we use so many snares
when i "first" encountered reggaeton (i put first in quotes b/c it's likely i heard it before this moment), it wasn't called reggaeton at all. it was called spanish reggae, and a high school student at CRLS, where i was working as a substitute teacher, introduced me to it by showing me a caselogic binder containing hundreds of CDs by artists i had never heard of before--most of them, it seemed, from new jersey. i realized at that moment, back in 2002, that this stuff was already HUGE. since i had my laptop with me and was already demonstrating digital music techniques to the kids, i ripped a track, looped an intro section, and put a big smile on the student's face.
my next encounter with the stuff was in roxbury in the summer of 2003. while teaching some kids there how to make beats on computers, i asked a student who his favorite artist was, and he said "tego calderon." he raved about tego for a minute, piquing my curiosity, then ran home and grabbed a copy of el abayarde so i could hear it. i was floored, especially when i heard my ol' favorite, the mad mad riddim, appear on "bonsai"--an ode to marijuana that falls late in the album. (apparently, the song was responsible for a cancelled concert in the DR.) i began studying up on the music online, finding such interesting things as a poll where people we're voting on whether puerto rico or panama represented the origins of reggaeton. (puerto rico was winning, though panama was making a strong showing.)
the next meaningful meeting i had with reggaeton happened during yet another digital music workshop. it was the spring of 2004 and i was teaching sessions twice a week at UTEC up in lowell. for those who don't know, lowell is an historic massachusetts mill-town, and in the last couple of decades, its hispanic population has grown considerably. as a result, most of the students wanted to make reggaeton beats. many of them were already doing so with their friends at home, and several were already selling CDs out of their cars. a couple kids, the producers of the crews, would come in with their own CDs loaded with reggaeton samples. all kinds of things: kicks, snares, cymbals, synths, basses, gunshots, spanish interjections, film score snippets, you name it. but mostly snares. these kids used so many snares. seriously, most of them had snare-drum banks that numbered in the dozens and easily approached 100 discrete snare samples. and most of them had acquired these sounds--in some cases precisely the same sounds heard on all the big reggaeton favorites--by downloading them off the 'net or having a cousin email/IM them from PR. no doubt: reggaeton is internet music.
i had noticed already in listening to the music that one of the main ways reggaeton producers created form in a song was to change the sound of the snare every 8 or 16 bars or so: keep it in the same place, but change the sample that's being triggered. the main change is therefore a timbral change--that is, a difference in the "quality" of sound. there is thus an understanding here and a focus on the sample as a fundamental building block in itself, and an accompanying abstraction of sound--what is a snare after all, once it is an array of sharp sounds, many of which weren't even created on an actual drum? reggaeton's approach to composition is symptomatic of the age of the sample bank: why use one snare when you can use several? one of the things that i like so much about this approach is how electronic, how digital, it is. this kind of a stylistic predilection is only really available (and plausible) in a world of digital sampling technologies and easy-to-use sequencing programs. (how many drummers you know carry around extra snares?) reggaeton is digital music par excellence. it is, for better and for worse, fruityloops music--just listen to the unmistakeable sound of the FL "pluck" instrument in countless reggaeton songs (yes, even those on the daddy yankee album).
such wide adoption of FL, and its concomitant effect on the sound and style of contemporary music, isn't so far-fetched, or shameful for that matter. i heard it through the grapevine that the mighty chrome riddim was built on FL. and i
A lot of people don't want to say that they use it because it has a stupid-ass name, and had gotten this reputation as a toy and not a serious program, but who cares? There are a lot of really established techno artists who are using it. I hear the kickdrum that's in the blank template when you open up the program all the time. (XLR8R, may 2005, p.34)
and though the program, and its ease of use, can obviously make for some lazy, unimaginative music, its user-friendliness and, yet, its flexibility and power mean that a great many more people are making music these days, and the world is no doubt richer for it, despite needing a few more filters (perhaps) to weed through it all. and that's what mp3 bloggers are for, no?
at any rate, getting back to questions of style, aside from using so many snares, reggaeton producers tend to stick to some tried-and-true formulas: bombastic synth textures, plucky melodies, 4/4 kicks (usually at a midtempo pace--say, 90-110bpm), and that good ol' dancehall-reggae 3+3+2 syncopation (played on snares, natch).
of course, the 3+3+2 subdivision is common to all kinds of caribbean styles. you can thread it through reggae and mento, soca and calypso, son and salsa, merengue and meringue. but when it comes down to it, especially when we're talking about kicks and snares playing the 3+3+2, reggae has come to claim this rhythmic pattern. moreover, with the recent resurgence of roots reggae in the dancehall, the pattern seems to be making a comeback in jamaica, as heard on such smashes as I wayne's "can't satisfy her" (as i note at the end of my roots riddims tutorial).
let's take a look at (and a listen to) the pattern in question:
[note: i removed the hi-hat in both examples below for the sake of clarity.]
if played at, say, 100 bpm, it sounds like a typical reggae/reggaeton track: listen.
if played at, say, 160 bpm, the pattern above sounds much more like a soca riddim, or a particularly juiced-up merengue beat: listen.
you can hear in these two examples the fundamental relationship between tempo, rhythmic pattern, and style. the difference between soca and dancehall, between merengue and reggaeton is a mere issue of speed--at least in a basic musical sense; let's not forget, though, that the cultural contexts for these styles are often rather different. (of course, the arrangements--i.e., the rest of the voices/instruments in the texture--are often rather different, too.) similarly, at the same tempos, with shifted rhythmic patterns (away from the 3+3+2 and towards a more "four-square" beat), these kicks-and-snares would cohere into something more closely resembling hip-hop or techno. [incidentally, those who came to this post looking for basic fruityloops lessons, or who would like to see the basic differences between hip-hop, techno, and reggae styles, should go here.]
dancehall's distinctive bomp-bomp, as put forward famously by the pepperseed riddim, boils the 3+3+2 down a kind of essence. before dave kelly cooked up that rhythmic rundown, though, the sound of dancehall reggae was the sound of the pattern above--the sound of 4/4 kicks and 3+3+2 snares. (think of the bam bam riddim as heard on "murder she wrote" or just about anything off super cat's don dada album.)
the sound of dancehall reggae from the late 80s and early 90s is the sound of reggaeton today. and that's no coincidence.
by the late 80s reggae had gained popularity around the world, and dancehall was increasingly popular in urban centers, especially caribbean urban centers. thus, spanish-speaking audiences in panama, puerto rico, and new york (which, yes, is a caribbean urban center), increasingly became not just consumers but producers and performers of reggae music. panama's longstanding relationship to jamaica, which had sent large numbers of migrant workers to help dig the canal, meant that panamanian artists like el general were among the first to record spanish-language reggae. early recordings, such as el general's "pu tun tun" (or "tu pun pun"), were essentially translations of contemporary reggae hits (in this case, little lenny's "punaany tegereg"), using the same riddims and often converting the lyrics of the original almost word-for-word. (see the album dancehall reggaespanol for a great introduction to these early recordings, including their sources of inspiration and featuring some rather informative liner notes.)
the popularity of these spanish reggae tracks in the tri-state area helped the approach to catch on among new york's puerto rican (not to mention dominican and cuban) communities, which in turn helped to fuel what was undoubtedly a burgeoning scene already in PR (which, lest we forget, is not very far from jamaica). ever the cultural crucible, new york nurtured a musical conversation among its post-colonial peoples. it is the crystallization of reggaeton style in san juan in the 1990s (in close conversation with nuyorican developments) that leads to PR's current, almost undisputed claim to reggaeton. interestingly, the riddim track that many people cite as being the "planet rock" (see, miami bass) or the "drag rap" (see, nawlins bounce) of reggaeton is the backing to shabba ranks's "dem bow"--a riddim produced by bobby "digital" dixon and a beat that remains a staple in reggaeton. (daddy yankee, for instance, talks about freestyling endlessly over the dem bow back when he was cutting his teeth.) while jamaican dancehall moved on to minimal and maximal permutations of that ol' bomp-bomp, reggaeton stuck with the ain't-broke boom-ch-boom-chick-boom-ch-boom-chick, recognizing that it overlayed rather nicely with salsa and merengue and claiming it as the new sound of (urban) latin america.
at this point, reggaeton has already gone global, riding on the coattails of hip-hop's and reggae's international appeal, not to mention the international socio-cultural circuitry of the spanish-speaking world. although it is not surprising, it is significant that reggaeton has become the most popular youth music not just in the PR and DR and panama but in cuba, colombia, belize, and increasingly in mexico, chile, and non-caribbean latin america. of course, it's big in japan. and there appears to be a thriving scene these days in the UK, complete with a magazine/online-portal (if conflated there with spanish rap), a series of regular dances (alongside dancehall, of course), and some locally-fueled coverage of the wider history and cultural significance of the music.
reggaeton has been mainstream in the US since nina sky and nore took it there last summer. daddy yankee took it to the bank this spring. and in yet another interesting development--and a weird flip-side to english-language reggae being adapted to spanish--i've recently heard some english-language reggaeton showing up on boston's "official #1" for blazin' hip-hop and R&B!. this could be seen as a bit of a threat, as most of reggaeton's stars have yet to break into the american mainstream. (shit, we're still waiting for a true tego hit. maybe on the new album.) i don't think there is much to worry about though, as reggaeton's core audience isn't about to abandon don omar to whomever p.diddy trots out as the new face of urban music. (britney spears's attempt at the style, see "the hook-up" on in the zone [ignore the jamaican-sounding dude and listen to the beat], seems to have made nary a ripple.) what the appearance of english-language reggaeton does demonstrate is that reggaeton is not simply spanish-language hip-hop or reggae. it is a recognizable musical style in its own right, one that is evoked with kicks and snares and synthesizers. (and, no doubt, luny tunes are still the kings of the beats.)
the music has an amazing amount of momentum going for it right now, and reggaeton will undoubtedly change as it continues to find adherents in various local contexts around the globe. being such a diffuse scene to begin with (san juan's claim as capital notwithstanding), it would seem that reggaeton is poised to shift with its new circumstances. in spite of what some might perceive as rhythmic conservatism, it is reggaeton's steady caribbean polyrhythm, in all its modern, digital splendor, that gives the new style such compelling coherence, such distinctive force. and it would seem only a matter of time before unremarkable synth textures and one-finger melodies are replaced by the vibrant strains of salsa samples, indian flutes, and whatever else one wants to fit into its solid template (making it an omnigenre on par with hip-hop and dancehall, and one based, yet again, on the creative re-use of well-worn materials). if in the meantime, however, you get bored listening to the latest confections on the radio, just focus on the snares.