Hip-Hop Fridays: Is Reggaeton Running Out Of Gasolina? by Jordan Levin
Is the reggaeton boom burning out?
Reggaeton, the sexy and inescapable Latin hip-hop style that many said would transform Latin music, has hit a plateau. The question is whether it's the leveling off before it falls off the music map, or a necessary breather before it vaults to new heights.
In 2005, Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina" was burning up the airwaves, normally cautious radio stations were falling over themselves to play reggaeton, record labels were leaping to sign every act who could sling the right Puerto Rican slang, and the genre seemed poised for domination. Or at least that's what the artists, producers and DJs of a style that had labored for years in an underground Puerto Rican scene proclaimed. And many sales-starved music executives and ratings-hungry radio programmers were only too happy to agree.
Now, just two years later, the reggaeton flame is sputtering. Radio stations that had adopted an all-reggaeton/hip-hop format have switched to a broader range of music after seeing ratings drop. A stream of copycat releases from new artists has helped solidify the style's reputation for having a repetitive sound. And a second wave of acts hasn't aroused the same excitement as the genre's original stars: Yankee, Don Omar and Tego Calderon. At the recent Billboard Latin Music Conference, the annual Miami gathering of Latin music industry leaders, there were rumblings that reggaeton was over.
"It's easy to fall on a fad and say that's going to be the direction of music," says George Toulas, president and marketing manager in Miami for Clear Channel, the giant radio chain that made news when it launched five "Hurban," or Hispanic Urban, stations in 2004 as part of changing 29 stations to Spanish-language formats.
Sudden success led to a bandwagon effect, which slowed the progress of a still-fledgling genre.
"Too many people got into it and were doing the same kind of beat," says Andres Dalmastro, vice-president of music and entertainment for ElHood.com, a Latino music and networking site that focused largely on urban music when it launched last year, but has since broadened to include mostly rock and pop. "But that doesn't mean (reggaeton) died. It hit a plateau. The record labels that have invested in reggaeton are focusing on the artists that they have. They're not acquiring more."
But even with the music business stepping back to evaluate reggaeton, most don't think the genre is going to disappear.
"Everybody is trying to say that reggaeton is like boy bands, which came, made an impact and left," says Pio Ferro, vice-president of programming for Coconut Grove, Fla.-based radio chain Spanish Broadcasting System. "I'm saying it's not the case. There's more new music coming out than I can possibly put on the station."
That's SBS' Los Angeles station, KXOL Latino 96.3 FM, where reggaeton splits the playlist with hip-hop and r&b in Spanish and English. On SBS' Miami station, El Zol, and the company's influential New York station La Mega, it's mixed with traditional tropical genres like salsa, merengue and bachata.
"I don't think that reggaeton is going to be the be-all and end-all," says Ferro. "Reggaeton is a style of music like salsa and merengue, which have gone through their ups and downs.")
Many in the Latin music industry say that a certain amount of shaking out is not only natural, but also healthy — especially if it forces the music to expand creatively. As mainstream labels and radio rushed to adopt an underground style they knew little about, they focused on a tiny group of hit artists and producers, or acts that sounded like them. And reggaeton artists jostling for a place in the limelight often presented themselves as sounding just like the charmed circle of hit makers.
"Folks fell into this hype machine," says Jose Tillan, senior vice president of music programming and talent strategy for MTV Latin America and MTV Tr3s, the network's U.S. Hispanic channel. "I was getting pitches every week that had me rolling my eyes: 'This is going to be the next Yankee.' Yankee didn't become Yankee by sounding like somebody else. The biggest challenge is to find their own voice and sound."
The more savvy creators understand they've got to push past a creatively restrictive — and increasingly ineffective — formula. "We have to evolve and change," says Boy Wonder, a New York producer whose bestselling 2005 reggaeton compilation CD and documentary, "Chosen Few," helped fire up interest in the music.
That's beginning to happen. Part of the reason Calle 13, whose debut CD won three Latin Grammys last fall, has aroused so much excitement is because they incorporate so many other rhythms and styles. Ivy Queen sings ballads and bachata on her latest album. A big part of the buzz around Yankee's upcoming CD stems from his collaborations with artists like Fergie and will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas.
Real success usually takes time, which is in short supply in the music industry. But the issues facing reggaeton right now are very similar to those faced by hip-hop in its early days. Hip-hop spent the '70s as an underground movement. When it hit the mainstream in the early 1980s, powered largely by novelty and a handful of hit acts and songs, people in the music industry derided it as repetitive musical junk that would never last. They crowed when rap took a downturn in the mid '80s.
It wasn't until the late '80s and early '90s, with the emergence of Public Enemy, West Coast rap and its adaptation by MTV, that hip-hop really solidified its position in mainstream pop music and culture. Now it's a global force that encompasses a range of sub-styles and influences almost every other genre of popular music.
JD Gonzalez, vice president of programming for Univision Radio, the largest U.S. Spanish-language radio chain, compares the "Gasolina"-fueled frenzy to the "Latin explosion" ignited by Ricky Martin's 1999 hit "Livin' La Vida Loca." Both were huge hits from singularly charismatic artists that brought in new, mainstream listeners and predictions of a sea change in pop music.
As the excitement cooled, the newcomers (pop fans for Martin, hip-hop lovers for Yankee) drifted away, but the primary audience remained. Martin may not be a presence in U.S. Anglo households anymore, but he's still a big star in the Latin world. And the "Latin explosion" did raise the profile of Hispanic music and culture in the U.S. mainstream.
"There's a core ... of 18- to 34-year-old Hispanics who live in both worlds," says Gonzalez. "They like English music and Spanish music. When reggaeton hit, that core stayed intact — (but) it attracted a non-core audience, so you had people who probably never listened to Spanish music listening."
Those new listeners may have left, but the ones who stayed have found a music that fits their lives.
"Five years ago this lifestyle was not represented on the radio dial," says Gonzalez. "Now they can look at these stations and say, 'That's me.' "
Reggaeton's most important contribution may be that it opened the doors to other music for a bicultural audience.
Jordan Levin cabn be reached via e-mail at: jlevin@MiamiHerald.com
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in The Miami Herald
Friday, June 8, 2007