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Photograph by Universal MG

Give It to 'Em, Queen: Reggaetón goddess Ivy Queen represents for the ladies on her latest record 'Real.'

You Can't Stop the Party

What is it about reggaetón that has made it the next big thing in Latin pop?

By Chuy Varela

IN THE last 10 years, the fusion of Jamaican dancehall and raw street-level Spanish language rap—called reggaetón—has been incubating in places like Panama and Puerto Rico. It's now grown into a rebellious, thorn-filled garden that draws heavily from stateside hardcore rap in its presentation and attitude. Today, reggaetón artists like Daddy Yankee, Pitbull, Don Omar, Vico C and Ivy Queen, one of the few women in the male-dominated scene, are all riding a crest that has their CDs far outselling mainstream established Latino pop stars.

Even hip-hop heads are flying the PR flag—N.O.R.E. being the biggest booster with his crossover single "Oye Mi Canto." The popularity has forced award-presenting organizations like the Latin Grammys and Premio Lo Nuestro to create an Urban Category to recognize reggaetón's accomplishments.

What is it about reggaetón that has made it the next big thing in the teen Latin pop world? First, it's rap. Most urban Latino teens are the sons and daughters of parents who grew up hearing some sort of hip-hop. Whether it was Grandmaster Melle Mel or El General, it was the sound of the streets blasting out of cars and boomboxes. Second, it's in the language of Boricua barrio Spanish with street-level poetics that genre heavies like Tego Calderón use to invent words with inflections that are humorous, serious and insightful chest-pounding odes to the times. The themes don't embrace the positive goodwill message of reggae but instead drop lyrical epics about crime, sex, racism and gangsta living.

The flavor of the beat is sweet. In pounding rhythmic mixes, one hears the Jamaican dancehall drop-two feel where the one disappears and emphasis is given to the two-and-four beats—something Colombian cumbia shares. Hook choruses establish a trance state for cornrowed braided B-boys and girls to dance and romance in. Melded together, the combination is hypnotic. It keeps the party jumping.

But at a time when reggaetón is trying to clean up its act and crossing over, it is also being denounced by more traditional Hispanic forces as youth gone wild. Pitbull's "Culo"—a song-length dissertation on a woman's prodigious backside—comes to mind with exploitive sexual lyrics. Other songs glorify ghetto fabulous living. It's a familiar attack that rock, blues, jazz, heavy metal and gangsta rap have weathered, marking reggaetón's official entry into popular culture.

Yet the party goes on. In the last few months, some of the genre's most popular and controversial artists have been performing at largely mainstream nightclubs around the Bay Area. Recently, Ivy Queen, the undisputed queen of reggaetón, pulled in 2,200 people at the Sound Factory.

Marta Ivelisse Pesante, Ivy Queen, was born in P.R. but raised in New York City. She returned to the island at 18 and joined the hip-hop group the Noise. In 1996, she launched her solo career and recorded her debut, En Mi Emperio (In My Empire). In 1998 she signed with Sony and put out the Original Rude Girl with special guest Wyclef Jean.

After the album didn't pop with expected sales, the label lost interest but she kept going. With Gran Omar, her husband/producer, Ivy Queen hit big in 2003 with Diva. Thematically she reveals her badass side as well as a more intimate and sensual persona. Her latest album Real represents for the females.

"I called it Real because when you hear the lyrics with the beats it becomes something else," she said prior to her performance. "I got Fat Joe and La India on it and it's getting great response. My hope, with the will of God, is to win a Latin Grammy to bring honor to mis mujeres (the women) and the Latino community."

Her voice is heavy and slightly hoarse, but she rocks with the aid of DJ David Montañez, who creates driving technobeat layers for grooves like "Dale Volumen" ("Raise the Volume") and the sonic drive-bys of "Rociarlos," a Spanish word that means to slander several people at one time.

"For me and my friends who make this music, we spill out our stories and what we feel because it's what people want to hear," she adds." It's always about reality. My themes are not fake."

Proud of her Puerto Rican heritage, the thirtysomething singer is now expanding her market horizons into Mexico and Spain. She also sings on Real to show she has other talents to share beyond rap.

"When the public considers you the queen of reggaetón you have to work more," she snaps. "The field is dominated by men, but I believe when the people focus their attention on you, you have to prove that you're not just a one hit wonder. I was born to do this, and for all this I have to work harder."

Her fans returned the love, jamming the place with Puerto Rican flags and youthful exuberance. "It was an eye-opener for local promoters," says DJ Tony O (Orellana), who presented the show. "It made believers out of many about the potential reggaetón has around the Bay Area."

In his 16-year career, Orellana has championed new dancehall sounds, mixing merengue, bachata and salsa with robotic beats. Tony spins every Saturday in the reggaetón, merengue and salsa room at Deep, which debuted a Latin music night last week.

"I am very proud that I was the one who introduced reggaetón to the Latino market here," says Orellana, cruising over the Bay Bridge. "Despite the lack of radio play, it's in the clubs where this music has taken hold."

With awards for Best Bay Area Latin DJ and with a presence in regional radio at KIQI (La Grande 1010), The Ritmo Latino Show on Wild 94.9 and Noches De Reventon on VIVA 105, Orellana has witnessed reggaetón's wildfire growth from an exclusive vantage point: the DJ booth. And to paraphrase Rock Master Scott: they don't need no water, let the mutha burn.

"It's a great experience for me to be caught up in all this," he says. "In the many years I've been doing it I've seen a lot of changes and new trends that people follow. I wonder how long this will be around and if it's just a passing fad. But right now the crowd wants it because it has a catchy beat."

DJ Tony O spins every Saturday at Deep, 87 N. San Pedro St., San Jose. (408.287.DEEP)

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From the March 9-15, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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