In the OVD documentary, The Chosen Few (2006), the widely recognized “head” of Puerto Rican rappers, Armando Losada, also known as Vico C, described reggaetón as “hip-hop with Caribbean flavor.” He thus defined the gender that became the most popular, widespread and dynamic manifestations to impact the musical scene in Puerto Rico, and worldwide, since the beginnings of the 21 century. In order to understand this expressive phenomenon, its socio-cultural importance and its history, we must first examine the elements it shares with its hip-hop roots, and that particular “flavor” that characterizes it as a variation with its own identity.
Towards the end of the 1970s and during the 1980s, the urgent need for ways of expression and intercommunication among the African-American youth and young Jamaican and Latino-Caribbean immigrants (or descendants of immigrants) of New York ghettos, began to create a number of artistic expressions they called “culture.” It was the street culture of the urban ghetto; contrasting with institutional and domestic spaces and their respective symbols of authority. The nature of ethnic-racial and class separation that was consolidating in the morphology and daily life of North American cities dramatically marked its ways of expression.
It is already common among participants and interpreters, to describe the “hip-hop culture” as conformed by four central elements: DJing, or producing sound mechanically, using recorded music as the main instrument, either by combining sections or “tracks” from LPs, or by creating rhythmic patterns by scratching the moving discs; MCing, or rapping an improvised rhythmic poetry; Graffiting, or alphabetic messages that were later developed on murals -walls to be seen from the street- using spray paint; and B-boying, a sequence of sharp sudden movements, forming an acrobatic break-dance in dialogue with the DJ`s music. This dance form is closely related to the ancestral tradition of black music in Latin America; to bomba, in Puerto Rico. In reggaetón, the first two elements (with some modifications that we will approach later on) maintain their centrality, while its other elements fade away or experience major transformations (as in hip-hop).
DJing (term derived from disc jockey) is a new form of making music through the contemporary predominance of mechanical reproduction. The proportion of the sound universe that represents the sound produced by machines as opposed to the sounds produced by nature and the human being became predominant mainly during the second half of the 20th century, and more so in cities like New York. As it became more of a rogue movement or culture, that predominance of the mechanical sonority was exacerbated to intolerable levels for generations brought up in different sound universes and musical traditions. Also shocking for those generations was the evident simplicity of a new-formed sound, different from the rich variety of textures and tones that developed through their history and traditions of long ancestry. However, once the predominance of the mechanical sonority of the new “culture” was established, there are a greater acceptance to the incorporation of sounds and elements of previous traditions, as well as a more complex and elaborated development of electronic sonorities.
Initially, DJs mixed parts of LP tracks taken from reggae and other African-American sonorities: disco music, funk, jazz, afro-beat music, etc. Soon after, they began to incorporate salsa recordings, merengue and other Afro-Latin-American music. This incorporation has increased dramatically since the year 2000 thanks to reggaetón. As its own name suggests, this type of hip-hop derives from dancehall variety of reggae with a displacement in the accents of its metric that make the syncopated nature of its internal rhythm more central and explicit.
In the beginning of hip-hop, DJs used MCs (masters of ceremonies) to warm up the crowd with improvised oral street poetry, in the tradition of Jamaican toasting and the poetry slams of Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The talent of the MC was denominated “flow”: to generate an artistic rhythmic flow of words. The MC became the public`s representative on stage and the genius of its rhymes was acquiring more and more importance. At the end of the 1980s, young men from San Juan`s housing projects and the neighborhoods of Panama that had experienced the life of immigrants in New York began to record homemade (underground) versions of rap in Spanish. The return nuyorican, “Vico C,” and Panamanian Edgardo Franco, “The General,” were among the most outstanding pioneers of Spanish rap who were recorded by major record companies during the 1990s and received the most prestigious prizes in the musical industry. The first one expressed violent social criticism that won him the nickname of “the philosopher of rap.” The second stood out with his flirtatious lyrics of high sexual content for which many consider him the precursor of reggaetón.
B-boying gave way to couple dancing, especially to a type of dancing that was explicitly sexual, called perreo. This form of dancing, intentionally provocative and made to shock the dominant social identities, repeats in numerous expressions “mulatto-America”, as in the champeta of the Colombian Caribbean. Though other subject matters of hip-hop, like social description and social critique, have not been entirely abandoned, the discotheque and perreo promote a more commercial “rapping” that centers on bodily approach, with wider use of choruses and repetitions that make memorizing the songs easier for listeners and dancers.
The importance of the visual elements expressed in graffiti has given way to the production of music videos, which also emphasize the dance club scene, without abandoning its message of social critique.
Reggaetón quickly reached world popularity, and its most outstanding exponents (for now, practically all of them Puerto Ricans -Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, Tego Calderón and Calle 13, among others), are considered super stars of the musical industry.
A. G. Quintero Rivera
Sociologist, Social Sciences Faculty
University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: January 16, 2008.
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