Reggaetón Animal

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

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boom-ch-boom-chick

Danny y Elliot are the smoothest local approximation of the beat's commercial potential, and a point of consensus in the scene. Rapping about girls and cars in a staccato Spanish that oozes attitude, they draw out syllables Atlanta-style, as if Puerto Rico were merely the deepest American South. Yet in reggaetón, every gesture toward Yankee radio—the narcotic crisscrossing harmonies of producer Diego De La Vega on "Esa Mirada" ("That Look"), for instance—only emphasizes the essential Latin difference of the beat.

Opening for Ivy Queen at First Avenue in April, the rapperos announced themselves with a sample of salsa star Jerry Rivera's "Amores Como El Nuestro" ("Love Like Ours") and two revving motorcycles onstage—grand gestures for the local warm-up. Months later, opening for Tego Calderón, they looked out to see strangers rapping along to their lyrics. In between, they appeared on the cover of Vida y Sabor's reggaetón issue, looking like a young Al Pacino and James Cagney in oversized everything, a woman in shades and bare midriff posed between them. "That's just one of their models," says Danny Cordero, 28, the smile in his eyes. "You can call the newspaper if you want to interview her."

Danny is air-boxing and bullshitting with the other half of Danny y Elliot, Elliot Otero, 21, and a second Elliot, producer Elliot "Chito" Santana, 24, listening to tracks in progress on a computer in Santana's Brooklyn Park apartment. It's one of the last warm nights of the year, and the windows are open, the synthesized polyphony of soap opera strings, Latin guitar, and slapping dem bow pouring out into the parking lot. The pit bull is in his cage, and Santana's three-year-old daughter is watching a video in the other room. It's reggaetón time.

"Let that ass hit the floor!" yells Danny in English, as Elliot answers in lightening Spanish. Elliot wears diamond earrings, a hint of goatee, and closely shaved hair, much as Danny does. But his voice is a comic squawk in contrast to his friend's velvety taunt.

"I still think we need to drop it down once," says Santana, slowing the beat. He has two Puerto Rican flags tattooed on his arms, and one of a giant treble clef on his neck.

Santana left Arecibo, Puerto Rico, when he was four, and grew up in Brooklyn, New York, before moving to the Minneapolis area with his mom seven years ago. Like nearly all of the young immigrants interviewed for this article, he says his family came to Minnesota for a better life. Santana is Elliot's cousin, and was early to recognize the younger man's talent, encouraging him to take music seriously. The producer could be Danny y Elliot's biggest fan, tensing with excitement as he throws on a videotape of the duo performing at Nochee—footage he shot himself on handheld with his own shouts audible throughout, a raised drink in the frame. Santana mouths the lyrics as he watches, ignoring the MCs cracking up behind him.

Elliot Otero was born in the same Puerto Rican city, and spoke only Spanish when he arrived in Minneapolis in 2000. "I taught him English in one year," says Santana. "When he set foot in Minnesota, he knew 'hi' and 'bye.'" Producer Diego De La Vega, who makes Danny y Elliot's beats, later tells me that when he met Elliot, the aspiring rap star asked him for a pillow. "He was living on the street," says De La Vega. "There's a lot of anger in their music—Los Más Violentos, 'the Most Violent,' that's the name of their group. But it's not literally violent. When they come at a show, they're going to destroy it."

Danny was born in the smaller town of Aguada, where Christopher Columbus is supposed to have landed in 1493. Danny moved to south Minneapolis in the late '80s, bouncing around various high schools before dropping out. "As far as me, gang life was pretty much the only way to come up," he says. "Some of our songs talk about it, selling drugs at a young age. I started when I was 12."

The rapper says that his first son, who turns 10 in December, changed all that. "I can say for the last 10 years I've been straight," says Danny. "I'm completely out of the streets. And it's basically just dedicated to him." Cousins had brought reggaetón back from Puerto Rico on mixtapes in the '90s, but the father didn't begin writing rhymes until one of his closest friends was murdered.

"I just couldn't stop crying and writing," says Danny. "On October 6, it will have been four years since he died. I know it sounds crazy, but he helped me. After he died, I felt his presence."

De La Vega, a Minneapolis native whose father is from Belize, had been looking for Latino rappers to record when he met Danny, and suggested they find a second MC to rap backup. "Elliot used to come around the alley that we used to hang out at," says Danny. "He'd always be there when I'd be cutting hair. But I never knew that he did music until everybody mentioned his name." From the first Danny y Elliot song, "Desire," it was clear the two would be equals.

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