The Rise of Reggaeton
Wayne&Wax has published a lengthy, authoritative piece on reggaeton in this week's Boston Phoenix. His blog post on the subject acknowledges that there is currently no shortage of articles on reggaeton. But this one provides a level of musical, historical, and cultural analysis (with a firm ethnomusicological grounding) I've not found in the recent torrent of mainstream media stories, and it asks and answers some of my burning questions. A couple of choice highlights:
As a modern sound, a sound intimately related to hip-hop and reggae, reggaeton gives Latino youth a way to participate in contemporary urban-American culture without abandoning important aspects of their heritage. This may help to explain why a Latin-Caribbean form -- and not, say, a Mexican or Chicano style -- has managed to captivate young Latinos in a way that norteño never has, despite Mexican-Americans constituting well over 60% of the US Hispanic population.-snip-
Dancehall reggae had already established a strong following in Puerto Rico in its own right by the early 90s, as popular songs by Jamaican deejays such as Shabba Ranks, Cutty Ranks, and Chaka Demus & Pliers helped to redefine the sound of contemporary club music. It was, in fact, a Shabba Ranks song, "Dem Bow," produced by Bobby Digital, which would lay the foundation for what became known as reggaeton. The underlying instrumental -- i.e., riddim -- for "Dem Bow," a minimalist production with catchy percussion, became an overwhelming favorite in Puerto Rican freestyle sessions, to the point where, for a time, Spanish-language reggae in Puerto Rico was simply called Dembow. Vocalists drew on a variety of styles, borrowing from dancehall, hip-hop, and various Latin musical traditions and creating a distinctive synthesis. By the mid-90s, a catchier tag came along, and reggaeton began to describe what was emerging as far and away the most popular music for lower-class Puerto Rican youth, at home and in the United States.This is perhaps my favorite aspect of the story of reggaeton, tracing it back to the "Dem Bow" riddim. It pleases me to no end when a musical origin story is this neat, when you really can trace things back (in at least one important way) to a single song by a single producer. While you're reading the piece in the Phoenix, check out Wayne's Dem Bow mix over at The Riddim Method.
Finally, a peek at the last page to convince you it's worth reading all the way through:
Only relatively recently, with its acquisition of market power and stateside acceptance, has reggaeton reached Puerto Rico's middle- and upper-classes. What was previously denigrated as crude and crass now stands as a national symbol and a promising source of foreign exchange. In a place where, despite their celebrated mixed-ness, over 90% of Puerto Ricans self-identify as "white," it's no accident that a prominent reggaeton artist like Tego Calderon foregrounds his blackness by wearing an Afro, referring to himself as "El Negro Calde," and incorporating Afro-Puerto-Rican traditions. In the US, Hispanic immigrants often find themselves living alongside, and racialized along with, African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, so it's no surprise that reggaeton works in sympathy and solidarity with the cultural politics of hip-hop and reggae.