Latinos in Hip Hop to Reggaeton

Latin Beat Magazine, March, 2005 by Melissa Castillo-Garstow

Continued from page 1.

Although the exact origins of reggaeton are unclear, this Panamanian and Puerto Rican mix of Jamaican ragga, reggae, hip hop, Dominican merenrap (a fusion of merengue and rap) and the percussion of the bomba and plena, is generally associated with El General, who in 1988 exploded onto the scene with his hit Tum Pum Pum, followed up with Te Ves Buena, Caramelo, and Muevelo. Still, despite this success, the record industry for the most part, paid little attention--viewing reggaeton as just a passing faze. But reggaeton survived, especially in Puerto Rico, as the most popular underground music. "Reggaeton has been the most popular music among the kids in New York for the last six or seven years," Rivera said. "But this has only been reflected in the mass media for the past two or three years ... in Puerto Rico I remember it being big back in '91 and '92."

And hip hop's biggest stars are taking notice and cashing in. Tego Calderon, a Puerto Rican rapper who has said that he wasn't interested in reggaeton at first, has become one of its biggest stars--his CD El Abayarde sold more than 150,000 copies in Puerto Rico alone and he was nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best Rap/Hip Hop Album. Oye Mi Canto, a song by NORE along with Daddy Yankee, Nina Sky, Gem Star and Big Mato, reached number 12 on the Billboard Top 100 chart and has become the Latino call with its chorus: "Boricua, morena, dominicano, colombiano, boricua, morena, cubano, mexicano, oye mi canto."

Meanwhile, the unthinkable has happened not once but twice at Madison Square Garden--in August and October, the famous concert hall put on two sold out reggaeton concerts, something Rivera says, she never would have dreamed of a couple years ago.

Reggaeton is also spreading far from its original New York fan base. Recently, in Houston, Texas, Clear Channel Communications canceled its legendary rock and roll program and under the slogan "Latino and Proud" launched a new show, "Spanglish Top 40."

The Struggle Continues

Still, not all of Latin hip hop has been received with the same enthusiasm. On the west coast, Chicano artists who rap in Spanish, English and even Nahuatl, dominate their neighborhoods but are hardly heard outside the southwest. Similarly, this distinctive brand of hip hop--based on a completely different culture than sounds produced in the Puerto Rican flavored east coast--is hardly recruited by major record companies.

"The west coast is very distinct," said Davey D. "There's a big difference between African Americans and Mexicans."

"The west coast is very different even in terms of how African Americans and Chicanos interact," added Rivera. "A New York Puerto Rican can feel more culturally connected to an African American then a Chicano on the west coast, it really depends ... Latinos vary in class, race, history, culture, religion ... It's really unfair to try and lump everyone into one category."

According to Sal Rojas, founder of Digital Aztlan (a multimedia company established in 1997 in Fullerton, California that produces a webzine as well as music compilations and videos) Chicano hip hop developed simultaneously but distinctively from its New York counterpart. "Early on, the lifestyle was based on cars and lowrider shows where MCs would preform. It had more to do with cruising and listening to hip hop," he said. "[Today] You still have that lowrider--that's very much associated with Chicanos but at same time, there's much more influence of Mexican music like the corrido and the banda. It's moved from more of a cholo movement to a banda thing."

While much of these Chicano stylings are not heard too far outside from their neighborhoods of origin, the popularity within their communities of artists such as Akwid, is so strong, that with the sale of 200,000 albums, there are Chicano acts which are nearing sale levels of hot rappers Fat Joe and Pitbull.

"There are so many artists that are breaking out right now. And before, everyone sounded the same, but now there's lots of variety," Rojas said. "They are being accepted more into the mainstream ... that's why Akwid is able to sell over 200,000. We're starting to bit the six figures and pretty soon it will be seven." For this reason, older acts such as Psycho Realm, Delinquent Habits, as well as newer artists such as Lil' Rob, Baby Bash, Spanish Fly, Nightowl, NB Riders, have been able to sell thousands of CDs and fill concerts without the power of a publicist and for some, even a record contract.

Nevertheless, today, in California and other southwestern states, Chicano rap can be heard on the radio. This is largely due to the work of DJ Koolaid and her husband and producer E-Dub who converted their show, originally a hip hop program, into the first radio show to play underground acts like Lil' Rob and Spanish Fly. Although "Pocos Pero Locos" has existed as a hip hop program on Power 106, the number 1 station in Los Angeles, for more than a decade, it was six years ago that Koolaid and E-Dub went to their program director, dumped around 200 CDs on his desk and insisted on a show that played Chicano hip hop.

"We didn't give him an option," said Koolaid, who's Jewish and grew up in Los Angeles listening and loving hip hop. "We're always told to target the Latino audience but at same time they're not given a voice to represent their music ... the Latinos need a voice. Hip hop is the voice of the streets, the voice of the struggle. The mass media weren't hearing that voice."

Now the Pocos Pero Locos show plays in 20 markets, including in Portland, Oregon where Latinos make up just 5% of the population. Most recently Koolaid and E-Dub added an affiliate in North Carolina. "We'll get to New York soon," Koolaid said. "They're definitely hip hop's silent giant ... People don't realize how deep the Mexican people are ... they won't fill out a census population but they will buy records."

Some Barriers Left

According to artists such as Pitbull and Tony Touch, thanks to the work of those who came before them, today there is no limit for Latinos who want to make it big in hip hop. Nevertheless, although reggaeton is exploding, in other areas the battle continues for Latinos to be recognized as full-fledged hip hop artists.

One of the biggest obstacles, said Mellow Man Ace, is that despite the creativity of many California rappers, west coast hip hop isn't played much on the east coast. "We don't get our records played out there," he said. "That's something that hasn't caught on yet ... but it's just a matter of time."

Additionally, although reggaeton has opened the doors in terms of the possibility of popular Spanish-language rap, the question of language continues to be a sticky issue for many record companies. In the introduction to one of Akwid's songs it vents, in English: "Yeah check this out. I got something I want to get off my chest. You know I've been shopping my demo around showing it around to people and they be saying like, "yeah that shit's tight but you all Mexican, you all be Mexican--how come you never bust in Spanish?" I say yo that's not my thing--I flip my style the way I do it and that's just me. You know, why you sweating me? But anyway check this out. Primeramente un saludo ..." before continuing on in Spanish. Akwid has continued to come out with more songs in Spanish and are seeing more success.

Rojas explained this situation. "Right now, from what I see, a lot of rappers that only rap in English now are rapping in Spanish because they have a better chance of being signed as a Spanish rapper," he said. "It's easier to be signed as a Spanish rapper then an English because the English is a harder market to break--it's a market dominated by people like Jay-Z, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg."

Finally, one struggle yet to really be fought is that of the Latina artists. Although both hip hop bibles, The Source and Vibe are directed by Latinas (Kim Osorio and Mimi Valdes respectively), in hip hop and reggaeton, there is an overwhelming lack of female artists. Ivy Queen is the only recognizable woman in reggaeton and in hip hop, besides Jennifer Lopez, no other woman has really broken out. (The only name really worth mentioning is that of DJ Angie Martinez, who despite collaborations with Fat Joe, Cuban Link and Wyclef Jean, has not been able to find real success.)

"In 1997 I spoke to a producer of both reggaeton and hip hop and asked why he had only one woman working with him," she said. "He said that he really had wanted to find other women but couldn't find one that was cure and could rhyme ... In terms of a women there is this whole other standard ... if for Latinos it is tricky to get signed, for Latinas it is even harder."

COPYRIGHT 2005 Latin Beat Magazine
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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