If you stop and think about it, there are few areas of the world that have spawned as many influential genres of music as the Caribbean. Salsa, merengue, cumbia and reggae were all born there. Expand a few miles out, and you'll find some of the regional Mexican styles like norteño and tejano as well. All of those genres are pretty much unassailable musical traditions, right? Well, not if you're a rebellious, urban Latino with access to a sampler and some software to shake things up.
Case in point: the mix of dancehall reggae, hip-hop, salsa, cumbia and other Caribbean beats, known as reggaeton. While Latinos are the main audience, reggaeton's popularity is reaching even those who do not speak Spanish. Blame it on the beat.
A few years ago, reggaeton was barely a trend; now it's everywhere. There are whole radio formats built around it. The latest hits play in clubs and bars, on MTV and over the loudspeakers at baseball games. Pop artists such as R. Kelly, Alicia Keys and even Evanescence are trying to steal a little thunder from these upstarts by putting out reggaeton remixes. But some up-and-coming Latin artists are sick of the phenomenon. Just as many countries have their own versions of reggaeton, they also have their own backlashes to it, resulting in vibrant musical subcultures.
Reggaeton is a true hybrid. It's hard synth sounds and dancehall merengue-flavored rhythms get cues from all the previous genres it steals from without really sounding like any of them. But with a style of music that is so easy to make in a home studio with limited equipment, is it here to stay? Or is there a kid with a bootleg of Fruity Loops, a Boss drum machine and a distortion pedal just around the corner with the next big new style?
Latin America has a long tradition of the mash-up. Most Latin American music is a mix of European, indigenous and African music. So new genres such as reggaeton and Brazil's baile funk are not really breaking from the mold of their traditional music; they are simply branching out by incorporating new techniques, new technology and new perspectives. Reggaeton is as much traditional as it is modern, and in some parts of the world, it has supplanted rap in terms of popularity. With a sharp divide between lovers and haters of the genre, it was only natural that reggaeton become the music for rebellious young Latinos.
With reggaeton's ascent, some other genres may have stalled in their stateside popularity (for example, the market-research term "rock en espanol" or the vague and ambiguous "Latin alternative"). Some of the musicians in these genres who see reggaeton as a lowest-common-denominator form of pop are divided about whether reggaeton is creating space for other Latin artists to shine or if it is taking away from what they are trying to build. But there's hope that reggaeton has rather opened the door to the wider American market, connecting with the rapidly growing Latin-American youth market.
According to Billboard magazine's Radio Monitor, in 2005, Clear Channel Radio and CBS Radio joined Hispanic radio marketers Univison Radio, Spanish Broadcasting System and Entravision Communications and introduced a new format called "hurban," or "hurbano," for Hispanic urban. The format has been taking over stations, bringing in crossover-friendly bilingual disc jockeys and playlists that feature reggaeton, along with Latin pop and hip-hop. A typical hurban playlist includes everyone from crossover stars like Shakira to hip-hop, R&B, and reggaeton acts like Daddy Yankee and Don Omar.
A wave of electro-Latin music—dubbed Latintronica by some—has the possibility of bridging the divide between the alt-Latino rockers and the Hurbanos. With roots in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Spain, pioneering Latintronica artists are merging the rhythms of their homeland with the music of global club culture. The results are often a savvy and soulful marriage of two musical worlds.
Wary of becoming some A&R guy's next Latin pet project, these musicians have been steadily fusing traditional genres with ska, reggae, hip-hop, electro, house, techno and drum 'n' bass. Where majors and the press are trying to come up with the next marketing catchphrase for this trend, be it Latin urban, hurbano or Latintronica, many of the practitioners of the music are shying away from giving it a name for now and going the independent route to reach their audience.
The Recording Industry Association of America reports that reggaeton was the driving force behind a 14-percent increase in 2005 Latin music sales in the United States. Latin artists saw a third straight year of double-digit growth in album sales, and stores sold a record 36 million Latin albums in 2005, up 12.6 percent from a year earlier (according to Nielsen SoundScan research). Meanwhile, overall album sales slid 3.9 percent. The jump in Latin music sales explains why reggaeton is flooding the airwaves, and every rap label is creating a Latino imprint—including Bad Boy Latino, Roc-La-Familia and Wu-Tang Latino.
While Hispanics account for more than 14 percent of the U.S. population, expenditures by companies trying to reach this market account for only 3.2 percent of total advertising dollars, according to the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies. The bottom line: Latin music and its fans, many of whom are non-Latinos, are here to stay and will have a lot to say about the future of pop music with their buying power. The Latin community is no longer on the margins; it is part of the mainstream.
Don't be surprised if reggaeton and hurban/hurbano continue to climb the charts over the years to come. But look at it as just the tip of a larger Latin-urban music movement that could continue to grow. Be on the lookout for a new catchy genre to make itself known out of the Latintronica and Latin alternative circles. On the West Coast, some people are saying that Mexico's underground hip-hop movement, which hasn't gotten much radio exposure yet, could be the next big thing.—Joe Dean