By now, the genre of Cubatón has exploded through the Spanish-speaking world. But Havana-born artist El Chacal, one of the sound’s earliest progenitors, traces the eruption to a single release: DJ Nelson’s Mas Flow 2. It was the early 2000s, and the DJ/producer’s compilation reflected the hard-hitting, infectious reggaeton that had started spilling into Cuba from Puerto Rico.
“This type of music was usually censored because of the lyrics…It basically became the music of young people, since you could only hear it at clandestine parties,” Chacal, whose real name is Ramon Lavado Martinez, remembers.
Hip-hop already had a longstanding, if also complex, history in Cuba, and reggae had floated in from Panama, so it made sense that reggaeton received such a warm welcome. But young Cuban artists didn’t just embrace the Puerto Rican sounds charging across the island; they began inflecting the predominantly urban style with their own particularly Cuban touch. Throbbing timbales got tossed into the reggaeton mix, along with salsa sensibilities and an upbeat Havana party vibe. Boom: Cubatón was born. Groups such as Eddy-K and Clan 537 began pioneering the sonic cocktail around Cuba, and the massively popular Gente de Zona shot Cubatón into more widespread mainstream attention.
Due to its sexually explicit lyrics and imagery, Cubatón often suffered from government censorship, with bans on the genre on television, radio and state-run recording studios. Nonetheless, the movement has thrived, finding fans through el paquete, the island’s informal digital distribution network. The movement’s story has been told in documentaries like El Medico, and more recently in Lisette Poole’s Reggaeton Revolución: Cuba in the Digital Era.
For Chal, Cubatón “was something refreshing for our generation of young people. It made us happy. It was the underground movement of a generation and that’s why now there are so many things taking the genre to a worldwide level of popularity.”
The Cubatón movement unspooled further when Spanish Broadcasting System launched Miami radio station Ritmo 95.7 FM last summer. Its tagline “Cubatón y más” doubled down on the Cubatón mania that was starting to slip into the U.S. and other parts of the world, and made the genre more broadly available to fans.
“There was an audience for this and no station playing the music,” says Jesus Salas, executive vice president of Spanish Broadcasting System’s Programming. “Ritmo 95 shot up in the ratings to no. 1 in the first week of being on the air. It continues to be among the top three radio stations in Miami.”
The station dedicates about 60 to 70 percent of its programming to Cubatón, according to Billboard. Artists like Divan, Osmani Garcia, Orishas, and Jacob Forever provide a constant stream of evolving sounds, and Salas says the music has had an additional boost from new producers experimenting with Cubatón.
And while Cubatón has become synonymous with a relentless, sweat-drenched dance floor, Chacal points out that the music still reflects Cuba at its core: “In Cuba, everyone has music in their blood. You play an instrument, sing, or you dance. Music is part of the Cuban daily life, music is culture.”
Below, Remezcla put together of some of the most noteworthy Cubatón bangers that celebrate where the Cuban genre has been — and where it’s going next.
Stream the playlist via Apple Music below.