"Despacito" didn't come out of nowhere. It's a reggaeton song that carries with it at least three decades of Caribbean musical history.
As much as I want to hate on it, I have to admit "Despacito" is kind of cool. The song is catchy and easy to dance to, and the video shows Puerto Rico (my home) in all its tropical glory. For a lot of people, though, the song's success probably came as a surprise, considering the genre it belongs to –reggaeton– is still relatively new and hadn’t had a big international hit since “Gasolina” came out in 2004. However, reggaeton is not that new, and it’s become increasingly mainstream over the last couple of years. So, in order to see where “Despacito” comes from, let’s take a look at the history of reggaeton to see how a Spanish-language song from a tiny Caribbean island ended up becoming the most watched video in Youtube's history.
If we’re going to talk about reggaeton’s origins, the first question we’d have to ask is, “where does it come from?” And the answer to this question is: Panama and Puerto Rico. As Wayne Marshall explains in his essay, “Dem bow, Dembo, Dembo: Translation and Transnation in Reggaeton,” it originates in Panama, but it became the musical genre it is today in Puerto Rico.
In the 1980s, black Panamanians descended from West Indian immigrants took the reggae and dancehall that was being produced in Jamaica and translated the songs into Spanish, giving birth to reggae en espanol (artists like El General and Nando Boom are two of this genre’s most famous pioneers). Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, these songs made their way across the Caribbean to Puerto Rico, where local rappers sang over the tracks with lyrics that were closer to their life and not just translations of Jamaican songs. They produced long mixtapes that were described by DJ Nelson (one of the top producers at the time) as a “reggae marathon,” a name that was later shortened to reggaeton.
This early form of reggaeton was also known as underground. Underground was a hit with young people in Puerto Rico in the early 1990s, who still listened to salsa and other traditional music genres from the Caribbean, but who were also familiar with American rap and hip-hop, a result of the close political relationship between the island and the US. Now, although young people from all parts of the island loved this new genre, the media made it look like it was only a working-class thing, especially popular in public-housing developments known as caseríos. The caseríos were blamed for every problem the island faced at the time, from teenage pregnancy to the rising homicide rate, so, of course, underground (and later reggaeton) was blamed for these problems too.
It was easy for the media and the government to turn reggaeton into the scapegoat for everything that was going on at the time. Unlike "Despacito"'s subtly sensual lyrics, early reggaeton was extremely sexually explicit and violent, and included constant references to crime, gangs, and drugs. To make matters worse, the dancing that went along with reggaeton –perreo– was also much more sexual than what older generations were used to seeing on the dancefloor. The term perreo comes from perro, the Spanish word for dog, and it’s a clear allusion to the doggie-style grinding that has made reggaeton famous around the world. In other words, when it first started out, reggaeton had everything going against it, in terms of public opinion. For many people, it was just too sexual and too violent.
Of course, the arguments that people had against reggaeton back in the 1990s and early 2000s are the same arguments there have always been against any new music genre that young people like (think of the beginnings of rock and roll and hip-hop). So, for years, reggaeton was not even played on the radio, and was very frowned upon by society. But gradually, reggaeton artists realized they could reach more people (and make more money) if they toned down the sex and the violence in their songs. Daddy Yankee was one of the first artists who figured it out and created the first reggaeton record that became an international hit: “Gasolina.” Along with Daddy Yankee, other artists such as Don Omar, Tego Calderón, and Wisin y Yandel also made more mainstream reggaeton songs that still had the catchy beats but were more, let's say, family-friendly. With this new style, reggaeton finally became accepted by society in Puerto Rico, and suddenly, it was everywhere: on the radio, at the mall, at school parties, and even family reunions. It became such a phenomenon, that even politicians started using it in their campaigns, a clear example of the 180 shift reggaeton made over the course of a generation.
An international phenomenon
What we’ve seen in the last few years is how reggaeton has made the jump from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean (which includes not only the islands, but also some parts of Central and South America, and of course, Caribbean communities in the US) to the rest of the world. These days, reggaeton is everywhere. Artists from other music genres have started incorporating it into their music, and reggaeton, in turn, has started embracing these genres too, resulting in what is now known as música urbana. Now, besides the original Puerto Rican artists, there are new artists from all over Latin America making reggaeton their own (hey there, Maluma and J Balvin).
So, in many ways, “Despacito” is a great example of what reggaeton has turned into three decades after its birth in Panama: it’s a sexy and romantic urban song that's miles away from the raunchy underground hits of the 1990s. It is sung by an artist who used to be know for his pop ballads, with a music video set in La Perla, a neighborhood that used to represent the worst of Puerto Rico’s problems, and is now synonymous of tradition, culture, and music. What’s next for reggaeton, you ask? Lots of changes, new faces, and, of course, great music we can dance to.
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