Sitting in the passenger seat next to Mexico’s first reggaeton DJ, Marcelo Ortíz, is an antidote for genre amnesia.
Urbano fever is gripping the music industry but global success stories for artists like J. Balvin and Bad Bunny are only part of the picture. Ortíz has history to offer. He spent 22 years at Capezzio nightclub in Puerto, Veracruz, where he, as Marcelo DJ, helped spark a local movement that continues to this day. Puerto’s artists — who number in the hundreds — have stayed decidedly underground. Relegated to local fame, jarocho beats are mainly documented by obscure YouTube channels like that of Juan Antonio Solís, aka DJ Warrior.
Ortíz, handsome and soft spoken at 51, retired from DJing in 2007. He remains a pillar of Puerto’s reggaeton scene. Bootleg MP3s of his early 2000s Capezzio compilations are still sold in the booths of the tianguis downtown, pounding tracklists alternating between El Chombo classics and Marcelo’s favorite singles of the year from Puerto artists.
“Capezzio was a meeting place, and its public was an underground community that had no voice,” he says. “Collaborators began to approach us, the kind of music that I liked to play was really resonating. It set the style in that moment. You could say, in certain ways, reggaeton was part of a cultural expression.”
He drives down Puerto’s Malecón, the boulevard that hugs the coastline and where the city’s massive annual Carnaval celebrations happen. From here you can see the port itself, which received 2,000 African slaves a year around the turn of the 17th century. The Africans would go on to play a key role in the Mexican Revolution, aiding the forces of independence with rebellions against Spanish crown-loyal slave owners.
“We gave reggaeton our own flavor. That’s what I would like the world to know.” – Marcelo DJ
Given that reggaeton was pioneered by black people throughout the Caribbean and Central America, the reason why the genre first took hold in Mexico by way of Veracruz may seem obvious. Ask a Veracruz reggaeton artist to describe their sound and they will inevitably drop the word “jarocho”. The term was coined to describe the culture that developed as indigenous people and Africans intermingled. Jarochos have given birth to several mestizo music forms like son jarocho, known to the rest of the world via the classic ‘La Bamba’.
The Malecón is also home to the Zócalo or Macroplaza, a vast courtyard where Carnaval’s main stage is erected. In the ’90s, when reggaeton was still known as raggamuffin in Puerto, hopeful emcees gathered nearby in front of the port’s customs building, to cypher in the very center of their city. Al fresco gatherings in the tropical heat have characterized Puerto’s reggaeton history. Around 2003 and ’04, the 40-plus producer, emcee, and dancer members of La Gran Familia met in Chiveria Park to freestyle and network.
Reggaeton is now one of Mexico’s favorite sounds — in 2017, Spotify announced it was the country’s preferred streaming genre. But many fans are unaware that it entered the country decades prior via one of its poorest states. “We were the door to the rest of the country,” Marcelo says. “But we gave reggaeton our own flavor. That’s what I would like the world to know.”
“LET’S MAKE A MESS”
In 1980, Nancy Segura opened Nancy’s Discoteque to cater to Puerto’s lower middle class, a public commonly passed over by the town’s other clubs. She eventually changed the name to Disco Salsa Nancy’s in homage to her customers’ two favorite genres, and then to Capezzio. The third moniker was a nod to the elastic dancewear line Capezio, and also a similarly named NYC nightclub that had inspired Segura and her then-husband, now-host and manager Juan Santiago.
A renaissance man who studied marine biology and toured as a disco dancer, Santiago is loud and brash, a strangely copacetic partner to the reserved Ortíz. Like Marcelo, Santiago’s name is now synonymous with Veracruz reggaeton, and as a Exa 93.3 FM host, Santiago has played an important role in disseminating the sound of local artists to a wider public. A typical night at Capezzio saw Marcelo’s reggaeton alternate with Santiago’s comedy shows, characterized by a libertine sense of showmanship and signature jarocho impudence often directed at gleeful audience members. “A mellow, educated host?” Santiago says, laughing. “No way! Let’s make a mess.”
“We were criticized by a hypercritical society.” – Juan Santiago
He is being interviewed in a wig-strewn dressing room while he prepares for the night’s show — but not at Capezzio, which was forced to close just after Carnaval 2017. A viral cell phone video of a on-stage blowjob contest caught authorities’ attention, but more importantly, nothing shielded Capezzio from the violence and corruption faced by all jarochos. In 2016, ex-governor Javier Duarte fled the country when allegations arose that he had used his post to launder billions of dollars. In 2018, a mass grave of 174 bodies made national headlines when it was discovered outside a Veracruz coastal town.
Also in 2016, Capezzio manager Daniel Múñoz was found executed alongside five other individuals in what Santiago says was a case of mistaken identity. In March 2017, police claimed they had discovered the corpses of 11 individuals, some of whom had allegedly been kidnapped while at the club. Capezzio staff holds that the venue fell victim to overzealous city administrators and anti-youth, anti-reggaeton hysteria. “We were very criticized by hypocritical society,” Santiago says. There are tentative plans to re-open the 1,200 person capacity club in 2019.
MEXICO’S THE NOISE
While Capezzio’s future remains unclear, jarochos attend the 700-person capacity La Factoría, which clearly carries on Capezzio’s tradition of irreverence. On the night of the interview, Santiago’s crew ran a rowdy variety show, replete with awful drag and a little person dressed up like a skunk. At one point, two friends volunteer for a slapping contest that ends when one’s nose starts bleeding. The pair exit the stage with their prize; a caguama, or 32 ounce beer.
In Puerto, reggaeton was initially (and to an extent, still is) stereotyped as a crude and criminal genre — Marcelo refers to its initial reception in Puerto as “an uncomfortable environment”. The DJ debuted at Capezzio in 1985 playing popular genres, including Reel 2 Reel and David Morales-style technotronic and the rock en español of Los Enanitos Verdes. But Marcelo became more and more intrigued by the raggamuffin releases that Segura’s son Ricardo Cuevas was mailing him from New York.
By 1990, Marcelo had succeeded in turning songs like ‘Tu Pum Pum’ by Panama’s El General and ragga artists Louchie Lou and Michie One’s ‘Rich Girl’, precursors to the reggaeton genre, into Capezzio crowd favorites. By 1997, Puerto Rican urbano artists like Ivy Queen, Big Boy, Tempo, and Vico C were the undisputed sound of the by-then immensely popular club.
Inspired by Ortíz’s selections as well as US rappers like Cypress Hill, would-be Puerto emcees started performing at quinceñearas and school recesses. A core group of vocalists formed, among them King Siniestro, The Thing aka La Mole, EREBUZ and El Skuinkle. They worked with early Puerto producers like Mr. Grillo aka DJ Style and Victor Santos, who would later go on to found influential Veracruz reggaeton group Lirika Urbana.
In those days, recording technology was hard to come by. The average monthly salary in Veracruz is $230 USD, among the lowest in Mexico. In contrast to their Puerto Rican peers, Puerto emcees have little access to United States visas — and dollars. That factor has stringently limited many Veracruz reggaeton artists’ careers. Many emcees recall circling around a microphone attached to a tape deck, rewinding the cassettes over and over so that they could spit verses onto a never-ending loop of beats like that of Jamaican duo Chaka Demus and Pliers’ ‘Murder She Wrote’.
At some point during the late ‘90s, these emcees started coming to Capezzio and asking to perform on stage. “I was so impressed by all the talent,” remembers Santiago. Soon, Capezzio featured multiple emcees a night, who performed in front of a crowd that was not shy to express its dislike of a subpar reggaetonero.
“Capezzio in Mexico was like The Noise in Puerto Rico,” Santiago says, comparing his venue to the San Juan club that launched the careers of some of the genre’s best known artists. In 2007, Santiago created the “Iluminados” competition to cut vast fields of talent down to 10 acts, who would then be invited to a professional studio to record a song for the club’s in-demand compilation cassettes. It allowed Veracruz reggaetoneros to make high quality recordings of their music. “It was like being God,” Santiago jokes. “Never in their lives would these poor kids be able to distribute their music on their own.”
LA MAS PERRA
Facing such challenges, Puerto emcees who manage long-term careers seem particularly remarkable. At 16 years old, Alma Delia Loyola Duarte started singing reggaeton to distract herself from the grief caused by a car accident that killed her sister and niece, after whom she re-christened herself Krysstal La Mas Perra. Natural charisma and explosive flow notwithstanding, this was a bold move. It was one thing to be a woman in Capezzio’s (at the time) all-male contests, but Krysstal is also a butch lesbian who has never tried to hide the fact.
“My sexual preference made it so that I had to work pretty hard,” Krysstal says. “It was like, ‘Oh no, a lesbian, gross.’ But I kept at it, and I had people like Juan Santiago who have always supported me.” Off the strength of solo singles like ‘Pukitim’ and ‘Solo Para Mi’ (both collaborations with Marcelo’s producer son Rambon), Krysstal has become one of Puerto’s most beloved reggaeton singers. Other women in the scene were shocked to discover that despite Krysstal’s tough exterior, she was eager to collaborate with other female vocalists. Puerto reggaetonera Skarlett recalls being paired with Krysstal onstage one night at Capezzio. “You should have seen it!” she says. “Everyone thought we were going to rivals but no!” The two later recorded a popular single and later formed a group, both named Potencia Rara.
“People who haven’t come out of the closet can say, ‘OK, she’s not ashamed — what about me?’” – Krysstal La Mas Perra
Krysstal’s visibility has also had real effects on other queer people. “People who haven’t come out of the closet can see her sing and say, ‘OK, she’s not ashamed — what about me?’” says her partner Nayelli Solis Presa. Krysstal’s success paved the wave for other local female vocalists like Scarlett, Candy Baby, and Angeles.
In 2004, Krysstal briefly joined Puerto supergroup La Dinastía. Capezzio was at its prime, having hosted two concerts of Hector Y Tito, the first major reggaeton act to play Mexico. More high profile bookings at the club followed, including Nicky Jam and Sir Speedy. Their success proved that Mexico was a ready audience for the reggaeton industry that would enter its most hype era the next year with the release of ‘Gasolina’.
One night at the club, five local emcees — Baby King, Magaña, Akira, Krysstal, and Evhan — were broke and thirsty. In hopes of scoring free drinks, they made up a story that they had written a Capezzio tribute song. Baby King, whose powerful rasp offers the closest thing Puerto has to a signature sound besides jarocho lexicon, freestyled its hook to Segura’s son Roman Cuevas, “Es Capezzio, la casa de la raza …”
Cuevas invited the five to a round, and then to record the track, becoming the group’s manager. Capezzio crowds loved the song’s opening lines, “we’re not a trend, we’re a necessity,” which seemed to reflect the genre’s growing local importance. La Dinastía became Capezzio’s house crew. After winning a local Exa talent search, the group recorded its hit ‘Vaquero’ — to this day, one of the best-known reggaeton tracks to come out of Puerto — and embarked on a period of national fame.
The video for 2018’s ‘Los Que Mas Le Meten’ — directed by ace Puerto videographer and music producer Alexander Nash — gives a sense of Puerto’s enduring love for La Dinastía, now a duo comprised of Magaña and Baby King. “There was like 50 motorcycles, 50 cars, like 500 people,” remembers Mexico City DJ Sueño Dream Lion, who attended the shoot with one of the song’s featured artists, rapper Big Metra. “Reggaeton is a totally distinct culture in Veracruz. It’s alive!”
“If we had papers, we could do much more.” – Magaña
“A lot of people have learned about our movement,” says Magaña. “We’re proud about that. We’ve been able to open the doors for many people.” But he’s also had to turn down festival opportunities in the States because of immigration limitations. “If we had papers, we could do much more.”
THE JAROCHO TOUCH
The ride with Marcelo ends at the home of his son Rambon, a full-time radio and reggaeton producer who won the Iluminados competition in 2008 and who is invested in the future of Veracruz reggaeton. Rambon spent his adolescence in Capezzio sipping sodas and watching his dad mix, but his approach to music has been markedly different than that of Marcelo, who maintained a Monday to Friday communications company job throughout his DJ glory days.
When he was 14, Marcelo bought Rambon his first Yamada console, and Rambon started producing rappers with Fruity Loops 5. It’s clear that the second generation artist sees this as a process of creative justice. “Veracruz is the birthplace of reggaeton in Mexico,” he says. “That’s a fact.”
“Veracruz has enough talent to export music to the whole world.” – Rambon
Rambon knows the challenges that more recent Puerto artists like Cooper Y Georgy, Kentow, and Honduran transplant Divey face in being heard. He’s learned that Mexican bookers won’t pay big fees to national reggaeton acts, opting to spend the money on banda groups or international stars. “To be real with you, Veracruz has enough talent to export music to the whole world,” he says. “We’ve got singers, rappers, writers, video directors, producers, dancers, DJs, anything you’d need to be a force on a worldwide level, to represent Mexico. But it’s a question of economic support. That’s what holds up production here.”
True too, big-name urbano stars are more likely to appropriate Mexican vibes than tap the country’s artists to collaborate. Check J. Balvin’s ‘Bobo’ video (shot in Mexico City) or Puerto Rican artist Dalmata’s mariachi-spliced ‘Pasarela’ for examples. Even on their home turf, Puerto emcees are rarely afforded the respect such a legacy should afford. On the final night of 2019’s Carnaval celebrations in the Macroplaza, La Dinastia were somehow bumped from their rightful spot opening for headliner Balvin by the dubious talents of ‘Acapulco Shore’ TV personality cum reggaetonero Jawy Méndez. The legendary duo’s stage show — which featured son jarocho maestros plucking on the region’s famed arpas [harps] and Kentow delivering his 2014 hit ‘Vampira’ — was delayed until well after midnight. It was still a treat for the local crowds that roared their lyrics back over the sound of the Gulf of Mexico waves.
Perhaps that imbalance can be corrected. With global reggaeton lust running high, and Mexican corrido culture next to break on pop culture’s consciousness (if Bad Bunny’s recent feature on Rancho Humilde star Natanael Cano’s ‘El Diablo’ is any indicator), it’s feasible that at some point, interest could turn to perreo’s Veracruz chapter. Last year, boricua emcee Sir Speedy guested on the Rambon-produced old school single ‘Mama Mia’ released through La Dinastía’s Sangre Pirata label, a definite victory for the jarocho reggaeton legends. Rambon continues to link Veracruz talent with high quality music and video production through his project Los Gallos, releasing resulting singles in compilations. That kind of community-think is something he learned from his dad, who looked for ways to amplify local artists. But even if jarocho reggaetoneros never achieve the mainstream success of international peers, the Malecón has long since earned a berth in the genre’s history books.
Caitlin Donohue is a freelance writer who lives in Mexico City. Find her on Twitter.
Enrique Favela is a photographer based in Veracruz.