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A Spicy Mix of Salsa, Hip-Hop And Reggae


August 7, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

Tego Calderón, reggaeton singer.

PHOTO: Associated Press

Just over a decade ago a new kind of dance music started to percolate through clubs and parties in Puerto Rico. Its beat was grounded in Jamaican dancehall reggae, although it had also bounced through Panama. Above that beat, rappers rhymed in Spanish, mostly about dancing, drinking and sex. The rappers used street slang; many older listeners and upscale Puerto Ricans looked down on the music as vulgar. But for a younger audience, the beat, the attitude and the close, slow-grind dancing that went with them were irresistible.

The music got a name, reggaeton. It spread across Puerto Rico and has made inroads in Miami and New York. And on Saturday night, reggaeton is bound for Madison Square Garden, in a concert headlined by reggaeton's leading innovator, Tego Calderón, and featuring two dozen other rappers and disc jockeys. "It's the music for the young generation down here," Mr. Calderón said in a telephone interview from San Juan.

Reggaeton's story has parallels to its two main influences, hip-hop and dancehall. Like them, reggaeton was homegrown music that first spoke to local club audiences and was ignored or rejected by radio stations. Like them, it was often raunchy and uninhibited, full of macho exploits involving guns, drugs and women. It's still a man's world; there is only one significant female reggaeton rapper, Ivy Queen (also on the bill at Madison Square Garden). And like dancehall and underground hip-hop, reggaeton is a realm of small, independent labels, with entrepreneurs who sell albums to local stores out of the trunks of their cars.

"We didn't have radio play and we didn't have big companies, but we survived," Mr. Calderón said. "They didn't want to play us, they didn't want to know about us, they pushed us away. They thought it was going to go out of fashion in a year. But now it's a business. Every month there's four or five albums of reggaeton coming out. Everybody's selling a little bit, and everybody's getting paid." Most successful reggaeton albums sell 30,000 to 40,000 copies, mainly in Puerto Rico. But Mr. Calderón's album "El Abayarde" (White Lion Music) has sold about 200,000 copies, 150,000 in Puerto Rico, and Don Omar's "Last Don" (V.I. Music) has sold 115,000 copies.

Reggaeton has many godfathers. One is Vico-C, a Puerto Rican rapper who emerged in the late 1980's, rapping in Spanish over hip-hop beats and conveying hardheaded messages between party tunes. Nicknamed "El Filósofo," or the Philosopher, Vico-C warned about the dangers of drugs and violence. Another is El General, a Panamanian rapper who latched on to a modified dancehall beat in the late 1980's. His songs made their way to dance floors in Puerto Rico, and broke the language barrier between Spanish-speaking listeners and reggae in English or Jamaican patois. Robi Draco Rosa, who has written hits for Ricky Martin, traced the word reggaeton to reggae-thon, the way disc jockeys announced reggae marathons.

Soon Puerto Rican producers were adding their own ingredients to the beat, particularly the timbales and congas of salsa. Don Omar, who is performing on Saturday and whose lost-love lament "Aunque Te Fuiste" is currently the No. 1 reggaeton song in Puerto Rico, said, "To make reggaeton, you need to know about your Puerto Rican music, salsa, and to know about rap, reggae, and the kind of art that makes a difference." Producers like D.J. Playero, D.J. Negro (who worked with Vico-C), D.J. Nelson and Rubén D.J. began making backup tracks and recruiting rappers. They released compilation tapes and then albums.

Some of the performers at Madison Square Garden, including Don Omar, Daddy Yankee and the long-running alliance Hector y Tito, have released complete albums. But even now, most reggaeton appears on producers' compilation albums. "El Abayarde" (which means king of the fire ants, a family nickname describing how pesky Mr. Calderón was as a child) is Mr. Calderón's debut album, although he has been appearing on compilations since the late 1990's. "If you don't prove yourself in the streets, nobody is going to put money on you," he said. "So you have to appear on those albums to make yourself noticed. This stuff comes from the street, so we know that it works."

Reggaeton spread across Puerto Rico for the simplest of reasons. "It's in Spanish and it's easy to dance to," Mr. Calderón said.

"It's the voice of the pueblo," Mr. Rosa said. "It just hit that nerve." A radio station that broadcasts across Puerto Rico, WVOZ-FM, plays reggaeton full time and regularly draws ratings among the island's top five stations.

WSKQ-FM, known as La Mega 97.9, the leading Spanish-language station in New York, has been more cautious about reggaeton because its main fans are younger than the station's target audience.

"A lot of it is teen-oriented and clubby, and a radio station can't sound like a club," said George Mier, the station's program director. But the music is gaining exposure. WSKQ had been playing reggaeton after 6 p.m., and lately songs by Mr. Calderón, Don Omar and Hector y Tito are joining salsa and merengue songs during the daytime. "It adds a little spice to the recipe," Mr. Mier said.

Domingo Ramos, head of artists and repertory for the urban division of EMI Latin, said: "Latin hip-hop and reggaeton are coming like a tornado. It's inevitable that it's going to be the next salsa and merengue. For a long time we didn't have support from radio in the States. But when you walk down the street in New York City, and out of 20 cars you hear that 13 are playing reggaeton and Spanish hip-hop, then you know the masses are asking for it."

Mr. Calderón, 31, was a reluctant convert to reggaeton. He studied percussion — drums, timpani, xylophone — at a music school in Puerto Rico, but was drawn to the politically engaged hip-hop of Public Enemy, Rakim and Boogie Down Productions when he attended high school in Miami in the late 1980's. He began writing hip-hop rhymes, first in English and then in Spanish. When he returned to Puerto Rico, he discovered Vico-C, and was convinced that hip-hop in Spanish was his calling. He saved money to make his own recordings.

But American-style hip-hop rhythms and angry rhymes weren't as popular in clubs as reggaeton was. When the reggaeton singer Eddie Dee (who is on the Madison Square Garden bill) asked Mr. Calderón to do a guest rap on his second album, Mr. Calderón accepted. Offers to make his own recordings quickly followed.

"When you do reggaeton you get popular real quick," Mr. Calderón said. "Guys like me who didn't do it have to take 12 years to make it happen. At one time when I was doing hip-hop, my father told me, do you always want to be screaming and denouncing stuff? You've got to get people to love you, and then you can scream all you want."

Actually, Mr. Calderón is no screamer; he rhymes in a relaxed, amiable baritone. He is in the vanguard of reggaeton's newer, more socially conscious phase. Don Omar has also moved away from raunchy come-ons, with songs that express respect for women and concerns about injustice.

Mr. Calderón takes Vico-C, Public Enemy, Bob Marley and the salsa singer Ismael Rivera as models. The music on his album dips into salsa and the African-rooted Puerto Rican tradition of bomba, and between boasts he has serious messages. "Los Difuntos" ("The Dead") warns against the glamorization of the gangster life. "Loiza," is named after a black neighborhood dating back to the slave trade, and it bluntly denounces racism and police brutality backed by the Afro-Caribbean beat of bata drums.

"I've got to do reggaeton in order to make people listen to my social stuff," Mr. Calderón said. "I'm getting them to dance, and then I'm getting them to think a little bit."

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