October 20th, 2006

¿Que Fue?

That review of the new Tego album in the Phoenix that I’ve been telling y’all about has finally seen the light of day. You can find it in the digital fishwrap here, but I’m going to go with my standard practice of reprinting the original on this humble blog since inevitably a word or two (or three) has been changed or excised and it doesn’t always sound like my voice anymore (for better or worse, I suppose, depending on your aesthetics).

For all the Idolators out there who have strong opinions about who’s hipper than you journalistic integrity, allow me to provide full disclosure: everything you are about to read is a fabrication, an invention of my active imagination — shit, some of it’s a translation. How that affects how you hear Tego, well, you’ll have to let me know.

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Tego Calderon’s debut album, El Abayarde (White Lion / BMG 2003) caught the ears of both the reggaeton street and the critical elite. Its diverse stylistic palette, politically-charged rhymes, and easy swagger presented a striking alternative to the assembly-line, in-your-face reggaeton flooding the market. It also set a high bar for future efforts. On Tego’s new disc, The Underdog / El Subestimado (Jiggiri / Atlantic 2006) the Afro-sporting, gap-toothed grinning rapero returns with another genre-busting effort, and this time he’s got Atlantic records, the label that gave Sean Paul just the right push, to help him project his distinctive, deserving voice.

Those who find reggaeton monotonous would have a hard time lodging the complaint at Tego. Despite the dembows (and plenty of those), Tego’s music brings together a greater variety of styles than most of his contemporarie — and not just his fellow reggaetoneros. Although it has become commonplace to describe reggaeton as a mix of hip-hop, reggae, salsa, and even such traditional Afro-Puerto Rican genres as bomba and plena, few reggaeton productions live up to this motley model. Tego proves the exception, however, and The Underdog revisits all these influences while breaking new ground.

Warning Tego’s challengers that he will return to “kill” them again and again, the lead single, “Los Maté,” gestures both to contemporary hip-hop and further across the Latin musical spectrum by giving a classic Mexican ballad, “El Preso Numero 9,” the chipmunk soul treatment. The track resolves its far-flung connotations with a solid reggaeton groove, layering chopped and filtered loops from such well-worn dancehall sources as the Dem Bow and Bam Bam riddims and adding some subtle synths to fill out the texture. A fitting first shot, “Los Maté” puts Tego right back at the vanguard of the genre, nodding to hip-hop and reggae routes, an expansive, diasporic vision, and a musical talent unconstrained by genre.

In contrast to his peers, many of them participants in the dancehall-heavy pre-reggaeton “underground” or “dembow” scene during the 1990s, Tego cut his teeth on hip-hop, in part while living in Miami as a teenager, and his flows and beats bear witness to an aesthetic steeped in that ol’ boom-bap. While Daddy Yankee and similar vocalists spit double-time rhymes and strain their voices (purposely, mind you) to propel high-pitched melodies cribbed from dancehall reggae, Tego keeps it nonchalant in his smoky baritone, more indebted to Tupac Shakur than Shabba Ranks. He’s more likely to cite Bob Marley as an influence than any dancehall DJs, and he’s quick to add the names of such seminal MCs as Rakim and such skillful soneros as Ismael “Maelo” Rivera, who gets a number of shout-outs on The Underdog. The album employs hip-hop beats alongside reggaeton pistas and reggae riddims (of both dancehall and roots varieties), often infusing them with additional polyrhythmic percussion, evoking the traditional Afro-Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean styles Tego has been known to embrace and bringing hip-hop’s Afro-Latin roots back into the foreground by recalling the Latin-tinged funk breaks which provided a rhythmic foundation for the genre. Two acoustic interludes, “Son Dos Alas” and “Por Que,” make audible connections between traditional Afro-Puerto Rican styles and the island’s most contemporary expressions.

Tego has long distinguished himself through his poetic politics, and to his credit he balances such sentiments with cutting humor, a strong sense of fun, and a wide range of topics and concerns, presenting himself as fully human, if that means he must show his seams. The Underdog offers, among other portraits, a poignant plea about a father estranged from his child and restrained by a biased legal system (“Oh Dios”) as well as a genuinely touching tribute to Tego’s late father (“A Mi Papá”), supported by a sweet, nostalgic beat provided by Miami-based producers Major League. The necksnappin’ “Payaso,” produced by Salaam Remi and featuring Puerto Rican hip-hop veteran Eddie Dee and Tego’s up-and-coming labelmate Voltio, effectively reanimates a well-worn Herbie Hancock sample (from Headhunters‘ “Watermelon Man”) in order to assail wannabe gangster reggaetoneros as “clowns,” calling for fewer street stereotypes and more range and substance. Non-Spanish speakers shouldn’t worry too much about missing every detail, for even native Puerto Ricans have trouble keeping up with Tego’s wide-ranging slang, which includes obscure regional references and terms from his grandparents’ generation. As he says in a rare English phrase on the album, “You might not understand, but it’s hot.”

And Tego’s just as happy to balance his more thoughtful turns with tracks telling the girls to “move it.” So listeners looking for some plucky, in-the-genre bangers will not be disappointed by the boom-ch-boom-chick of “Pon La Cara,” “Comprenderas,” or the sole Luny Tunes production on the album, “Cuando Baila Reggaeton” (featuring Yandel). Even Tego’s synth romps tend to stand up to, if not trounce, the competition, while the album’s regular stylistic shifts prevent the dembow fatigue that the genre’s other offerings can produce.

This is not to say that there aren’t missteps on The Underdog, but that’s the price of experimentation. “Mardi Gras,” a bluesy reggaeton grind, is too full of aimless guitar noodling to redeem its bold attempt at another fusion (though Tego’s cartoonish, gravelly chorus almost redeems the track’s southern kitsch). “Badman,” a dancehall tune featuring Buju Banton feels uninspired and gratuitous in its tough guy posturing and “gun lyrics” by-the-numbers. The quasi-live funk of “Bureo Bureo” probably should have been saved for a misguided unplugged album, and though “Chillin’” (with Don Omar) features strong vocals, the producers’ chock-a-block attempt at roots reggae is a little too square. Tego turns in solid performances throughout, but he seems to shine most on The Underdog when he goes out on a limb.

On the tracks where he decides to indulge his love for salsa and to emulate Maelo, “El Negro Calde” takes a strong step forward for reggaeton and salsa alike. DJ Nelson offers up some salsaton accompaniment for Tego and venerable Venezuelan singer Oscar DéLeon. But it is on “Chango Blanco,” an avian allegory about black pride, where Tego shows himself to be a budding sonero in his own right. Supported by a full salsa band, Tego sings with brio the story of a black bird painted white who learns, thanks to some rain, to love his true color: “I want to stay / I want to stay black,” Tego intones, “I was born with this color / And it looks good on me, good.” Improvising his way skillfully through a call/response montuno, Tego occasionally dips into some rap-style vocals for contrast.

At the end of the song, he pronounces “weak salsa” to be done — something to provoke the anti-reggaeton old folk, no doubt, but not necessarily off the mark given how much salsa, especially in its romantica guise, has become cheesy and decidedly apolitical. Tego’s turn here hints at the reinvigoration both genres might receive through such an exchange. He may not yet be the “sonero mayor,” or premiere improviser, that Maelo was, but he’s well on his way.

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Buy it here.

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Raquel Z. Rivera  |  October 20th, 2006 at 12:59 pm

    Thank you! Tego is truly on some other level and its great to hear how you break down the joys of listening to him.

  • 2. wayneandwax  |  October 20th, 2006 at 1:02 pm

    aw, shucks. that means a lot coming from you, raquel. glad you liked the review!

  • 3. Rudy in Philadelphia  |  October 21st, 2006 at 3:28 pm

    Nicely done. A minor quibble (are there ever any major ones?):

    At the end of the song, he pronounces “weak salsa” to be done—something to provoke the anti-reggaeton old folk, no doubt

    I’d say that if anything this is meant to appeal to older hardcore salseros (who are frequently anti-reggaeton). That seems to be how they are receiving it, based on, for example, comments made on Yahoo’s salseroscollective. They certainly aren’t afraid of dismissing “salsa monga” themselves, in favor of salsa dura or salsa gorda or, anyway, what they consider the real thing.

  • 4. wayneandwax  |  October 21st, 2006 at 4:38 pm

    Good point, Rudy. I think you’re right that Tego’s salsa dips are meant to appeal to the real cocolos out there (to employ a term with which Tego often describes himself). At the same time, I’ve heard a lot of ignorance about and fear/critique/defamation of reggaeton from some (early/dura) salsa lovers — and PR nationalists — who can’t possibly understand how the two might be seen (or heard) as akin, in spirit if not style.

    Thanks for the nuance, though. Appreciate it.

  • 5. nina  |  October 21st, 2006 at 9:35 pm

    good article
    i have long said that reggaeton and the skills on the mic are akin to the skillz required to sonear, that reggaeton/rapping is closer to soneando than the old ppl like to think
    ole willie and hector were de la calle and their music reflected this
    when salsa got sappy an crappy it lost the edge and has yet to recover

    why PR nationalists would be anti reggaeton, i dont know
    it isnt as if salsa itself itsnt something comprised of influences and genres from other countries- son, r&b, jazz and so forth
    salsa dura is no more a pure genre than reggaeton
    ppl need to get a grip

    to be honest, i like the dancehall reggae style and tego is a bit laid back for my tastes. but at least in THEORY i love him

  • 6. wayneandwax  |  October 22nd, 2006 at 7:22 pm

    I hear you on preferring the dancehall stylee, Nina. I definitely dig that side of the genre, too. Something about Tego’s well-rounded, distinctive approach really appeals to me, though.

    As for your comments about salsa v. reggaeton, I totally agree. Both genres are really mixed up in their influences for all their distinctive PR-ness. And Willie Colon, of all people, affirmed not long ago the same feeling that reggaeton is filling a void that salsa has left behind in its commercialism:

    Colón defendió el reggaetón y dijo que este género musical caribeño “llenó un vacío que la salsa dejó. La salsa ya no tiene la esencia de la esquina y de la calle, ya todo suena igual, mientras que el reggaetón entró desde los bajos, desde los barrios, tiene ese sucio, esa rebeldía que los “chamacos” necesitan oír”.

    Of course, if reggaeton continues in its own search for commercial success (and gets too far away from a collective sense of “reality” in its cartoonish gangsterism), it may find itself similarly supplanted by a new youth style that speaks from the streets. (Of course, that hasn’t happened to hip-hop, so who knows.) At any rate, I think that’s another big reason I like Tego: he keeps it grounded — not so much in the mythos of la calle, but in race- and class-based cultural politics, via the signs of the Afro-Diaspora.

  • 7. wayneandwax.com » R&hellip  |  January 28th, 2009 at 11:37 am

    [...] to flow when I listen to Tego. He’s an MC’s MC far as I’m concerned. I’ve weighed in on El Negro Calde here before, so I’ll save you my own treatises. I found the following pro-Tego jab by [...]

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Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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