Surprising Facts About the History of Reggaetón

Where Is Reggaeton Really From? And Other Surprising Facts About Today's Hottest Music

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By Cynthia De Saint

December 20, 2022

From Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” in 2017 to Bad Bunny’s “Dákiti” in 2022, reggaetón is the world’s most explosive musical genre. But where did this provocative, irresistible wave originate?

Let’s face it: Reggaetón has taken over the world. Artists like Daddy Yankee, Tego Calderon, Ivy Queen, Zion, Lennox, Nicky Jam, Don Omar, Héctor “El Father,” Calle 13 y, por supuesto, Luis Fonsi, have spread this sound all over the world. Even Madonna embraced the Latin tsunami with not one but two singles featuring Colombian golden boy Maluma, including the hit “Medellín”!

And yet, despite the big names attached to this genre, reggaetón wouldn’t exist without the Jamaican immigrants who went to Panama in the 1970s to help work on improvements to the Panama Canal.

These workers brought with them the reggae sounds from their home country, and soon inspired local Panamanian artists to begin incorporating them into their own songs. A new sound with a thumping beat, fast-paced Spanish reggae lyrics, and tropical dancehall melodies was created. From there, Panamanian artists like Nando Boom and El General took Jamaican reggae songs and sang over them in Spanish, a style that back then went by the name reggae en Español.

That infectious, almost hypnotic rhythm soon found its way to Puerto Rico, where it was influenced by hip-hop and renamed “reggaetón,” or reggae de Puerto Rico. Artists from the island were inspired, and from then on reggaetón continued to develop and grow internationally.

Setting the World on Fire

Jump to 2004 when, at the same time that rapper N.O.R.E.’s “Oye Mi Canto” was climbing up the charts, a then unknown rapper by the name of Daddy Yankee emerged from the underground scene, transcending from the barrios to the middle classes. His breakout song? You may have heard a little something called “Gasolina.”

Now let’s cut to 2017, when Puerto Rican artist Luis Fonsi unleashed a song that would literally take over the planet: “Despacito.” The song written by Erika Ender, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee would become the most listened-to song in the world. More importantly, “Despacito” opened the gates for a wave of Spanish-language and Latin-themed tracks around the globe. And the rest, as they say, is history…

As reggaetón continues to evolve, Puerto Rican artists like Bad Bunny—whose defiance of traditional gender norms and push for justice on a range of social issues have made him a political icon—have helped elevate the genre. In fact, the most streamed artist on Spotify globally for the past two years will be the subject of a class at California’s San Diego State University in 2023!

Did You Know…?

Even if you love reggaetón, there are some surprising tidbits about this genre you might not know. Here are seven:

  • In its early days, reggaetón was stigmatized in Puerto Rico. A 1990s Puerto Rican anti-crime initiative targeted areas where the genre was popular, as reggaetón was considered immoral for its highly sexualized and violent content. Raids took place in inner-city neighborhoods and record stores to cleanse them of cassettes and stop the perreo.
  • In 2004, overall music sales increased by just 5.3% in the US, a much lower figure than had been anticipated. During the same year, however, Latin music sales skyrocketed by a whopping 23.6%, thanks to the emergence of reggaeton in America.
  • The word reggaeton was first used in 1988, when El General’s representative added the augmentative suffix –tón to describe “reggae grande” (big reggae). The spellings reggaeton and reggaetón are common, although the Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española recommends the spelling reguetón.
  • Two traditional genres of Puerto Rican folk music have pervaded today’s reggaetón beats. One is the plena, a narrative song often describing the sorrows of people living in the island’s coastal communities. The other is the bomba, which is distinguished by the sound of its panderetas.
  • Ivy Queen, one of the pioneers of the genre, lit up dance floors with her 2003 hit “Yo Quiero Bailar.” The Queen of Reggaetón helped open the door for female performers like Natti Nat, Becky G, Lali, Karol G and Anitta, to name a few.
  • That infectious boom-ch-boom-ch sound that characterizes reggaetón is called the Dembow rhythm. Nando Boom’s “Ellos Benia (Dem Bow),” a cover of Jamaican musician’s Shabba Ranks’ “Dem Bow,” helped popularize the unique beat.

Reggaetón has become popular in Spain because of its appeal to Latin American immigrants. Even Rosalía, a Spanish singer, climbed the charts with “Con Altura,” her collaboration with reggaetonero J Balvin. It is also popular in Italy, thanks in big part to Don Omar, who filmed the video for his song Angelito in Rome.

 

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