A beginner’s guide to the history and hybridity of reggaeton
You won’t find Capezzio Disco Bar in reggaeton history books — rarely do traditional timelines stop off in the Mexican port town Veracruz — but in 1990, it became the national epicenter of the explicit party music when it changed its soundtrack from salsa to reggaeton.
Capezzio was among the first Mexican venues for touring reggaeton A-listers like Vico C, and Hector y Tito — not to mention, a crucial stage for Mexican MCs that made ever-growing crowds dale hasta abajo. In this church of perreo, Twista-speed motormouth rapper Big Metra thrilled early crowds with his evergreen hit ‘Desnúdate’. MCs Magañola and Baby King of Veracruz duo La Dinastia dropped references to cowboys and TV star Niurka in equal measure. Krysstal la Mas Perra got her start at Capezzio in 1999, winning one of the club’s notorious talent searches as a 17-year-old with capable flow and ample, butch lesbian jarocha swag. (She’s continued to confound those who’ve dubbed the genre as hopelessly homophobic with her decades-long career as a queer reggaetonera.)
But that’s not where the story starts. Where that is differs on who you ask, but most would say it begins with the toasting traditions of Jamaican dancehall, a melodic braggadocio that took places over the island’s legendary party beats. When Jamaicans immigrated to other lands, they took these lyrical lineages with them and dancehall vocals encountered new languages and scenes in which to integrate. Some of these offshoots would become known as reggaeton, cementing the genre’s crucial hybridity. Reggaeton refuses to stay in one place and is as close to a Pan Latinx sound as one can get. Today, it’s so prevalent in almost every corner of the Americas, enough to qualify it as the reigning form of Latin pop. As another global industry-confirmed “boom” brings urban Latin genres into speakers across the world, it seems ever more imperative to hype reggaeton history.
This story goes back well before Bieber fatefully heard a Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee track in a Colombian club and insisted on jumping on the remix, decades prior to the mid-aughts libido spike brought on by ‘Gasolina’.
Renato y la 4 Estrellas – ‘La Chica de los Ojos Café’
The crew boards an intricately painted Diablo Rojo bus. They hand a Jamaican reggae B-side cassette to the driver to pump over the vehicle’s sound system (its speakers a rarity in 1970s and ’80s Panama City.) The rasta MCs deliver a patois flow with dancehall flair to the riders. Renato y la 4 Estrellas, led by quinceañera choreographer Leonardo “Renato” Aulder, are making history.
In 1979, Panama’s West Indian-populated Canal Zone transitioned from a US territory to become an official part of Panama, the country that had surrounded the area since its delineation in 1903. In this swirl of pan-American identity — black and Latinx with Barbadian, Jamaican and US roots — and in the absence of record presses or any national music industry to speak of, English-speaking Renato and other vocalists found a way to graduate plena, as their new sound came to be called, from bus performances to clubs to the studio. Renato’s first recorded hit, 1985’s ‘El D.E.N.I.’, was a warning against Panama’s brutal undercover police force by the same name. Delivered in Spanish to be more widely accessible, his lyrics reflected the issues roiling its creator’s black, urban experience.
Another member of Renato y las 4 Estrellas found himself in New York. Business administration student and ace freestyler Edgardo “El General” Franco synthesized the golden age of hip hop swirling around him, endowing his first Spanish language release ‘Tu Pum Pum’ with beatboxing and a bassline that skipped over dread roots for a rap beat. The fusion of several recognizable elements made El General reggae en español’s first international star. Spanish language versioning of Jamaican dancehall hits became popular. Perhaps most significantly, a version of the Bobby “Digital” Dixon-produced, Steely and Clevie-performed Shabba Ranks’ 1990 dancehall classic ‘Dem Bow’ — Panamanian Nando Boom’s ‘Ellos Benia’ — would travel to Puerto Rico and become the heavily sampled audio backbone of the genre we’d come to know as reggaeton.
DJ Playero – Playero 38
Throughout the Caribbean, innovators in the mid-’80s built off of Panama’s experiments in musical hybridity. Jamaican dancehall artists like Shabba Ranks and Super Cat found popularity in mainstream outlets like Yo! MTV Raps; waves of Dominican immigration, as well as the circular migratory patterns through which Puerto Ricans brought mainland US hip-hop back to their island, gave birth to a sound that would eventually overshadow Panamanian plena in popular culture.
During this “underground” era, multiple schools of creativity built out what would eventually lead to the reggaeton sound. Jamaican production duo Steely and Clevie revolutionized dancehall with drum machines and synthesizers. Puerto Rican promoter and producer Jorge Oquendo spliced Dominican merengue with hip hop to form meren-rap. Eschewing melodic dancehall vocals, hip-hop en español heavy Vico C led the charge in laying verbose, US hip-hop-style verses over Caribbean beats, helping to establish underground’s characteristically harder sound. DJ Negro was the first in Puerto Rico to popularize reggae en español at The Noise nightclub, headquarters for his seminal in-house crew featuring Ivy Queen, Baby Ranks, DJ Nelson and Baby Rasta y Gringo. These artists would come to define reggaeton, even decades later — and none more so than Ivy Queen, who is still the genre’s undisputed queen. Their movement was also referred to as “melaza” or “música negra,” words that reflected the racial makeup of its audience and artists, who often produced their work at home in the island’s caseríos, or housing projects.
Another formational figure was DJ Playero, whose self-titled early ’90s mixtape series began as a tightly-woven tapestry of reggae and hip-hop references. Eventually, his mission expanded to include local artists; the Playero series introduced talents like Nicky Jam, Tempo and Master Joe to the world. Playero 38 provides an excellent document of the era’s affinity for the newly ubiquitous ‘Dem Bow’ beat.
Wiso G’s Sin Parar
In February 1995, cops pillaged six Puerto Rican record stores, confiscating reggaeton cassettes and CDs and delivering court citations to employees (which were later dismissed by San Juan’s Superior Court.) The excuse was violence in underground’s lyrics, pegged as the impetus for supposed youth crime waves. Like gangster rap — not to mention 1960s and ‘70s Nuyorican salsa — underground songs often featured explicit narratives of life and crime in resource-deprived neighborhoods. But historians have questioned whether Puerto Rican authorities hadn’t also bridled at underground’s blackness; over the fact that its embrace of diasporic African musical traditions privileged narratives within Puerto Rico’s own ethnic heritage that did not square with the notion of racial democracy by the island’s powers-that-be.
Concurrent to the raids was Puerto Rican governor Pedro Rosselló’s Mano Dura Contra el Crimen campaign, which saw the National Guard occupying caseríos in a purported attempt to lower crime rates. Political motivation could be linked to efforts by conservative watchdog group Morality in Media (now known as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation; coincidentally the primary lobbyists responsible for the United States’ recently passed, calamitous anti-sex worker legislation.) MIM claimed that reggaeton reflected a youth subculture where “violence, drug use, sexual libertines, and a lack of respect for others” was norm. Notably, the government only took action when underground started making overground money. At the time of the raids, Wiso G’s Sin Parar had become the genre’s first album to be sold in mainstream record stores.
The genre survived and thrived but censorship took its toll: reggaeton wouldn’t have a dedicated radio station until San Juan’s Mix 107.7 FM popped off in 1999 with DJs Nelson and Coyote. The prejudices behind the raids were replicated in ensuing moral panics. In 2002, Puerto Rican senator Velda González launched a governmental crusade against perceived exploitation in reggaeton’s well-sexed music videos despite the exemplar, socially-conscious release that year of Tego Calderón’s Afro-centric debut El Abayarde.
DJ Blass – Reggaeton Sex
There is no doubt that the Reggaeton Sex series from Guayama, PR-born DJ Blass, aka Vladimir Felix, falls into the category of broadly explicit releases loathed by Senator González. But the influential producer’s work signified seismic auditory and technological shifts in reggaeton and not just because Blass claims to have played a major role in popularizing use of the word “reggaeton” in the title of an early release. His oeuvre was no longer a version of hip-hop and reggae beats, but rather the foundations of a new, more refined sound that belonged to reggaeton and reggaeton alone.
Blass ratcheted down the previously high energy BPMs and introduced minor chords to make the music more aggressive, more street and much more discernible from the reggae beats that had come before. His Reggaeton Sex Vol. 2 was at the vanguard when it came to digital technology, utilizing Fruity Loops presets originally created for techno producers, European synthesizers and sequencers to expand the genre’s sonic palette. To dodge copyright violations and become more commercially viable, hard-partying sanduguero beatmakers had begun to move away from the samples that had texturized earlier underground releases. Instead, songs employed cartoonish audio effects, from explosions to sirens, to pull in listeners. Like DJ Nelson before him, Blass was a fan of implementing divergent genres like house to build out his productions — even trance and techno moments found their way into his work. The radio-ready version of reggaeton had finally broke, though few could have predicted the mainstream moment that lay ahead.
Daddy Yankee – ‘Gasolina’
Like many of the most lauded arbiters of reggaeton, Luny (aka Francisco Saldana) and Tunes (aka Victor Saldana) grew up far from the genre’s epicenters. The duo were born in the Dominican Republic and moved to Massachusetts as teenagers. Plucked from jobs at a Harvard University cafeteria by DJ Nelson to fill out his Flow Music roster, the two hit the ground running with 2003’s Mas Flow, 2004’s The Kings of the Beats, and 2005’s Mas Flow 2. Technologically fluent in VST plug-ins and Fruity Loops’ Pluck! synthesizer, the pair wove pop-friendly tracks utilizing the R&B-inspired blin-blineo sound, with the now-familiar dembow boom-ch-boom-chick never far away.
It all came to a head when Luny Tunes got together with Daddy Yankee, a star who had been a force on the Puerto Rican scene since he began rapping at 14, for a little track named ‘Gasolina’. The song’s mega-success provided the moment in which gringos perked up their ears and formed a haphazard opinion on a music that had been coursing through Latin America for decades — for many, that it was “repetitive,” perhaps a direct result of Luny Tunes’ airwaves ubiquity at the time. Even in the year that ‘Gasolina’ shook windows in their frames in neighborhoods across the world, it was the only reggaeton song to win (or even score a nomination) at the Latin Grammys.
Lack of critical acclaim aside, the success of ‘Gasolina’ spurred a number of urban music labels to open Latin divisions in 2005: Universal’s Machete Music, Wu Tang Latino, Bad Boy Latino, and Roc La Familia, who released N.O.R.E.’s seminal Pan-Latino anthem ‘Oye Mi Canto’. All quickly folded except for Universal’s and Wu’s projects, which continue highlighting Latinx artists to this day. 2005 also saw the launch of Univision’s reggaeton-heavy La Kalle, New York’s 105.9/92.7 FM radio station.
J. Balvin – ‘Ay Vamos’
As reggaeton birthed romántico stars like the diminutive, nasal-voiced talent Arcángel and ‘Sensación del Bloque’ heartthrob De La Ghetto, and made way for the darker trap en español, an entirely different feel started hitting from an unexpected corner of the Americas. The Medellín sound is typified by J. Balvin and the billion YouTube view-plus tale of a bickering couple that is 2013’s ‘Ay Vamos’ produced by Sky Rompiendo El Bajo. You can also hear it in the work of producers like Mosty and Bull Nene, as well as in the more explicit end of pop star Maluma’s “pretty boy/dirty boy” continuum, site of the controversial, but pablum, odes to polyamory ‘Cuatro Babys’ and ‘Felices los 4’. The strain is a more melodic version of a genre previously characterized by its raunch and street smarts. Balvin and Mosty have implied that their softer brand of reggaeton can be attributed to fatigue over the violence that rocked Colombia during its civil war with the FARC.
As the standard bearer of this new wave, Balvin was pitch perfect: handsome and relentlessly positive, with middle class roots. He is also a white Latinx and a beneficiary of the well-established Colombian star system that gave birth to icons like Juanes and Shakira. Despite the important roles currently played by vocalists like Bryant Myers, Ozuna and Ñengo Flow, the preponderance of white artists in a genre originally masterminded for and by black people figures as one of the problematic aspects of rise of reggaeton’s global profile.
There is no mistaking the ‘We Are The World’ vibes on Balvin’s 2017 hit ‘Mi Gente’ with French singer-producer Willy William. The track, run through with klezmer clarinets and moombahton vibes, scored a Beyoncé remix and reflects its album Vibras’ expansive ambiance. “There’s reggaeton sounds, but Vibras is a world record,” Balvin recently told Rolling Stone. “It’s a proposition to the people: ‘Do you like this? Would you accept us?’”
Tomasa del Real x Chico Sonido – ‘Tamos Redy’
Over the last decade, a notable diasporic wave of Latinx producers and artists have been incorporating perreo and dancehall as recognizable notes in their complex electronic pastiche. Songs were mined for Spanish language vocals, which were subsequently threaded through cyborg track creations. Club warlocks like the Mexico City-based N.A.A.F.I. collective, Chile’s Paul Marmota, Terror Negro Records co-founder Deltatron, Buenos aires collective Hiedrah, King Doudou and Bala Club’s Kamixlo spliced the dembow beat with house, hip-hop, kuduro and industrial. In Spain, trap collective Pxxr Gvng’s reggaeton project Mafia del Amor provided romantic dysphoria with dark, catchy perreo love. As often as not, this generation eschews traditional industry traps that had mired previous generations of Latin artists in contract woes and opt to self-distribute through their own labels.
Their beats were one jump-off for a new generation of female vocalists and label bosses who have rejected the traditional hetero-masculinity of reggaeton to center their own narratives and open the door to the inclusion of people who identify as queer. Argentinian vocalist Ms. Nina first attracted international attention with her Chico Sonido-produced underground hit ‘Chupa Chupa’ and featured queer Spanish internet personality King Jedet on last year’s ‘Reinas’. Chilean Tomasa del Real’s racecar internet glam aesthetic and lascivious lyrics put her in the role of dance floor hunter. Her writhing, camo-clad rooftop video pachanga in the video for ‘Tamos Redy’ is as queer-friendly as you get. Occasional Perreo Pesado vocalist DJ Rosa Pistola breaks from any kind of electronic vibes to put the spotlight on classic Mexico-based reggaeton talent like Sir Speedy and Big Metra in her own Línea del Sexxx mixtape but got her start playing queer parties. Songs by these women have kept dance floors full at a rising rainbow tide of LGBTQ+ reggaeton nightlife hotspots like Mexico City’s Mami Slut, NYC’s Papi Juice and Los Angeles’ Noche de Travesuras.
Luis Fonsi – ‘Despacito’ Feat. Daddy Yankee
In early 2017, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee released ‘Despacito’, a cumbia-influenced reggaeton pop tale of lust so well-fed with Puerto Rican cuatros guitars, timbales and guache percussion, even the Spanish language-impaired were compelled to bop. It had been hard to imagine a bigger crossover moment than ‘Gasolina’ but here it was. A Justin Bieber remix provided no shortage of ham-handed gringo moments, and the track reigned at the no. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a solid 16 weeks. ‘Despacito’ went on to rack up four Latin Grammys, become the first Latin single to be certified diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America and is currently the most-streamed Youtube video of all time.
The media was crowing about another Latin “boom” and accordingly, ‘Despacito’ inspired a hunt for bilingual urban music crossover opportunities. A wave of photogenic yung reggaeton-Latin trap artists led by Puerto Rican pretty boy Bad Bunny were happy to oblige. In short order, Bad Bunny and Puerto Rican trapero Farruko had Nicki Minaj and Travis Scott on a remix of stoner anthem ‘Krippy Kush’, cherubic-voiced reggaeton artist Ozuna was fielding Cardi B hooks on his dancehall pop banger ‘El Modelo’, and Orlando producer Spiff TV’s linking hip-hop and Latin stars was looking more relevant than ever as he teamed Future with Anuel AA and Bad Bunny for a lush anime video.
Those familiar with Snoop Dogg’s feature on Daddy Yankee’s 2005 album Barrio Fino en Directo are aware that these “crossovers” are less of an evolution within Latin urban music, but rather an expression of hybrid that’s been contained within — and perhaps defined — the genres since their earliest days. Still, some look for signs of progress. Will this be the era that convinces Anglo industry that “Latin” is not antithetical to “mainstream,” or that Latin urban music and its traditional audience should not be catered to depending on facile perceptions of boom and bust?
Many thanks to reggaeton historians Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, Isabelia Herrera and Eddie Cepeda, without whose previous work this article would not have been possible.
Caitlin Donohue is a freelance writer who lives in Mexico City. Find her on Twitter.