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UPLIFTT | December 16, 2017

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Latinos in Hip Hop & Reggaeton

Latinos in Hip Hop & Reggaeton
John Anthony

Y Tu No Pares!

In the early 1980’s, a global music phenomenon was born in the Bronx New York. This new musical style contained DJ samples, break beats and spoken word style lyrics. This music was referred to as hip hop or rap. It started out as party and dance music with tongue and cheek lyrics but quickly became dominated by stories of the harsh realities in East and West Coast street life. The original hip hop movements included various peoples and cultures. However, it was lyrically dominated and primarily associated with African American club and folk music in vain of Blues Music. Despite its association with African American culture, Latinos always played a role in the music.

For the most part, Latinos in the early days of hip hop were DJs and break dancers as opposed to rappers. DJ Frankie Cutlass (Frank Malave), of Puerto Rican descent, was one of the most notable Latino Hip Hop DJs on the East Coast who occasionally rapped. Before long, hip hop had become part of the American pop landscape. It was initially feared by conservative and religious groups and panned by racists as music for “African Americans and criminals.” These arrogant, bigoted critics would soon be proved wrong as the genre as well as Latino rappers in the 90s would emerge and shoot to super stardom.


While the 80s brought us a newly developed musical style with Latino DJs on the East Coast, the 90s brought us Latino rappers on the West Coast. In the early 1990s, California rap group, Cypress Hill, became regulars on the radio and MTV. They rapped about gang life, violence, drugs and their troubled childhoods. However, they also were amongst the first to rap using Spanish slang and used occasional Spanglish verses. Though the original lineup was predominantly Latino and Mexican American, it was lead singer B-Real (Louis Freese) of Mexican and Cuban descent who is the most well known of the group.

Around this time, another Mexican American rapper from California, Kid Frost (Arturo Molina Jr) enjoyed minor success with his hit “La Raza.” While Kid Frost did not enjoy the same success of fellow Latino rappers, Cypress Hill, Frost was also one of the first to rap in Spanish and have his songs played on commercial radio.

As the 90s moved closer to the New Millenium, Latino rappers began to emerge on the East Coast. Artists like The Beatnuts (from Queens NY) were making a name for themselves. Members JuJu (Jerry Tineo), a Dominican American, and Psycho Les (Lester Fernandez), a Colombian American rapper, began their career by bringing Latino flavor to East Coast hip hop; which was less aggressive and faster paced than California’s Gangsta rap. Along with The Beatnuts, Bronx Nuyorican Rapper Fat Joe (Joe Cartagena), also became an underground superstar.

The Terror Squad

Back row from left: Armageddon, Triple Seis, Fat Joe, Big Pun, cuban Linx; Front row: Prospect

The Beatnuts and Fat Joe would soon change the genre forever when they discovered and signed another Nuyorican rapper from the Bronx, Big Pun(Christopher Rios). Big Pun was an instant success and soon he and Fat Joe founded the first entirely Latino rap group, the Terror Squad. Terror Squad included fellow New Yorkers Cuban Link (Felix Delgado) and Triple Seis (who never spoke or worked under his real name). Without realizing it, the newfound Latin rap movement would make history and also be temporarily deferred when in 1999 Big Pun suffered a sudden, fatal heart attack. Terror Squad disbanded by 2005.

While Latinos in the US were establishing themselves in hip hop during the 90s, artists from Latin American countries as well as the US were creating their own style of hip hop influenced music. Artists like Daddy Yankee (Ramón Ayala), Don Omar (William Omar Rivera) from Miami Florida, Ivy Queen (Martha Ivelisse Pesante), Tego Calderón (Tegui Calderón Rosario) as well as duo Wisin & Yandel (Juan Luis Luna & Llandel Malavé) from Puerto Rico combined the sounds of reggae, hip hop and traditional salsa and merengue.


This new form of music performed entirely in Spanish became known as reggaeton. Although it had been popular in the Carribbean throughout the 90s, it didn’t explode onto American music charts until the early 2000s. Daddy Yankee and Don Omar were among the first wave of reggaeton artists who were played in heavy rotation on US Radio, Clubs and even at sporting events. Tego Calderon, Ivy Queen and Wisin & Yandel would catch up in popularity with fans as well as the mainstream music charts.

Unlike previous incarnations of Latino hip hop, reggaeton was performed almost entirely in Spanish or Spanglish. Its demand by both Spanish-speaking and non Spanish-speaking audiences was the largest demand for Latin music in the US, since the popularity of Salsa and Merengue decades earlier. Eventually, American rappers would collaborate with reggaeton artists. However, the result was often met with mixed reviews and didn’t quite blend as smoothly as intended. Reggaeton was considered by many as the third wave of Latin-influenced hip hop.

While reggaeton maintained its popularity, another movement was being started. A young Cuban American rapper who went by the name of Pitbull (Armando Perez), from Miami Florida, began rapping in Spanish over southern Hip Hop “crunk” beats. This was the beginning of what would become “Latin hip hop.” Initially Pitbull released his music as American-style rap; performed in Spanish and Spanglish. With Big Pun gone for nearly half a decade and Fat Joe’s popularity waning, the demand for fresh-faced Latino rappers was at a high.

Pitbull quickly picked up on the demand and rather than emulate his heroes, he decided to take a different approach. This time, his lyrics were not only in English, Spanish and Spanglish but the samples he used were from Latin house music (freestyle), Miami club music and traditional Cuban salsa. By 2009, his signature sound was making him a household name and inspiring other Latino rappers around the world to also perform in their native tongue with live bands and orchestras.

Dominican born rapper El Cata (Edward Bello Pou) was one of the first to follow the “Latin hip hop” formula; transitioning from a merengue artist to a rap artist. Musical sound and Spanish language lyrics weren’t the only things that set apart the new Latin hip hop movement. Collaborations between rappers- which previously had been with American pop or R&B artists – was now being replaced with collaborations with Latin Pop stars like Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony and La India.


As of today, Latin hip hop has become an international sensation, dominating European, Latin American and US markets. Most recently, there has been a surge of young rappers, especially from the Dominican Republic. Artists like Black Point and Sensato Del Patio, who’s collaborations and mixed tapes have made them highly sought after, are now breaking into the mainstream with the help of other contemporary Latin rappers.

With no signs of losing momentum and only growth on the horizon, Latin hip hop appears to be here to stay. Since its conception over 30 years ago, hip hop has had a profound impact around the world and spawned several sub-genres including new genres of Latin pop. Latinos have always had a role in the rap game one way or another. The evolution of their roles in the hip hop genre is nothing short of remarkable.

While some purists contest that Latin hip hop or reggaeton aren’t “true” hip hop, its international popularity has surpassed that of American hip hop in 2013. In the end, creating a new style of music by Latinos was less about paying dues and emulating what was popular than it was about trying a new approach and doing what no one had ever thought to do. Today, Latin rap and reggaeton can be heard in nearly every country, every town in the US and anywhere music is available.

Some Latinos have been critical of these genres as well; claiming that they are inferior to Latin music such as mambo, merengue, salsa, bachata or banda. Since these are still relatively new genres, their legacies have yet to be seen. However, their power to dominate the music scene and unite people socially and culturally are undeniable.

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