Reggaeton Makes its Mark on the Bronx

For a generation, the beat of hip-hop has been synonymous with the Bronx. But walk that borough's streets today and the music you're just as likely to hear is a Caribbean-inflected mix of dancehall reggae, Spanish vocals, and hip-hop swagger called reggaeton.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For a generation, the beat of hip-hop has been synonymous with the Bronx. Walk through that borough's streets today and the music you're just as likely to hear is a Caribbean-inflected mix of dance hall reggae, Spanish vocals and hip-hop swagger called reggaeton.

Corey Takahashi followed reggaeton over the summer as it challenged rap for dominance in the place where rap was born.

COREY TAKAHASHI: This is one of the reggaeton hits you've heard if you've been anywhere near New York City: the Down re-mix by Rakim y Ken-Y.

(Soundbite of song "Down")

RAKIM Y KEN-Y (Musician): (Singing) Down, I can't handle anymore. Down (Spanish spoken) to go down. Go down...

TAKAHASHI: Reggaeton was so loud at the Puerto Rican Day parade in June, other artists took note, too.

FAT JOE (Musician): Yeah, I'm ready. I'm ready to rock. I'm ready to rock the house.

TAKAHASHI: Fat Joe is a popular rapper from the Bronx. His background's Puerto Rican and this year he was selected to co-host the telecast of the parade on the local Fox and My-9 stations. It was a high profile spot and a play for younger viewers. But the effort may have missed by a generation because it wasn't rap so much as reggaeton that ruled parade floats, boomboxes and cruising passersby. It was so prominent in fact that Fat Joe, the rapper, felt obliged to explain reggaeton to his co-host.

(Soundbite of music)

FAT JOE: It's a Latino form of hip-hop music, and it's almost like the energy that hip-hop had back in the '70's coming out of the South Bronx when it was very new...

TAKAHASHI: In the streets after the parade, printed flyers touted reggaeton after-parties. Others plugged new reggaeton CDs and projects from such old hip-hop hands as Jay-Z and the Wu Tang Clan, or rather Wu Latino, as the group's Spanish side venture is called. Still, others advertised nightclubs like this one in the Bronx.

Unidentified Man #1: The XBar (unintelligible). (Unintelligible) for the most (unintelligible) lady. Sunday, Puerto Rican Day parade after-party at XBar.

TAKAHASHI: The man who runs XBar certainly enjoys the reggaeton boom.

Mr. DAVID MARRERO(ph) (Manager, XBar): You drop a reggaeton beat in the club, it's over, you know. People will gravitate to the dance floor because it's just so catchy.

TAKAHASHI: David Marrero is a father of three who prefers Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd to Daddy Yankee and Don Omar. But at the Bronx nightclub he knows reggaeton's the best soundtrack for business, and he says he draws on his experience in the Marines running reconnaissance missions to size up the opposition.

Mr. MARRERO: I go to clubs all the time, you know, and I've gone to black clubs, white clubs. Even in some white clubs, you know, the girls actually go up to the deejay and they go, can you play some reggaeton, please?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARRERO: And the deejay would have to, like, literally switch up the whole format of his set to play some reggaeton because, you know, these girls want to really hear it.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: So ladies and gentleman, it's about that time, it's about that time. Turn this thing on out, yeah.

Unidentified Man #3: I (unintelligible).

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Hey, hey, let's go. Let's go now. Let's go now. Here we go now. Here we go now. Let's go now...

TAKAHASHI: The changing beats inside XBar mirror changes in the Bronx itself. In various incarnations, the venue has showcased salsa, hip-hop and now reggaeton.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Ma #2: (Singing) (Unintelligible) Puerto Rico…

TAKAHASHI: This shift has significance beyond the Bronx. Latinos are the largest minority group in the U.S. with the youngest median age. Last year, Univision Radio switched the format of one of its New York stations from older Latin music to a playlist it calls Reggaeton Y Mas or reggaeton and more.

Its music director is a former hip-hop DJ named Oscar Cortes(ph). Listeners know him as DJ Casanova.

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible) DJ Casanova...

TAKAHASHI: He started playing reggaeton in New York clubs about five years ago. Back then, he had to blend reggaeton beats with hip-hop lyrics so he wouldn't lose a crowd. Now at a dance party at Copacabana, he says the situation's reversed.

Mr. OSCAR CORTES (DJ Casanova): You know, and now hip-hop artists want to jump on reggaeton songs where before it was the other way around. It all has to do with selling records, whatever's hot in the street, and reggaeton became hot in the streets and it's selling records.

TAKAHASHI: Casanova says an indication of shifting tastes can be found in the re-mixes he's done for Alicia Keys and others, or the slate of collaborations featuring R. Kelly, Snoop Dogg and Diddy, some of the biggest names in black music working with reggaeton artists. But reggaeton has ambitions well beyond the block.

(Soundbite of "Rockera")

NITRO Y FANTA & POP SHUVIT (Musical Group): (Singing) Yeah, rockera, this is it...

TAKAHASHI: Consider Rockera, a reggaeton rock song released earlier this year. It's a collaboration between Nitro y Fanta, a Dominican reggaeton duo from the Bronx, and an English-singing, guitar-playing rock band from Malaysia called Pop Shuvit.

(Soundbite of "Rockera")

NITRO Y FANTA & POP-SHUVIT: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

TAKAHASHI: Henry Tejada performs as Fanta.

Mr. HENRY TEJADA (Musician): You never hear reggaeton with a rock band. That's like a first, you know. If you're reggae, (unintelligible). I'm doing (unintelligible), you know. I'm doing music internationally. We're breaking the barriers of the language. We're doing Spanish and English in the song.

TAKAHASHI: And so are the Malaysians.

(Soundbite of "Rockera")

POP SHUVIT (Musical Group): (Singing) She's a rock star on the dance floor. Shake it for me mommy, gimme me, gimme me some more. She's a rock star on the dance floor. Shake it for me mommy, gimme me, gimme me some more. She turns into a beast when she hears the (unintelligible) beat. We're burnin' up the club ‘cause she knows she's packin' heat. Only club's VIP, poppin' bubbly. (Unintelligible).

TAKAHASHI: Ariel Franjul, known as Nitro, was impressed with his Asian collaborators' slang.

Mr. ARIEL FRANJUL (Musician): They said (unintelligible). That's him. That's (unintelligible). He surprised me when I heard that. I was like, whoa. You know, this guy's spoken Spanish right now. Like, I loved it, you know. It was hot.

TAKAHASHI: When Nitro y Fanta formed six years ago, Franjul says Spanish hip-hop was still the rage at their high school in the South Bronx.

Mr. FRANJUL: The kids in the Bronx and actually in New York, at the beginning when reggaeton wasn't so powerful, they used to listen to hip-hop. But then as reggaeton got more powerful, it's kind of like, you know what, I'm Latino. The other kids are confused. Like, I'm from here, but I'm not really from here because my parents, my mother and my father are Dominican. So when you ask them where you from, they say I'm Dominican. But then they don't feel Dominican because all they had over here was hip-hop. Now they can have something to relate to - reggaeton.

TAKAHASHI: And Nitro y Fanta are more than happy to serve it up. Yet they're still Bronx-based upstarts in the genre who's biggest stars have almost exclusively come from Puerto Rico. As the rapper Fat Joe observed earlier, these are the streets that animated early hip-hop. But the beat you hear today in the Bronx sounds different, a lot like a cultural re-mix, a Caribbean-American re-mix.

For NPR News, I'm Corey Takahashi from New York.

(Soundbite of song "Rockera")

NITRO Y FANTA: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie.

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