'It's Not Just Twerk Music': Podcast Traces The Complex History Of Reggaeton

Aug 20, 2021

Updated August 20, 2021 at 5:08 PM ET

Reggaetón is a hugely popular musical genre: Many have danced to Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito," a song with over 7 billion YouTube streams, or blared Shakira and Maluma's "Chantaje" from their radios. But few people actually know where reggaetón came from. While some trace the genre back to Puerto Rico, where many of the genre's most famous artists are proudly from, that's only part of its history. "But to tell the story right, we have to start in Panama," says Puerto Rican rapper Ivy Queen, a trailblazer of the sound.

Queen is the host of a new Spotify and Futuro Studios podcast called Loud, which explores the origins of reggaetón and promises "an incredible musical story about sex, race, drugs, censorship and, of course, perreo." Loud executive producers Marlon Bishop and Julio A. Pabón and producer Katelina "Gata" Eccleston joined NPR's Ailsa Chang to discuss the roots of reggaetón and how it came to be a fusion of many genres, including dancehall, reggae and hip-hop.

"[Reggaetón] went from a tool of resistance, to really a tool of movement," Eccleston explains, as Chang and the podcast team talk about the arrival of Jamaican immigrants in Panama and the melding of communities and cultures in the region. "People decided after all, 'You know what? We want to dance.' Dance is resistance as well. That's what perreo is, right? It's not just twerk music."

Loud is a bilingual podcast, meant to be accessible to a wide range of listeners. Bishop says, "The idea is that you know there are so many people in this country who are bilingual and enjoy hearing media and living their daily lives in both languages, and there's people who may not catch everything, but they'll catch enough to follow it along. And in this story, it just wouldn't make sense [to do it one way or the other]. It's inherently a spanglish story. From the beginning, it just was the natural way to produce this podcast."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Reggaeton is a hugely popular musical genre. I mean, surely you've danced to this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPACITO")

LUIS FONSI: (Singing in Spanish).

CHANG: That is the global hit "Despacito," with more than 7 billion views on YouTube. And you might also recognize "Chantaje" with Shakira, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANTAJE")

MALUMA: (Singing in Spanish).

SHAKIRA: (Singing in Spanish).

CHANG: But few people actually know where reggaeton really came from. Yeah, Puerto Rico is part of the story. But there's a lot more to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "LOUD")

IVY QUEEN: We are going to spend time in Puerto Rico, New York, Colombia. But to tell the story right, we have to start in Panama.

CHANG: That is Ivy Queen, host of a new podcast called "Loud," which explores the origins of reggaeton. "Loud" promises to bring us, quote, "an incredible story about sex, race, drugs, censorship, and, of course, perreo. We are joined now by three of the people responsible for fulfilling that promise - executive producers Marlon Bishop and Julio A. Pabon and producer Katelina "Gata" Eccleston. Welcome to all three of you.

JULIO A PABON: Thank you.

KATELINA GATA ECCLESTON: Thank you for having us.

MARLON BISHOP: Thanks for having us.

CHANG: Katelina - or should I call you Gata?

ECCLESTON: Gata's cool (laughter).

CHANG: Gata, so "Loud" reveals some of the real roots of reggaeton - dancehall, there's reggae, there's hip-hop. Can you talk about how all these different styles end up fusing together to become reggaeton?

ECCLESTON: It all starts in Jamaica, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRENCHTOWN ROCK")

BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS: (Singing) One good thing about music - when it hits you, you feel no pain.

ECCLESTON: Bob Marley - if you know the story of reggae, that music was so powerful, it really united two opposite sides in political schisms in Jamaica. A lot of immigrants went over to Panama to work on the canal, and they brought their culture. They brought their music - right? - their food, everything.

PABON: There was an immigration of Jamaicans in particular, but English-speaking Caribbeans, to come and work the Panama Canal. Once the Americans left the Panama Canal Zone and gave it back to the Panamanians, communities were now brought together, and therefore sounds were brought together.

ECCLESTON: It went from a tool of resistance to really a tool of movement. People decided after all, you know what? We want to dance. Dance is resistance as well. That's what perreo is, right? It's not just twerk music.

CHANG: (Laughter) I love that. And at that point, it wasn't even called reggaeton yet, right?

ECCLESTON: You're correct. It wasn't called reggaeton. It went from reggae to reggae in Spanish to dancehall to dancehall in Spanish to reggaeton. And really, in Panama, the primary reggaeton artist was this artist called El General, the general.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "LOUD")

RENATO: El General is, like, the blueprint.

REGGAE SAM: He was crazy on the stage. He could say something - I'm the Black Elvis Presley - and they was just screaming.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He's considered the father of reggaeton.

REGGAE SAM: He'd say, I'm going to America. I'd say to him, you know what? You better perform and do it.

RENATO: You know, he's the one that took it to the next level. He blew up.

ECCLESTON: He was called The General because of his ability to improvise on the spot. But more so, his thing was getting people to move. And that's what reggaeton is. It's the music that keeps people dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUIERO BAILAR")

QUEEN: (Singing in Spanish).

CHANG: And Marlon, then where does this genre go next after Panama?

BISHOP: So El General himself was a Panamanian immigrant to Brooklyn who came when he was young in the mid-80s. And that's kind of the next phase for this music, is you had a lot of Panamanians of western descent moving to Brooklyn and sharing neighborhoods with Jamaicans and other people from the English-speaking Caribbean. One of the people from that community who we interviewed in the podcast was called La Atrevida, or the Rude Girl.

CHANG: Rude Girl (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "LOUD")

LA ATREVIDA: I'm Excenia Knights. I go by the name La Atrevida.

QUEEN: La Atrevida means the Rude Girl. We never met, but she was the first woman to do dancehall in espanol, (speaking Spanish). And she got the name Rude Girl for a reason.

LA ATREVIDA: The dancing, the lyrics that I was using. I was like, oh, my God. Like, I was raw (laughter).

CHANG: She put it all out there, and she was not ashamed of it.

BISHOP: Totally. And, you know, she was a young Panamanian woman who migrated to Brooklyn, to central Brooklyn, to the West Indian neighborhoods. And they would have parties in auto shops and in basements, just jam sessions where they would, you know, be doing dancehall in English and in Spanish. And it's in that environment where, in a way, that's another one of the birthplaces of reggaeton, is these basements in Brooklyn, you know? Because it's where...

CHANG: Yeah.

BISHOP: ...Jamaican producers connected with artists like La Atrevida and began to record them. And those recordings of dancehall in Spanish became hugely popular in New York at first and then all over Latin America.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GASOLINA")

DADDY YANKEE: (Rapping in Spanish).

CHANG: Well Julio, I want to go to you because there's been this long-held assumption out there that reggaeton started in Puerto Rico, which is wrong. But why do so many people think the genre started there?

PABON: Because that's, in a sense, where it sort of blew up. It's where it morphed into the musical movement that it is today in many regards - people going from Puerto Rico to New York, and New York being the hub of Panamanians that had come from Panama. And so the Puerto Ricans, by nature of their relationship with the United States and the ability to go back-and-forth, really were able to spread that sound and make it a musical movement.

CHANG: Yeah.

PABON: And so the misconception is that because it blew up in Puerto Rico, it originated in Puerto Rico.

CHANG: I also want to talk about the choice of the host in this podcast, Ivy Queen, who's, like, you know, like, a legend in reggaeton. And I have to say, she's amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "LOUD")

QUEEN: OK. Picture this. It's 1995, and I'm about to have the most important audition of my life - an audition to run with the hottest underground crew in San Juan. It was the moment that I was going to decide if I was going to make it in the music or go back to my hometown as a nobody.

CHANG: Can you tell us, how did you land on Ivy Queen specifically to drive these stories you wanted to tell?

PABON: (Laughter) You know, Ivy Queen is the biggest female artist in the genre, but also the most influential. She was going to give validity to the podcast in a way that nobody else could because she lived through so many of these moments and helped shape so many of these watershed moments that you will hear about in the podcast. And so for us, this was a dream fulfilled.

CHANG: Well, you mentioned the crossover aspect of this genre. I mean, "Loud" is a bilingual podcast. And I was wondering, was that a natural development? I mean, having Ivy Queen as the host, I'm sure, like, code switching just kind of happened, right?

PABON: It was more intentional. I think what was most important was that we were going to make it accessible, even if you're just tangentially related or a fan of the genre, that you were going to be able to understand its roots and where it was going to come from.

BISHOP: The idea is that, you know, there's so many people in this country who are bilingual and enjoy hearing media and living their daily lives in both languages. And there's people who may not catch everything, but they'll catch enough to follow it along. And in this story, it just wouldn't make sense. It's inherently a Spanglish story from the beginning. It just was the natural way to produce this podcast.

CHANG: Julio A. Pabon, Marlon Bishop and Katelina "Gata" Eccleston are part of the creative team behind the new podcast "Loud" from Futuro Studios and Spotify Studios. Thank you all so much for joining us. This was so much fun.

PABON: Thank you, Ailsa.

ECCLESTON: Thank you for having us.

BISHOP: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PA' QUE RETOZEN")

TEGO CALDERON: (Rapping in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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