Hip-Hop and Reggae Meld to Make 'Reggaeton'

Tune in to new Hispanic urban radio stations around the country and you're likely to hear "reggaeton," the big news in Latin music. The mixture of Spanish-language reggae and hip-hop was born in the Caribbean and, in just two years, has spread across the United States.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The 6th Annual Latin Grammys are being award tonight in Los Angeles, and this year's big thing is the rise of reggaeton. It's a distant cousin of Spanish-language hip-hop. One reggaeton artist is nominated for record of the year, and three reggaeton performers picked up nominations for best urban music album. As NPR's Felix Contreras reports, just two years ago the only place to find reggaeton was on the streets and in the clubs of Puerto Rico.

FELIX CONTRERAS reporting:

The story of reggaeton goes all the way back to the construction of the Panama Canal and the Jamaicans who moved there to help build it. Over time as their descendents began to mix with the Panamanians, so did their music.

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Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language)

CONTRERAS: Spanish-language reggae eventually spread throughout the Caribbean. In Puerto Rico, it was combined with North American hip-hop and dubbed reggaeton by some long-forgotten street promoter.

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CONTRERAS: Boy Wonder is one of reggaeton's hottest producers. He's also made a documentary film about the music. He says, like hip-hop, reggaeton started as an underground phenomenon.

BOY WONDER (Producer): There's a movement right now, just like, I guess, when hip-hop started in New York, where it started in the clubs, a new style of music like maybe back in the days when hippies was into their little movement. And that's how reggaeton was, and now reggaeton has expanded, you know, all over the world, all over the country.

CONTRERAS: And like hip-hop, reggaeton initially met with resistance from the music establishment. Ed Morales has been covering the music's development for Newsday in New York and The Village Voice.

Mr. ED MORALES (Newsday; The Village Voice): The response from the public and critics at times was not very optimistic about how long the genre would last. A lot of people would say that the beats or the music was sort of repetitive and didn't draw you in.

CONTRERAS: There is a reason for the repetitive beats. Unlike hip-hop, reggaeton is principally dance music.

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CONTRERAS: Just two years ago reggaeton's boom-chicka beats were seldom heard on Spanish-language radio here in the US, and the CDs were not widely distributed. But according to the Recording Industry Association of America, the music industry's trade group, sales for Spanish-language music grew more than 20 percent last year and nearly 30 percent in the first half of this year. The RIAA says that jump was largely fueled by the increased popularity of reggaeton. Now companies that cater to the urban lifestyle--clothing, liquor and sneaker manufacturers--are lining up to sign endorsement deals with reggaeton's hottest acts, including Boy Wonder.

BOY WONDER: Corporate America believes in youth. The young people, we spend money without caring. We don't--you know, the young kids are the ones that go buy the most expensive sneakers, the most expensive jewelry. They want to look fresh. They don't--you know, because it's an image. And right now reggaeton is the music of the image. And, besides, corporate America wants to right now use the Latino market. They believe that the Latino market's the next generation, you know, that's going to generate the top dollars. So what is the biggest Latino music right now in the entire world? Reggaeton. Well, it works perfect.

CONTRERAS: The genre's popularity has also influenced the radio industry. Within the last 12 months, between 20 and 30 stations around the country have switched to Spanish-language hip-hop and reggaeton formats. Radio giant Clear Channel recently flipped five of its English-language stations in markets with large Latino populations to the herban format; the name's a contraction of Hispanic and urban. Clear Channel's CEO, Mark Mays, was enthusiastic about the changes at a speech this fall in Washington, DC.

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Mr. MARK MAYS (CEO, Clear Channel): In a little more than one year, Clear Channel has created new formats, like La Preciosa, herban, and has become a primary driver of the enormously popular reggaeton (pronounced reggae-tun) genre.

CONTRERAS: He may not be able to pronounce it, but Mays certainly recognizes the economic potential of reggaeton.

The popularity of the music around the country is also a significant cultural development. Until reggaeton, Spanish-language radio was subdivided into many regional formats, says Betty Cortina, editorial director of Latina magazine.

Ms. BETTY CORTINA (Editorial Director, Latina): This is one of the first genres that really appeals coast to coast to young people. It's huge in New York, it's huge in Texas, it's huge in California. It's not just for Caribbeans.

CONTRERAS: But with popularity comes controversy, says writer Ed Morales.

Mr. MORALES: As people see the marketability of reggaeton, they realize that there are some rough edges.

CONTRERAS: Those rough edges are actually curves, female curves, young female curves, young female curves gyrating.

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Unidentified Man #4: Pull up to the club, walk in, then I pull up to the bar, get drinks, then I...

Unidentified Man #5: What?

Unidentified Man #4: ...pull up to a broad, let her know what it is, how it is, why it is, what it is.

Unidentified Man #6: Hey, hey, hey, hey!

Unidentified Man #4: I ain't got time for no games. I'm hoping, my (unintelligible) that you feel the same.

CONTRERAS: Pitbull and other reggaeton artists have been taking heat for their racy videos and lyrics, which are in Spanish, English and sometimes a combination of the two. This summer Latina magazine polled its readers about the content of Spanish-language rap and reggaeton. Fifty-eight percent said the CDs and videos offered too much grinding and not enough respect. But the magazine's editorial director, Betty Cortina, says it's important to distinguish between sexism and sexuality.

Ms. CORTINA: It's sexy for sure. There's a lot of grinding. There's a lot of, you know, butts shaking on the screen. But I think it's more celebrating sexuality. And, in a lot of cases, if you really look at the lyrics, it leaves a lot of the women in control of that sexuality or at least, you know, sharing control.

CONTRERAS: Reggaeton artists are trying to tone it down a little, insists Boy Wonder. He says that if the music is going to be more than a fad, it has to remain popular but grow beyond the party to take on the issues that affect the communities from which it comes.

BOY WONDER: I like lyrics and content. As my producer, my thing is that I try and expand reggaeton and give opportunities to these new artists that are coming around the world, you know, and show the world that the music can be there, credible, and it'll also be different, and it can expand 'cause it's not about making a hit. It's about making a classic.

CONTRERAS: And much like those in hip-hop, reggaeton's artists will face the challenge of maintaining their artistic credibility while they and their music are being used to sell sneakers, booze and cars. Felix Contreras, NPR News.

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NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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