August Playlist Highlights
Reggaeton in its current form has only been around for a couple of decades. However, within that short period of time it has become hugely popular. This is not only true in countries where it has its origins such a Puerto Rico and Panama but in other countries where there are large Latin communities such as the US and Cuba. What has made the genre so popular so quickly is up for debate: artists may like the genre because it is relatively easy to make reggaeton music (unlike many other Latin musical styles you don’t need half a dozen musicians to make reggaeton), audiences may like it because the music is built on uncomplicated and very danceable rhythms. Regardless of the reasons the fact of the matter is that reggaeton is here to stay. As such, over the next couple of blog posts I am going to dig a bit into what reggaeton is, where it came from and who is making it.
What is Reggaeton and where did it come from?
In the simplest terms any music with a dem bow rhythm (boom-ch-boom-chick) could be considered reggaeton. You will hear this rhythm in one form or another in all reggaeton music. In my opinion, if you can’t hear that rhythm it’s not reggaeton. However, the dem bow rhythm did not originate with reggaeton nor is it exclusive to reggaeton. Case in point, Danza Kuduro though released by the reggaeton artist Don Omar, is not reggaeton (it’s actually Kuduro). You will also find the dem bow rhythm in dancehall, reggae, salsa, bachata and other musical styles. So obviously reggaeton is more than just a rhythm, but if it’s more than just a rhythm what makes reggaeton reggaeton? To answer that question it may be easiest to look at the origins of the genre.
The name reggaeton gives away the fact that the music has its origins at least in part in Jamaican reggae. Also, the dem bow rhythm that I mentioned early has its origins in another Jamaican musical style called dancehall (specifically, the dem bow rhythm or riddim comes from a song by Shabba Ranks by the same name and has been attributed to the Jamaican producer Bobby Digital). That said, reggaeton is sung in Spanish and Jamaican reggae and dancehall for the most part aren’t. This leads us to Panama where Jamaican reggae has had a huge influence on the musical landscape. Panama has a large number of Jamaican immigrants who have been coming to the country for decades and have brought their music with them. Panamanians quickly adopted this music and made it their own by adapting Jamaican riddims and adding Spanish lyrics, which lead to the development of the genre known as reggae en español.
At the time reggae en español was increasing in popularity in Panama it was also finding an audience in Puerto Rico. However, not only reggae was impacting Puerto Rican music, so was American hip-hop. US made Spanish or Spanglish hip-hop was making its way into Puerto Rico where local artists such as Vico C were taking it and making it their own. This led to the development of a genre called rap en español. Puerto Rican DJs were then taking this hip-hop inspired music, along with reggae and other musical styles and mashing them up into something different again. Originally, this new music was popular among poorer or marginalized segments of the Puerto Rican population and had limited access to commercial distribution channels. As such, it was often referred to as ‘underground’ music and developed a public stigma to match its name. The stigma was bad enough that at one point the Puerto Rican government banned the music and raided a bunch of record stores that were selling it. Not surprisingly this likely increased the popularity of underground music more than anything else.
Underground music continued to evolve through the 1990’s and arguably it is from this music scene that the reggaeton of today evolved. Case in point, it is from the underground scene that the name reggaeton comes from. The story goes that one of the big DJs at the time, DJ Nelson, was making an album and came up with the name by blending the words reggae and marathon. The birth of modern reggaeton in Puerto Rico would also help to explain why Puerto Rican artists dominate the reggaeton scene. No doubt it has also been helpful that Puerto Rico is a territory of the US, which has allowed Puerto Rican artists easier access to distribution challenges and production studios that have been harder to come by for artists in other Latin American countries.
To conclude, I have gone from the reggae and dancehall of Jamaica to reggae en español from Panama to American hip-hop to Puerto Rican rap en español and underground to end up at modern day reggaeton. None of these genres are reggaeton but they all have a claim in making it what it is today. Of course, there is much more to the reggaeton story and the music than what I have presented here, but ultimately reggaeton is an evolving musical style. What it was 10 years ago is not what it is today and not what it will be in 10 years from now. However the music evolves, my suspicion is that reggaeton will continue to increase in popularity and become more and more mainstream. But more on that in the next blog post.
If you are interested in finding out more about the genre I would recommend the book “Reggaeton” by Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall and Deborah Pecini Hernandez. The Documentary “Chosen Few” produced by Boy Wonder is also worth having a look at.
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Hasta la próxima