Pop Playground
Reggaeton: The Survival Guide

it was musical serendipity, the rare occurrence where one discovers new music purely by chance. Sometimes I'm asked where I learn about music, and I always say the usual: "the internet, compilations, recommendations from friends, etc..." This time was different, and therefore special.

Over the summer, I went to parties at the home of my girlfriend's coworker, Teresa, on the southwest side of Chicago, a largely Hispanic area. Teresa worked as a cook at a French bakery in my neighborhood, and had kids a bit younger than me. At one of these parties, for her oldest son Daniel's birthday (he was turning 18), Daniel's friends were manning the stereo in the garage. Usually the musical selection at these parties was American hip-hop, with a heavy emphasis on the South (I bonded with several of Daniel's friends during a conversation about Three-6-Mafia in broken Spanish). This time was different. And therefore special.

After Beenie Man's "Dude", a new beast entered the back-alley soundsystem. It sounded like dancehall, but without the cheesy melodies and flaccid vocals endemic to current dancehall. The beat was everything I wanted dancehall to be—sharp, upbeat, danceable. And the vocals were in Spanish. "Que es eso?" I asked. "Reggaeton," one of the DJs replied. And I was hooked.

The next day, once the Coronas and Modelos had worn off, I spent the entire day exploring this genre that was completely foreign to me, and yet thriving only a few miles away from where I lived. In its most basic sense, reggaeton is Puerto Rican dancehall. Imported from Jamaica via Panama, reggaeton fused with native music currents—most notably salsa and the polyrhythmic African-derived bomba—to make something instantly recognizable, yet distinct from its influences. Reggaeton is a huge industry in the Latin music industry, on its way to eclipsing established genres like salsa and merengue in popularity. Its emphasis on sex and parties turns off the older generation, while the youth grind in the "perreo" dance style at clubs devoted exclusively to this music. Reggaeton stars are born overnight, attracting Spanish-language rappers struggling to make it in English-dominated hip-hop.

All this leads to a vibrant musical culture, almost completely under the radar in the U.S. (except for New York City, home to thousands of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans). The rules of the genre are simple, and therefore incredibly malleable, much like hip-hop. All one needs is a clipped snare hit and some staccato toms, and reggaeton is created (which has led to myriad reggaeton bootleg remixes floating around the internet, of everything from Celia Cruz to Evanescence). And while it may be simple to make, a garrison of talented, devoted producers keeps things varied and surprising. And as a new style centered on dance and club culture, reggaeton has absorbed much of contemporary electronic music into its vocabulary. The result is a fascinatingly diverse array of music that speaks to the universal appeal of music often thought of as the product of a hermetic island culture. This is music that thumbs its nose at geography. This is different. And therefore special.

What follows is a highly abbreviated list of some of my favorite reggaeton tracks I've culled from the Internet. I encourage readers to explore their own local reggaeton scenes: wherever young Latinos exist (which is practically everywhere in the U.S.), so does reggaeton.

Latino Way - Mami
"Suete reggaeton!" The drum machine stutters through some rolls and we're in gear. Most reggaeton MCs work alone or with a partner; Latino Way have a chorus spitting rapid-fire in unison over an uptempo backing track. The monotone staccato syllables give the hook a polyrhythmic, almost "classic" world music vibe, while the boxy snare hits keep the tune firmly grounded in reggaeton.

Notch - Hay Que Bueno Reggaeton
There's nice interplay between the old and the new here: a stomping matador guitar, trumpet, congas and dramatic Spanish-pop crooning flavors the traditional reggaeton beat. Notch adds an authentic Latin melodicism to a rapping style that owes far more to Jamaica than NYC.

Tito y Hector - El Maleante
Some of the prettiest boys on the reggaeton scene (a field in which they face stiff competition), Tito y Hector trade high-pitched, high energy raps over DJ Goldie's fantastic trance-influenced beat. Piercing, percolating jabs of high pitched synths (reggaeton is nothing if not about short, clipped sounds) set the stage for well-placed vocal glissandos by the duo. This is reggaeton filtered through the European club scene, and as awful as that may sound, it works wonderfully.

Daniyel - Dale Tra
Purveying a style of reggaeton heavily influenced by European club music as well as Miami bass, Daniyel fits nicely along more successful groups (like the Reggaeton Sex crew) working in a similar aesthetic. His vocals, clipped phrases like "muevelo" and "dale", are sampled and looped over a beat more house-influenced than your average reggaeton track. Pure club music here, the kind of stuff that gave reggaeton the nickname perreo (loosely, "doggie-style," a reference to the dance style that often accompanies the music). Also noteworthy: the sinister acid house bass and Daniyel's incredibly fast rap about halfway through the song.

Daddy Yankee - Brugal (Remix)
One of the stars of reggaeton, Daddy Yankee frequently employs top-notch production and excellent rapping. "Brugal" is no exception, and its call-and-response hook—"Bailando! Rapando! Que que que que!"—is as infectious as it gets. Some squelchy synth that sounds like outtakes from the Liquid Swords recording sessions join alongside some upbeat accordion—a more traditional Latin pop instrument.

Tego Calderon - Elegante De Boutique
Tego is the reigning king of reggaeton, despite veering into straightforward Spanish rap (and occasionally salsa!) on his albums. His most unique feature is his voice: deep, relaxed and confident, making him one of the skilled rappers on the reggaeton scene. One of his trademarks is found on "Elegante", ending a line with a short "Oye" ("listen to me") before going right into the next one. Tego also gets his pick of the best reggaeton beats, and the bass drum rolls and accordion add a unique flavor to the polyrhythmic beat.

Comandante - Don Diguidi
Comandante displays his love for pure syllables, chopping the words "Don Diguidi" into a tongue twister of a hook. The language barrier is no hindrance to the song's message, as Comndante gets his tongue around every phoneme in "Mami chula"—nasty boy! A really good, simple, beat on this one lets the vocals take over the responsibility of getting the chicas to shake it.

Cigarette Cortecia - Murder
This is an older style of reggaeton (unfortunately, the internet was unable to provide me with ANY information about this track or the artist). The beat is done on a simple drum machine, very reminiscent of dancehall riddims—and it even has gunshots in time to the beat! Cortecia also has a dancehall-influenced flow, delivering whole lines on one note before changing to a different pitch. The low-budget production is charming, rather than distracting—the well-written song never suffers from low-tech equipment.

Vico C - Para Mi Barrio (Reggaeton Remix)
Vico C is, by some accounts, the first Spanish-language rapper of note, so it's inevitable that he'll show up on the reggaeton scene. Tony Touch produced the original, full of salsa-fied piano and trumpet (and shakers!). The remix replaces the hip-hop beat with a kinetic reggaeton one (a common trope of the scene; check out bootleg reggaeton remixes of Evanescence for a clue). Splitting his time between Spanish and English, Vico emphasizes the polyglot nature of reggaeton and sounds good at the same time.

Sasha feat. Ivy Queen - Dat Sexy Body
Ivy Queen is the most notable female MC in reggaeton, which has to be due to her voice. It's strong and throaty and strangely asexual—she sounds less feminine than a lot of male reggaeton MCs. She also provides both sides of a dancefloor dialogue ("Baile mami, baile mami baile mami... Dame papi, dame papi, dame papi"), which could certainly be fodder for future reggaeton gender studies. Sasha provides a good contrast, delivering sweet Spanglish singing for the hook, as well as a verse of her own. And the beat grinds along on its own, eschewing the typical reggaeton boxy snare offbeats.

By: Gavin Mueller
Published on: 2004-11-03
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