Among the most exciting new musical styles of the early twenty-first century was Puerto Rican-born reggaeton, a hybrid that fused American urban hip-hop, Jamaican dancehall and reggae, Cuban and Puerto Rican salsa, and a variety of native Puerto Rican rhythms and percussion sounds. Reggaeton, like hiphop in its early years, percolated in underground dance clubs for quite a while before breaking through to wider popularity. Puerto Rican artist Tego Calderón was not the inventor of reggaeton, but he is the performer who has brought the style to a peak of popularity among American Latinos, not just those of Puerto Rican background. He has even begun to attract interest from hip-hop and dancehall fans unfamiliar with the Spanish language in which he raps.
Tego Calderón was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, in 1972, and grew up in Rio Grande, near Loiza toward the island's eastern end. Loiza is noted for its high percentage of black Puerto Ricans and for the presence of African elements in local musical styles. One native of the area was salsa star Ismail Rivera. "I always liked him 'cause he was keeping it real in terms of racial stuff that happens down there," Calderón told Fader magazine. Calderón's father, Esteban, was the director of a vaccination clinic run by Puerto Rico's department of health, and he was also music lover who kept salsa and Latin jazz records around the house. Calderón's mother, Pilar Rosario, was a schoolteacher. He has one sister, Kenya, who has served as his manager.
When Calderón was a child, he learned to play the bongo drums and the timbales. His grandmother gave him the nickname El Abayarde (or Aballarde, meaning "the fire ant"), which would later serve as his hip-hop moniker. Calderón moved to Florida as a teen, attending Miami Beach Senior High School and becoming interested in hip-hop music, especially in the socially conscious strand of the music exemplified by the group Public Enemy. Back in Puerto Rico, as a student at the Escuela Libre de Música conservatory, Calderón had little use for stage names. The school gave him a strong grounding in Puerto Rican traditional music that he would later put to use in stamping reggaeton with his own personal style. To pay his music school tuition bills, Calderón played in a rock band on the side.
Calderón, inspired by early Puerto Rican rapper Vico-C (known as "El Filosofo"), dreamed of introducing a distinctive version of mainland hip-hop to Puerto Rico. But he had a hard time of it at first. Even more than on the mainland, hip-hop was frowned upon by the Puerto Rican entertainment mainstream, and the music received little radio airplay or music industry support. Calderón worked at a variety of jobs and looked for a break. Spanish-language rap was flourishing in Los Angeles as a result of the efforts of Mexican-American artists, but in the Caribbean region it was rare. Calderón and other Puerto Rican rappers followed the lead of Panamanian artist El General.
In the early 1990s reggaeton began to take shape among young Puerto Rican clubgoers who added Spanish-language raps to Jamaican dancehall music. (The name "reggaeton" may have been derived from the words "reggae marathon," often used to advertise Jamaican dance parties.) Calderón disliked the music at first, with its hard, repetitive rhythms ("riddims" in Jamaica, "ritmos" in Puerto Rico) and its focus on sex and violence. But Calderón's father urged him to look at reggaeton as a path to wider popularity, telling his son, as Calderón recalled in the New York Daily News, "to go easy for people to accept you."
Calderón took his advice, and in the late 1990s began making guest appearances on albums by other artists in the young genre. Many of these tracks, written by Calderón himself, were later collected on Calderón's CD El Enemy de los Guasíbiri, These tracks attracted attention, and he was sought out by non-Puerto Rican hip-hop artists such as the Haitian-American Wyclef Jean. "I've got to do reggaeton in order to make people listen to my social stuff," Calderón explained to the New York Times. "I'm getting them to dance, and then I'm getting them to think a little bit." Calderón became a major attraction, but he still had no album of his own.
That changed when Calderón released El Abayarde in late 2002. The album was a mixed bag, with hints of Dominican merengue (Calderón numbered Dominicans as some of his strongest fans outside Puerto Rico) and a pure salsa track, "Planté Bandera," in addition to hip-hop. All Music Guide's Alex Henderson characterized El Abayarde as "an intriguing effort," and detected influences ranging from salsa king Willie Colón to progressive Panamanian musician Rubén Blades, to rapper Tupac Shakur. Calderón blended Afro-Cuban percussion into his sound, an important step forward for reggaeton, and the album became a smash. It sold over 150,000 copies in Puerto Rico alone, and suddenly, in March of 2003, Calderón was playing the 7,000-seat Roberto Clemente Coliseum in Puerto Rico. When the album was released on the United States mainland in the summer of 2003, it added tens of thousands more copies to its sales total. "You couldn't walk down a street in any of the city's sizable Puerto Rican or Dominican neighborhoods without hearing the beats of "Pa Que Retozen" or "Loiza," noted New York's Village Voice. Calderón was nominated for a 2003 Latin Grammy award, and a massive Reggaeton Summerfest at New York's Madison Square Garden in August of 2003, headlining Calderón and featuring 20 other reggaeton artists, drew a crowd of 12,000.
El Enemy de los Guasíbiri was issued as a follow-up and made its debut in the top five of Billboard magazine's Top Latin Albums chart in January of 2004. With sales muscle like that, Calderón became attractive to major advertisers such as cognac-maker Hennessy, which signed Calderón to a marketing deal in 2004. Calderón's career had been carefully shepherded along by a public-relations agency, Puerto Rico's Acisum Group. "We set him up with a PR firm, which is rare in this genre, and that's given him credibility with the media, who tend to look down on rap and hip-hop here," Calderón's manager, Ender Vega, told Billboard.
Yet Calderón didn't lose his socially conscious edge. His lyrics often dealt with racism and social problems, and he sometimes said that he identified himself more as black than as Puerto Rican. "Yeah, what I say is that I'm black first and then Boricua [Puerto Rican] 'cause it don't matter where I go, what you see is a black face—you don't know if I speak Spanish or whatever," he told Fader. Ironically, Calderón pointed to the American racial divide as a contributor to his success. "For black people [the understanding of my lyrics] is very important and this is why they have embraced me," Calderón was quoted as saying in Utah's Deseret News. "They understand that we are fighting the same war; the only thing that is different is the language."
Calderón has described himself as a voice of Puerto Rico's downtrodden. "I represent the undesirable ones with great pride," he said in the same interview. "But just like [the rich] perceive us as undesirable, we view them as undesirable as well. But now, they have to buy our records." One of Calderón's videos, instead of showing typical gangster imagery with expensive cars and other luxuries, depicted him as a car mechanic who was changing a tire. Calderón, who is slated to release his third album, The Underdog, in 2005, is older than most of his fellow reggaeton stars. "I'm like their grandfather," he admitted to the New York Daily News. But Calderón seemed to have the musical imagination that can lead to a durable career. And his social message, laced with reggaeton's fearsome new beats, was reaching a wider and wider audience.
For the Record . . .
Born in 1972, in Santurce, Puerto Rico; son of Esteban (a health official) and Pilar Rosario (a schoolteacher) Calderón. Education: Attended Escuela Libre de Música conservatory, Puerto Rico.
Made appearances as Spanish-language rapper, early 1990s; began performing in reggaeton genre; appeared as guest on albums by other artists; released El Abayarde, 2002; released El Enemy de los Guasíbiri, 2004; released The Underdog, 2005.
Addresses: Record company—BMG, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036. Website—Tedo Calderón Official Website: http://www.futuroe3.com/tego.
El Abayarde, White Lion/RCA, 2002.
El Enemy de los Guasíbiri, White Lion/RCA, 2004.
The Underdog, White Lion/RCA, 2005.
Billboard, February 15, 2003, p. 19; July 19, 2003, p. 32; February 14, 2004.
Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT), October 29, 2004, p. W10.
Fader, August 2004, p. 88.
Florida Times Union, November 5, 2004, p. WE16.
New York Daily News, August 5, 2003, p. 32.
New York Times, August 7, 2003, p. E1; August 12, 2003, p. E3.
Village Voice, March 16, 2004, p. 96.
"Tego Calderon," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (December 30, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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