Reggaetón Animal

Immigrant dreams, dirty dancing, and the revolution: Meet the new Latin hip hop of Maria Isa and Danny y Elliot

"Dem bow" was the name given to the new music blasting out of San Juan's public housing projects in the '90s, at least at one point, before Don Chezina promised fans "a ton of reggae, a reggae ton" (according to hip-hop scholar and Maria Isa manager Melisa Riviere) and DJ Nelson popularized the coinage. (Early reggaetón was also known simply as "underground.") The "Dem Bow" backing track, or riddim, swept Puerto Rican hip hop on the heels of El General, as Panamanian reggaespañol met island rap and merenhouse in the Noise, an aptly dubbed discoteca of Old San Juan. The bridge was Brooklyn, where El General lived throughout reggaetón's early ferment. "He used to have his own float on Labor Day," remembers the Kamillion, 33, who resided on the same street in Crown Heights. "People would want to get on his float and ride it out to wherever it stops, because there goes the block party."

The beat hasn't changed in 15 years—but what great beat has? Listen to Wayne Marshall's 40-minute, 30-track "Dem Bow Mix" mp3 posted at riddimmethod.net, and you hear the universe of variation opened up by keeping one new thing the same. Reggaetón babies—bachata's bachatatón, cumbia's cumbiatón—now anticipate the punktón and metaltón to come. You could hear the future in 1992's "Murder She Wrote" by Jamaicans Chaka Demus & Pliers, a Sly and Robbie-produced riddim ("Bam Bam") nearly identical to "Dem Bow," with the toaster and crooner swinging madly on top to adjust to rhythm's new center of gravity. "Any MC from the reggaetón old school, they will get up on the spot if you play them that song," says Back-Up Plomo. "If there's any alcohol around, they will take a shot, too, because that brings back memories."

Plomo (born Victor Joel Almonó Vasquez) moved to Minneapolis in 1998, and remembers reggaetón reaching Santo Domingo a few years earlier as something closer to dancehall español than to hip hop, albeit amid rap contests in the American mold. "In Dominican Republic, the corner stores sell everything—food, liquor, house supplies, until 4:00, 5:00 in the morning," he says. "And what they do is, they set up a bunch of chairs, a bunch of tables, and some big speakers, and they would hold battles."

Tony Nelson

Caribbean Connection's Olman Barrera, 25, moved to Minnesota in 1997, and remembers the first reggaetón CD reaching Honduras in the mid-'90s. "Before Playero 37: The Original, it was all cassettes," he says. DJ Playero had recorded his classic mixtape in the Villa Kennedy public housing projects of San Juan where he grew up with Daddy Yankee, and the 1992 original was distributed by hand within the same buildings. Yet its clatter eventually produced international frenzy. "In Honduras, they were already playing reggae español from Panama," says Barrera. "But when Playero 37 came out, it was speeded up to 110 bmp. That CD was like the national anthem."

Reggaetón hadn't reached rural Costa Rica in 1999, when I visited family in Monteverde, but I should have seen it coming. Radio stations were already playing Jamaican dancehall alongside salsa in Spanish, and one night, as I watched my then-very pregnant step-aunt Debra salsa dance at an outdoor festival for the end of the rainy season, the disc jockey put on Beenie Man's "Let Him Go," and most of the campesinos cleared the grass. But a few boys in bright white sneakers stayed, and proceeded to breakdance. Flash forward to April of this year, and I was in Costa Rica again, chasing a rooster around Debra's backyard, trying to capture the bird's crow on my tape recorder, but mainly picking up the helpless giggles of my six-year-old step-cousin, Liam. As consolation, Liam sang his favorite reggaetón song for the tape, "El Tiburon" ("The Shark") by Alexis y Fido and Baby Ranks. (He later directed my brother and me in the roles of knife-wielding gangsters for a living-room production of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video, with Liam pulling us apart to lead the dance.)

Here in America, the former subculture of 1970s South Bronx beat parties is sometimes viewed as the center of our pop solar system. Yet it's possible to imagine reggaetón as the heart of a larger galaxy. Think about the musical traditions that created rap music, or were created by it—reggae, Trinidadian soca (or soul calypso), chutney, raggamuffin, jungle, crunk, London grime, Rio baile funk, African hip hop, etc. Then notice how reggaetón sounds more like any of them than they do like each other. This is why DJ Omari Omari can so easily slip Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" between a reggaetón crossover hit by Dominican merenguero Eddy Herrera and the latest from Nuyorican divas Nina Sky. Reggaetón's gravitational shift is southward, taking popular music with it, which is one reason why the movement is a source of pan-Latino pride.

"So many people are of Latino origin, but they're ashamed of it," says Colombian-born EBNZR ("Ebenezer"), 25, of the local reggaetón group Lírica Secreta. "We want to make music so they don't have to be ashamed. You're going to feel this no matter what language it is. And people that don't speak Spanish—they're going to have to, anyway, because of the way this country is going."

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