In recent years, reggaeton, and by extension all that comes under the umbrella of the ‘Dembow’ genre, infiltrated the world of electronic music. The rhythmic triplet thus appeared where it was not expected. In Spain, in the hands of Mafia Del Amor and Pxxr Gvng, the reggaeton met trap music. On SoundCloud it hybridizes, nourishing an innovative digital music club that operates at the crossroads of genres. It met grime with the NAAFI collective, trance with Staycore, gabber or cloud rap with the Bala Club. More surprisingly, for a couple of years, the genre has found a certain echo in the extremely normative world of techno. The collective BFDM, Low Jack and the Disques De Bretagne, or more recently Dj Python on Dekmantel, have appropriated it. Although more and more present in the musical landscape, the genre seems still unknown in France. Its origins and history are poorly documented. If some articles of magazines and university press are interested in the subject, especially in the USA, almost no content exists in French.
The reggaeton has breached the well-meaning musical media. Tomasa Del Real or Ms Mina have become cool names to drop. Reggaeton is there, no doubt, but what about reggaeton? As often, the version that is getting out there the most is an adapted version, a translation. The ‘neo-perreo’, the one acclaimed by Dazed And Confused, Boiler Room and others, is an acclimatized reggaeton, filled with references to the internet culture of the early 2010s. A visual and sound universe straight out of a Tumblr feed, colorful, rowdy and rebellious, far from macho clichés that have long been used to discredit the genre.
Reggaeton exists today in the plural. Between its multiple reinterpretations and reggaeton as it exists in the Atlantic, a gap is widening. Two worlds with very different logics and meanings rub shoulders, or rather ignore each other, borrowing from each other without ever really trying to understand it.
Reggaeton is not a native music from Spain, although a certain media framing may suggest it. I met Felix Hall a few months ago and quickly our discussions was on the subject of reggaeton. Felix lives in London where he is a resident DJ on NTS. He is one of those people who likes to scratch the obvious surface of things to discover the hidden meaning. His DJ sets are a window on Caribbean and Central American music. Bashment, dancehall, reggae and reggaeton get together and converse. A few years ago, Felix temporarily emigrated to Colombia, in the sublime city of Medellin. From there, he travelled to Venezuela, Panama, and especially to Puerto Rico with the idea of witnessing, listening and living this music in their natural habitat. Felix is a bit annoyed. He told me by mail. People here (in London) tend to think that reggaeton boils down to J Balvin and Maluma. Reggaeton is stratified, segregated. If its immaculate plastic pop part, that tolerated by the elite, is exported, a whole section of the history of the genre is despised. Due to the lack of structures, most of the productions do not travel. Vivacious music, at the heart of the life of multiple communities, that many in Europe ignore. The distant and filtered echoes that reach us do not do justice to the richness of a genre that, starting from nothing, has today become a symbol of Latin America. Following our discussions, the idea of writing an article was imposed. I asked Felix to point the way, then I began to read.
Before Daddy Yankee and even before, before becoming a supermarket product labelled ‘Latino’, reggaeton, and more broadly the dembow genre, have lived a history made of odds and ends, recovery, bootlegs and cassettes that crackle. Reggaeton is rich music, the product of a crossroads region, the center of the new world is made. It is a reflection of complex cultural and identity dynamics, at the junction of the West Indies, Latin America, the West and Africa. The base of reggaeton is a rhythmic loop known as ‘dembow’. On the web, it circulates like a brick ready to use as a sample. Wayne Mashall estimates that the loop, reproduced or sampled, is today used in nearly 80% of reggaeton productions. The genre can not be reduced to a loop.
At the beginning: the reggae in Spanish
The history of reggaeton is controversial. His fatherhood is disputed. For some, it appears first in Panama. For others, it is definitely and purely a product of Puerto Rico. Raggaeton is an evolution of dancehall reggae, a cuttings in Spanish, born from a mix with hip hop culture in the mid-90s. For Renato, one of the pioneers of ‘reggae en español’, the name comes from a Panamanian language habit where adding sufix ‘tone’ to a name serves to signify its large size. Reggaeton would mean ‘big reggae’. For DJ Nelson, the term is a contraction, of ‘Reggae’ and ‘marathon’, used to describe the true race to the mixtape that the Puerto Rican DJs are engaged in at the beginning of the 90s. Only from 1995 that the name, taken by the press, settled down for good.
The story, as it is most often told, begins like this. In the 1970s, in Panama, canal workers, many of whom came from the Jamaican diaspora, imported Reggae, which gradually transcended the boundaries of the community. The main support of this broadcast are tapes recorded for buses. In Panama, as in many Latin American countries, the bus is the main mode of communication of the rural world. The long multicolored vehicles with modified chassis crisscross the villages, transport the inhabitants, transport the goods, spread the news. A means of locomotion at the center of community life but also one of the main sources of music in the country. The audio systems were rare at the time.
Reggae is in essence a live culture. On the b side of most of the discs there is an instrumental version. A blank riddim left at the disposal of the various MC and sound systems wishing to use it during their soundclash. The vast majority of riddims circulate freely, appropriated by one MC then another, declined in multiple versions. People recorded and re-recorded over it. In Jamaica, the notion of ‘intellectual property’ does not seem to have the same consistency as in the USA or in Europe. In the mid-80s, in order to make the reggae lyrics accessible to the rest of the population, some local MCs such as Super Nandi or Renato start singing in Spanish, using the b-faces at their disposal. The subgenre takes the name of ‘Plena’ or simply ‘reggae en español’. The covers multiply, with the sandstone of the imports since Jamaica. Gradually the audience grew.
The Panamanian plena is still only a Spanish version of dancehall reggae. The beats and the flows are the same, the lyrics usually simple translations. Often built on the ‘one drop’ of roots reggae, the riddims are still relatively far from the regular kick drum interspersed with reggaeton snares. The story is only at its beginning.
If Panama plays an important role in the sound definition of Reggaeton through the development of reggae in Spanish, its history wouldn’t be complete without a detour to New York. The city is home to one of the country’s main Latino communities. In 1970, ‘family reunification law’ eases entry requirements for close relatives of individuals residing in the USA. The Latin American population is growing. From 9.1 million in 1970 it rose to 22.5 million in 1990. A huge and promising market for music in Spanish or Latin-inspired. An Eldorado about to find many operators.