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A quick primer on Puerto Rico's hip-hop/dancehall hybrid

"It's like hip hop all over again, back in the '70s back in the Bronx, when it was just bubbling. But it's going to be huge." --Fat Joe on reggaetón, as reported by Raquel Cepeda in an article published last March in the Village Voice.

Fat Joe has been following reggaetón's rise for 15 years, so he knows that his analogy is imperfect. Back in the '70s, Kool Herc wasn't selling out Madison Square Garden, as a bill of reggaetón stars did last October, nor was Afrika Bambaataa about to launch a major clothing and sneaker line, as are a few of reggaetón's superstars. In other words, reggaetón is long past its grassroots babyhood. It has just gotten its MBA and is driving an attractive car toward an even more attractive future. Still, the excitement Fat Joe suggests is accurate. To some ears, including many in which Spanish enters one and leaves the other, the Puerto Rico-bred genre is indeed something like hip hop's rebirth or its most auspicious offspring, the greatest thing since sliced vinyl and MCs with no bread.

Reggaetón Collage Rule Number One: Shirtless guys in the middle. Wistin & Yandel (center) and clockwise from top left: Luny Tunes, Tego Calderon, Ivy Queen, Daddy Yankee
City Pages
Reggaetón Collage Rule Number One: Shirtless guys in the middle. Wistin & Yandel (center) and clockwise from top left: Luny Tunes, Tego Calderon, Ivy Queen, Daddy Yankee

Reggaetón is a hybrid genre--it draws most heavily from hip hop and dancehall and ragga but also incorporates salsa, R&B, Puerto Rican forms such as bomba and plena, and sundry other Caribbean rhythms. The dominant reggaetón beat will be familiar to dancehall fans--it goes boom (and) bip bip, boom (and) bip bip--but it's not quite the Jamaican beat, and really the stuff is all over the place, slinky here, bombastic there, raw here, overcooked there. The precise origins of the genre shall be left to arguments among folks more expert than I, but Puerto Rico's Latin rap innovator Vico C, who gets a cameo on 2005's reggaetón bestseller Mas Flow 2 (see below), is considered a father of the movement. Also ancestral is Panamanian reggae and its dance eclectic El General, whose early-'90s hit "Muevelo," for one, would fit comfortably on a reggaetón mix.

Over the past year and a half or so, after a long period of stateside obscurity, reggaetón has "exploded"--there is no other word for it, apparently--in New York, Miami, Orlando, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and notably if less explosively hit other U.S. cities. Several North American commercial radio stations have come to emphasize the style and some are devoted exclusively to it, most prominently New York's La Kalle (105.9 FM). In Minneapolis, the best night for reggaetón club hoppers is Thursday, when El Nuevo Rodeo holds its reggaetón-heavy dance party and First Avenue turns things over to Ritmo Caliente. If you're a regular at those nights, the records listed below will be old hat. For the curious dabbler, though, here are some tips for starting your collection.

 

LUNY TUNES & BABY RANKS
Mas Flow 2
(Universal Music Latino, 2005)

LUNY TUNES
Mas Flow
(Universal Music Latino, 2003)

Francisco Saldana and Victor Cabrera never smile in photographs yet work under the name Luny Tunes. They're reggaetón's most successful producers, having worked with Daddy Yankee, Tego Calderon, Don Omar (not really my cup of tea, but others endorse The Last Don), and several other reggaetón bright lights, lots of which drop by for the guest-packed Mas Flow albums. I tend to prefer the less glitzy work of producers such as DJ Adam and Cookee, but Luny Tunes are the Hurban heroes ("Hurban": Hispanic urban; important new buzzword) that exemplify reggaetón in high club mode, and their best stuff is great. Volume two, thus far '05's biggest reggaetón album, is a rather relentless and often intoxicating dance party, full of peak-time-Saturday-night beats, guns cocking, corny-huge key tones that Hans Zimmer would cotton to, and the team's trademark male/female call-and-response choruses. Highlights include Daddy Yankee and Deevani's Near Eastern-flavored "Mirame," Mr. Vegas & Tunes' exclamation-point-worthy "Oh Johnny!," Wisin & Yandel's hit "Rakata," and Frankie J & Mr. Phillip's R&B jam "Obsession," overlong like the album but sweet in a kissin' computers sort of way. Baby Ranks, who has had a pitch shifter surgically attached to his vocal cords, is featured on several numbers, which is fine. The first volume is the work of less accomplished studio maestros with fewer crossover aspirations, and is thus rawer in a couple of ways.

 

TEGO CALDERON
El Abayarde
(BMG U.S. Latin/White Lion, 2002, 2003 U.S.)

I was napping when it came out, but this breakthrough album from Tego Calderon has become one of my favorites of the decade. The mellow-voiced, Miami-bred, politically aware ex-con gets his experimental and commercial impulses to shake hands and other body parts, while his lyrics and eclectic music (hip hop, salsa, dancehall, bomba) promote Afro-Caribbean pride and history. The bata-drum-powered "Loíza" is the first-listen stunner, but the album never stumbles.

 

IVY QUEEN
Diva (Platinum Edition)
(Universal Music Latino, 2004)

Delivering beat-happy female-empowerment anthems in inappropriate-for-the-workplace attire, singer-songwriter-rapper Ivy Queen is the "queen of reggaetón." She bagged the title by towering over the machismo-friendly genre's other popular female artists, of which there are none. Even with stiffer competition, though, the 33-year-old queen, born in Puerto Rico but raised in New York, would likely be preeminent: Her suede-like alto can be tender or tough, and she and her chief producer DJ Adam are equally comfortable with reggaetón's various roots and branches: ragga, hip hop, Timbaland-style R&B beats, pop. Diva's highlights include "Papi Te Quiero," mid-tempo lover's bubblegum, and "Alerta," all choppy rhythms, handclaps, and vaguely nefarious horns, plus an ingratiating synth line played by a one-fingered android.

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