Daddy Yankee led reggaeton’s global rise. As he bows out, the genre enters a new era

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento (NPR) on Daddy Yankee’s global rise and influence. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

By the time Daddy Yankee plays “Gasolina” one August night at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, the crowd rumbles so loud it feels like the venue will cave in on itself.

It’s a show that’s been months in the making: La Última Vuelta, Yankee’s last tour before he retires. He announced the decision to bow out in March, with the release of his first studio album in a decade. LEGENDADDY, as he so aptly named it, found the reggaeton veteran giving himself his flowers for a career that’s spanned more than three decades and made him a household name across the world.

“Gasolina” is Yankee’s encore, and the boisterous crowd has been anxiously awaiting the familiar, roaring motors all night. Yankee wants the payoff — the screams, the singing along, the perreo — before he walks off this stage one last time. And his fans, ranging from teenagers to boomers and repping flags from almost every single Latin American country, gladly deliver.

“Gasolina” is undoubtedly one of the most significant songs not just in Yankee’s career, but Latin music as a whole. It was released as the lead single for Barrio Fino, the 2004 album that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart — the first reggaeton album to do so — and went on to become the best-selling Latin album of the decade. The first reggaeton song to be nominated for the Latin Grammy for record of the year in 2005, “Gasolina” elevated the already popular reggaeton formula of breakneck verses, a booming beat and a woman’s sensual hook (from the undersung vocalist Glory) to a global platform. O sea, un temazo — it’s catchy as hell.

[. . .] Hearing “Gasolina” live now is bittersweet. It’s a song that revolutionized the music industry, because that’s what Yankee was always aiming for. In the years since its release, reggaeton has become a global powerhouse, blasting from fitness studios and chain restaurants across the U.S. And whether or not Yankee’s retirement means he’ll never perform or make music again, the trailblazer’s highly publicized farewell signals the genre has entered a new era. In a moment where reggaeton — a movement started in underground bars and homemade studios — has reached its commercial apex, how will artists propel the genre forward?

Born Ramón Luis Ayala Rodríguez in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Daddy Yankee grew up in public housing and originally dreamed of becoming a baseball player. One night while taking a break outside a studio, gunshots rang out and a stray bullet from an AK-47 struck his leg. He spent more than a year in recovery, and even though it shattered his athletic aspirations, he realized music could be his way forward.

Yankee belonged to a class of pioneers that included Don Omar, Ivy Queen, Wisin & Yandel and producers like DJ Negro and DJ Playero. Throughout Puerto Rico, they were building off the reggaeton groundwork laid by Panamanian artists like El General, who’d helped combine reggae, dancehall and Spanish-language hip-hop — genres that were mixing due to Jamaican migration to Panama, Panamanian migration to New York — to create a new sound.

But as exciting as that explosion of creativity and melange of Caribbean genres was, reggaeton lacked financial support both in PR and abroad, says Leila Cobo, VP of Latin for Billboard and author of Decoding “Despacito”: An Oral History of Latin Music.

“Daddy Yankee had to create his tapes in his little home studio, sell them from his car, and there was no one he could call and say, ‘Do this for me,’ ” she says. “There was no capital. He had to do everything on his own. It was very, very hard. There was nothing, there was no infrastructure. So [he and other artists] really built it from the ground up.”

While artists like Tego Calderón focused on socially-conscious lyricism, Yankee honed in on the business opportunity. Katelina Eccleston, the music historian of the platform Reggaeton con la Gata, says that Barrio Fino pushed for space on Spanish-language broadcasting, especially in the U.S., and proved that reggaeton could successfully get radio play around the world.

A lot of Spanish-language broadcasting at the time focused on pop and rock en español, as well as regional music. Latin artists like Shakira rebranded, crossing over to be played on English-language stations. The Latin music industry in and outside of Latin America looked down on reggaeton as vulgar, overtly sexual, poor or working-class music.

But Daddy Yankee’s breakthrough started to reverse that trend. “Daddy Yankee is the perfect product,” Eccleston explains. “He set the precedent and really raised the bar for how reggaeton artists should be approached, how they should be invested in and how the genre should be respected.”

And Barrio Fino‘s success only marked the beginning. Yankee consistently churned out banger after banger in the form of albums like El Cartel: The Big BossTalento de Barrio, and the more pop-oriented Prestige in the following years. He collaborated with stars in the American market, like Snoop Dogg and the Afro-Puerto Rican, reggaeton-dabbling N.O.R.E. and intelligently positioned himself, Eccleston says, as the Latin idol amongst their ranks. [. . .]

In 2017, more than a decade after “Gasolina” first hit airwaves, the genre reached another turning point. Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi was working on a track that would go on to change the course of Latin music history: “Despacito.”

“Luis Fonsi finished the track without reggaeton in it, and then after he took it to his producers, they said, ‘You know what?’ Between all of them, they said, ‘It feels it needs something different. It needs something urban,’ ” says Cobo, who detailed the song’s creation and impact in her book. “And ironically, they didn’t go to Yankee first.”

Nicky Jam took the first pick, until other commitments caused him to step back from the project. Then, Yankee became the obvious choice — and the song took off. A Justin Bieber feature on the remix only solidified its status, and the remix tied, at the time, with Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day,” for most time spent at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart (16 weeks), topped the Billboard Hot Latin charts for 42 weeks (another record) and became almost inescapable in public. In 2020, “Despacito” became the most-watched video at that point in YouTube’s history with over 7 billion streams. [. . .]

Yankee set a precedent of social and artistic resistance by taking a genre from working-class neighborhoods in the Caribbean and popularizing it into one of the most recognizable and profitable sounds in today’s landscape, even though the Latin music industry initially looked down on what he was doing. Now, as he bids his farewell, reggaeton has reached a point where that defiance set by Yankee’s generation can take new shapes of rebellion and experimentation, both in sound and in politics — even if perreo is no longer confined to underground clubs and garage parties, but now fills entire stadium and arena tours. [. . .]

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