“Step back punk 'cause I'm a Latino/What I bring you is the hardcore lingo”
B-Real of Cypress Hill - "3 Lil Putos”(Black Sunday LP, 1993)
Hip hop music and culture was created, molded and furthered by African Americans, Caribbean Blacks and Latinos (particularly the Puerto Rican people). There is no way around this. We have historians and journalists of the time from Barry Michael Cooper and Nelson George to S.H. Fernando Jr. and Jeff Chang to verify and validate such claims. We have the artists of those times credited with its creation from Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc to Crazy Legs and Charlie Chase who were there with contributions and direct experiences.
But the music is sold and then immediately sold out. The biggest seller, that rap music, merging two of the founding elements of DJing and MCing, became predominate and is presented as solely an African American tradition. While the actual bio-chemical science and natural reality reveal us all alike in our genetic mental and physical structure (i.e. the groundbreaking works on melanin revealing it as that essential living chemical, with metaphysical properties, throughout all the organs, including skin), our only differences are in ways, means and residences making these myriad ethnicities and/or races of the actual hip hop co-creators. We’re all Original yet our people truly believe we are all different.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the most pathetic subgenre of Hip hop music. There are many from trip hop to techno that literally focus on particular aspects of the breakbeat or may leave out a crucial component of the general genre (i.e. rapping). Yet it is far more telling the subgenres that have no musical advancement to ever mention and only distinguish themselves via the particular ethnicity participating. Thus, Reggaeton, is a label of wretched waste a particular ethnicity can now call their own. And only their own.
Hip Hop music is a music of rebellion. The potential of all these different lifestyles and particular cultures of Original people colliding and forcing expression under squalid conditions in the South Bronx is the essential brilliance and major component of the essence of Hip Hop. In 80’s Freestyle, one will hear a more electronic dance music with breakbeats and Latinized elements (i.e. horn arrangements and keyboard portions) that feature singing as opposed to rapping. While the subgenre deserved a label as it only had elements of hip hop fused in it, it also had unique elements (i.e. singing) more predominately displayed. In retrospect, the swagger and style of many of the artists (i.e. Lisa Lisa) really are weaker precursors to the New Jack Swing of Teddy Riley and the Hip Hop R&B of Mary J. Blige. They are all influenced and derivative of Hip Hop music.
Yet the eventual distinction of Freestyle as Latin Hip Hop was the beginning of Latinos falling for the hype in two ways. Firstly, they didn’t see Latinos rapping meaning there were no stars to look to. In striving reaction, TKA becomes Hip Hop?!!! Louder than love this lust for equated fame was a cheap way to get stars. Secondly, the industry only focused on the image of the African American. Latinos also have been taught they are not wholly Black, as opposed to mildly derivative, where they have the soul, style and skill but none of the negritude. Couple this disassociation with journalists and scholars of this young genre being incomplete and ill treated, Latinos’ contributions and influence were ignored. Just as they were left out, other Hip Hop co-creators/Original people (i.e. the English colonized Caribbean) were embraced with little fanfare as to their descendancy. (How many know that the breakbeat founder, Kool Herc, the pioneering DJ Grandmaster Flash and arguably the greatest MC of all time, KRS-One are of Jamaican, West Indian and Trinidadian descent, respectively?)
Freestyle Hip Hop fell because it was essentially a derivative music with its unique elements horribly done. While the breakbeat and electronic syncopation have its clear hip hop roots straight jacked and repeated endlessly (Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” of 1982 is the most clear, immediate example of the jacking) it’s most unique difference, singing, were done with no refinement. Freestyle singers hardly could hold a note, keep pace with any kind of timing and had little resonance or lasting character. Just watch any live performance of George Lamond then switch to Luther Vandross or Lisette Melendez then Whitney Houston to observe the massive gaps in skill, technique and execution. No label intended this music to last and it never could. They sucked.
But, it was fun. It had swagger and they really didn’t front as rappers or MCs furthering the culture the true way. They just had that ghetto swagger and it was peace. Another decade of the industry ignoring contributions combined with the little renown that excellent works such as Raquel Rivera’s New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) received, of which I had the honor of contributing insights to, continued the trend of ignorance. Link this with more and more misogyny, obsessive imagery and lyrics accorded to instant gratification for all things materialistic and batches and batches of disgusting, phony rappers. All abound with justifications of regional expansion (i.e. “let the South do them”), complex lyricism is not accessible (Wu-tang Clan isn’t relevant despite the cult following) and sampling laws have ruined that old classic way of producing (supposed ‘crate diggers’ are lazy and only those who can pay for easy pop finds succeed as with Kanye West) to name a few. This was all an excellent breeding ground for a new subgenre virus.
Reggaeton. It is a subgenre created as something rebellious took its trip around the world vacationing the tourist spots of our peoples’ minds. It’s a current mutation of a one beat driven pop idea with the most clichéd lyrics only a clever Klansmen/record executive would appreciate. It is not merely enough to say it is a degradation of the morality and ethics of a people. This would be using the Stanley Crouch-like veils of pompous morality to blame a music for the realities of an impoverished people. Yet, it is clear that Reggaeton is a sellout subgenre and its artists don’t reflect their reality realistically and/or seek to express themselves originally and cleverly.
The phantasm of Reggaeton is that instead of appropriating just the musical components of hip hop (i.e. there is literally only one breakbeat used in reggaeton) they also rob the lyrical component. By not singing the major lyric portions of the tracks (i.e. Freestyle), they raid the real Hip Hop of its swagger. Understand that Hip Hop has never been a classic music because of its musical composition alone. It is a classic music because of its marriage of artistically sampled music creating a bed of breakbeat for a lyricist to compose poetic prose of an unlimited quantity and ensuing quality never heard before. (Refer to Ras Kass’ “Nature of the Threat” which is a simple hard break and simple strings to guide the rough, rugged and righteous history lesson at the essay length of 1400 words.) For Reggaeton to be classified as such, it cannot have any of these characteristics. It is literally a subgenre of Hip Hop as a concentrated yet grafted dilution of its most artistic components
There are many supporting arguments for Reggaeton that only reach for illegitimate claims for its artistic validity and its rights of freedom. With such a wonderful record of classical musical genres from our people, this may be a natural reflex in hoping or expecting for the best. Many may argue that Hip Hop started in an infantile stage where the samples were overtly blatant and the lyrics were nothing but clever chants of an urban disc jockey. Yes, sir. However, the music was emerging from a culture already reaching levels of heightened rebellion (i.e. graffiti) and was not in the basking glow of immediate commercialization. The South Bronx was plenty of space for it to grow untampered.
The commercialization of Reggaeton is seen as amazing as the music has African roots. How is this so? From that old “Dem Bow” beat from Bobby “Digital” Dixon in 1990 through all the…all the…all those…all that…grafted “Dem Bow” beat. All music originates from us and it doesn’t legitimize it as a celebration of our ancestral roots automatically. By this standard, Led Zeppelin is pure African music. How so? Page and company jacked the blues ultimately making a psychedelic and funky concoction that is classic music. It’s Blacker than Reggaeton any day. It’s Black because it’s classic music with clear Black roots as its foundation and Black compositions and stylings in all of its progression. Hold that, Brits.
Reggaeton is labeled as “real” because it’s from those impoverished hoods and it finally speaks for the youth. This is all illusionary dumbing down of the concept of reppin’. As a Puerto Rican phenomenon, Reggaeton is harkened back to the classic salsa 70’s of Willie Colon, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto repping New York Puerto Rocks and Hector Lavoe, Ismael Rivera and Sonora Poncena going hard for the native Boricuas. With brashness, love of the common man and pure soul, it took about a decade and a half to commercially adulterate the genre into salsa romantica. Even Spanish rap of the 80’s and 90’s is lumped into that pop consolidation. To born universal truth, Reggaeton also belongs. Reggaeton’s acceptance into the mainstream of Puerto Rico and elsewhere means that the colonizers got hip to its potential.
The lyrics are as lustful as anything Frankie Ruiz sang with added expletives. More importantly, when the lyrics of a developing music reflect a colonized peoples’ thoughts and ideas, this more than likely means it must be tested. Does it just reflect mental slave boogie from massa or actual rebellious commentary with all the contradictions, hopes, desires, insights, anger, rage, sadness, happiness and creativity of the people. Ultimately, Reggaeton lyrically only has one aspect: the desires of a colonized youth who mildly taste the defecated splendor of Americana in their colony and are visually awash with the spicy lure of its grander stardom pitches toward them daily. Most pathetic is the swagger that my poor niggas come with on stage. They come with a million dollar strut shuffle and how can that happen when they lyrically only tell of tales of being a trick Donald Goines would kill off before chapter 2. When we are one-dimensional, then a one-dimensional music launched and advocated to rep us will be acceptable. That is not so and never will be so Reggaeton won’t do. Essentially, if these lyrics rep the Boricua hoods in Borinquen, niggas is weak hoping for wicked.
Reggaeton has also been bigged up as local entrepreneurs from DJ Nelson’s Flow Music, Daddy Yankee’s El Cartel Records, and Wisín and Yandel’s WY Records have done it with greater control of the music and better recouping of profit. Obviously a plus for a colonized people if it were actually true. These bigger profits are because all of the aforementioned labels are distributed by Machete Music, a subsidiary of the Universal Music Group. Universal is the largest music business group in the industry so these profits are only larger crumbs. Regarding control, Reggaeton is by definition a limited genre and there is no need to control its artistic output; rather, the game is to be sold and never to be bold. A colonized slave people think up garbage all by themselves. That’s the point.
Luke Campbell released his recordings on his own Luke label and was a homegrown entrepreneur repping Miami. Final analysis: he voluntarily sold out our people with his slave lyrics. The music was weak, the productions sloppy and his technical rap skill was nil. Anyone anywhere can try a genre of music. It’s only with Hip Hop music derivatives that we salute them when they fail musically, lyrically and yet sell well. On a distant shot of associating our classic genres with overt sensuality and even sexuality as a justification for savaging out take note of the real Mardi Gras celebrations. As the well traveled musician/scholar Ned Sublette noted, “People have a very stereotyped idea of what New Orleans is…The number one thing anyone outside of New Orleans would say if I mentioned New Orleans was about beads and tits. The irony is that’s not even a part of New Orleans culture. That goes on for three blocks of Bourbon Street, and it’s done by tourists who come to perform their idea of what they think New Orleans is, but if a woman were to flash her protuberances at a real Mardi Gras parade on St. Charles, which is a family affair, she’d at the very least be given a stern talking-to.” It’s time to put all that Gasolina back in the tank.
With all this, Reggaeton has reached pop respectability and now has opened doors for greater evolution of the music. Here is the con. When it actually evolves, it will be Hip Hop music and no longer Reggaeton. By finally selling out, they now must do their best to salvage a grossly limited musical composition. Any Reggaeton song with a different breakbeat is no longer Reggaeton. Any Reggaeton song that doesn’t have a whore-inducing hook, weak, diluted posturing and pulsing, grafted swagger sayings, hip for a Telemundo commercial, is no longer a Reggaeton song. It is all then Hip Hop. If they actually rap, it’s just a Hip Hop song. If the beat is hardcore, shrewdly produced, with lyrics that are equally skillful, then it is a good hip hop song, not Reggaeton. It literally must be dance fodder for the one long stroke-grind to occur that makes it Reggaeton. Anything else are weak attempts to keep a subgenre alive and will play out like Chubby Checker’s myriad “Twist” tracks. Trying to badly blend Bachata’s broken appregio’s or horn arrangements from Merengue are coon shots in a barrel. This poor man’s eclectic approach would even make Wyclef Marley cringe.
Most importantly, songs in Spanish are not Reggaeton. A breakbeat and lyrics, of any language and style, are Hip Hop music. Zach De La Rocha and Rage Against the Machine are Hip Hop. Amazing revolutionary lyrics and energy backed by driving rock beats and a lead guitarist who plays guitar like a turntable. Everything But the Girl is under a wonderful influence of Hip Hop. Incredible music backed by breakbeats. Daddy Yankee is Menudo Kids on the Block's Backstreet. While Don Omar pushed Vanilla Ice up a notch when he tried to sing along with Hector Lavoe. A subgenre only identifiable as it deliberately limits the lyric's style and confines the breakbeat to one sample break and sugar coats it with endless hooks is not Hip Hop or a respectful subgenre. It isn’t about one wack artist selling out (and well), it’s about a selling-out formula being labeled an entire subgenre. A subgenre that lets Boricuas and other Latinos hypocritically claim they now have their own Latin Hip Hop genre.
The only supporting case they have is Tego Calderon. Sad to say he’s not a Reggaeton artist. He is an MC that has done some Reggaeton tracks. Clearly put, he is an average MC (If he grew up in Brooklyn, he’d have no chance) who deliberately makes some sellout tracks to hustle his catalogue. If Biggie was alive this is where P Diddy would have taken him. All those diluted “One More Chance” Remixes, “Big Poppas” and “Mo Money Mo Problems” contrasting his “Unbelievables” “Gimme Da Loots” and “Kick in da Doors” would be part of the Pimpaeton subgenre. So that the next sap happy rapper out of Bad Boy could just focus on what they do worse the best way. Pardon self. P Diddy’s made this band at least 4 times.
My aged advice for Tego Calderon, now 4 years old, is to disassociate from this subgenre by making an all Hip Hop album. How? Like that feature on Cypress Hill’s “Latin Thugs” (2004, Til Death Do Us Part LP), Tego needs to establish himself as an MC and give the hard beats and real rhymes. Ultimately, disassociation from Reggaeton is when the real MCs rapping in Spanish will be finally given their props deserved.
"Food for thought, hold down a fort/ Up in the Port of Riches, last seen giving stitches"
Dom Pachino aka The Puerto Rican Terrorist of Killarmy (Dirty Weaponry LP, 1998)
Part 2: The Association
While Reggaeton is everyone’s favorite coon music needing real MCs en espanol to disassociate from it, the lack of respect and dignity afforded Dominican Bachata is growing more and more prevalent. Even with the success of Aventura, the rest of the genre is not really benefitting in exposure or notoriety. Aventura even seems to have not clearly associated with the rest of the genre as it should. Why? Does this backyard, hick music deserve respect? Is all that crying and sobbing healthy for singing or listening? Is it as formulaic as the worst of subgenre viruses? Or is it a wonderfully developed bolero-blues based guitar music from a campesino/poor, yet honorable farmer foundation that captures the spirit, anguish and beauty of an impoverished, hurting people?