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Reggaetón No Longer A Novelty

With its jumpy rhythm, the hip-hop fusion called reggaetón is everywhere, and it has given Latinos their own genre


July 24, 2005
Copyright © 2005 NEWSDAY. All rights reserved.

When the Latin hip-hop fusion called reggaetón began popping up on urban stations a couple of years ago, few sensed the start of a trend. If anything, the bouncy but simple Spanish-language music sounded like a novelty: the "Macarena" of the new millennium, perhaps.

Now, the Daddy Yankee tune "Gasolina" is flooding the airwaves, and other reggaetón and Spanish-language singles are picking up steam, including Wisin y Yandel's "Rakata," the Frankie J and Baby Bash collaboration "Obsession (No Es Amore)" and Don Omar's "Reggaetón Latino."

Rap stations are playing reggaetón during their nightly dance mixes. WCAA/105.9 FM, the Spanish-language station that simulcasts on 92.7 FM, recently switched to an all-reggaetón format. Suddenly, the music is seemingly everywhere, from cell phone rings to the loudspeakers at baseball games. Even the new album from soul man R. Kelly features a reggaetón track. Meantime, the music industry is trying to brush up on its Spanish by signing artists and creating new labels to ride the reggaetón wave.

It needs that rhythm

If you've heard "Gasolina," you've heard the basic blueprint for the music, in which primarily Spanish rap meets the jumpy rhythms of dancehall. Generally, the snare drum lands not on the beat but in the pause just before the second and fourth beats. While some artists may create hip-hop in Spanish, it doesn't qualify as reggaetón without that distinctive, jumpy rhythm.

"I don't know about the Top 40 world, but I see the hip-hop world fully embracing it," says Dana Hall, urban-rhythmic editor for the trade magazine Radio and Records. "That song 'Gasolina' has been out for at least a year or two. I went to the Dominican Republic in December 2003, and I was hearing it then."

One likely driver of the music's popularity: America's 41 million Hispanics, the country's largest and fastest-growing ethnic group, according to U.S. Census figures. Latinos have long been influencing popular music, particularly hip-hop, says Mara Melendez, music director for "Power 105"/WWPR 105.1 FM. Even before reggaetón hit the mainstream, American rappers were using Spanish slang such as "mami" and "papi" in their songs, she says. "Hip-hop in general was already embracing Latin culture."

For Latinos, reggaetón is "a genre of music that is theirs," Hall says. "It's not necessarily hip-hop in English, and it's not the tropical Latin music of their parents. This is their music."

The genre's origins aren't easy to trace: Some say it was born decades ago in Panama, when Jamaicans working on the Panama Canal mixed their rhythms with the country's traditional music. What's certain is that Puerto Rico has become the music's biggest exporter: Daddy Yankee and other reggaetón stars were born there.

Hitting home

On mainland America, cities with large Hispanic populations were among the first to create an audience. (Miami and Houston were particularly early adopters, Melendez says.) The genre remained largely a Latino phenomenon until last year, when rapper N.O.R.E. scored a hit with "Oye Mi Canto," featuring the prescient lines, "You see, this is what they want/They want reggaetón." (Tego Calderón guest-starred on an early version of the song, but it was another take with Daddy Yankee that became the runaway hit.)

Like hip-hop, reggaetón was popularized in predominantly poor neighborhoods, and its stars often have the kind of rough backgrounds that rappers might recognize. Calderón, considered a pioneer of the genre, spent two years in jail for assault; Daddy Yankee took a bullet in the leg walking out of a recording studio one night; rapper Vico C has a history of cocaine and heroin abuse.

"Everywhere I go, the people who come to see me, they're my friends, but they're violent," says Calderón, a Puerto Rico native. "And we're violent, too, in our lyrics. You don't want to come out like you're just playing."

Sex and violence

That hasn't gone over well with the traditional, conservative segment of Latinos, says Boy Wonder, the producer of the reggaetón documentary "Chosen Few: El Documental," a DVD/CD package that has been a hot seller. "Society was not accepting this music at all," he says. "They thought it was too violent, too sexual."

Still, the music flourished underground, says singer Negra, who was born in the Dominican Republic but raised in the Bronx and now serves as half of the reggaetón duo LDA. "It moved through cassettes and mix tapes and the Internet," she says. "It wasn't being played on the radio or anything like that."

Reggaetón mirrors the development of hip-hop in another way as well: the gold-rush mentality of the music industry. Several major labels, or their Latin imprints, have started up imprints aimed at the urban Hispanic market. Miami rapper Pitbull, responsible for the Spanish-language hit "Culo," is getting his own label under P. Diddy's Bad Boy Entertainment. And Calderón now has his own label, Jiggiri Records, thanks to a deal with Atlantic.

But reggaetón artists aren't desperate to jump to the majors. It took two years to persuade Calderón to sign with Atlantic, says the label's co-chairman, Craig Kallman.

"The artists that have developed have done everything independently," he says. "It's taken a leap of faith in aligning a lot of these artists to majors because they've been able to become big stars in their country on their own." He adds that teaming up with Calderón gives Atlantic some much-needed credibility. "We're now allied with the biggest, most important artist there, so it's a powerful statement that we get this endorsement from him."

Going corporate

Reggaetón artists' options are expanding rapidly as corporate America gets wind of their popularity. Los Angeles-based marketer Tomas Cookman says he recently negotiated a deal to use music by Don Omar, Ivy Queen and others on a CD to be packaged with phone cards and sold at bodegas - but that kind of grass-roots marketing is giving way to bigger and bigger endorsement deals. Daddy Yankee is modeling clothes for Sean John; Calderón is planning a clothing line of his own; and BlingTones, the cellular ring-tone company, got into the act this month with a Latin brand called BarrioMobile.

"They're getting very choosy," Cookman says of reggaetón artists. "Everyone's all over them; they're in swag heaven. Everyone wants them to wear their sneakers and clothing."

In the fast-moving world of hip-hop, where today's hot sound quickly becomes yesterday's tired trend, reggaetón has yet to prove its staying power. Daddy Yankee may be the genre's biggest star, but he's still not a household name. And the jury is out on who might become the next breakout artist. Is reggaetón here to stay, or will it be as short-lived as, say, East Indian rap?

"Reggaetón is where hip-hop was in its first years," says Cookman. "The exciting thing is, it's music you can do in your home studio, and that levels the playing field. Right now, in Washington Heights or North Carolina or Puerto Rico, there's someone working on an amazing song."

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