A Love Letter to… Reggaeton
It always comes when I least expect it.
The sun creeps back over New York City, and with it, the late-spring street slush and icy winds subside. Parkas trade closet space with t-shirts and sundresses, bringing signs of life back to the daily commute. Fruit vendors, beaming over their colourful bounties, offer pre-sliced mangos and pineapples: the perfect accessory to summer in the city. Around the corner, fold out chairs make their way back to their rightful nooks, and bluetooth speakers thump with that syrupy dembow riddim – a thumping that’s so desperately absent from the streets during the bleak winter.
Now it’s warm enough for cars to cruise with their windows open, the air resonates with the classics that first brought reggaeton to a wider public consciousness: Daddy Yankee, Tego Calderon, Ivy Queen and Noreaga’s treasure chest of regional perreo. These mid-aught staples carried the genre out of the underground, and into living rooms, nightclubs, and televisions across the world. Nowadays, you might come across a new single by Maluma, or until fairly recently, what seemed like a concerted effort by every Uber driver to beat us to death with Despacito. What all of these artists have in common, however, is how they ushered Latinx music outside of crossover novelty, and showcased the realities of our communities to a mainstream Western audience. The representation that came with this wave was commanding and, above all, invaluable.
Reggaeton began as entertainment for commuters on Panama’s Diablo Rojo buses. Singers like El General and Renato toasted in Spanish over Jamaican riddims. In Puerto Rico, visionaries like DJ Negro and DJ Playero added their touch, as they spread the sound through their seminal mixtapes and live battles. And it was in Philip Smart’s Long Island studio that the Jamaican dembow riddim was given a Latin makeover and reworked into Panamanian singer Nando Boom’s Ellos Benia – a crucial metamorphosis in the creation of what we call reggaeton. Or as Don Omar called it, Reggaeton Latino.
"At its core, reggaeton is a musical movement founded on community"
It’s now a global phenomenon, no longer exclusive to Puerto Rico, Panama, Dominican Republic, or even Latin America. The boom-chk boom-chk backbeat occupies space around the far reaches of the globe. From futuristic neo-perreo out of the UK, to Rosa Pistola’s self-proclaimed Mexican reggaeton, Latinx communities the world-over see representation as the genre spreads. Its growing popularity has managed to pierce the West’s musical climate with such force that it not only legitimised reggaeton as a valued art form, but led in a new period for Latinx visibility.
Reggaeton originally spread through an informal distribution network largely based on bootleg cassettes and CDs, and the careers of many now-household names began on these mixes. At its core, reggaeton is a musical movement founded on community; the barrios in which the genre thrives in pulsate with love, loyalty, and, most importantly, profound kinship. Reggaeton is the unspoken common tongue – a simple nod of acknowledgment or casual fistbump from an appreciative passerby signifies a mutual understanding and a communal bond. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting genre for non-verbal musical comradery.
But further than that, it has mass appeal. Reggaeton dips its toes in other musical styles, but never compromises its own uniqueness. It has all the components to the formula of popular music today – pop melodies, punchline choruses, waistwinding rhythms. Sure, other genres are crucial to summer’s soundtrack, but there’s nothing quite like the slap that reggaeton’s addictive rhythm delivers as you go about even the most menial of tasks. It envelops and permeates the landscape around it with transcultural signifiers like Jamaican dembow, Puerto Rican clave, and Dominican perico ripao. Trips to the bodega can only be made more wholesome by the comforting knowledge that someone within close-range will undoubtedly have a reggaeton playlist on deck.
Reggaeton’s global popularity may waver, and this current peak will inevitably come with a valley. But there’s comfort in knowing that just like we can count on the sun to return after a hard winter, we can also count on reggaeton to fill the warm air with the sounds of perreo, year after year. Season after reggaeton season.