With a soundtrack that pulls from early Chicano rock, 90s hip hop, soulful R&B, traditional mariachi, and the streets of L.A., the music of Gentefied paints a vivid picture of the cultural mosaic – and clashes – depicted in this new Netflix dramedy series.
Following the lives of three Mexican-American cousins in Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in L.A, Gentefied tackles the very real issues of gentrification and cultural identity playing out as our cities evolve. Trying to balance cultural heritage with the pull of achieving the American Dream is at the core of this show, and reflected in the music featured throughout the ambitious soundtrack.
Series creators Mexican- and Guatemalan-American director Marvin Lemus and his Mexican-American co-writer, Linda Yvette Chávez were inspired by their own experiences, and those of family and friends.
“You’re never Mexican enough and you’re never American enough,” Lemus told NBC News. “I was trying to figure that out, trying to follow my ‘American’ dream, but I felt I was moving more and more away from where I came from and distancing myself from my culture and I’m like, ‘What is the answer here?'”
Based on a buzzy digital series by the same (though hyphenated) name, Gentefied had multiple networks battling it out before finally landing at Netflix.
Tunefind spoke with Gentefied music supervisor Garrett McElver (The Tick, SEAL Team) of SuperMusicVision about the soundtrack of the show. McElver shares how the series uses music to underscore the rich cultural influences, the emotional journey of these characters, and the humor that gives the series heart.
How did you get involved in this project?
Garrett McElver: Four years ago a good friend of mine, Ashim Ahuja, was working on a digital series called “Gente-fied” that needed help finding music to license with their super limited budget, particularly in finding a pop song to be covered by a Mariachi band (an idea that was repurposed for the Netflix series!). I worked closely with executive producer Aaliyah Williams and we figured out how to pull it off.
I fell in love with what they were doing, and the people making it, and knew that if it was ever picked up that I would work as hard as I could to validate my continued involvement. After Netflix picked up the show, the executive producers were kind enough to invite me along for the next chapter of their series.
What were some of the themes or ideas you and the showrunners decided to explore?
GM: We talked a lot about sharing the stories of these characters, of their families, of their community. We wanted the music to reflect each character as honestly and authentically as possible. Utilizing songs that felt true to the people and moments in front of us, that also subverted expectations of the audience. Songs that expanded and supported the stories being told, without feeling like it was commenting or stereotyping.
Tone was everything. During our more heavy scenes, we tried to be more neutral or bittersweet, rather than lead the audience with a sad song. We’d talk about how sometimes we’d want to lean into a more Latinx “sound,” and other times it was like “they grew up with 90s hip hop and R&B in Los Angeles, so let’s use that.”
It was so great to get to know [creators] Marvin Lemus & Linda Yvette Chávez more, and to hear how they put themselves, their friends, their families, and their experiences into each and every character. My job is to fulfill their vision, and so it was an amazing experience listening to the ideas of what they wanted to portray with music, and helping them achieve those goals.
Were there particular artists that proved crucial?
GM: Any time a producer is like “I really think this song would work” or the writers put it in the script, it’s crucial to me that I do everything in my power to try and make it work. SWV’s ‘Weak’ was a really important one from the script that I know everyone really wanted. So happy that we were able to use it twice in the season.
Were there particular scenes that helped define the sound for the entire show?
GM: It was a constant discussion, right up until the closing songs in 110. For example though, in the first few minutes of the first episode, we have three songs back to back. The first plays up the joke that we think Erik is up to no good, riding his bike as we hear a Latin hip-hop song, when in actuality he is going to the library to see if they had any copies of The Five Love Languages. A fun bit, but also setting up that what you see and hear on screen might not be what you expect.
We then go into a fun funk/soul song as we meet Chris working at an upscale restaurant, getting a bit of grief from his coworker. Followed by Ana and Yessika at home in bed listening to a sensual R&B song. These are our main characters, and there is a lot to them we are going to unpack.
What moment in the show are you most proud of?
GM: The ending of episode 6, featuring ‘Ojos Del Sol’ by Y La Bamba. The episode follows the art and passion of a struggling Mariachi musician named Javier. We had a ton of fun finding the music for him and his band to play, which was a proud moment in and of itself. But at the end of the episode we learn that Javier actually has been homeless this whole time, and we follow along as he and his son move away to a more affordable place to live.
We use the entirety of ‘Ojos Del Sol’, and then some, to cover this ending, and it just felt so beautiful. It captured the bittersweet tone that we wanted. We didn’t want to make this a sad ending, even though it is. During the same montage Danny finally tells Nayeli how he feels, and we see that he has something to feel good about. But we didn’t want to play an uplifting song that overlooked the severity of their struggle. Life is complicated, this moment is complicated, and the song weaved so wonderfully through these stories. When I first heard ‘Ojos Del Sol’ years ago, I knew I wanted to use it somewhere. When this scene came up, it was serendipity.
What song almost didn’t make it in?
GM: Our music budget was pretty small for how ambitious we were with music in the show. So fitting everything in, and on budget, was the toughest part. We thankfully had a lot of understanding, and helpful music licensing colleagues who made it happen along the way.
The ending of episode 5 though features ‘Vamonos’ by Chavela Vargas, a song that was very near and dear to co-creator Marvin Lemus. At first I thought “aw man, we just aren’t going to be able to afford this.” The publisher who represented the song was on board (shoutout Peer Music!), but convincing a major record label for the fee we had available was a tall order. We were able to find a different recording that was performed as a duet with Lila Downs, that somehow happened to be represented by an independent music licensing company I frequently work with called Seven Seas Music. They were already familiar with our budget limitations, and helped push it through.
Anything didn’t make it in, but you wish it had?
GM: There were a couple of heartbreakers for sure. There was a Café Tacvba song that we loved so, so much, but sadly we weren’t able to afford it. As well, we unfortunately had to avoid many great singers like Juan Gabriel and Vicente Fernández due to budget.
Any particular favorite scenes you love from Gentefied?
GM: I love the montage in episode 4 when Chris and Ana are at the rave and Chris is tripping out. Directed fabulously by America Ferrera [also an executive producer on the series]. The song is called ‘RA’ by Slumberjack.
During the editing process we wanted to showcase the different experiences Chris and Ana were having at the same party. We played around with having multiple songs. One that is more intense playing up Chris’ drug trip, the other more mellow playing Ana’s joyful moment painting (and getting paid for it!). However, it still felt like it should be one connected song.
It was another serendipitous moment where this song had all the right elements to play both characters, with this super fun exotic intro that plays as Chris takes the drugs and embarks on his first burner experience. I straight up cheered the first time I saw it cut to picture, it was perfect.
GM: Finding closing credit songs is such a fun exercise in that you’re looking to capture the tone of the closing moments / episode you just watched. The closing of episode 3, which features ‘Mexican Chef’ by Xenia Rubinos was a memorable experience. When I first heard that song I was like “holy sh*t this is exactly what needs to play at the end of 3.” Right down to the bass line that perfectly scores the tense exchange between Lidia and Erik as she realizes he was lying to her. I only sent this song to production when they first started editing, didn’t even want to try anything else unless they asked specifically. Thankfully they loved it!
GM: The opening of episode 5 features Ana fantasizing about all the paint she’s going to purchase. We created a fun musical-esque number where she dances and plays along to ‘Welcome Home Darling’ by Thee Midniters. The band was one of the first successful Chicano rock bands in the 1960s, and they came out of East Los Angeles. We wanted to use as much music as we could from the neighborhood, and this was a really fitting moment.
GM: The closing of episode 8, which follows a day in the life of Ana’s mom, Beatriz. I loved this episode because we don’t get to spend a lot of time with Beatriz and this episode showcases how much she does for her family, and what she has to put up with. Allows you to appreciate her story even more so. As the episode ends, Beatriz finally does something for herself and indulges in an expensive dessert she’s been dreaming of. We tried a lot of song ideas, but knew we wanted to play something totally unexpected here. When we tried out ‘Word Up’ by Cameo it was an instant hit with the producers. During our music mix everyone in the room started dancing during the end titles. It was a total career highlight, just being able to help find a song that brought such a joyous moment during the process of creating this tv show.
Tunefind has your full episode-by-episode soundtrack guide for Gentefied, listing all of the songs in the show, complete with scene descriptions and links to listen on your favorite music service.
Gentefied fans can also dive deep via a podcast named Brown Love that was inspired by the show. Dominican-American actress Dascha Polanco (Orange Is the New Black) will host the podcast, which will touch upon first-generation and Afro-Latino experiences, among other topics.
〉Full list of songs featured in the Gentefied soundtrack
〉SuperMusicVision highlight: Halt and Catch Fire Brings Us Back to the 90s Through Music
〉SuperMusicVision highlight: Q&A: Thomas Golubić and the Music of Better Call Saul