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Tego Calderón enters stage right at Madison Square Garden. On cue, the crowd at last October's second annual Megaton concertthe largest reggaetón event in the countryerupts into a frenzy. They're drunk off the deafening riddims pulsating from the venue's enormous speakers. Midway through a medley of hits that secured Tego's position as the king of reggaetón in the U.S., Fat Joe and the Terror Squad join their Afro-Boricua counterpart to perform the year's pervasive "Lean Back" remix. And the sea of almost 20,000 screaming (and some sobbing) fans of all ages and races ripple enormous Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, and Ecuadorian flags in the air. It looks like closing night at the summer Olympics.
Though he's a household name in at least 35 Spanish-speaking countries around the world, Tegowho, on Thursday, headlines the LIFEbeat Music Industry Fights AIDS benefit "Reggaetón Explosion" concert at the Manhattan club Spirit New Yorkis a reluctant representative. "When I got out of jail [after serving two years] for arms and assault, I resisted making reggaetón songs," he'll later say, between puffs of a Newport. "Back in the day I thought it was just a carbon copy of dancehall."
But today, the stuff is increasingly invading the U.S. rap and r&b charts, and a whole crop of stars have major releases scheduled for this spring. Last month, S.O.B.'s even kicked off its weekly "Picante Fridays: Latin Rap & Reggaetón Fiesta" at Joe's Pub. Other Megaton top-billersZion y Lennox, Trebol Clan, Nicky Jam, Mickey Perfecto, and the genre's next great brown hope, Julio Voltio, who is on Tego's own Jiggiri/White Lion labelblur the lines between hip-hop and reggaetón culture. Like rappers, reggaetón artists are driven by the competition of freestyle battles. And the incorporation of the DJ into sets is becoming the industry norm. "Musically, reggaetón was born in a hip-hop environment, with a little bit of Jamaican dancehall and Puerto Rico's own tropical flavor and ritmo," says Vico C, one of the movement's founding fathers. He's on a phone from Miami, one of the hotbeds of the culture in the States, followed by New York City, Orlando, and Chicago.
Almost single-handedly and perhaps unintentionally, the artist born Tegui Calderón Rosario, 33, steered his country's dominant youth culture out of the island and Latino neighborhoods, and into the American stream of pop consciousness. "Tego is someone who represents struggle, an underdog," says Tony Touch. "He's more of an MC, a product of late-'80s hip-hop."
The DJ, also known as Tony Toca, hosts a reggaetón show on Power 104.1 in Connecticut and dropped his first reggaetón album, Guatauba, in 1996. He's releasing The ReggaeTony Album, featuring Tego, Daddy Yankee, Zion y Lennox, Don Omar, and Ivy Queen, this June. But he's not alone in his praise of Tego. "I credit Tego a lot for making reggaetón big over here," says Fat Joe, who first discovered the music through C, when visiting family in Puerto Rico about 15 years ago. "It's like hip-hop all over again, in the '70s back in the Bronx, when it was just bubbling. But it's going to be huge."
Tego's 2002 debut, El Abayarde, has sold an estimated 210,000 to date, and El Enemy de Los Guasibirilast year's greatest-hits collectionsold at least 102,000 and left fans salivating to hear (and record labels fighting a bidding war to release) his forthcoming third joint, The Underdog.
Back at MSG, the fruit of Tego's crossover appeal was palpable. Not only did attendance surge by thousands from 2003, but now masses of non-Spanish-speaking gringos were bopping their heads and flailing their arms to the universal beat.
photo: El Cangri/APR Media Group
"In 2003 when we performed at MSG, [it was] in front of nine or ten thousand people," says Don Omar later, on his way back to New York for a meeting with Sean John about the possibilities of distributing his clothing line, called Do. Tego and reggaetón pioneer Daddy Yankee are also planning to release clothing and sneaker lines this yearall in a race to capitalize on their newfound stateside fame.
Though he's only been recording for four years, William Omar Landrón Rivera, a/k/a Don Omar, is also lauded among the genre's biggest players. The former Christian minister-cum-super freak has spent time in jail for alleged arms and drug offenses, but his debut, The Last Don, and its Live version have sold over 745,000 copies combined. The 26-year-old lover boy has a set of perfectly groomed eyebrows, and he caps off the MSG show by unzipping his jeans and air-humping in the direction of the women in the front row. A Latino man standing up front consoles a hysterical Central American girlfriend, whose black mascara is running down her flushed cheeks. When the Don's humping goes into overdrive, she nearly faints.
Ivy Queen, as the first lady of the male-dominated genre, has just as much power to incite a crowd. Daddy Yankee calls her "the Celia Cruz" of reggaetón. "Ivy definitely holds her own," adds Wyclef Jean, who made a guest appearance on her The Original Rude Girlalbum in 1998. Born Martha Ivelisse Pesante in Spanish Harlem but raised in Puerto Rico, Ivy Queen has worked with Fat Joe and Swizz Beatz. Her success is owed in part to her around-the-way-girl charm (think Mary J. Blige, circa My Life), and rugged, almost baritone rasp (think Lauryn Hill, circa The Score). "When we started, our voices sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks because the beats were really, really fast," she remembers.