Hurban Renewal

Ok, back to reggaeton. So, once again, back to questions of vitality and vocality. Or, how it’s doing and for whom & from whence it speaks.

the reggaeton crash
one way of looking at the “reggaeton” “crash” (and recovery?)

I was tickled to see Birdseed name reggaeton genre of the year for 2009, fully contra Gavin’s provocative post about the genre’s crash. If one is not persuaded by Birdseed’s praise of reggaeton’s post-dembow turn to synthy club beats (right alongside, let’s note, its longtime main sources: hip-hop and dancehall), the real proof in the pudding is Dominican dembow, but more on that below…

First, a couple other items relating to reggaeton’s urbanity, if you will. This is gonna get a little meta, but my post about Gavin’s post resulted in a post by Marisol which got cross-posted to Racialicious, where it generated an intense and interesting conversation about Calle 13, reggaeton, and transnational racial politics, among other things. Marisol’s central argument riffs off something I wrote in my response to Gavin:

Wayne makes a good point that “música urbana” basically functions as a (seemingly sexier and less scary euphemism) for reggaeton’s old moniker of “música negra.” So it’s interesting to me that reggaeton’s resident blanquito has appointed himself the gatekeeper of said race music. … I’m curious about the work that placing a blanquito at the center of “música urbana” does. For sure it makes the music palatable to the a wider audience, as so many blanquitos have crossed-over “race musics” in the past. But I think the work that Calle 13 very clearly does is “fuel fantasies about reggaetons inherent latinidad,” as Wayne points out in his chapter “From Música Negra to Reggaeton Latino” in Reggaeton (Duke UP). There is something appealing to the many music critics who have profiled the group in their brand of Latin World music, something in stark contrast with the repetitive samples and versioning of Black music that is central to many other reggaeton acts.

I recommend that anyone interested in reggaeton and race read the entire exchange.

As it happens, I was asked recently to write another dictionary blurb, an entry for Calle 13. Trying to sum up an act like Calle 13 is difficult even with the 9000 or so words tossed around on that Racialicious post, but I only had 200. In light of the conversation at Racialicious, I found Calle 13’s polarization of the reggaeton audience (never mind of their peers in so-called música urbana) difficult to leave out. Here’s what I came up with (exceeding word limit a little) —

Calle 13 is a Puerto Rican hip-hop group comprising two step-brothers, René Pérez Joglar (b. 23 February 1978), better known as Residente, the group’s acid tongued vocalist, and Eduardo José Cabra Martínez (b. 10 September 1978), aka Visitante, a producer who brings together a diverse sonic palette using synthesizers, samples, and live instrumentation while drawing from reggaeton, cumbia, electro and a variety of other genres. The group hails from San Juan, named after street on which Residente grew up. Prior to their debut album, they garnered attention with “Querido F.B.I.,” a blistering critique of the assassination of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, longtime leader of the pro-independence movement. Distributed freely over the Internet, the song made Calle 13 a household name in Puerto Rico. Brimming with sarcasm and satire, Calle 13 initially posed as an alternative reggaeton group working within as they subverted the genre’s conventions; in recent years they have distanced themselves from reggaeton, preferring the broader label, música urbana. Thanks especially to Residente’s irreverent, sexually explicit and “vulgar” lyrics and pointed political statements, Calle 13 courts controversy, especially among Puerto Rican elites, as they enjoy a remarkable degree of commercial and critical success, including almost a dozen Latin Grammys. Their popularity notwithstanding, Calle 13’s reception as the poster boys of música urbana has been colored by resentment over their whiteness, class privilege, and disproportionate acclaim.

I still have time to edit this, incidentally, so if you feel strongly about the word choice or what gets put in vs. left out, I’m all ears.

Curiously, a few years before “música urbana” became the new industry term, the media had already announced the dawn and dusk of the “hurban” era — a term given to the new formats adopted (and, before too long, dropped) by such radio franchises as La Kalle, centered on reggaeton but also including Spanish-language rap, r&b, NYC-based bachata and other styles that could be confidently classed as hispanic-urban. I corresponded recently with a student working on a paper about the rise and fall of “hurban,” or as they described the project:

I am currently interested in the mass proliferation of “hurban” media outlets during 2004-2006, and their eventual demise from mainstream radio. Basically, I hope to analysis why “mainstream” Reggaeton, a la N.O.R.E.’s Oye Mi Canto and Daddy yankee’s Gasolina, has “fallen off,” so to speak, of the mainstream U.S. media circuit.

So if you can answer some of these questions, that would be so helpful:

Why do you think Reggaeton and the “hurban” radio station phenomena failed to hold a spot in the mainstream media? Was it a backlash from Anglo-audiences, who were quick to jump on the catchy Reggaeton bandwagon but soon decided they did not really understand the music? Or was it a feeling from the young Latino demographic that the music “sold out” to corporate interests?

Or, was it simply the repetitive nature of the music (use of dem-bow, “copycat” artists, similar lyrics) no longer attracted the same attention?

Do you think there will be a resurgence of Reggaeton in the mainstream pop music circuit?

These are interesting questions, if familiar. I was happy to hazard some answers, though once again, I’d be eager to hear from people who have other evidence or narratives to offer. Here’s what I replied:

I think one thing that needs to be put into context is how much the “hurban” marketing angle was a relatively contained (if well hyped) experiment on the part of major media conglomerates like Clear Channel and Univision. If we understand it as an exercise in top-down, corporate branding — as opposed to grassroots demand, regardless of the extent to which it sought to tap into that — then it becomes easier to explain the sudden abandonment of the format when it failed to meet high expectations.

Another thing to note is that the question of the rise and fall of “hurban” is separate from the question of reggaeton’s fleeting heyday in the Anglo mainstream; hurban format stations were not pitched at Anglo listeners. On the other hand, reggaeton’s receding from mainstream urban radio and MTV (where it maintains a marginal presence, but a presence all the same) and the failure of the “hurban” format might have the same root cause(s), as you imply. My sense is that a certain lack of interest in reggaeton/hurban was less about an Anglo lack of comprehension or a Latino disenchantment with the corporatization of the genre, and more with a sense of saturation and sameness: at the height of reggaeton’s (mainstream/media) popularity, radio DJs and major record labels were pulling from a relatively small pool of hits and artists, and the Luny Tunes sound was so dominant — and momentarily successful — that it crowded out other approaches. I think a lot of people just got bored.

That said, it’s worth noting that reggaeton — or whatever one wants to call it (and it’s telling that “música urbana,” not so different from “hurban” as labels go, has become the latest umbrella term for the music) — continues to offer a fair amount of variety to listeners willing to seek it out. I’m not sure what it will be called the next time there is a resurgence of Spanish-language dance-pop in the mainstream pop circuit, but I’m quite confident that we’ll hear that sort of thing again. The underlying reasons for reggaeton’s mid-decade explosion — burgeoning Latino demographics in the US, savvy music entrepreneurs, a timely stylistic overlap with contemporary club music — are factors that remain very much in play.

In the other corner of reggaeton’s big tent, across from the slick commercial stuff that fills-out Birdseed’s YouTube queue and aspires to radio spins and TV airings (and, yes, YouTube views) — the stuff that Jace more or less dubs music for airports — is Dominican dembow, an exceedingly local (if also diasporic / virtual) reanimation of reggaeton’s former (and formative) sound. In a somewhat surprising and awesome move, the DR’s hip-hop scene has embraced PR’s mid-90s underground aesthetic — the stuff of Playero and The Noise mixtapes — fullup of samples from classic (that is, early-mid 90s) dancehall riddims like Bam Bam and Drum Song, rubikscube beats shuffling the same snares, hats, and hits into an endless array of colorful configurations.

The poster child track for Dominican dembow is the bizarre and unforgettable “Pépe.” But I highly recommend the mixes by DJ Scuff (the first of which includes samples from “Pépe”) —

I’m particularly struck by how these productions resonate with Marisol’s questions about sampling & reggaeton’s racial politics — questions raised, notably, not just by DR dembow but by PR’s ‘regreso’ acts as well):

Is it time to think of sampling practices within reggaeton as an overtly political act? Is sampling consciously hailing an audience and interpolating the performer and audience in a specific genre?

I often wonder how much these theories about sample-riffic music and memory/signification require particularly active, engaged, and perhaps cognocentric (?) modes of listening, though we might posit — especially with the sorts of samples recycled in (proto/regreso) reggaeton / Dominican dembow (i.e., largely, short percussive sounds with distinctive timbres) — that there are modes of embodied (and perhaps even what Adorno would call regressive) listening that also, in their own ways, involve forms of musical memory. At any rate, that this practice is happening at the producerly level is remarkable in its own right.

Along those lines, I want to note that the 2nd DJ Scuff video embedded above contains a sample of the infamous DR-diasporic YouTube hit, “Watagatapitusberry” (about which, start with Marisol’s post from last October). One reason this is interesting is that it folds a track with no overt sonic references to reggaeton directly into the dembow diaspora. It makes me think that, in some ways, we may as well think of “Watagatapitusberry” and “Pépe” and even DR kids posting jerkin videos as all of-a-piece. We needn’t call that piece reggaeton (which marks another moment, another layer of activity, perhaps), and I don’t think música urbana says it any better.

More important than giving all this seemingly related activity a name is to note that the efflorescence of shared referents and practices, all this artful work of technological reproduction (to refix Benjamin for our labor/leisure effacing age), continues unabated outside the corporate mediasphere (that is, if things like YouTube can exist outside of that; I’m not sure they can). This vibrant shared and co-produced culture thrives on overlapping publics networked by language, diaspora, dance, Facebook, and filesharing. This is the point that I try to underscore whenever I get asked about the so-called reggaeton crash — if we only look to corporate radio, to the formal commercial sphere, for measures of music’s vitality, we may well overlook the lion’s share of what’s happening. Que fue indeed.

10 thoughts on “Hurban Renewal

  1. Hey Wayne, I’ve been meaning to chat you up on the dembow. When we did a lesson last semester on music and identity, class discussion turned to dembow and how it was more “real” and underground. This is when my kids schooled me on Pepe and Watagatapitusberry. They basically dismissed “hurban” and more successful acts as uninteresting, liked only by people who weren’t “really” into reggaeton.

    It was a little hard for me to hear how this dembow connected to the dembow rhythm, but I think you’re right, it’s more part of a net of associations and practices. the jerk videos are fascinating, not least in how they are completely erasing any distinction between “cultura de aqui” and “cultura de alla”. It used to be that use of English and taking up “American” modes was, in upper-class mode, selling out to Yankeeism (see response to rock fans), and in lower-class mode, a Dominican-York (read: Black, drug dealer) affectation.

  2. Well, in 2004-05 it was the boom of Daddy Yankee. In 2009, it was the year of Wisin & Yandel with his MTV nominations and finally, recognizement by the Mexican market and latin american pop-rock public. You gotta see that too.

  3. I listen to commercial Latin radio in NYC pretty much every time I’m in my car, so I wanted to share my reports from the field – first I’d been hearing the old-school revival tracks, and specifically “Pepe” since about September (right when I was doing all that Reggaeton research for my Afropop show), though I had no idea it was Dominican, but not to suprising in La Republica Newyorquina. But second, there is a new phenomenon on Latin radio – even though the “hurban” formats dissolved, right now both La Mega and Equis (the new kalle) are playing American hip-hop oriented pop back to back with bachatas, the newest PR musica urbana, and salsa romantica. I think its all because of Pitbull and his genre-ambiguity (hip-hop light, with a demboish house beat, with some spanish catch phrases?) – at first it was just “Hotel” and “You know I want you”, but then Black Eyed Peas “Boom Boom Pow” and (yuck) “I Got A Feeling” got into the rotation, and some other stuff of similar aethetic. I don’t have much analysis to give about that, but are we seeing the work of one errant DJ or some sort of cross-cultural meta-genre sprining up? Is it an attempt to cater to newer immigrants to the city, many from Mexico, who might not be feeling the Carribean-centric-ness with something more generically palatable? Its strange because I figure Latinos in New York have been listening to hip-hop/R&B/pop/whatever for a long time but the commercial radio formats haven’t really moved.

    One other thing – I didn’t get a chance to go through the entire Calle 13 exchange, but no matter where they put themselves in the discourse, are they really considered musica urbana by lo de mas? When I think of musica urbana I think De La Ghetto and iDon. And I don’t have a sense of their fan base in Puerto Rico, but when I went to see Calle 13 in Uruguay, let me tell you that it wasn’t the urbana crowd, more like the local hipsters and post-manu chao political kids.

    Haven’t read the blog for a while, loving the continued discussion!

  4. Thanks to all for the comments.

    @Marlon — that’s a very interesting take on contemporary trends in NYC commercial Latin radio. I would definitely be curious to hear whether this was the case most of the time or just the work of a couple DJs / programmers. And I wonder whether this cross-lingual format is being replicated elsewhere around the country. Since a lot of these stations aren’t just local but are national franchises of a sort, often such programming decisions are made from on high.

    I have to confess that I’m also curious to know about Calle 13’s following in PR and to what extent they’re embraced by the masses (and not just the critics) as the leading lights in música urbana. My impression was that they actually do enjoy a relatively broad degree of support, at least in Puerto Rico, but I’d love to hear more from people who’ve been to shows, or are on-the-ground, in a variety of locales.

    Incidentally, I heard “Pépe” on AM radio here in Boston just yesterday! (Oddly, there are no Spanish language stations on FM here.)

  5. When I went reggaeton mixtape hunting in NYC last Fall “Pepe” and “Watagatapitusberry” definitely stood out, both by their different sound from the other tracks on the mixtapes, and their ubiquitousness. Especially “Pepe.”

  6. There’s a lot to say on this all, but having just returned from being in Puerto Rico for a month, I was surprised at how much the long-standing Reggaeton stations in PR are now playing American pop music along with Reggaeton. This was unheard of just a few years ago. Black Eyed Peas & 50 Cent get a lot of play, as well as Lady Gaga. From the people I spoke with & my general observation is that Reggaeton is loosing steam so to speak in PR in terms of album sales, videos being shown on tv and the general view of it by many young Boricuas. The songs that are popular on the radio tend to break away from the traditional dembow riddim & embrace a more sonically diverse beat (more pop, more dancehall-ish riddims).

    In terms of Calle 13, I gotta agree with Marlon. I have not seen Calle 13 perform outside of PR, but within PR his biggest fan base is by far independentista college kids & hipsters. Calle 13 is decidingly “urban”/ musica urbana as seen by his interviews & diss track towards Ivy Queen & this rejection of Reggaeton has transformed Calle 13 into the anti-reggaeton reggeatonero. & as we know, there is nothing hipsters love more than irony. Calle 13 still gets love from the caserios & is kinda like Eminem in the sense that everyone respects his lirical ability & knows he’s a beast on the mic so he can make songs that are funny because its him. So I think in this sense his lirical ability allows him to get away with more musically than say a Daddy Yankee or Don Omar.

    I think his blanquitoness definitely plays a role in allowing him to straddle the line between musica popular/pop music & musica urbana/reggaeton (think Akon. He proclaims “convict music” & can do tracks with “gangsta” rappers but also with David Guetta & Matisyahu). So like Akon, Calle 13 has found a way to maintain his street credibility with the “urban” PR community but also appeals to a wider audience –>hipster (white) & American (white) crowds. Case in point, Calle 13 performs at festivals like Coachella. i don’t see De la Ghetto or W&Y doing that any time soon….

  7. Thanks for the comments, Tito. I’m always eager to hear what it sounds like “on the ground” in PR. And I appreciate your help with understand Calle 13’s resonance/popularity there.

    I’m definitely curious to hear that the reggaeton stations in PR are now peppering their playlists with Anglo pop/club joints. In a way, that almost represents a reversal of reggaeton’s incursions into Anglo pop/club playlists 5 years or so ago.

    It makes me wonder, actually, whether all the speculation (on my part included) about reggaeton serving as a beachhead for Spanish pop/club in the Anglo mainstream might have read the situation totally backwards: that is, rather than offering an opening into mainstream/mainland venues for Spanish-language artists, reggaeton’s (ongoing) flirtation with the Anglo mainstream instead opened up new space for Anglo pop/club music in reggaeton’s own home spaces! I think they call that blowback or something…

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