Before Mexican songwriter-producer Edgar Barrera enters the room for his Hitmaker of the Month interview, an entourage of 10-15 people precedes him. Stitched on each one of their matching jerseys is the logo Grupo Frontera — identifying a few of those smiling faces as the Texas-based indie group whose catchy cumbia beats have become synonymous with the rise of música Mexicana on both sides of the border.
Barrera says he’s grown fond of traveling with a six-member Norteño band by his side. Together, Frontera and Barrera are behind a couple of DSP favorites both on the U.S. and Mexico charts with their latest, Bad Bunny and Frontera’s “un x100to,” tallying the most first-day streams on Apple Music for a música Mexicana single.
Straying away from his usual reggaeton swagger, the most-streamed artist in the world sings over the Frontera-style cumbia in “un x100to,” which came just days after Eslabon Armado and Peso Pluma’s “Ella Baila Sola” became the first música Mexicana song to hit the top 10 of the all-genre-encompassing Hot 100.
“There’s something great brewing here,” Barrera tells Variety. “All of the top artists [in música Mexicana] right now aren’t competing with one another… they have different sounds; it’s all very fresh. I know who to go to when I’m finished writing a song because a song that fits Peso Pluma wouldn’t fit Grupo Frontera at all.”
Barrera first discovered Frontera at his friend’s tire shop opening – yes, you read that right – in his hometown some 40 miles from McAllen, Texas. The group had been hired to perform at a carne asada celebrating the opening day. While attendees enjoyed their tacos, Barrera’s friend urged him to support the local band. “But it’s more than just knowing how to play,” he remembers saying. “It’s about writing songs, about producing, having a sound.”
At the time, Frontera’s cover of Colombian folk-pop group Morat’s “No Se Va” was slowly starting to take off (“No Se Va” would later secure Frontera their first appearance on the Hot 100 songs chart). With more persistence from his friend, Barrera agreed to listen to more of Frontera’s catalog – much of it being made up of covers of older songs – and developed an instant admiration. Their sound was different from the mariachi-infused compositions he’d built for Christian Nodal, and they even differed from bands in their own respective bracket. Whereas acts like Grupo Firme, whom Barrera has also collaborated with, often combine traditional Mexican music with elements of pop and urban, Frontera shines with elements of Norteños (the name comes from the North of Mexico, where the music first played) with a cumbia bounce.
“I asked them about their goals,” he says, “and they wanted to record a collaboration, specifically with Carin León,” a Mexican singer-songwriter and frequent collaborator of Barrera’s. “[León] was really open to it after having heard ‘No Se Va,’ and so I wrote ‘Que Vuelvas,’” released Dec. 29 via Barrera’s BorderKid imprint with Sony Music Latin.
With the success of “No Se Va,” Frontera was surveying offers from labels with the promise of substantial advances. “I remember straight-up telling them, ‘I can’t give you money because I don’t have that. I can’t compete with the major labels,’” Barrera says. “BorderKid was in early development and all I had to offer were my songs and my connections.”
After some consideration, the group decided a big label deal and a matching paycheck were not in their cards, at least not yet. “They were afraid that it had the potential to mess with the band,” says Barrera. “Or slow down what motivated them to get there in the first place. Their intention was to earn every single dollar and put in the work to see the results… that’s where our partnership started. I like to work with people who are on the rise; I like to be a part of sculpting the sound. I usually work better when there’s a project that inspires me. Right now, that’s Frontera’s upcoming album.”
Frontera’s new record is set to come out in May and Barrera says its members have been recording cumbias with the low-pitched tololoche, an instrumental variant of the European double bass, sticking to more of a ranchera style, widely considered the country music of Mexico. They’ve also been in the studio with Eslabon Armado, the Mexican-American band that became the first act to debut in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart with a regional Mexican music album (“Nostalgia” peaked at No. 9 last May).
“There isn’t anyone out there like Edgar,” adds lead singer Payo Solís. The band echoes, “We feel like he understands us more than any label could. He is one of us… We’re so lucky to work with him. He surprised us with a Bad Bunny [feature] on a song… I don’t think anyone is topping that anytime soon.”
Adds Barrera, “It was always a dream of mine to work with Bad Bunny but because he’s so good at what he does, I never knew how I could add to something he was already doing so incredibly well. I was really excited to add something to his career via regional Mexican music, which he didn’t yet have in his repertoire.”
“Un x100to” was co-produced by Barrera and Bad Bunny hitmaker MAG, whom the team credits for making the collaboration possible. “The whole team treated us with a lot of respect, a lot of humility and a lot of love and we really admire them.”
Prior to the success of “un x100to,” Frontera and Fuerza Regida’s “Bebe Dame” was also performing extremely well on DSPs and radio. The song was recorded last November after Barrera and Jimmy Humilde decided they would coordinate two collaborations between Frontera and Fuerza, “‘911’ being Fuerza Regida style and ‘Bebe Dame’ being more cumbia, Grupo Frontera style,” Barrera says.
“We got into the studio around 4 p.m. that afternoon and they were rehearsing ‘Bebe Dame’ with some cameras out. We were all dancing, having fun – I was having some pizza, watching them rehearse and [Jesús Ortiz Paz, Fuerza’s lead singer] was like ‘That’s it – that’s the music video and we recorded the song.’ I was like, ‘What?!’”
While música Mexicana continues to boom throughout the U.S., Barrera’s keen ability to know exactly which pair of artists would make for a chart-topping collaboration is calling attention from all sorts of interested parties. In the past, he’s written songs for Marc Anthony and Daddy Yankee, Selena Gomez and Rauw Alejandro, and recently, Becky G and Peso Pluma’s “Chanel,” the first single off Becky’s upcoming regional Mexican album.
“Women are missing in the genre,” Barrera says. “I really like the fact that Becky embraces both sides of being Mexican-American, so I asked her if she wanted to make this album, and she was more than eager to do it.” He describes Becky’s initial pitch as “more of an old-school sound with mariachi, more banda. But I suggested she connect with the sound of the genre today, and then the Peso Pluma feature happened,” he says, teasing songs with Fuerza Regida, Yahritza y Su Esencia and Ivan Cornejo that are on the way.
He’s also currently looking for songwriters, producers and one artist to sign to his BorderKid imprint, and just recently added Colombian producer Casta (Manuel Turizo and Marshmello’s “El Merengue,” Karol G and Becky’s “Mamiii”) to the roster. So what’s he looking for in an artist?
“I recently wrote something and knew it was fit for Eduin [of Grupo Firme], and when I called him to see if he’d want it, I explained some of the title and lyrics, and the next day he had the song fully recorded. When an artist is just as excited about the song and just as motivated as I am to work with each other, those are the best-case scenarios. Frontera is like that too… We make really honest music. All of the artists I work with stick to their sound and they’re never looking over their shoulders at what someone else is doing. And that’s not to say we aren’t blending genres, but I think what makes them such great artists is how real they are in the way they make music.”