Calle 13: Towards a New Reggaeton

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In 1991, the dancehall rapper Shabba Ranks released the song “Dem Bow”, which has gone on to be recognized as the “beginning beat” of reggaeton. Seventeen years later, anyone living in a U.S. city has grown used to hearing reggaeton anthems like Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” blaring from open car windows and clubs.

Simultaneous with reggaeton’s growth in popularity in the Spanish-speaking world and elsewhere, there has been a wave of “alternative” musicians and ensembles who mix the unavoidable popular genres of their cultures with a more cosmopolitan expression and freedom of spirit than is sometimes audible in songs whose primary focus is on money, cars and women. One of these ensembles which has achieved a great deal of popularity within and outside of reggaeton circles all over Latin America is the Puerto Rican duo Calle 13.

Composed of two half-brothers, known as Residente (on vocals) and Visitante (production), Calle 13 has already contributed to a redefinition of reggaeton—and other Latin genres—over their relatively short career. On their first self-titled release, two popular cuts extended the group’s influences beyond Puerto Rico and U.S.-inflected rap to the Colombian cumbia, a densely rhythmic traditional dance genre. One example of this fusion sound approaching near-perfect production quality appears at the end of this article.

[Calle 13]

On their second album, released a year ago, Calle 13 expanded their pan-Latin American repertoire to include tango, bossa nova and other regional rhythms, continually maintaining the tongue-in-cheek lyrics that drop a bewildering array of references and frequently mix in Puerto Rican slang, which would be significantly more difficult for the non Spanish-speaking listener to understand except that many words and phrases are more or less “Spanglish.” Standout tracks on this release include collaborations with female Spanish rapper Mala Rodriguez, Cuban ensemble-in-exile Orishas, and the brothers’ sister, PG-13.

Much has been made of the music videos for Calle 13 tracks, one of which has received a Grammy award. Below is the video for a tango-reggaeton fusion that is one of the more durable pieces on the group’s more recent release. The rhythms of “Tango del Pecado” have much in common with reggaeton, but in terms of lyrical value and melodic complexity, Calle 13 take the genre to a different level.

While Calle 13’s lyrics frequently have a mocking, ironic tone, their social goals extend beyond remaking musical genres to political criticism of both Puerto Rican and U.S. governments. In September 2005, Boricua Popular Army “commander” Filiberto Ojeda Rios was sleeping at home in Hormigueros, P.R. when FBI agents raided his house, shooting Rios dead in the process. Within 30 hours of the killing, Calle 13’s Residente had written and recorded an indictment of U.S. intervention in Puerto Rico and the seeming extra-judicial assassination of one of the island’s most well known independence advocates (Rios had been wanted for over fifteen years for his involvement in a Connecticut bank robbery). Following a brief negotiation with their label, Calle 13 released “Querido F.B.I.” (Dear F.B.I.) on the internet.

Calle 13 is currently on tour in the U.S., Mexico, and Spain.