Tego Calderón enters stage right at Madison Square Garden. On cue, the crowd at last October’s second annual Megaton concert—the largest reggaetón event in the country—erupts 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, Tego—who, on Thursday, headlines the LIFEbeat Music Industry Fights AIDS benefit “Reggaetón Explosion” concert at the Manhattan club Spirit New York—is 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-billers—Zion 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 label—blur 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 Guasibiri—last year’s greatest-hits collection—sold 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 year—all 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 Girl album 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.
“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 anything—at one point mistaking a bar of herbal soap for heroin—the 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 law—or 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 Jean—and, 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 Tunes—reggaetón’s answer to the Neptunes—the 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.”
The rowdy rapper N.O.R.E. often notes his “half-Spanish” roots (he was born to an African American mother and Boricuan father). The overwhelming response to “Oye Mi Canto,” which features Nina Sky, Daddy Yankee, and N.O.R.E., has made him an important component of the reggaetón movement in the States. The video for the song was the first to expose the music to MTV and BET television audiences. “This is the first time in my career and in my life where I feel like I am representing both sides of me,” he says. “Even if I don’t benefit from this 100 percent, per se, I am setting off a whole culture that I had nothing to do with creating, but I have something to do with helping promote.”
The day after the MSG extravaganza, Tego finds himself in midtown Manhattan’s Ameritania Hotel, where he’s just back after shooting a scene for his forthcoming “Voltio” video. His dozy eyes are hidden behind his trademark dark shades (he wears them even at night). And a black-on-black Yankee cap barely crowns his massive Afro, which swells out from every side. When he speaks, he lisps in Spanglish. He’s since grown to respect the power of what the genre has evolved into. And on the way to seizing the masses in his homeland of Puerto Rico, he says, “it caught on” in the States.
To say that reggaetón—an approximately 20-year-old fusion of dancehall, born in the poorest neighborhoods in Puerto Rico, with mostly Spanish-language rap and tropical rhythms—”caught on” is a modest assessment coming from Tego. “I didn’t know I did anything for reggaetón until I came to New York City,” he says with a laugh. “In Puerto Rico, they might like you but they won’t give it up. Believe me, you do not get gassed up.”
While Ivy Queen, Daddy Yankee, and Don Omar have the power of record sales, Tego Calderón remains perhaps the most respected—though even he didn’t realize it until recently. His upper lip curls up on the left side to form a wry smile, revealing a rather engaging gap parting his front teeth. “The way I see it, calling me the king of reggaetón is almost like calling me the king of pop,” says the Latin Grammy-nominated Hennessy pitchman. “In Puerto Rico there is a school of hip-hop, of purists that consider me a sellout because I’m commercial and I have success. But I used to be the same way, so I’m not trying to dis them. I used to hate reggaetón too.” But now, it’s all love.