Reggaeton - So What Now?

After successful years and immense popularity reggaeton has proved that its hype was more than a phase. But today Bernardo Brigante- hardcore fan of universal music who has been following the genre since the early '90s- examines the past, present and future of reggaeton... *ms dayan2.jpg

By BERNARDO BRIGANTE

It captivated Latinos in 2003, and reached the masses in early 2005. Now, with everyone all but renouncing their interest in the music, the genre of reggaeton has hit a fork in the road, and has to make the decision to sink or swim. Here is a reggaeton fan's attempt to look at the music (and its social implications) holistically.

Growing up in the '80s and '90s, I didn't know much about reggaeton outside of Playero tapes (which I hated with a passion, by the way) and El General. Being that no concrete promotional platform existed, I'd watch what was offered to me: low-budget Boricua Guerrero videos on UHF (channel 39: HTV or something like that) along with Proyecto Uno, Sancocho and DLG. Yea, I knew it was kinda corny compared to everything else I was listening to at the time (Biggie, Wu-Tang, Supercat, Mad Lion, Nas), and the artists had no style to save their lives, but they were from Puerto Rico, stirring not just immediate interest, but also a realm of mystique to their 120 BPM songs.

Eventually (and out of nowhere), being a U.S. acculturated Latino became "cool"; most notably around 1998. They called it the "Latin Explosion" (or some nonsense like that): Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Big Pun, and Ricky Martin made HUGE strides in the Anglo mainstream music scene and everyone was captured by the hype created. And then, almost as fast as we "arrived", Latinos faded back into obscurity (in terms of the American mainstream) as if we were a change of season.

Fast forward to 2004: the once-underground genre of reggaeton is flourishing amongst America's "it" demographic: the 18-34 year-old acculturated Latino who represents billions of potential dollars in buying power. Tego Calderon lead the new wave of "contemporary" reggaeton artists (Daddy Yankee, Ivy Queen, Wisin y Yandel, Nicky Jam, etc..), and a subgenre which was once ostracized within the general Latino music scene had showed a structure and personality (two huge components of marketability) previously unbeknown to most. I, along with many other Nuyoricans and Latinos alike, championed its overnight success and the fact that these artists were being taken in by the mainstream urban machine (hearing Daddy Yankee and Pitbull completely demolish Lil' Jon's "What You Gonna Do" appealed to hip-hop, crunk, and reggaeton fans alike in one fell swoop). Other signs of its apparent proliferation: DJs in NYC had replaced the amount of dancehall reggae they played on a normal club night with reggaeton, reggaeton mixshows were popping up on hip-hop stations, and Univision Radio switching the formats of many of its affiliate networks to cater to the new demand of its listeners' (the birth of "La Kalle").

And then came "Gasolina"... the popularity of Daddy Yankee's 2004 hit spread like wildfire, and was the dominant catalyst in casting the genre into the American eye. Then, in the tradition of American commercialism with anything naturally popular, the major labels came calling with arms wide open: some signing artists directly (Interscope with Daddy Yankee and Atlantic with Tego), and some creating boutique labels to cater to the budding subgenre (Roc La Familia, Wu-Tang Latino, and Bad Boy Latino). Heaps of investment capital was thrown into the culture at an almost alarming rate, and subsequently, the product placement and endorsement deals came: Don Omar and Daddy Yankee had their respective sneaker deals (RBK & Umbro), while Tego was featured in a prominent Hennessy print ad campaign. Musically, the hits were being pumped out rapidly, and the masses continued to digest: everyone, including Paris Hilton, wanted a reggaeton track with hopes of syncing themselves into the latest fad and the good graces of the young Latino listener. And that's where the apparent downfall had started. Rather than growing on its own, the genre was immediately and prematurely deemed as the "next big thing", yet the music remained horrendously formulaic in nature:

THUNDEROUS INTRO + SYNTHESIZER (OR BACHATA GUITAR) + DEMBOW + MOANING GIRL ON HOOK + REPITITIOUS SUBJECT MATTER = REGGAETON SINGLE

To be frank, that's where the genre is losing many of their immediate fans: people (not necessarily only Latinos) feel the music is redundant and monotonous. And to the ear of the casual fan, it is. People feel reluctant to grow with the music because it's sense of artistry has become extremely one-dimensional.

Despite the recent efforts of a few albums (Calle 13, The Underdog), reggaeton's sound hasn't changed much in the last few years. In a recent issue of the FADER magazine, Tego Calderon acknowledged producer Danny Fornaris (Don Omar's "Jangueo", Tego's "Mardi Gras", Calle 13's "Se Vale To To") as the "savior of reggaeton". While that statement is bold (and perhaps impulsive given the genre's current state), certainly only a forward-moving genre will accept a producer who appears and sounds nothing like the norm (Fornaris, who sports a faux-hawk and track jackets, appears more SoHo than San Juan).

As a quick sidebar, let's compare the genre to it's distant cousin, dancehall. In origin, they are similar in many ways: the sounds come from impoverished communities within Carribean islands, both are festive in nature and implement traditional sounds (dancehall has roots reggae, while reggaeton boasts a blend of salsa/bachata & roots reggae) and both have achieved American & global success.

Though its peak in popularity occurred in 2002-2003 (with the emergence of Sean Paul and Elephant Man), dancehall continues to flourish because it's constantly evolving. The riddims (beats/pistas) are innovative and ever-changing, and the artists actually want to sound different from each other (Baby Cham, Vybz Kartel, Assassin, Busy Signal, and Movado might all show up on the same riddims, but you can easily distinguish one from another). Most importantly, their heritage is the fuel and passion for their music while the music remains an enjoyable force for the masses. (e.g. Cham's 2006 hit "Ghetto Story" was banned in Jamaica for its raw lyrics, but we all grinded to that song at every nightspot we frequented.)

Reggaeton's big singles rarely acknowledge nuestra hispanidad anymore: Don Omar's "Reggaeton Latino" hit it on the head (with an emotionally captivating music video as a bonus), but why did it stop there? Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic in the U.S., but until we all realize our worth and begin dictating our culture, we're just crabs in a bucket. Through entertainment we've gained attention, but haven't achieved much influence! How many of these artists flashing sh*t in their videos own their masters? With the murder rate in Puerto Rico extremely high as of late (45 murders in the first 2 weeks of 2007), have they or their labels done anything to help their suffering communities? There is too much sh*t going down for Puerto Rico's musical ambassadors to consistently keep their subject matter only inside la diskoteka, la calle, y la cama.

And it isn't only the artists, poor representation falls within mass media. Don't get me wrong, there isn't anything wrong with being festive and pushing the envelope (in fact, I'm all for it. It's in our nature!), but when creativity is stigmatized and objectiveness is stifled, barriers to progression will arise. Without progression and the ability to adapt, any industry will falter, especially one as volatile as the music business.

To the here and now: stations are quickly writing off reggaeton as a fad due to suffering ratings and decreasing album sales, and are trying other methods to grasp the attention of the 18-34 Latino. On The Game's "One Blood" (Remix), NORE, who only a year-and-a-half ago claimed to "introduce reggaeton to Americans", boldly states, "...reggaeton ain't hot in the building/its okay/I get it poppin'". It might not be a direct diss, but it's definitely a sign of the times. I wonder what happened to the extremely emotional war cries that seemed wholehearted at the time: "this is a movement!," "it's about making history!"... "it's more than music!"... Hmm.

Believe me, like most of these artists and label execs, I'm out for the guap also. I'm a firm believer in the basic ideal that consumers will ultimately favor good product regardless of how manipulative marketing might be and how industry politics create smoke-and-mirrors for what's really dope. However, I don't have the answers, only calculated suggestions. But understanding that mastering the industry won't happen overnight is vital, and we need to make moves and take steps forward to save a genre with unlimited potential for success. *BB