The rise of reggaeton

By WAYNE MARSHALL  |  January 19, 2006

Sound Reasoning
Reggaeton’s unmistakable boom-ch-boom-chick relates directly to the late-’80s/early-’90s dancehall reggae that inspired it, though it is not unreasonable for people to hear such syncopations as somehow inherently “Latin.” Indeed, Jamaican reggae itself, like so many other Caribbean and American genres, bears a strong relation to Latin-Caribbean music, especially Cuban son, a genre that contributed many stylistic features to calypso and other popular music of the 20th-century Caribbean tourist industry. One finds essentially the same rhythmic patterns, with different accents, in nearly all Caribbean pop, a product of the region’s shared African, European, and indigenous cultural heritage, a high degree of inter-island migration, and more recent patterns of convergence. The same 3+3+2 subdivision that cuts compellingly across a steady 4/4 pulse can be heard and felt in Jamaican reggae and mento, Trinidadian soca and calypso, Haitian meringue and konpa, Puerto Rican bomba and plena, Dominican merengue and bachata, Cuban son and mambo, and, among others, Nuyorican salsa.

Still, for all its connections to related styles and historical precedents, reggaeton brings some new features to the table. As an utterly electronic style — usually produced on computers, drum machines, and keyboards — reggaeton embraces new possibilities for a high-tech, post-hip-hop, Latin Caribbean aesthetic. This can best be heard in reggaeton producers’ unconventional approach to the snare drum. Whereas a typical recording, even in a sample-based genre such as hip-hop, usually employs a single snare drum sound, reggaeton producers revel in the ability to draw from dozens of their favorite snare samples, frequently employing several in the course of a single song. By switching the snare sound every eight measures or so (and foregrounding it in the mix), they give form to what might otherwise be repetitive, subtly shifting the mood of the music in mid-verse or from verse to chorus. Reggaeton is undeniably a product of the digital age, and the genre’s predilection for space-age synths, techno-indebted kick-drum crescendos, and sound effects gives the productions an unmistakable modern edge.

Reggaeton also represents a break from previous Latin music in that it appears to have fostered a greater dialogue with non-Latin forms such as hip-hop and reggae rather than the popular Spanish-language genres it has supplanted. Hip-hop’s emphasis on drums and reggae’s taste for bass serve as cornerstones of the music. Contemporary dancehall reggae is still a vital source: reggaeton artists continue to make use of the newest riddims to emerge from Jamaica. (Ivy Queen’s hit “Quiero Bailar,” for instance, employs the “Liquid” riddim, produced by Jamaican crossover-guru Jeremy Harding.) And the “Dem Bow” remains a staple, turning up in a remarkably high percentage of reggaeton tracks, sometimes quite explicitly and sometimes as a more subtle addition to the overall rhythmic texture. Indeed, reggaeton’s use of the “Dem Bow” as a common building block recalls the frequent use of the “Amen” break in drum’n’bass or the “Drag Rap (Triggerman)” beat in New Orleans bounce.

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Recommended reggaeton: Essential listening. By Wayne Marshall.
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