The classic Los Tigres del Nortes album Jefe de Jefes was a huge success at the time of its release. It topped the Billboard Latin Albums chart for seven weeks, was nominated for a 1998 Grammy Award, and consolidated their status as the group that took accordion-based norteño music to a level on par with pop. But perhaps even more importantly, Jefe de Jefes stands as an enduring record of late 20th-century immigrant experience whose plainspoken songs about workday life, family, and relationships, pumped with pathos and strife and humor. Recorded in Los Tigres’ adopted home of Northern California, it is now undeniably part of the Great American Songbook.
The title track starts off the album with an enigma: who is the “Boss of Bosses,” presumably a swaggering drug kingpin, described in the song? Such was the speculation incited by the radio hit that, Billboard wrote that “narcos were buying the CDs by the case.”
Los Tigres were pioneers in songs that refer to the narcotics trade and related violence. But the group crept away from the hard edges that brought narcocorridos comparisons to gangsta rap. In fact, Jefe de Jefes takes a careful anti-drug stance, starting with a video for the title song shot in the former Alcatraz prison. There are cautionary tales: “El Dolor de un Padre,” (“A Father’s Pain”) about a father’s heartache after a son’s fatal overdose, is written as a warning to parents. The lyrics of “Las Novias del Traficante” (“The Trafficker’s Girlfriends”) allude to the inevitable dead-end of any relationship with drugs.
Los Tigres’ role as political watchdogs and champions of social justice are underscored by the songs “El Sucesor” (“The Successor”), a parable about the responsibilities of office, and “El Prisionero” (“The Prisoner”), a chilling track that refers to politically-motivated murders in Mexico. Jefe de Jefes also sees the group address the complexities of life literally and figuratively lived on the border. Concerns that would become more central to the group’s activism over the ensuing years are earnestly explored in “Mis Dos Patrias” (“My Two Countries”) and “Ni Aquí Ni Allá” (“Neither Here nor There”). The members of the band are “caught on tape” discussing American immigration policy before the start of a beautifully spare acoustic version of “El Mojado Acaudalado” (“The Wealthy Wetback”).
While “Jefe de Jefes” is still widely considered a drug boss ballad. Teodoro Bello, the song’s composer, has offered an alternative interpretation. Interviewed in the 2022 Los Tigres documentary Historias Que Contar (Stories to Tell), he suggests that it is not a narcocorrido at all, but rather a song that could be a tribute to the best doctor, the best fireman or the best taxi driver. It’s probable that over the years, thanks to Los Tigres del Norte, the expression “jefe de jefes” has indeed been used to compliment some people in those professions and more. But, most appropriately, it’s also become a nickname used by fans to honor Los Tigres del Norte themselves.