Cajas Pequeñas

thx again, lmgm

Like I try to do with most fruits of my labors, I’m liberating some recent words of mine here (shhh!), composed last week for a relatively well-consulted (by music grad students?) music “dictionary.” It’s likely that none of you will read them otherwise, not that you’d necessarily want to. (I’ve received requests to share, however, having tweeted about the inherent challenges.)

Boiling down any subject into so few words seems an intrinsically painful, reductive enterprise. At the same time, it’s also a semi-enjoyable task in the way that any thing which challenges you can be.

I was asked to write a 500 word description of reggaeton and 200 word profiles of Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, Ivy Queen, and Tego. I agreed for a few reasons. For one, the challenge. For two, the relative (and I mean RELATIVE) prestige of contributing to a widely recognized publication. For three, and this is the most important: because I care a lot about representations of reggaeton, esp how the genre animates rather heated debates about national/racial/ethnic identity.

That said, I don’t know to what extent these encyclopedia entries will have any impact at all on how people think about and tell the stories of reggaeton. Our (very!) forthcoming book is a lot more likely to be read. But these may have a greater chance of “getting out there” now that I’ve put them on the web. (Wha gwaan, Wikimaniacs?)

At any rate, here they are. Don’t hate me p/q I’m concise. I HAD TO BE. Why don’t you give it a shot? Edited and alternate versions invited in the comments ;) PLZ STICK TO WORD COUNT —


Although some dispute the national character of the genre, reggaeton is most frequently represented as a Puerto Rican and, increasingly, pan-Latino fusion of hip-hop and dancehall reggae. Featuring lyrics in Spanish and propelled by a modified reggae rhythm referred to as the “dembow,” the genre also travels in the form of a suggestive, sexualized dance called “perreo.” In 2004-05 reggaeton performers such as Daddy Yankee and Don Omar scored chart-climbing hits on US and international pop charts, bringing widespread attention to a genre that had been growing in popularity since the early 1990s, especially in Puerto Rico and New York City.

Origin narratives acknowledge the crucial role played by Panamanian vocalists, among the first to record reggae songs in Spanish. The music of Jamaica infused the Panamanian soundscape via descendants of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Anglo-Caribbean labor migrants to Central America who maintained cultural and family ties to the island. By the late 1970s, groups such as Franco y Las 4 Estrellas were performing Spanish-language versions of contemporary reggae songs. For all the continued engagement with reggae in Panama, however, such influential Panamanian avatars of dancehall reggae “en español” as Nando Boom and El General made many of their most popular recordings in New York City, working with Jamaican musicians and producers, typically translating the lyrics of contemporary reggae hits while employing the same (or re-recorded) rhythm tracks as the Jamaican originals.

While such recordings circulated widely among Spanish-speaking audiences in New York, the records resonated especially strongly with young Puerto Ricans, both in the city and on the island. Taking as a template the pioneering productions by Panamanian performers, Puerto Rican DJs and producers, including DJ Negro and DJ Playero, employed excerpts from the instrumental versions of these recordings to support performances by Puerto Rican vocalists. Initially a live practice, these sessions, in which a series of rappers declaimed over a shifting sonic accompaniment sampled from the hip-hop and reggae hits of the day, started to circulate as “mixtapes,” copied and passed hand-to-hand after an initial dubbing of a few dozen copies.

During the 1990s the Spanish-language mix of hip-hop and reggae produced in San Juan was alternately known as underground (or under), melaza (molasses), dembow (after the Shabba Ranks recording, “Dem Bow,” a frequent sample source for producers), and sometimes simply hip-hop or reggae. Occasionally it was called “música negra,” bearing witness to the racial cultural politics expressed by an embrace of hip-hop and reggae. The term reggaeton became dominant shortly after the turn of the millennium, around the same time that producers and performers sought to market the music to a broader audience, packaging recordings in the form of singles and albums rather than mixtapes and infusing the “dembow” beat with pan-Latino musical signifiers from salsa to bachata to cumbia. The great hope of the Latin music industry, reggaeton remains a grassroots phenomenon, embraced and localized across Latin America.

DON OMAR (William Omar Landrón), b. 10 Feb 1978

Puerto Rican vocalist Don Omar is one of the few reggaeton performers to enjoy success on US pop charts and airplay on MTV. Raised fatherless in an impoverished area of San Juan, a subdivision of Santurce called Villa Palmeras, Omar spent his late teens working as a youth pastor and singing in church choirs (including a group called the Christian Rappers). After leaving the ministry and turning to reggaeton, Omar built a following through live performances and appearances on mixtapes, distinguishing himself through his gruff voice and melodic rapping. Recruited by popular duo Héctor y Tito as a ghostwriter, Omar caught the attention of Juan Vidal, president of VI Music, who offered him an album deal. Omar’s first single, “Dale Don Dale” (2002), became a huge hit among reggaeton audiences. In 2005, his chart-topping song, “Reggaeton Latino,” symbolized the genre’s ascendancy to mainstream visibility and refigured reggaeton as a pan-Latino product. Omar often employs Christian symbols in his music and videos, and his themes reach beyond braggadocio to serious topics from suicide to AIDS. His 2006 album, King of Kings, debuted at #7 on the Billboard 200, the highest appearance by a reggaeton album to date.

DADDY YANKEE (Ramón Ayala), b. 3 Feb 1977

Best known for his massive, international hit, “Gasolina” (2004), Daddy Yankee is not only reggaeton’s most recognized performer, he is also one of the genre’s original and most consistent voices. Born into a musical family in Río Piedras, Yankee grew up in the Villa Kennedy housing project. After being shot in a case of mistaken identity, Yankee set aside aspirations to play baseball and dedicated himself to music, making a name for himself by performing rapid-fire raps at house parties. By the mid-90s, sometimes under the name Winchester Yankee, his distinctively nasally-tinged, tongue-twisting vocals featured prominently on DJ Playero’s popular mixtapes. Yankee released his first album, No Mercy, in 1995. Beginning in 2000, he started issuing albums at a steady clip of one per year, making inroads into the Latin Billboard charts while becoming a major star in Puerto Rico. He struck gold (or platinum) with his 2004 release, Barrio Fino, propelled by the runaway success of “Gasolina,” which effectively introduced reggaeton to the world. Having become his own brand, including merchandise endorsement deals with Pepsi and Reebok, Yankee remains restless, collaborating with hip-hop and R&B artists to reach new audiences.

IVY QUEEN (Martha Ivelisse Pesante), b. 4 March 1972

Ivy Queen has reigned as reggaeton’s practically sole female voice for well over a decade, remaining a central and respected figure while transforming herself from fierce battle rapper to sentimental sophisticate. Born in Añasco, Puerto Rico, she started singing to her father’s guitar accompaniment and identifies Celia Cruz and Selena as role models. She lived in New York city from childhood into her teenage years, moving to San Juan after high school. While writing for other acts and performing in talent shows, she grabbed the attention of DJ Negro, who added her to the roster of The Noise, an influential crew of DJs and performers. After making a splash on several mixtapes by The Noise, she embarked on a solo career, in part to distance herself from sexually-explicit and violent lyrics, addressing a range of topics from domestic violence to single mothers, fidelity to feminism. Her first album, En Mi Imperio (1996), sold briskly in Puerto Rico and was picked up by Sony. She has since released a steady stream of albums, broadening her audience, garnering industry awards, and settling into a style that finds her crooning bachata-infused ballads as often as rapping in her distinctively deep rasp.

TEGO CALDERÓN, b. 1 Feb 1972

Puerto Rican rapper Tego Calderón looms large in reggaeton, respected as a witty lyricist with a beguiling flow who anchors his sound and image in symbols of negritude. Born in Santurce but raised in Río Grande and Río Piedras, Tego expresses a strong connection to Loíza, where he was exposed to Afro-Puerto Rican traditions. Tego studied percussion at the Escuela Libre de Música of Puerto Rico before moving to Miami in the late-1980s where he was introduced to hip-hop and began composing lyrics in English. He credits Vico C with providing a model for rapping in Spanish. Returning to Puerto Rico, he established himself as a force in the local hip-hop scene before trying his hand at reggaeton, a savvy career move. His first album, El Abayarde (2002), was a local smash, and subsequent releases have been widely distributed and critically acclaimed. Tego’s music incorporates a variety of genres, including bomba, salsa, blues, and roots reggae. As a vocalist, he is known for his gravelly baritone, unique enunciation, love of slang and puns, and sense of swing. He has become a popular guest artist for hip-hop collaborators (including Terror Squad, Cypress Hill, and Wyclef Jean).