Reading Reggaeton

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As controversial as it is catchy, reggaeton has proven itself to be one of the most exciting and influential global pop forces to emerge in the past decade.  Since the early 2000s, summertime in the city from San Juan to New York to (insert any urban area in the Caribbean, North or South America) has been defined by reggaeton’s crisp synths, rollicking drum beat, and the rap bravado of such artists as Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, Tego Calderón, Ivy Queen, and Calle 13.

And now we have an almost 400-page tome to school us on all things reggaeton; a nerdy look at a by no means nerdy genre.

In their new book, Reggaeton (Duke University Press, 2009), editors Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah Pacini Hernandez investigate and reveal the genre’s heritage through time and space—from 1980s Jamaican reggae and dancehall, Panamanian reggae en español, New York hip hop, and the Puerto Rican underground scene of the 1990s to its present-day global phenomenon status.

This is no simple narrative, and it involves a highly complex transnational exchange exemplified by the ascendence of dancehall’s “dem bow” beat to become reggaeton’s defining rhythmic pattern.  The story of reggaeton also reveals the evolution of music technology over the past 20 years from the “underground” distribution of pirated cassette tapes of DJ Playero to the democratization of production and dissemination vís a vís such tools as Fruity Loops and YouTube.

Contributions by academics, cultural critics, and artists also tackle the ethnic, racial, social, and gender tensions that often appear in popular discussions of reggaeton.  One of the great inclusions in the anthology is an essay on blackness in Latin America written by Tego Calderón himself that was originally printed in The New York Post.

Other essays explore dance culture in Cuba, surrealism in the lyrics of Calle 13, and policing morality on the streets of Puerto Rico.  Visual elements include particularly provocative (and delicious) images by Miguel Luciano such as the cover photograph “Plátano Pride” (above).

Overall, Reggaeton is a well-(g)rounded and engrossing approach to a subject matter that is both mainstream and marginalized at the same time.  Most definitely an essential read for anyone interested in modern Caribbean popular culture.

For more info on the book:

Visit the editors’ blogs at (Raquel Rivera) and (Wayne Marshall).

Tune into WFMU on Wednesday, May 6th at 7pm, as Raquel and Wayne visit DJ Rupture at his show Mudd Up! to play a bunch of tracks (especially proto-reggaeton and newer stuff), and chat about the genre.

The Center for Puerto Rican Studies will be hosting the book’s release in New York City on Thursday May 7th, at 6:30 p.m., Click here for event details.

For those interested in a more aural and rump-shaking experience, the afterparty to the book release will be held at Que Bajo? with special guest DJ Wayne&Wax (a.k.a. editor of Reggaeton, Wayne Marshall).  Resident DJs Uproot Andy and Geko Jones will also be holding it down as they do every Thursday night at APT. Click here for event details.