They Got Next

Overcoming language barriers and fickle fandom at a sold-out reggaetón block party

We rock critics are a trendwhorish lot, our enthusiasms fickle and fleeting. We regard hot new genres as merely so many entries in an Aural Pudding of the Month Club, dance punk's tapioca going stale just as freak folk's butterscotch arrives. And so it was that a beloved colleague remarked recently that what we needed to find now was "the next reggaetón." The dancehall/salsa/hip-hop hybrid has, evidently, played itself out, that hypnotic (if you dug it) or mindlessly repetitive (if you didn't) beat—derisively described in some corners as BOOM deBOOMde BOOM deBOOMde BOOM deBOOMde BOOM deBOOMde ad infinitum—fading out and into history. It's so2005. Had a good run, though.

Hey, I found the next reggaetón: reggaetón. It was hanging out at Madison Square Garden last Saturday night, the guest of honor at radio station La Kalle 105.9's Block Party 2006, an annual BOOM deBOOMde event of defiantly healthy vigor. "They said it wouldn't last!" crowed one of the station's DJs who served as the evening's emcees, her cheerful gloating nearly drowned out by the raucous sold-out crowd. Her pride was understandable, partly because it was one of the few things she said in English.

Ah yes. We are experimenting here. My grasp of the Spanish language consists of seven words that, by amazing cosmic coincidence, happen to comprise the first line of "My Name Is Prince." ("Me llamo Prince/Y yo soy funky.") At the Block Party, 95 percent of the stage banter and 99 percent of the lyrics were in Spanish. No one covered "My Name Is Prince." You should try this sometime, a concert almost entirely performed in a language you do not speak. It forces you to concentrate on all that gooey intangible stuff, the crowd's "vibe," the torrent of half-spit/half-sung verbiage by turns elegant and hostile and brash and romantic but always sweetly incomprehensible, the kinetic energy that rises and falls in exact proportion to how many people recognize the tune the DJ just cued up. A while back, when the Latin-rock band Maldita Vecindad played Central Park SummerStage, the 20 minutes before they went on was absolutely heart-stopping, the sweaty congregation generating a litany of random shouts and long, slow, anxious whistles, an earthquake-low murmur slowly spreading outward as it rose in volume and intensity. It felt like a 747 was about to land onstage.

Same deal with the Block Party, except imagine that indoors. The evening's first act (Calle 13) was greeted with nearly the same jubilant blast as any of the big-shot headliners (say, Tego Calderón). Oddly enough, both artists also share a growing offstage fear that reggaetón's crowd is dissipating. The genre's leading lights are talking a little trash in interviews, playing up their genre-mashing hybrids and crossover appeal, politely trying to distance themselves from a style already steeped in repetition (or hypnosis) that might be considered cloning more than innovating these days. "I'm not a reggaetón artist," the refrain goes. So Calle 13 conjured up several live percussionists, a boisterous rapper (the Knicks jersey a nice touch), and a spaced-out guitarist thrashing out wrist-spraining art-rock drones with no connection to the pounding beat whatsoever. The emcee bounded around the center-court stage, the DJs confined to a square pen in the middle that spun slowly along with the circular track surrounding it, Def Leppard–style, like a merry-go-round. Early on we got our only direct crowd participation of the evening, when a teenage girl was yanked onstage and immediately turned her back to the emcee, pressed up against him, bent over, and gyrated maniacally. "Suggestive" is badly understating it. For the record, "15 gets you 20" in Spanish is quince te consigue veinte.

Mostly though, the crowd contented itself with bouncing and shouting in exhilaration; there was a weird vocal double echo throughout the night, onstage voices bouncing off the roof but also joined in chorus as nearly everyone sang/rapped along. The sorta-menacing rapper Voltio batted second, his cadence clumsy but his beats veering valiantly from slippery electro to whistle-and-flute soul. His reputation both preceded and outshone him. Several of the early attractions—confined to cherry-picking 15-minute sets—were heartthrob types, all moistened brows and politely thrust pelvises, but like Voltio, even lady-killers like Zion or Tito el Bambino seemed rather stiff and oafish, with no pants-doffing theatrics or drop-to-your-knees James Brown exaltations. Bah. Tito's sonic backdrop mesmerized with Bollywood overtones and Kanye-style sped-up samples, but the man himself only truly connected with the crowd when he jumped up on the DJ square and just posedfor 30 seconds, looking most alive as a still life, a solid presence who could use more liquid charisma.

As the upper tier took over, charisma was markedly less of an issue. Hector Bambino, dubbed "El Father" and as elder a statesman as a style so young gets, bellowed masterfully with a loping-but-dominant E-40 air, flaunting his label hookup with Jay-Z by dropping a few of his rhymes into the DJ mix: "Young Hov' in the place to be," J announced, despite not actually being in the place to be. The duo Rakim y Ken-y were a bit more ballady and bawdy, XXX cruise ship captains shouting, "Who wants to go dowwwwwwwn?"

Tego Calderón, pegged as maybe reggaetón-not-reggaetón's best current crossover bet, was, sadly, a bit less boisterous, his sung hooks infectious but his manner nonchalant; he was almost swallowed up entirely by the fireworks and random bursts of flame and noodle-thin backup dancers that filled the stage all night but often overwhelmed the actual stars. Show closers Wisin y Yandel came the closest to integrating all this theatrical noise into a Broadway-worthy production, their ubiquitous hit "Rakata" the official battle anthem of the moment.

But the man of the hour was Don Omar. Another big, tough, loping dude, but with enough swagger to outswoon the lithe ladymen who preceded him, he flaunted the most range sonically and emotionally, from full-blast SUV jams to Spanish-guitar- inflected torch songs. He shone the brightest when the crowd was least into it. That all-night double echo kept the crowd sounding huge and thoroughly enthralled, but when Don launched into a harder-edged hip-hop track no one seemed to recognize, everyone fell instantly, eerily silent. The Garden’s masses were generous but responsive and demanding all night, booing earlier acts when the pace slacked or the DJs struggled with their gear. Now they’d been hit, seemingly for the first time, with a tune they didn’t already have burned into their hearts and minds by the radio station that brought them here. Don sensed that confusion and seemed to triple in size, his baritone suddenly hotter, louder, angrier to fill the space. Without the roaring masses it felt like you were actually hearing the guy with the mic onstage for the first time tonight, no echo to cloak him, your attention focused on the song itself and not the worshipful reaction. The music, not the hype; the performer and not the Pudding of the Month box he’s packaged in. I didn’t understand a word, but I know what he said: I am the next reggaetón.

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