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How reggaeton became the sound of global pop

How reggaeton became the sound of global pop


Mainstream successEarly ’00s

Part 1: Map of North and South America and the Caribbean, with New York, Panama, Jamaica and Puerto Rico labeled.

Reggaeton begins with technology and migration. In the mid-1980s, producers and DJs introduced synthesizers and drum machines to dancehall reggae, which had emerged in Jamaica a few years before. These digital instruments allowed for faster beats and “riddims,” as Jamaicans described the instrumental accompaniment of a song.

Dancehall drum pattern

This is a drum pattern on loop, using a kick and snare track.

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DJs would use several vocalists over catchy riddims, changing the sound considerably from the root style of reggae.

Across the Caribbean, Black Panamanians who had grown up listening to reggae were following suit with their own versions, but for a new generation of fans who primarily spoke Spanish. These new artists were descendants of West Indian immigrants who had come to Panama at the beginning of the 20th century encouraged by U.S. demand for cheap labor to build the Panama Canal.

Note: Some songs in this story may contain explicit lyrics.

These twin paths — dancehall reggae in Jamaica and reggae en español in Panama — created the beats that have survived to the top of the charts now.

Reggae en españolPanama

Dancehall ReggaeJamaica

One of those founding beats was popularized by Edgardo Armando Franco, nicknamed El General because of his natural talent for freestyling.

Album art for Te Ves Buena

El General’s catchy riddims, a digital departure from traditional reggae, became popular across Latin America in the early 1990s, influencing the sound of “underground” music in Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile in Jamaica, the duo Wycliffe “Steely” Johnson and Cleveland “Clevie” Browne released “Poco Man Jam” in 1989, featuring the “Fish Market” instrumental that they say gave rise to reggaeton.

Album art for Poco Man Jam

“It’s basically a keyboard- and drum-driven rhythm or beat that Steely & Clevie produced themselves,” said Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. (Attorneys for the duo have filed a lawsuit against reggaeton artists for what they say is the unlawful sampling of their rhythm. Marshall said he’s been approached by several parties in the case and has declined to participate.)


Album art for Dem Bow

The beat became an instant hit across Jamaica, said Marshall, an editor of the book “Reggaeton.” As a result, Jamaican dancehall and reggae producer Bobby Digital “borrowed it, licensed it, got the underlying stems” and used it to produce Shabba Ranks’s “Dem Bow,” a homophobic and anti-imperialist track. The song became an international hit, reaching U.S. shores and Jamaican and Panamanian diasporas alike.


Reggae en español + Dancehall reggaeNew York

Album art for Ellos Benia Dem Bow

Ellos Benia Dem BowNando Boom

Reggae en español musicians working in Long Island decided to redo the track in Spanish, according to Marshall. The riddim of the new track, “Ellos Benia” — a literal translation from the Jamaican Patois for “they bow” — blended the original beat with elements evoking son, mambo and salsa.

That same riddim made its way onto a track with new vocals called “Pounder” — and became another foundational pillar of reggaeton.

“That instrumental is the one that gets sampled, and at some point, I think it was upwards of three-quarters of every reggaeton song I heard,” said Marshall. In Panama, the rhythm was such a huge hit that some simply identified it as the “pounder.”


UndergroundPuerto Rico

In Puerto Rico, Pedro Torruellas, known as DJ Playero, had carved out a reputation releasing mixtapes with dancehall and hip-hop tunes featuring Puerto Rican freestylers, calling it “underground.”

Album art for Non Stop Reegae

Non Stop ReegaePlayero, Daddy Yankee, Blanco, Master Joe, O.G. Black, Ruben Sam, Miguel Play

Playero took “Pounder” and released “Playero 38,” which featured many chopped-up and reassembled samples — of reggae rhythms, classic dancehall hits and hip-hop tracks — and became the main sound of underground and what people would come to associate later with reggaeton.

The release featured freestyles from an up-and-coming artist trying to make a name for himself: Daddy Yankee.

Part 2: Map with New York, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico labeled

Illustrated lettering that reads: The movement gets 'Gasolina'

Underground music spread through bootleg recordings and word of mouth, chopping up dancehall reggae and other Latin and Afro-Caribbean beats into modern reggaeton. A broader international audience snapped it up in the early 2000s.

“Latin hip-hop and reggaeton are coming like a tornado,” one EMI executive told the New York Times in 2003.

Its epicenter was Puerto Rico. And winds were rising across Latin America and in areas of the United States with large Latino populations: New York, Los Angeles, Miami.

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Many early reggaetoneros — including Vico C, duo Lito y Polaco and Tego Calderón — were lovers of the hip-hop that was born in the Bronx and sought to re-create its socially conscious rhymes.

Calderón didn’t take to reggaeton right away. That changed. “When you do reggaeton you get popular real quick,” Calderón told the New York Times in 2003.

Album art for Fight The Power

Fight The PowerPublic Enemy

Calderón, who admired Public Enemy, as well as Eric B. & Rakim, balanced party songs and political messages and made his identity as a Black Puerto Rican central to his early music.

Album art for Pa' Que Retozen

Pa’ Que RetozenTego Calderón

In 2003, Calderón released his studio debut, “El Abayarde” — an electrifying infusion of salsa, plena and bomba, a traditional Afro-Puerto Rican genre dating back to slavery on the island — and it became one of reggaeton’s earliest commercial successes.

The album’s singles included “Pa’ Que Retozen,” a classic reggaeton track that Bad Bunny samples on “Fina.” The song’s refrain — “Esto es pa’ ustedes pa’ que se lo gozen” (“This is for you all to enjoy”) — is widely referenced in reggaeton songs and has become shorthand for the joy fans feel listening and dancing to the genre.

Album art for Quiero Bailar

The next few years brought landmark albums by Don Omar and Ivy Queen, who had broken through the male-dominated genre as the lone female rapper in DJ Negro’s the Noise. Her third album, “Diva,” featured the powerful “Quiero Bailar,” on which Ivy asserts that she wants to dance — but not go to bed — with a love interest.

Bachata MerengueDominican Republic

Album art for Gasolina

In the summer of 2004, Daddy Yankee released “Barrio Fino,” which became the first reggaeton album to debut at No. 1 on the Top Latin Albums chart and would go on to become the best-selling Latin album of the decade. The lead single, “Gasolina,” seized the global zeitgeist when Daddy Yankee appeared on MTV’s “Total Request Live” to introduce the song’s music video.

“Thanks to this song, the world got to know reggaeton,” Daddy Yankee later told Billboard.

Album art for Bachata Beat

This era established producers including Dominican American duo Luny Tunes, DJ Urba and Tainy, who broke out with his work on Luny Tunes’ “Mas Flow 2.” Luny Tunes and their peers fused reggaeton with “more putatively Latin genres — bachata, merengue, salsa, maybe even a little cumbia at times,” added Marshall. This meant that the genre went “from being heard as and even proclaimed as Black music … to reggaeton Latino.”

Album art for Oye Mi Canto

Oye Mi CantoN.O.R.E., Daddy Yankee, Nina Sky, Gemstar, Big Mato

Reggaeton seemed to reach pop critical mass when Nuyorican rapper N.O.R.E. released “Oye Mi Canto” (“Hear My Song”) a bilingual Latin pride anthem featuring Calderón. “And this is the first time it’s ever been done,” N.O.R.E. boasts on the track. “Because there’s never been a rapper doing a reggaeton album and he a veteran.” The song peaked at No. 12 on the Hot 100.

It was around this time that reggaeton as an industry was increasingly criticized for whitewashing. When N.O.R.E. released the music video for “Oye Mi Canto” in 2006, Calderón was notably absent. Instead, the video featured the lighter-skinned Daddy Yankee. The label’s official explanation was that Calderón had been traveling and that Yankee could deliver his breakneck verse on a quick turnaround.

But fans took note.

Part 3: Map with the United States, Puerto Rico and Colombia labeled

Illustrated lettering that reads: Reggaeton as pop music

Despite major hits, reggaeton’s superstars were mostly unknown outside Spanish-speaking audiences. To cross over into the pop mainstream, Latin artists — including Selena, Ricky Martin and Shakira, whose bilingual album “Laundry Service” in 2001 catapulted her to global fame — were expected to make music in English.

And by the mid-aughts, some music industry executives had dismissed the genre as a fad, said Petra Rivera-Rideau, an associate professor at Wellesley College.

But reggaeton had other plans. Between its biggest hits, “Gasolina” and “Despacito,” it made a southern turn to Colombia.

In 2007, rapper Nicky Jam, who came to prominence as a collaborator of Daddy Yankee, moved to Medellín, Colombia, amid addiction struggles that had derailed his once-promising career. Buoyed by the city’s enduring appreciation for his early hits, he was revitalized and inspired by Colombian musical traditions, including the folk genre vallenato. His music departed from the hardcore rap he had done alongside Daddy Yankee to a more lyrical, romantic sound.

Album art for Hasta el Amanecer

Hasta el AmanecerNicky Jam

Album art for A Ella

By the time the reggaeton pioneer released his comeback album a decade later, Colombia had established itself as a hub of reggaeton’s global expansion. A new generation of artists began to take shape — though not without controversy — in Maluma, Karol G and J Balvin.

It took more than a decade after the release of “Gasolina” for reggaeton to top the pop music charts again. This time around, the genre would remain there without the need for an English translation. When Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee released “Despacito” less than two weeks into 2017, neither artist thought it would achieve the success it did.

Album art for Despacito

DespacitoLuis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee

“When I wrote the song, it wasn’t meant to be a crossover record. It’s just another song in Spanish,” Luis Fonsi told Billboard during a red carpet event. He jokingly added: “Then four months later” — after a certain pop star heard the reggaeton love ballad in a nightclub in Colombia and jumped to be on the track — “we release a remix with some guy called Justin Bieber.”

Album art for Despacito - Remix

Despacito – RemixLuis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, Justin Bieber

Bieber opened the door to the mainstream pop stratosphere. The remix was inescapable — the first Spanish-language No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 since “Macarena,” the most-streamed song to that point in Spotify’s history, and seven years later still the second-most-watched video on YouTube.

Fonsi, Yankee and Bieber inadvertently changed how Latin music was heard, making the mainstream cross over to the Latin music world and elevating Spanish as the new international language of music.

But it went beyond the superstar remix of “Despacito.” Streaming provided a platform for artists to make a name for themselves before signing a record deal. That was the case with Benito Martínez, who in 2016 started uploading Latin trap songs to SoundCloud as Bad Bunny, with triplet-led bars that Marshall noted evoked the Atlanta group Migos’s signature flow. The former grocery store bagger wanted to make music only in Spanish and was steadfast that he could reach global audiences singing in his native tongue.

Part 4: Illustration of a globe

Illustrated lettering that reads: The future: Where is reggaeton going?

This time, there was no going back. Reggaeton infiltrated mainstream pop like never before, influencing artists from other international genres, including flamenco and Mexican corridos, and encouraging unprecedented collaborations.

Album art for MIA

Bad Bunny, who had racked up collaborations with the likes of Becky G, Ozuna, Karol G and Cardi B, released his debut studio album, “X 100pre,” in 2018. The record climbed to No. 11 on the Billboard 200 chart and took reggaeton’s cross-genre collaboration to the next level, with appearances by Drake, Diplo, Ricky Martin and El Alfa, the Dominican rapper known as the King of Dembow.

Album art for Calma - Remix

Calma – RemixPedro Capó, Farruko

Puerto Rican pop star Pedro Capó teamed with Farruko to remix “Calma,” which became an unofficial anthem for the Washington Nationals the year they won the World Series.

Album art for Con Altura

Con AlturaROSALÍA, J Balvin, El Guincho

Rosalía, who catapulted to international pop fame following her second album, the flamenco-dotted “El Mal Querer,” collaborated with reggaetoneros including J Balvin — on the El Guincho-produced “Con Altura” — and Ozuna.

Album art for Besos Moja2

Besos Moja2Wisin & Yandel, ROSALÍA

She went on to release the reggaeton-inspired album “Motomami” and appeared on an update of Wisin & Yandel’s “Besos Mojados.” Wisin said he and Yandel let Rosalía take the lead on “Besos Moja2” “because she is from a generation that is going to bring something new” and “refreshing” to one of the duo’s most beloved hits.

The Catalan singer’s rapid success has joined an ongoing discourse about whitewashing in a genre that originated from marginalized Black communities and faced rampant discrimination — until it no longer represented those communities.

Early underground reggaeton was a dance culture — often political — and “those intricacies” have been lost as the genre has moved into the mainstream, said Sarah Bruno, an incoming assistant professor at Michigan State University.

“Reggaeton was always open to bomba and mirrored the older Black Puerto Rican musical tradition and respected that,” Bruno said, noting that Calderón’s album “El Abayarde” contained bomba interludes “because that has traditionally been what is representative of Black Puerto Rico.” Now, she says, “a lot of people who listen to reggaeton might not ever know what bomba is.”

With all of the genres that make up the Latin hip-hop landscape, “urbano” has become a catchall term for a wide range of artists.

“Part of that is an industry thing,” said Marshall, the ethnomusicologist, adding that the terms urbano and música urbana came into the lexicon around 15 years ago. After the “Gasolina” wave, “some artists started to see it as maybe a liability. They didn’t want to be stuck in that box.

“Of course,” he added, “after the ‘Despacito’ wave, reggaeton is not such a small box and people are happy to be in it.”

Album art for Ella Baila Sola

Ella Baila SolaEslabon Armado, Peso Pluma

Artists are joining the ranks from across Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2023, corridos tumbados became a go-to genre with the rise of artists such as Peso Pluma and Eslabon Armado.

Album art for Soy El Diablo - Remix

Soy El Diablo – RemixNatanael Cano, Bad Bunny

Bad Bunny was one of the first artists to work with trap corridos pioneer Natanael Cano — teaming with the Sonora native on “Soy El Diablo” — so it made a lot of sense when he announced a collaboration with the Texas band Grupo Frontera.

This triumph of regional Mexican music on mainstream pop charts is unprecedented. “We’re talking about mostly songs in three-four,” Marshall said, describing Peso Pluma’s traditional corrido sound. “There are so few songs in three-four or six-eight in the pop world at this point that it’s pretty unusual.”

One common triple-time rhythm, in fact, can act as a sonic bridge to trap because it evokes the triplet-heavy Migos flow, Marshall said. “It’s basically the Bad Bunny flow, that triplet kind of style, except it doesn’t have the same tension because it’s not three against four, it’s three against three.”

“That allows some of these corridos singers to almost sound like Bad Bunny or to sound hip-hop-adjacent … ‘reggaeton-coded,’ in the words of kids today.”

Album art for Shakira: Bzrp Music Sessions, Vol. 53

Shakira: Bzrp Music Sessions, Vol. 53Bizarrap, Shakira

Argentina has also crept onto the urbano scene with the rise of DJ-producer Bizarrap, whose collaborative discography is a nod to reggaeton’s long-standing alliance with electronic dance music. His session with Shakira, a spicy diss track aimed at her ex, broke a slew of records and won song of the year at last month’s Latin Grammys.

Despite the evolution of reggaeton — or perhaps, in part, because of it, in the past few years the genre’s pioneers have come back in full force. Bruno was thrilled to see Ivy Queen do NPR’s Tiny Desk, days after receiving the Icon Award at Billboard’s Latin Music Awards; in April, Calderón released his first solo song in years, later winning the best reggaeton category at the Latin Grammys.

Bad Bunny, the new guard’s most innovative star, returned to his trap roots on his latest album, “Nadie Sabe Lo Que Va a Pasar Mañana,” but he still paid homage to reggaeton, sampling trailblazers including Calderón, Frankie Boy and Julio Voltio.

“Yo no soy trapero, ni reggaetonero. Yo soy la estrella más grande en el mundo entero,” Bad Bunny declares on the album’s title track. “I’m not a trap singer or a reggaeton singer. I’m the biggest star in the whole world.”

On the same song, he credits a short list of inspirations: I owe my flow to God, he says. And Tego Calde.


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