Sunday, May 01, 2005

Reggaeton in LA

A Rowdy Sound Leaves Salsa Behind on the Dance Floor
By Agustin Gurza
Times Staff Writer

April 30, 2005

At the Rumba Room, a two-story nightclub at Universal CityWalk that draws a young Latino crowd, the entertainment is segregated. Downstairs, dancers groove mostly to a mix of salsa, cumbia and merengue. Upstairs, the vibe is strictly hip-hop, the language mainly English.

Every Friday, however, the stroke of midnight signals a spontaneous shift toward that most elusive of dance-floor moments: full nightclub consensus.

That's when DJ Joe Matrix starts spinning the hottest new sound in Latin music: "reggaeton," a gritty tropical fusion that palpably amps up the club's energy level. Fans swarm the main floor as music born in Puerto Rican barrios takes center stage 3,300 miles away.

Within the last year, this rowdy and often raunchy dance music has spread like a riot through the youth culture of Latin America, from the streets of San Juan to the nightclubs of Santiago de Chile, Hollywood and East L.A. With a pulsing beat that even detractors find hard to resist, reggaeton (pronounced reggae-TONE) has suddenly surfaced as the most powerful commercial force in Latin music since Ricky Martin made America live la vida loca.

While corporate music executives were caught up looking for another Ricky, it turns out, the rough-and-tumble stars of reggaeton were developing the next big thing under the industry's radar in the poor neighborhoods and housing projects of Puerto Rico. Their grass-roots musical movement, nurtured at the edges of society and commerce in the do-it-yourself fashion of early hip-hop, is a bootstrap success story in today's focus-group-driven entertainment industry.

The music followed several intertwining paths from barrio to world music stage. It spread slowly at first through the constant mobility of immigrants: Puerto Ricans in New York, especially, and Central Americans in Los Angeles. Once major record labels caught wind of this localized phenomenon, they helped disseminate the style by feeding records to club DJs, the genre's key tastemakers. Then, in the past year, the music catapulted to the top of the charts through the tried-and-true music business method: the making of hits.

This weekend, the Reggaeton Invasion tour sweeps into town for two shows at Gibson Amphitheatre (formerly Universal Amphitheatre). Tickets sold out in 10 days for concerts tonight and Sunday at the 6,200-seat auditorium. The tour features the genre's top stars — Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, Hector El Bambino and Luny Tunes — and testifies to its recent West Coast breakthrough.

The wave seems to have hit California overnight, even though the music's origins date back a quarter-century. Just last year, major reggaeton acts Tego Calderon and Ivy Queen appeared in Los Angeles with almost no fanfare, drawing modest crowds to obscure venues such as Prince Hall, a Masonic lodge near Compton.

Since the birth of rock 'n' roll, populist musical movements have exposed the recording industry as being out of touch with the pulse of the streets. Major record companies, for instance, were slow to take rap seriously when it began in the 1970s.

In Puerto Rico, while Latin labels continued to promote the polished salsa sound of stars such as Marc Anthony, fans were growing weary of the dance music that many felt had become homogenized in the corporate rush to spread its popularity.

"We asked ourselves, 'What's happening with salsa sales?' " said John Echevarria, president of Universal's Latin division in the U.S. "They keep falling and falling and falling. One answer, obviously, was piracy. But the next thing we discovered was that an underground [reggaeton] market had developed, and it was very active. We realized there was this whole other genre that had filled the void."

Topping this weekend's bill is the dashing Daddy Yankee, a veteran rapper with a bullet wound in his leg who has emerged as reggaeton's first superstar. His latest CD, "Barrio Fino," is the first reggaeton album to crack the Top 30 on Billboard's pop album chart. Propelled by the infectious party hit "Gasolina," it's close to becoming the first reggaeton album to sell 1 million units in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

The CD is one of eight reggaeton releases among the Top 25 sellers on Billboard's Latin album chart.

Though reggaeton hasn't yet reached the success of crossover artists such as Martin or Shakira, the music is getting a big boost from some mainstream media outlets. Reggaeton and other Latin hip-hop tracks are now part of the regular rotation on L.A.'s top-rated hip-hop station, Power 106 (KPWR-FM, 105.9)

"All the kids are going crazy over this music," said Tony Matrix, brother and business partner of the Rumba Room DJ. "It's like when disco came out and everybody went wild for it."

And nothing says success like endorsement deals. Recently, Daddy Yankee was tapped to promote rapper Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' clothing line, Sean John.

Calderon, with his big Afro and gap between his front teeth, appeared last year on billboards promoting Hennessy Cognac. Still, in the fickle world of popular music, reggaeton's staying power is an open question. "Those who don't understand it say it's just a fad," said Daddy Yankee, interviewed recently in Puerto Rico. "But those of us who live it, who dress it, who speak it and express it, we know that what we have created is more than that. It's a way of life."

A Distinct Twist

The first Spanish-language reggae records were made in the 1970s in working-class neighborhoods of Panama City, populated by descendants of Jamaican immigrants who moved there to help build the Panama Canal.

"When we recorded [reggae] in Spanish, we gave it our own distinct twist, adding idiosyncrasies that are totally different from Jamaican folklore," said Panamanian musician El General, whose 1980s recordings are considered precursors of reggaeton. "We added timbales and congas instead of drums, and it started taking on a different flavor."

The signature rhythm of reggaeton is based on the beat of Jamaican dancehall music, but with more muscle. It has the go-go energy of a cheerleading chant, the menacing undercurrent of gangsta rap and the chug-a-lug ethos of a fraternity party. It also has its own dance, a sexually suggestive bump-and-grind indelicately called el perreo — roughly translated, the doggie dance.

The music quickly took root in Puerto Rico, where artists such as Vico C had pioneered a vibrant style of Spanish-language rap, also during the 1980s. It was this melding of borrowed styles — Latino rap and Latino reggae — that gave birth to the genre. Puerto Ricans later enhanced it by adding layers of other tropical styles: salsa, merengue, bachata and even Puerto Rican bomba.

As the popularity of reggaeton has spread, it has not only eclipsed salsa sales, but also muscled ahead of competing strains of Spanish-language rap and hip-hop, including the homegrown L.A. variety by artists such as Akwid, who combine hip-hop with traditional Mexican music. Most local Latino rappers still struggle to attract audiences to club shows where they play for promotion but little or no pay.

L.A.'s barrio rappers tend to have a somber message and thuggish image, which, even supporters admit, has kept them from breaking out of their niche market.

"People love the fact that reggaeton is danceable," said Rick Valenzuela, partner in Rik-Raf Entertainment, which manages local Latino rap acts. "That's part of why it's blowing up."

Reggaeton can be socially conscious and politically assertive, but it's the sexually charged, party-hearty aspect that has it blasting from car radios seemingly everywhere.

"You can have a headache, you can feel upset, you can be anemic, and suddenly, you're in your car, you put on the music and it's all good," said Tato Hernandez, a burly promoter who cranked up the volume in his pickup as he cruised San Juan streets. "Reggaeton takes people and just turns them around."

British-born businessman Adam Kidron sees another quality in reggaeton that helps explain its success: "That hip-hop confidence to influence the world."

Kidron's company, Urban Box Office, a New York-based firm that markets directly to Latinos via bodegas, barbershops and newsstands, distributes a DVD/CD package titled "Chosen Few 'El Documental,' " which has been on the Billboard charts for almost 20 weeks.

It's the only reggaeton album among the eight on the chart that is not distributed by Universal Music, which has taken the lead in making deals with the major players. This year, Universal went beyond simply distributing reggaeton recordings by establishing its own urban music label, Machete Music, and it quickly bought a half interest in VI, the dominant independent reggaeton label with five of those eight charting albums.

Partnering with mainstream multinational labels has been one key to the recent growth of reggaeton. But coming to those agreements was not easy. At first, reggaeton was often associated with drugs, gangs, violence and sex. The music was largely ignored by the record industry and actively suppressed by powerful opponents in Puerto Rico.

Additionally, the performers weren't terribly interested in all that came with major-label respectability. They were accustomed to using music samples of U.S. hits without permission and saying whatever they wanted without censorship. Many were suspicious of corporations and believed they could make more money peddling homemade cassettes out of apartments in the projects, or cacerios.

That insular attitude slowed the music's expansion. But it greatly increased the musicians' credibility in the eyes of fans.

"These guys have survived in a world where nobody would open up a door for them," said Gus Lopez, head of Universal's Burbank-based Machete label. "They made money, lost money, made videos that never got played, got shot down by the media, maybe even hit with a couple of lawsuits because of all the sampling they were doing. But they did it all themselves…. The kids know when they say something, they've lived it."

Today, even Puerto Rican politicians have abandoned their opposition and jumped on the reggaeton bandwagon. In last year's national elections, candidates from all three of the island's political parties campaigned to reggaeton beats.

Still, the music remains primarily a Latino pop phenomenon, lacking the crossover success that catapulted artists of the Latin explosion into mainstream pop stardom. Some say the continued growth of the genre depends on its ability to establish greater links with mainstream hip-hop.

Combs' choice of Daddy Yankee as a pitchman is more than just a fashion endorsement; it's a crucial endorsement for reggaeton, said Jazmin Perez, assistant music editor at the hip-hop magazine Vibe in New York.

"It's kind of like [Combs] saying that Daddy Yankee is part of hip-hop," Perez said.

Continued collaborations, she added, will determine whether reggaeton remains a fad or becomes a long-term force in pop music. Last year, a reggaeton/hip-hop collaboration — "Oye Mi Canto" by New York rapper N.O.R.E. with Daddy Yankee — marked a milestone when it hit the Top 20 on the Billboard and MTV charts.

"That was the song that put reggaeton on the map, maybe more so than 'Gasolina,' " said David Gomez, a musician who works the world-music section at Amoeba Music in Hollywood. " 'Oye Mi Canto' got people asking about the music. That was the bridge."

Back at the Rumba Room, a firecracker DJ named Khool-Aid, from Power 106, warmed up the crowd with a string of epithets and obscene gestures. A self-described "Jewish girl from the Valley," she was there to introduce reggaeton's Julio Voltio, the night's special guest from Puerto Rico.

Voltio, who has recorded a track with L.A. rapper Lil Rob, emerged with the ubiquitous hip-hop cap worn sideways, "L.A." stitched to the front. It's a savvy salute to the hometown fans, mostly Mexican American, and who, like the Matrix brothers, are helping propel the reggaeton juggernaut on its westward expansion.

"The boom is here," Khool-Aid, host of the syndicated Latino rap show "Pocos Pero Locos," said during an interview. "People want to hear their own voice. It's the streets…. It's the future."

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