The rise of reggaeton

There's a new sound in town, which gives hip-hop and dancehall a Latin edge. Chris Mugan reports
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The Independent Culture

The ecstatic roars from Latino kids in replica shirts of Colombia's football team could make one think one of their star players was on show. Instead, three fresh-faced youths bound across the Central America stage at the Carnaval del Pueblo in Burgess Park in south London, one of Europe's biggest free festivals of Latin culture. Amid the showcases of Brazilian samba, Mexican big bands and Peruvian pipes, they bring something different: the electronic beats of Jamaican dancehall. Yet, instead of adopting that nation's patois, they rap in their native Spanish. It is an irresistible combination that fills the tent not only with London's flag-waving Hispanic community, but also with youths of all backgrounds from Camberwell, Stockwell and Brixton.

DGR Family's ability to attract a diverse crowd is the latest sign that there is a new sound of summer. Its mix of Spanish rap, Latino samples and dancehall has been named reggaeton, possibly because of its dance sessions or to denote how the Caribbean's Spanish areas had beefed up the sound.

The genre emerged in Panama during the late Eighties, but only gained notoriety when it hit Puerto Rico around 1992. With the addition of ostentatious wealth and girls in bikinis to perform the hip-grinding dance perreo, a word that translates aptly as "doggy", it went on to conquer Colombia, the Dominican Republic and, most importantly, the United States.

For while the UK's Latin community has devoured reggaeton via specialist satellite stations. But now it has the potential to reach a wider audience thanks to US rap artists. Wyclef and 50 Cent have taken reggaeton to the mainstream, as part of hip-hop's constant search for a fresh sound. Such stars have put out reggaeton-style remixes, collaborated with Puerto Rican artists and are to guest on the latter's albums. Even Jamaican dancehall's top dogs, Sean Paul and Sizzla, are keen to get in on the act.

The first time most people heard from reggaeton would have been on the rapper NORE's hit "Oye Mi Canto". In this respect, it is a sign of the times. The growth of US Hispanic communities has put ethnic minorities in the majority in Texas, as well as California and New Mexico. We are due for for some Spanish cultural domination to join that of Afro-Caribbean music.

Reggaeton's arrival in the UK was cemented a couple of weeks ago, when the Puerto Rican Daddy Yankee landed in the top 10 with his anthem "Gasolina". Already a massive club tune throughout much of Europe, it has become the biggest foreign-language hit since Panjabi MC's "Mundian To Bach Ke". Yet, in a country whose knowledge of Hispanic culture revolves around salsa lessons and tortilla chips, it will take a huge effort for UK Latinos to make a sustained impact.

Matt White, the club DJ and urban-music promoter who broke Daddy Yankee in the UK, believes they are ready for the challenge. "There is a very dedicated, core group of people, putting on events on a weekly basis. We have embraced reggae, even though we don't understand a lot of the lyrics, so it shouldn't be a question of them coming to us, we should be going to them.'

In the wake of Daddy Yankee's success, first out of the blocks is Speedy, a performer with a distinctive, high-pitched voice. "Sientelo" has already been a massive hit around the continent, thanks to a canny remix that includes the sultry vocals of the New York-based female singer Luminee.

It is not that Speedy is unable make an impact on his own. Although regarded as an underground artist in Puerto Rico, the singer is full of confidence. He called his debut album Nueva Generacion and believes he can take the genre further. "Reggaeton has been about what people see in the streets," he explains. "I am talking about having fun in the clubs and with women, but treating them with more respect than other people."

Still to make their UK debuts are the streetwise veteran Tego Calderon, and Don Omar, an artist who uses more traditional Latin sounds than Daddy Yankee's cutting-edge R&B and hip-hop styles. You can hear him to good effect on the documentary and compilation The Chosen Few, which provides a guide to reggaeton.

The film shows how many of the stars emerged from deprived childhoods and dangerous teenage years in gang warfare. Verbal battles between individual artists are still an important feature of the scene, though White believes they will not escalate into physical violence and overshadow the music.

"There is always going to be rivalry whenever you get guys that have come from that culture. The one thing I have noticed about reggaeton is that ultimately they are very professional. Daddy Yankee and Don Omar realise an MC battle is good for people to talk about, but going further is bad for business."

White sees parallels between the emergence of reggaeton and the dancehall explosion of a couple of years back. In the wake of Sean Paul's success, though, Elephant Man and Beenie Man stalled as the scene failed to deal in a satisfactory fashion with a homophobia controversy. White is confident reggaeton has no similar skeletons in its closet. "In every style of music there is someone controversial. At some point, there will be a reggaeton artist that will do that, inevitably to gain exposure. But it's a different situation as there is nothing here that is potentially offensive."

While providing a platform for seasoned artists is important, nothing beats the passion of a fresh performer. Latin festivals and London clubs already provide an opportunity for young artists to cut their teeth, yet they still need to match the impact of Puerto Rico's big guns.

Jay, a rapper from DGR Family, says his group are already planning to cross over, along with other London-based collectives La Raza and Latin Clan. "We make party music and romantic music, but I want to speak to young people as well. I have a song called 'The Waste of Life', which is about girls making the wrong decisions in life. I want to rap this in English, to show you what Latin people can do in England."

So homegrown talent grows while clubbers dance to the music at mainstream venues, and holiday makers catch the anthems at European resorts. Reggaeton could well outlast its position as this year's sound of the summer.

REGGAETON: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION

100% Reggaeton, Virgin EMI, ***

Easy-going introduction that focuses on the genre's more accessible side. Daddy Yankee features, plus the veteran street philosopher Vico-C, though these two discs really provide a ready-made party soundtrack with plenty of feel-good hits of the summer. It's 75-per-cent there.

The Chosen Few, Virgin EMI, ****

This no-holds-barred documentary looks at reggaeton's portrayal of women and its roots in gang culture. Just as important, though, is the accompanying CD, with hard-hitting tracks from key players Don Omar and NORE, with many artists providing exclusive mixes.

Mas Flow, Vol 2, Universal Latino, ****

Reggaeton's most influential producers, Luny Tunes, show how they push things forward on a varied set that reveals their imagination and melodic nous.

Dancehall and Reggaeton 2005, Sequence, ***

Ignore Jamaica at your peril. This selection presents a robust response to the upstarts from Puerto Rico by the Jamaican dancehall heavyweights Vybz Kartel and Sizzla. It's a boon for non-Spanish speakers as you can understand the lyrics. You also get a showing from the biggest female star, Ivy Queen.

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