Published Jan 01, 2006You could call it cultural opportunism or you could call it a cynical marketing manoeuvre and you'd be right on both counts but when the African-American rapper N.O.R.E. released reggaeton's first crossover hit last fall ("Oye Mi Canto"), he did more to raise the profile of Spanish-language music than all the alter-Latino artists in the world. Like happened with dancehall, reggaeton a frenzied Latin American genre that splits the difference between reggae and salsa has broken into the mainstream on the strength of a few savvy collaborations.
If ever your radio dial grazed a Top 40 station last fall, you probably heard "Oye Mi Canto," a four-minute chunk of taffy for your ears elastic, glossy and almost too sweet to consume in one sitting. Even weighed down by N.O.R.E.'s habitually tepid rhymes, the track was nothing short of marvel, featuring more than a minute's worth of Spanish rapping by Tego Calderón and Daddy Yankee, reggaeton's reigning microphone dons. Tempting as it might have been to write off the song as a mere novelty, there can be no understating how culturally significant it was, for Latin artists have rarely gained such high standing in North America without resorting to caricature.
As reggaeton's most prominent ambassadors, Tego and Daddy are pushing a style derived not from American influences, but from Jamaican, Puerto Rican and Columbian traditions. By merging dancehall's one-drop rhythms with the rapid-fire percussive accents of salsa and cumbia music, reggaeton's 80s-era inventors pulled off a nifty trick, proving that the exchange of musical ideas between have-not countries yields more interesting possibilities than the usual top-down colonial model. In the process, reggaeton artists have incubated their own rebel culture, one with its own strict codes of slang, dance, and dress attributes that sidestep American and European influences altogether.
With his relaxed baritone and assured stage presence, Tego is the reggaeton star most likely to break out internationally; given how closely the course of his career matches that of the scene at large, this seems entirely appropriate. When he first burst on the Puerto Rican scene in the mid-90s, the afro'd MC spun the sort of lurid depictions of sex and street life for which the form was best known. But as the movement has matured, the tonal scope of its MCs (including Tego) has widened, acknowledging the more socially conscious outlook of the scene's first star, Vico-C (aka El Filósofo, or "The Philosopher").
Comfortable in the roles of both preacher and party starter, Tego gained his first exposure to mainstream North American audiences by appearing in the video for last summer's Terror Squad anthem, "Lean Back." That New York-based group is fronted by Fat Joe, a Latin-American who's only recently achieved stardom (thanks to the success of "Lean Back") after more than a decade in the game. In the process, Joe's climbed higher than any of his Latino rap forebears, whether Cypress Hill, Tony Touch, the Beatnuts or Big Punisher (R.I.P.).
Long as Joe's climb has been, one gets the sense that his younger counterparts won't have as hard a time. According to turn-of-the-century census data, fully 13 percent of Americans now identify themselves as Hispanic, making it the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the country. Considering, too, that this group has a lower median age than the national average, there will no doubt be a growing market for Latin music of all forms, especially youth-oriented styles like hip-hop.
More than any contemporary pop form, rap celebrates regional and ethnic identity with particular vigour, an attribute evident in the idiosyncratic sound of Mexican-American rappers living in Houston, Texas. Where Tex-Mex teenagers once adopted heavy-metal groups like Slayer and Pantera, they're now led by a handful of talented local rappers, each of whom fuses norteño (North Mexican) folk culture with street reportage on the grim realities of big city American life.
For now, H-Town stalwarts like Chingo Bling, Lil J, and Kemo the Blaxican may not be household names, but it seems only a matter of time before a Mexican-American rapper makes a splash on MTV. On his biggest single to date, "Walk Like Cleto," Chingo notes that "Latinos are being targeted, overlooked, exploited, and undervalued," but if Chingo and Tego have their way, those conditions will soon change for the better.