Jamaican Music’s Revival in Mainstream Reggaeton Is More Than Just a Trend

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A report by Bianca Gracie for Billboard.

Latin artists have held a steadfast position in the U.S. music industry for all of the last decade, but in 2018, they propelled themselves even closer to the forefront — especially those within música urbana sub-genres like reggaetón and Latin trap. From Colombian chairmen J Balvin and Maluma to leading ladies like Karol G and Natti Natasha, these artists have shown that Latin music is simply pop music, no matter where it’s being listened to.

As reggaetón and Latin trap ascended across all platforms — charts, radio, touring, streaming — its roots began to emerge through the shadows. The origin is right in the name: reggaetón was born from reggae music. Reggae’s snare drum pattern was the base, but with the help of then-rising music software FruityLoops, Puerto Rican producers added their own spin with spliced samples, electronic-based melodies, synthesized basslines and Spanish rapping to shape the new genre in the mid-’90s. And throughout 2019, various Latin artists have been paying their respects to the classic Jamaican genre (along with its rowdier dancehall kin) in a series of chartbusting hit singles.

 

Puerto Rican veteran Daddy Yankee repurposed Snow’s 1993 Hot-100 topper “Informer” for January’s dancehall-inflicted “Con Calma,” which topped Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart and peaked at No. 22 on the Hot 100 (partly thanks to the Katy Perry remix, which boosted its pop airplay). He kept the momentum going with October’s “Que Tire Pa Lante” (which features Wisin, Anuel AA, Lennox, Natti Natasha, Darell and Bad Bunny), relying on more old-school dancehall with its sample of Cutty Ranks’ “A Who Seh Me Dun” on 1992’s Bam Bam riddim.

Back in July, Puerto Rican trap star Anuel AA tapped Daddy Yankee, Karol G, Ozuna and J Balvin for “China,” which interpolates Shaggy’s turn-of-the-millennium crossover smash “It Wasn’t Me.” Like “Con Calma,” Anuel AA’s single topped Hot Latin Songs. Karol G also joined in on the wave with May’s “Go Karo,” her rendition of British reggae singer Pato Banton’s 1992 single “Go Pato.”

These songs may be riding on Jamaican inspiration, but it isn’t anything new. It all began with a singular tune: Shabba Ranks’ 1990 “Dem Bow” single.

 

Afro-Carribeans in Panama previously created “reggae en español” — a fusion of dancehall and reggae melodies with Spanish lyrics — in the mid-1970s, which blossomed the following decade thanks to native pioneers El General and Nando Boom. But Ranks’ rowdy dancehall tune birthed an entirely new genre. It traveled to Puerto Rico in the ‘90s, where producers plucked the “Dem Bow” drum pattern to recreate the distinctive chick chick-chick tshhhh four-beat sample loop. It now serves as the basis of reggaetón.

“If you listen to those early mixtapes from DJ Playero and DJ Negro that featured first-gen reggaetón artists like Daddy Yankee and Nicky Jam, pratically the entire thing is the dembow loop, [dancehall’s 1994] Fever Pitch riddim and Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote” [melody] continually repurposed,” Diego Herrera, Pandora Music’s Reggae/Caribbean/World curator and music programmer, tells Billboard. “For as much as reggaetón has undergone different evolutions — even the past couple years, producers have developed a different swinging bassline style that’s got some connection to afrobeats — just as many of those songs are still employing those foundational loops to keep the sound familiar to the ear.”

As Herrera notes, this cultural fusion is cyclical: following the ‘90s wave, the early ‘00s jump-started a second wave with songs like Ivy Queen’s “Yo Quiero Bailar,”which combined dancehall’s Liquid Riddim instrumental and the dembow drum loop. Then in the mid-’10s, reggaetón duo J-King y Maximan used Mr. Vegas’ “Heads High” as inspiration for 2013’s “Prendente Ese Blunt.”

Daddy Yankee, J Balvin & Ozuna

“It cannot be a trend because the whole [reggaetón] genre is created from reggae — that’s the foundation,” says Jamaican producer Rvssian, who broke into mainstream dancehall with Vybz Kartel’s 2010 smash “Straight Jeans and Fitted.”He’s now become a go-to ear for Jamaican artists like Konshens and Shenseea, but has also been a force in Latin trap after working on Farruko’s 2014 “Passion Whine”single, featuring Sean Paul. Since then, Rvssian and the Puerto Rican reggaetón star have established a hit-making musical chemistry (2017’s “Krippy Kush” remix with Bad Bunny, Nicki Minaj and 21 Savage reached No. 5 on Hot Latin Songs), with their latest collab coming with “Ponle,” also alongside J Balvin.

The stomping tune is one of the many highlights from Farruko’s seventh album Gangalee, released in April. The 22-track record serves as both a celebration and tribute to Jamaican music, with nearly every song highlighting the country’s old-school charm and modern beats. “The first type of music I heard in my life was underground,” Farruko explains to Billboard. “That is what they called urban music back in the days in Puerto Rico, which has a lot of reggae and dancehall [influence].”

 

“I felt comfortable in those rhythms since they gave me my own identity,” the artist, who cites reggae and dancehall as respected “sacred writings,” continues. “So [for Gangalee], I wanted to go back to the beginning, and it was important to include reggae because the genre was being lost among so many new urban types of rhythms.”

A&Rs like Neil “Diamond” Edwards, of legendary Jamaican label VP Records, have taken note of this uptick — noting the sound takes time to not only infiltrate mainstream audiences, but also to reach a new generation of listeners. “The new reggaetóneros have created a hybrid, but it’s still embedded in the derivatives of dancehall,” he explains.

But if reggaetón is able to thrive on a mainstream playing field, then why can’t the genre that brought it to light share that same success? Along with misorganization through local record labels/management and not having the same access to resources to promote within the island, the biggest factor that Jamaican music — specifically dancehall — suffers from are overseas artists borrowing from the sound yet not giving due credit in return.

Shenseea

“Beyond reggaetón, dancehall is hugely influential in pop music in general,” Herrera explains, using late-’10s U.S. pop hits Tory Lanez’s “LUV,” Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” and Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side” as examples. “It hammers the point that dancehall’s influence is stronger than ever, but not held as [high] as it should be. The United States industry needs to rethink their position of the marketability of Jamaican music. You see Shenseea doing [‘Blessed’] with Tyga, and that’s made her become more known in the U.S. You know there’s two dozen artists behind her who have the potential to do the same thing if given the opportunity.”

Shaggy, who is longtime friends with Daddy Yankee, has witnessed the journey reggaetón took in order to become a worldwide phenomenon. He views their dominance as insight to what dancehall could become. “I always thought reggae and dancehall could’ve [excelled] to that magnitude, but [Latin artists] are surrounded by a lot of professionals,” he states. “We did break the mold in many ways, especially with myself and Sean Paul. But we need more people educated in the business of entertainment. But the way these guys are doing it is something to learn from — they are really conquering music.”

 

But this year’s movement goes beyond just lifting from past hits. Reggaetón artists are also tapping Jamaican stars to join them on collaborations, as seen with Sean Paul and J Balvin’s “Contra La Pared” hit (peaking at No. 11 on Hot Latin Songs), Konshens joining Farruko on Gangalee’s “Roatán” and Shaggy teaming with Nicky Jam for August’s “Body Good.” Even Jamaican star Busy Signal, who’s known for experimenting with various genres, threaded reggaetón’s dembow loop throughout October’s Parts of the Puzzle album.

“It’s like cereal and milk, they just go together,” Edwards notes. “In the early days, when Shabba Ranks was getting a lot of looks above the genre, many joked that they couldn’t understand what he was saying. But look at how many dancehall songs like Koffee’s ‘Toast’ now are totally understood by the majority of people. [The language] is worldwide.”

Along with sharing the Caribbean Sea, both cultures have a mutual love for partying and celebration — the integral factor as to why these collaborations work so well. “When we work together it will culminate in a good collaboration,” says Farruko, who hopes to work with Damian Marley next, “because they have a predominant language and we have the musical seasoning that represents the Caribbean.

“There’s just something magical about Jamaica’s culture and artistry that resonates,” Shaggy continues. “There’s a soul that comes from the island. I always say that Jamaica has this ‘cool’ factor and everyone wants to be a part of it.”

Shaggy performs during the 2017 Hot 97 Summer Jam at MetLife Stadium on June 11, 2017 in East Rutherford, N.J. 

As reggaetón continues its mission of globalization, reggae and dancehall both have the potential to be its equal in the mainstream, rather than frustratingly bobbing in and out of the Top 40 music cycle as they’ve done throughout the decades. But the breakthrough needs to come in a way that’s still reflective of the culture’s roots, not just with a quick grab at a crossover hit.

“These reggaetón-dancehall collaborations will always exist. I think an important question to ask is whether or not they’ll be elevated beyond [the idea of] ‘We need to have this Jamaican voice to make this song sound cool,’” says Herrera. “It’s fetishization of the Jamaican voice as opposed to the elevation of it as its own thing in the general market.”

The work that Latin stars like Farruko and Daddy Yankee and Jamaican tastemakers like Rvssian are doing helps bridge the gap between the two worlds, proving that reggae and dancehall’s influence was never just for bandwagon-jumpers — its sound is an indispensable artery for music’s overall life force. “Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Jamaica are so similar, we just speak different languages,” says Rvssian. “Literally the only thing dividing us is the sea. There’s no actual barrier in music — melody is a universal language.”

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