Reggaetón Animal

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

boom-ch-boom-chick boom-ch-boom-chick

Reggaetón might be the first new musical phenomenon of the century, but the dance is as old as mammals. Fans call it el perreo, and Minneapolis newspaper Vida y Sabor has reported that it "simulates the copulatory movement of two dogs." But on a cool Saturday night at the Loring Pasta Bar, men and women rotate their lower torsos in the way only humans can. The DJ onstage, Omari Omari, has switched from the brass and piano razzle of salsa to the digital boom-click of reggaetón, and dancers on the crowded tile floor have abandoned the gyroscopic elegance of spinning and dipping for the more basic pleasures of animals trying curious poses.

"I've found the dancing pretty out there sometimes," says Katie De Los Reyes, 18, a regular at the Pasta Bar since she got her fake ID two years ago. "It's very sexual, and it makes a lot of guys uncomfortable to see their girlfriend out there doing that. I know my boyfriend doesn't like it, but that's why I don't bring him."

"Omari, cabron," shouts a man with two fingers on the straw of his drink, wading into the grinding couples as two women slide up under the DJ's portico to make requests. Omari, 25, speaks fluent Spanish, though his mother is Jordanian and his father, '70s rumba singer Hassan Omari, is Kenyan. (The son looks a little like Seth Gilliam from HBO's The Wire, wearing the white sports casuals of a grownup hip-hop kid.) Omari says he started listening to salsa as a way to pick up girls back at Minneapolis South High, though he plays "air cowbell" to his merengue selections with a fan's abandon.

Reggaetón (pronounced reggae-tone) is the next thing, he says, a Spanish Caribbean blend of American rap and Jamaican dancehall that has become an advertised draw at hip-hop, reggae, and Latin dance nights around town. Scenes like the one at the Pasta Bar have multiplied ever since El Nuevo Rodeo launched the first local reggaetón night in 2004. (Last year it moved to Thursdays, as Noche de Perreo.) Now the genre's stars touch down in Minneapolis—Luny Tunes at Rodeo on Halloween 2005, Ivy Queen at First Avenue in April, Tego Calderón at Rodeo in July. Meanwhile, the music has breached the previously rap-free zone of Minnesota Spanish radio, lighting up request lines on "regional Mexican" La Invasora 1400 (WMNV-AM, Thursdays from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.) and La Mera Buena 107.5 (KBGY-FM, weekdays from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.), with more regular play on the new La Picosa 1530 (KQSP-AM).

"Nothing like this has ever happened in Latin music," says local reggaetón producer Diego De La Vega. "I've been to Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela. Reggaetón is out of control all over Latin America. If you can hear it on KDWB [101.3 FM] in rural Minnesota, imagine what it's like in some place like Peru."Maya Santamaria, owner of El Nuevo Rodeo, compares the explosion to salsa in the '70s, another sensation powered by Puerto Ricans through the hemisphere. Yet the new sound outsells salsa at Mena's International in Minneapolis, according to the store's owners. Four years ago, Universal began distributing reggaetón king Daddy Yankee and others on Puerto Rico's VI Music label, thanks to the connections of Gustavo López, a native of the U.S. territory who worked as a rep to Best Buy in the late '90s while living in Hopkins. Last year, López launched Universal's Machete Music, a major-label reggaetón imprint with echoes in Jay-Z's Roc La Familia and Diddy's Bad Boy Latino.

The same year, more than 100 students at Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights participated in recording and performing an anti-tobacco reggaetón song. And since the first local reggaetón show in March of 2004—Honduran-born brothers Caribbean Connection at El Nuevo Rodeo—more than a dozen Twin Cities acts have taken their version to the stage and into the studio, with enough evidence on demos and MySpace to justify buzz over next year's slated wave of CDs. One forthcoming compilation, produced by Leroy Smokes trumpeter Kyle Borchert, features bilingual St. Paul rapper and singer Maria Isa, Dominican-born MC Back-Up Plomo, Panamanian-born deejay the Kamillion, and others working across genre with such local reggae and hip-hop vets as Prince Jabba and Unicus. Watch this space for the future of Minnesota music.

Like any genuine pop movement, reggaetón is three new things at once—a beat, an audience, and an ethos. The beat is the ubiquitous, tripping dem bow, the boom-ch-boom-chick rhythm that is the hull of any reggaetón song. The audience is the changing urban core of the Americas, including the thousands of young Spanish speakers in Minnesota who marched for immigrant rights last April. "Most of the immigration that we saw in the last 10 years was from rural areas," says Alberto Monserrate, co-founder of Latino Communications Network, which owns Vida y Sabor and La Invasora. "Now what we've seen in the last two or three years is a lot of immigrants coming from big cities in the U.S., or from Mexico City."

The ethos is a new spirit of protest, frankness, and rowdiness. "The essence of reggaetón—and hip hop, too—is to express yourself in a way that you're not going to be scared to say what you feel and what you're going through," says Back-Up Plomo, 21. "The government is militarizing the frontiers. They're making it harder for immigrants to become legal. We believe this is a place that gives you an opportunity, but the truth of the matter is that lately it's not been going that way."

Then there is the matter of sex, a topic on which reggaetón makes the dirtiest New Orleans bounce sound prim. On a recent rainy afternoon, DJ Pablo, 24, plays me some tracks from the late '90s— old-school in perreando years—pressing an air horn on his Roland SP-404 for club effect while sitting in his Brooklyn Park basement. Born Pablo Duran in Cordoba, Argentina, the thinly goateed promoter DJs live for Danny y Elliot, a popular Puerto Rican-born duo known, as are most reggaetón acts, for encouraging female listeners to give up perspiration, inhibitions, and apparel. Yet the oldies go further. Pablo offers an on-the-fly translation of El Maricón's "Puta Cabrona Bellaca" (roughly: "Horny Slut Bitch"), a track that closes with a scene of simulated fucking notable mainly for its absence of female vocals. "He's saying he's not gay, but he likes dick, too," says Pablo, smiling. "It's a nasty-ass song, but my girlfriend likes it."

Another refrain, from Las Guanábanas' "Maldita Puta" (vaguely: "Fucking Bitch"), translates as: "Piss on her pussy and spit in her face." Pablo echoes the sentiment of an earlier perreo fan: "It's out there, man."

In more recent years, reggaetón has become increasingly self-possessed. After the slaying of Puerto Rican independence activist Filiberto Ojeda Ríos by the FBI last year, rapper Residente Calle 13 wrote and released an angry song titled "Querido FBI" ("Dear FBI") with a pointed line that translates as: "Instead of aiming into our own house, we need to aim up where it's cold, up to the Northerner." A strain of Puerto Rican nationalism runs through all the major reggaetón artists from the American commonwealth.

"I don't know if anyone's sitting in the Oval Office thinking of Tego Calderón and Daddy Yankee," says Maria Isa, 19, the most overtly political local reggaetón performer. "But as far as the media, a lot of reggaetón artists are for Puerto Rico libré, and people notice."

school in perreando years—pressing an air horn on his Roland SP-404 for club effect while sitting in his Brooklyn Park basement. Born Pablo Duran in Cordoba, Argentina, the thinly goateed promoter DJs live for Danny y Elliot, a popular Puerto Rican-born duo known, as are most reggaetón acts, for encouraging female listeners to give up perspiration, inhibitions, and apparel. Yet the oldies go further. Pablo offers an on-the-fly translation of El Maricón's "Puta Cabrona Bellaca" (roughly: "Horny Slut Bitch"), a track that closes with a scene of simulated fucking notable mainly for its absence of female vocals. "He's saying he's not gay, but he likes dick, too," says Pablo, smiling. "It's a nasty-ass song, but my girlfriend likes it."

Another refrain, from Las Guanábanas' "Maldita Puta" (vaguely: "Fucking Bitch"), translates as: "Piss on her pussy and spit in her face." Pablo echoes the sentiment of an earlier perreo fan: "It's out there, man."

In more recent years, reggaetón has become increasingly self-possessed. After the slaying of Puerto Rican independence activist Filiberto Ojeda Ríos by the FBI last year, rapper Residente Calle 13 wrote and released an angry song titled "Querido FBI" ("Dear FBI") with a pointed line that translates as: "Instead of aiming into our own house, we need to aim up where it's cold, up to the Northerner." A strain of Puerto Rican nationalism runs through all the major reggaetón artists from the American commonwealth.

"I don't know if anyone's sitting in the Oval Office thinking of Tego Calderón and Daddy Yankee," says Maria Isa, 19, the most overtly political local reggaetón performer. "But as far as the media, a lot of reggaetón artists are for Puerto Rico libré, and people notice."

boom-ch-boom-chick

boom-ch-boom-chick

The dem bow contains its own version of the story. Nourished to hip-hop splendor in Puerto Rico, it came from Jamaica, and traces a path of migrant exchange between the islands, New York, and Panama. The beat took its name from "Dem Bow" ("They Bow"), the 1991 Bobby "Digital" Dixon-produced track by growling Kingston ragamuffin deejay Shabba Ranks, which Rio Abajo-born rapper El General (Edgardo A. Franco) translated into Spanish the same year as "Son Bow," using the same backing track. Three quarters of a century earlier, tens of thousands of black Jamaicans and Barbadians had built the Panama Canal, and by the '90s the descendants of those workers crowded the same dense barrios of Panama City mowed through by the U.S. invasion in 1989. That war restored the white elite displaced since the '68 coup by populist general Omar Torrijos, but the dem bow delivered cultural revenge on the North. Today, footage of Torrijos shows up in a montage of revered figures in the MTV-rotated video for "Reggaetón Latino," by Puerto Rican superstar Don Omar.

"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."

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."

boom-ch-boom-chick

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.

Today Danny lives in Hopkins, and says he couldn't care less who thinks he's hardcore. "When I started writing, I never thought that it would be music," he says. "Most of my family, none of us graduated from high school. To have somebody doing something and sticking with it, like me and Elliot with this music, it's a big impact. I guess it's a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel."

boom-ch-boom-chick

boom-ch-boom-chick

"The thing about reggaetón," says Maria Isa, a wooden cask drum between her legs, "is that in bomba, this is a turn—" .

She slaps out the dem bow on her drumhead. "That's the reggaetón snare," she says, "with the girls spinning. And that's how we started flowing through bomba."

Bomba is a folkloric music and dance of Puerto Rico, developed by African slaves brought to the island in the wake of Columbus, and Isa has become an icon in local hip hop by combining the tradition with reggaetón. The idea arrived through osmosis. Sitting in the classroom of St. Paul's El Arco Iris Center for the Performing Arts, she says she first walked into the folk-culture school at age five, and now she teaches here.

"Most of these kids aren't even Puerto Rican," she says, tucking her dark mane under a ball cap. "The majority are kids of color from an urban setting, and they're looking at this as kind of another home, to get away from the stuff that's happening outside on the street. That's exactly what it was for me."

She began singing and rapping in English and Spanish as part of the now-disbanded Many Styles, recording a 2005 benefit CD for the Boys and Girls Club located in the St. Paul West Side neighborhood where she grew up. Now Isa includes members of her bomba ensemble Raices ("Roots") as part of a full live backing band, taking the First Avenue stage last August with boys and girls dressed in "traditional" garb (most wearing the trapped expressions of children in a school recital) during the Twin Cities Celebration of Hip Hop. Isa rocked a green army cap with a red star that night, flanked by a male and female dancer in tight camo. Because she rarely sticks to dem bow, Isa never claims to play pure reggaetón. Instead she's sort of a Clash, Public Enemy, and El Vez for Puerto Rican nationalism rolled into one.

Isa hit her stride during "Santa Maria," losing her shades to show her wide, striking glare. "I'm working 24-7 just to get farther," she rapped in English. "Making money singing songs/Not like my prima makin' money shaking it in a thong/But who am I to judge when we all do wrong?"

At a moment when even Ivy Queen, reggaetón's great feminist exception, dresses like a porn star, Isa says she fights the pressure to take it off. "I don't think I need to be wearing a bra and underwear to get onstage and flow," she says. "Just because every other guy before me is rapping about 'we want a girl to take off her clothes,' and 'we wanna perreando.'"

She laughs. "It's like, cool. You're going to have these girls onstage before me with half their clothes on. But I'm going to come on and be like, 'I'm wearing clothes, I'm still being sexy, and I've still got some stuff to say.'"

The first female performer in local reggaetón has good reason to be sensitive to issues of equality and authenticity. The last time a Minnesota-born woman recorded an international hit in a tropical style, it was the Andrews Sisters with "Rum and Coca Cola," 60 years before Daddy Yankee poured 2004's "Gasolina" over reggaetón's brushfire. Comedian Morey Amsterdam had stolen the old calypso from Trinidad's Lord Invader before passing it on, tweaking the lyric to transform an uneasy satire of native prostitution ("working for the Yankee dollar") into a blissful whitewash of same. The artist born Maria Isabelle Perez Vega couldn't be more different. Conscientious and radical, she has spent most of her young life immersed in the study of Puerto Rico, a thing inevitably woven through reggaetón like cornrows.

Isa's mother, longtime St. Paul community leader Elsa Vega-Perez, was active with her father in the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican counterpart to the Black Panthers, and both parents came out of the New York City Housing Authority's Baruch House on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. (Isa still visits family there, and in Puerto Rico.) When Isa was a girl, her mother used to call her "mi Lolita," after Lolita Lebrón, the Puerto Rican nationalist who led an armed attack on the United States House of Representatives in 1954. Pardoned by Jimmy Carter 25 years later, (Lebrón had fired her weapon in the air, proclaiming upon arrest, "I didn't come to kill anyone, I came to die for Puerto Rico."

In seventh grade, Isa hoped to interview the historic figure while making a trip to the U.S. territory in 2000. But the octogenarian activist was busy protesting in Vieques, the island municipality then being used by the U.S. Navy for bombing practice. (Isa recently discovered that her manager, Melisa Rivière, was also among those arrested at the time.) Now Isa is working on a song about Lebrón. "The first thing people think of when they hear 'Lolita" is a whore," says Isa. "But as a woman in hip hop and reggaetón, I grew up really looking up to Lolita Lebrón as a woman who led something, with the guys following her. I wanted to freestyle and join ciphers [improvisational rap circles], but that was a guy thing."

Isa remembers hip hop arriving at family parties where live salsa bands played. "Old guys would start playing bomba and singing plena songs during the holidays," she says, "mixing it up with salsa and Motown and boogaloo—because my parents are from the civil rights era of the '60s. And then we have my cousins comin' from New York, the Bronx, and they're breakdancing."

Her most obvious inspiration was Los Nativos, rappers from her neighborhood who co-founded the Rhymesayers and have mixed traditional Mexican costume and percussion with revolutionary politics for a decade. Los Na's Felipe Cuauhtli, who is of black and Chicano descent, views the rise of reggaetón with the skepticism of a veteran independent.

"What I don't like about reggaetón is the same thing I don't like about Top 40 hip hop," he says. "I don't like the cookie-cutter, industry-influenced piece of it all."

As Cuauhtli points out, the phrase "Latin hip hop" always contained an element of redundancy. JULIO 204 was one of the first graffiti tags to appear in New York, and Puerto Ricans gave breakdancing its second wave in the late 1970s. One of the first rappers, DJ Hollywood, had a young Latino named June Bug behind him on turntables, and the list of pioneers goes on—from Whipper Whip and Devastating Tito to Sa-Fire and Fat Joe. Here in Minnesota, the Capital City Breakers, a predominantly Mexican American crew from St. Paul, were b-boy battle champions, and Latinos have been active in the scene ever since. The difference with Los Na was largely a matter of identification.

"When I first knew Felipe, 'Latin hip hop' was him," says Isa. She was 14 the first time she saw Cuauhtli rap in full traditional feathers. "I couldn't go to clubs, but I could go to Cinco de Mayo," she says. "They always held down the Boca Chica stage on lowrider day, and it was controversial because it's hip hop, and people thought they would get gangs. I'm like, 'No, man, they're rapping in Aztec costumes. The only gangs they're going to get is the spirits.'"

Isa recorded some of her first tracks in Cuauhtli's studio, and he encouraged the bomba influence. "Her brother called me one day after a song she wrote and was like, 'Dude, what'd you do to my sister?'" remembers Cuauhtli. "I'm like, bro, I just told her to be honest and true. I told her she's someone that I want my daughter to look up to."

To Isa, Cuauhtli's initial suggestion that she focus on singing rather than rapping was a challenge. "I was just like, 'I'm going to prove you wrong,'" says Isa. "He gave me my first show at the Entry, thinking I was going to sing 20 minutes of Alicia Keys covers. I broke out doing the total opposite, and he was like, 'Wow.' I said, 'This is who I am.' And he was like, 'No, no, I wanted you to do that so you could just kick me in the balls.'"

A week after our first interview, Isa is talking with students outside her rap class for girls at Old Arizona, the Minneapolis community arts center. After Isa introduces me, I ask the students, most of them in their early teens, all of them black, "What did you learn today?"

"How to breathe properly," says one girl. "And, um, some rap history,"

"Inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth," says another.

Then the room goes quiet.

"What about the baby?" says Isa.

"You tell us not to suck our stomach in," says a third girl. "To breathe normal."

The goal, Isa explains, is to assume the posture of a baby: to let your stomach out and relax so that you can breathe easily and not worry about what you look like.

boom-ch-boom-chick

boom-ch-boom-chick

The same night, Isa is nodding as Brooklyn's Cosmo Baker spins "Murder She Wrote" at the Dinkytowner. The headliner is legendary Puerto Rican DJ Tony Touch, and much of the reggaetón scene is here in the dark with drinks—Elliot Otero, DJ Pablo, Lírica Secreta's Gran Papo, Kyle Borchert. The speakers throb with salsa, Beatnuts, and Dawn Penn's dancehall cover of her own rock steady classic "You Don't Want Me (No No No)," itself a reworked version of a song by Bo Diddley and Willie Cobbs, the old feedback loop between America and the Caribbean still hot. Then the dem bow comes on.

"This music is great, I got to get down," says bearded Green Party candidate for governor Ken Pentel, and I'm relieved when he doesn't do the perreo. Soon Baker throws on a Big Pun track with Tony Sunshine singing the Puerto Rican national anthem, "La Borinqueña," and Isa waves whatever conversation she's having to a pause, and rushes to join other women on the dance floor, her hands in the air.

With her vocal class earlier, Isa had seemed years older than 19, formal and withheld in the way teachers are when just a few years separate them from their students. Now, among friends and rolling her hips, she looks like a girl again. 

Reggaetón Live

Danny y Elliot

opening for Lao Crimino and Nalee, with DJ Pablo, Tara, and DJ Vooch

Thursday, November 23

Escape Ultra Lounge, 612.333.8855

www.escapeultralounge.com

Back-Up Plomo

with the Corporation, Don Xaba, Double O Kho, Mone Mac, Lirica Secreta

Wednesday, November 29

Blue Nile; 612.338.3000

www.bluenilempls.com

DJ Pablo

opening for Frost (Formerly Kid Frost), Scoop DeVille, St. Paul Kings, and more

Thursday, November 30

Mexian (formerly Club Cancun); 651.983.7351

Maria Isa

with Carnage, Desdamona, Daylight, DJ Fundamentalist, and AKB

Thursday, December 21

Babalu; 612.746.3158

www.babalu.us

Dance Nights Featuring Reggaetón

Thursdays Noche de Perreo at El Nuevo Rodeo

612.728.0101

www.elnuevorodeo.com

Thursdays Ritmo Caliente at First Avenue 612.332.1775

www.first-avenue.com

Thursdays The Bungalow at the First Avenue VIP Room 612.332.1775

www.myspace.com/djverbx

www.first-avenue.com

Thursdays Yearning at the Red Sea 612.229.8126

www.myspace.com/yearningmpls

Fridays Noche de Gala Productions at Babalu

612.746.3158

www.babalu.us

Saturdays Salsa Police at Loring Pasta Bar 612.378.4849

www.thesalsapolice.com

www.loringcafe.com

Sundays Vibrations at the Lounge

612.333.8800

www.mezeshaentertainment.com

www.theloungempls.com

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