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"In Puerto Rico we started doing reggaetón a lot because El General and Nando Boom were hitting hard. When they came out, it wasn't called reggaetón," says Tego, taking a pull from yet another cigarette. "In Panama, there's more soca influences. It's faster and more of an emulation of dancehall. They were purists, like rudeboys," he continues. "In Puerto Rico, we slowed down the pace, sang in different tones, and sometimes shrill pitches." Now, they are taking that formula global.
At MTV's TRL studios in midtown Manhattan, Nas and his father, bluesman Olu Dara, are sound-checking their track "Bridging the Gap." Meanwhile, N.O.R.E. and a wolf pack of cohorts are inside the green room, trading spanking new shirts airbrushed with Big Pun and Tony Montana. Raymond Ayala, who bills himself as Daddy Yankee, is taking it all in. The 26-year-old is waiting his turn to hit the stage for the very first time on American television, unaware of the fawning women pacing up and down the studio's hallway.
At 13, Yankee became one of the fore-fathers of reggaetón, along with other characters like Rankin Stone, Wiso G, Blanco, Boricua Guerrero, and Michael & Manuel. Yankee's third album, Barrio Fino, which he released on his own El Cartel label last summer, has moved over 315,000 units. As with Tego, major labels have been vying to distribute Yankee's forthcoming greatest-hits LP, Los Homerunes Part II, which will also feature eight new songs. "Every major player has his own kingdom and we're economically independent," says Yankee, his large, gaudy diamond "D.Y." pendant glistening in the light. "Whoever wants to sign me has to talk to me about big money, because I already make real money."
Reggaetón artists have learned a lot about business by studying hip-hop's history. "Hip-hop had people who abused it and the first artists were taken advantage of," says Daddy Yankee. "We learned from it. And much like early hip-hop, the record labels ignored us."
photo: EMI Latin/APR Media Group
A sex symbol for thug-loving mamis (and the antithesis to Don Omar's R. Kelly appeal), Yankee survived being shot at close range by an AK-47. And while he's never been arrested, the authorities in Puerto Rico have investigated him numerous times: All these experiences inform his lyrics and help to feed his 50 Cent-like legend. But, thanks to rap, he chooses to keep beef among his peers to a minimum. "We learned from the examples of B.I.G. and Tupac," he says. "You just can't take away someone's life over music."
Back at home, beef in reggaetón does exist between the major players and lesser-known, struggling artists. However, it hasn't escalated to the point where artists are regularly calling each other out in public. "Nobody has died yet, thank God," says Tego. "But I think that's on the way because reggaetón is getting bigger. And because I'm popular, all the cannons are aimed at me, even the police's."
While it's been widely reported that rap stars here in the States have had a Hip-Hop Task Force trailing their movements, reggaetón artists are now drawing part of the heat. Tego's last trip to New York City over the summer proved a dramatic one.
A few hours before Tego headed out to perform at a Pepsi-sponsored show, the DEA paid an impromptu visit to Tego's hotel room, looking for drugs and guns. When they failed to find anythingat one point mistaking a bar of herbal soap for herointhe cops who were trailing Tego all day tried to befriend him. One invited him to dinner next time he was in town, another Cuban officer struck up a conversation about the Yoruba-derived Santeria religion, noticing the green and yellow íde of Ifa on his left wrist, which patrons wear for spiritual protection. "I know my rights were violated," says Tego, staring down at his wrists. "But then again, Biggie did say, 'more money, more problems.' "
Maybe the police have heard about the past conflicts with the lawor perhaps they are interested in monitoring the money, 'hos, and clothes content that drives much of the music. Ironically, Tego offers up a powerful proletariat image (he has a newborn son named Malcolm X and a daughter named Ebony Nairobi). And as a guest on tracks by Cypress Hill, 50 Cent, and Wyclef Jeanand, most extraordinarily, on Tony Touch's remix of Fat Joe's "Lean Back"he delivers uplifting messages in a laid-back, almost lazy fashion.
Since Tego mainstreamed the music, upping the ante for producers like Dominican beat tailors the Luny Tunesreggaetón's answer to the Neptunesthe genre has spread all over radio like a virus, eclipsing salsa artists. "The music has become less underground and considerably more commercial and far better produced," says Leila Cobo, the Bureau Chief for Billboard's Miami-Latin division. "Today, reggaetón very judiciously mixes tropical beats, pop beats; it uses samples, making it easier on the listener's ear, and certainly, easier on radio. Now you have many English-language rappers tapping into reggaetón acts."
One such artist is Lil Jon. "I think it has the energy of Miami bass," says the crunk impresario, who became acquainted with the sound at a strip club in Puerto Rico while hanging with his Cuban American protégé Pitbull. For his part Lil Jon produced "Culo," Pitbull's reggaetón-influenced ode to the derriere, and appeared on the remix, along with N.O.R.E., to Yankee's "Gasolina." "Reggaetón, much like Miami bass," he says, "is all about the girls dancing to it."