The rise of reggaeton

By WAYNE MARSHALL  |  January 19, 2006

If there’s a prevailing sameness about the sound of reggaeton today, it’s mainly a testament to the dominance of the Luny Tunes production duo. But, if Luny Tunes appear content to rehash the same synth-patches, the same riffs and basslines, and the same drum patterns, it reflects the tradition of creative re-use that takes the Jamaican example of “re-licked” riddims as a model. Just as Lenky’s “Diwali” riddim, in various guises, produced a number of hit songs (Sean Paul’s “Get Busy,” Wayne Wonder’s “No Letting Go,” Lumidee’s “Never Leave You”), the galloping beat for “Gasolina,” especially with new layers added or prominent riffs removed, can provide a solid foundation for any number of new songs. The best reggaeton songs to date succeed not so much by offering new sounds to listeners but by using already resonant synths and samples in novel ways and leaving space for vocalists to display their creativity over familiar forms.

Nevertheless, reggaeton has become increasingly ecumenical in its approach to sample sources. Bachata, the popular Dominican genre known for its emotional ballads and plucky guitars, has been finding its way into a growing number of reggaeton productions, while salsa remixes of reggaeton hits have become common. A new song by Tego Calderón, whose El Abayarde (Sony International; 2003) contained interludes performed to the Afro-Puerto-Rican sounds of bomba and plena, features a mix of percussive styles that point to Afro-Cuban forms as well as other Afro-Latin traditions. Given its links to hip-hop and dancehall, it’s not surprising that a number of recent reggaeton riddims employ the sort of “orientalist” flutes and strings that have marked so many pop songs of the last few years. And, of course, as reggaeton continues its pop ascension, reaching more and more middle-class ears, it will no doubt be shaped and styled for that audience —a penchant for overwrought singing, borrowed from pop-salsa balladry as well as American Idol-style shows of gospel-fried virtuosity, has already begun to take hold. In the end, the music’s consistency may prove to be its greatest strength, offering an omnivorous stylistic template to producers: drop anything from a salsa break to a sitar line under that ol’ boom-ch-boom-chick and you’ve got reggaeton.

Representin’ (in the Doghouse)
PitbullOne of the most interesting things about reggaeton’s newfound success is the implication that US audiences are finally embracing music performed in a language other than English. This may be due more to the power of the music than any sort of emerging open-mindedness, but it raises some interesting questions. Despite all the Spanish-speakers living in the US, including all the gringos who learned a little Español in high school, it seems likely that, as with Jamaican dancehall, few listeners outside of the music’s core audience are able to follow all the lyrics. Those who do, especially those who find them rather scandalous, are understandably concerned with reggaeton’s seemingly unabated and uncensored rise to the top. As club music first and foremost, reggaeton tends toward partying and sex as primary subjects. Descriptions of sexual acts and female bodies alternate between explicit language and innuendo, and women rarely appear as anything other than objects of the male gaze. The music’s attendant dance-style, perreo (“doggystyle”), was seen as so salacious at one point that the Puerto Rican government attempted to ban it — a move that only affirmed reggaeton’s anti-establishment character.

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Recommended reggaeton: Essential listening. By Wayne Marshall.
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