAAFI is not the same." And I'm like, "Dude, you want me to play for you in my apartment all the time?"
Lao: But once they go to a party, they know it's still the same vibe.
Alberto, what were you thinking about when you were designing NAAFI's visual identity?
Alberto: At the beginning, as we started getting press around the project, everyone was linking to us and describing us through the internet. I wanted to separate us from that, and really emphasize the physicality of music. So most of the images you see coming out of NAAFI are pictures of actual objects, or actual situations or events that we produced. I decided to stop using the computer to generate images and instead photograph objects that could be purchased on the street, or [as part of] some type of informal economy. On occasion, [we make our] own branded products. The covers for Radio NAAFI are a good example of this.
We treat every party or every release or every communication that we have as its own visual campaign. It's also very honest in the way that it's about its own limitations: for a while, our flyers were based on the process more than the final image. We like to show how we were making the image. Recently someone compared the art with a render from a PC Music cover, and it's kinda the complete opposite.
Is this idea of limitations—or overcoming them—a good metaphor for the collective as a whole?
Alberto: Opportunities, yeah.
Tomás: The people we work with—we don't want them to limit themselves.
Alberto: You have to be confident.
Tomás: That is actually a requirement for being in NAAFI: you should not be shy about being yourself.
Lao: Because also, it's a huge adventure. In the end, when we are all old, it will have been this huge learning curve. It's a process. I was telling some kids who are jungle producers that if you rush it—and you try to get the interview, the mixtape, the release, and the feature all in the same month—you end up not using the capitalist thing in a good way. You will end up using all of the matches from your box, and when you really have one good thing, you won't have an outlet.
Tomás: It's very easy for us to be called a novelty in Mexico, but what we really want is to last for a certain time. It shouldn't be three years; it should be 50. Artists should be able to pay their bills from the music they make until they die.