Threads 2022: Nick León in conversation with Florentino
The headlines are true: in 2022, Latin music officially blew up and became one of the most popular sounds in the world. But where the Western mainstream saw an easy opportunity for imitation, first-gen Latinx producers Nick León and Florentino carved out a unique space where experimentalism, musical tradition and underground clubbing could all converge.
There’s a time and place for perreo. In recent years, that time and place has been everywhere, all of the time. As reggaeton’s popularity has snowballed to become one of the most streamed genres in the world (you only have to look as far as Bad Bunny’s recent, history-making Grammy nomination for Album of the Year), the expectation for Latin artists to smile politely and stick within the claustrophobic parameters of the mainstream has also heightened. That is, if you want to keep the attention of the Western gaze.
So where does that leave the artists who are working in the space between? Those artists creating music that is as indebted to Pangaea as it is to Ivy Queen; who draw from the rich musical traditions of Latin America only to mutate them, never sacrificing lineage in order to appease an audience that often doesn’t get it. For Nick León and Florentino, striking this balance has been the propeller for their boundless creativity.
The two producers, from Miami and Manchester respectively, but sharing Colombian heritage, have been leading the charge for experimental Latin dance music. Club Romantico label head Florentino has been a fixture in Manchester since the mid-2010s, exploring the connections between the UK’s grime and funky scenes and Latin sounds like reggaeton and cumbia. Similarly, León began his artistic journey producing hip-hop and dub instrumentals, recognising that the genres’ rhythmic flourishes could be reimagined within a pan-Latin context.
Though both artists have never been in the same room together, they’ve come up as part of the same Latin club movement; a liminal place where raptor house, tribal guarachero and dembow seamlessly fuse with UK bass, techno and breakbeat. A communal scene in which a new generation of Latinx experimentalists are free of conjecture, and can escape the feeling that, as Florentino puts it, “our culture is being perceived”.
Crack: How did you first come across each other’s work?
Nick León: I found out about Florentino’s music from his Fragmentos EP for Mixpak, thanks to Miami legend Jubilee. What year was that?
Florentino: Maybe 2018? I can’t remember life before 2020. I found out about your tunes when I first heard Pelican Dub. I remember thinking, ‘This has almost got an Untold feel to it.’ After that, I found all your edits and remixes that were just insane for the club. I was super hyped because in Manchester there isn’t really a demographic making the style of music that we do. I stay connected [to my culture] via communicating with people making this music in other places. It’s been a blessing to find your music.
Crack: What have been your dancefloor highlights this year?
F: It was actually this past Saturday night at Suzio. I was finishing my set and a girl just reached over the decks and said, “Are you trying to kill me?” It was so aggressive, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a powerful reaction!’
NL: Playing with Brian [DJ Python] in Miami at Club Space. It’s this huge club and the upstairs is usually only reserved for minimalist tech house vibes like Solomun. But somehow Brian and I convinced them to let us take over with Nicolá Cruz, Bitter Babe and DJ Plead. It popped off in a way that I was not expecting it to; we sold out completely. The city showed out for something different and people were actually into it instead of complaining that it’s not clubby enough or dembow enough. And, of course, the reaction to Xtasis…
F: That track is still doing damage in my sets. Do you even play it out? You must have a VIP version.
NL: I should make one!
F: Just reverse the organ melody and people would lose their shit!
NL: When Bitter Babe and I played Sustain-Release, I wasn’t going to play [Xtasis], because why would I? People must be sick of it. It feels like singing the hits, you know? When everybody’s like, “Play fucking Wonderwall!” But Laura [Bitter Babe] forced me to and it went crazy.
Crack: There’s no doubt that Xtasis has been the breakthrough club banger of the year. Do you think this year was a particularly strong, or mild, year for dance music? Are we shifting towards something a bit more subtle?
F: I feel like people, despite the economic drawbacks, are really pushing through. Our scene in particular has had waves within “Latin club music”. Since coming out of the pandemic, labels like TraTraTrax and my own imprint have shown that it’s never been more important to be pushing [this music]. I’m not sure if that means there’s been less bangers, but there have been bangers that haven’t been highlighted to the same extent because things are so difficult for artists today.
NL: For me, there has been an overwhelming amount of music that’s insanely good. It’s hard to keep up. But also stuff was overlooked. I’m biased because I work with them so much, but TraTraTrax has been killing it this year – especially the DNGDNGDNG release. Also, the Fuego EP that you dropped, [Florentino], that Bitter Babe and I did a remix for. It’s so great and I even forget that it was this year!
Crack: Something that has really struck me this year is how everyone in the Latin underground has banded together. It’s in our nature as a culture, but it really does feel like there has been significant mutual support lately. Is this a reaction to the mainstream finally paying attention? Are we protecting our culture from being co-opted by people who don’t understand its complexities?
F: When you zoom out, especially on an organisational level, it definitely feels like we’re banding together. Because the narrative has been so hyper-focused on what is going on in the Latin mainstream, a lot of us in the underground feel strongly about offering alternative narratives. Over the pandemic, we had time to organise in a way that we hadn’t before. From where I’m sitting, this is definitely a reaction to our culture being perceived.
NL: It does feel like it’s exploded since the pandemic. Even in my personal experience, my Aguacero EP for N.A.A.F.I – which came out smack in the middle of the pandemic – was pivotal for my career. Maybe if it had come out before, people wouldn’t have had the time to connect with it. As much as it feels like people are open, it’s tricky because I live in Miami – and [Latin music] is a part of the culture there, too. But something to be improved is highlighting music outside of reggaeton. People just use that as the umbrella term. Latin artists I know go to Europe and get asked to play reggaeton when they make completely different music. We get put into a box because it’s the giant genre.
“At the end of the day, it’s important that this music spreads, regardless of how I want it to be interpreted”
Crack: Have you ever felt pigeonholed by your identity?
F: I feel incredibly pigeonholed, especially when getting booked. This relates to what Nick was saying, but I play literally every bpm. Sometimes I come off and people say, “Oh, I thought you were gonna play a reggaeton set.” Sometimes you put out work that’s not reggaeton and people will just refer to it as that. I try to be patient because people are still learning. There is a genuine curiosity, which is amazing, and I don’t want to dampen that. At the end of the day, it’s important that this music spreads, regardless of how I want it to be interpreted. But I feel like we’re at a stage where we can start having these conversations. The lack of nuance in understanding our music is probably because the infrastructure in the [Latin American] continent doesn’t allow for certain genres to be covered. The Western perspective often only highlights certain sounds that have been spoon-fed, whereas it takes a bit more digging to find raptor house, for instance, which is very relevant to what we all do.
Crack: Because the music is being made in extremely precarious sociopolitical conditions, the industry will chase what sells. Then there’s the undercurrent of racism and classism that is holding these musicians and their sounds back.
NL: Verraco actually just wrote about this on Twitter. He comes from the techno world, and in Colombia, he gets a hard time when he mixes in other genres because they say, “Well, no, we want it like this.” I feel like it’s relevant to what we’re talking about – even in [our] countries it’s still a battle in the underground. It creates this camaraderie with people who are on the same wave because we’re all more or less experiencing a battle. This is something that we’re fighting for.
F: In 2018, I attempted a Latin American tour and played some really nice shows. But I came home with less than $300. There were some spaces where it unfortunately felt like people just wanted the whitest iteration of what I was playing.
“Latin artists I know go to Europe and get asked to play reggaeton when they make completely different music. We get put into a box because it’s the giant genre”
Crack: Latin club music has made huge waves this year, at least in terms of visibility in the Western underground. Where do you see the storm heading in 2023?
F: I hope we can highlight different musical narratives and change the way people view Latin music as a monolith. That monolithic approach is not only deeply problematic, but it’s also incredibly boring – people aren’t even scratching the surface musically. But there are collectives, labels and artists enjoying better moments, particularly now, and pushing the movement in the right direction.
NL: I feel that 2023 will bring more nuance and acceptance for music from Latin America that is less straightforward reggaeton. Experimentation hopefully will continue on larger platforms now that people seem to be tuned in. We’re in the process of kicking doors open. It’s exciting.