Extra Credit: From Reggae to Reggaeton

Music is one of the most commonly used methods of human expression. Not only does music reflect the society that creates it, but it also affects the way a people will act, feel, think, and live in a society. In Puerto Rico, the newly generated Reggaeton works in just the same ways. It reflects Puerto Rican society, namely the recently sexualized global media, and also affects society immensely with its lyrics and its images. However, though Reggaeton on the surface seems to be a music that has sexual motives with little left to glorify about the art form, this is not entirely the case. If we trace the evolution of Reggaeton, we will see that it comes at the end of a chain of music as the ultimate form of expression for the Puerto Rican youth. Not only that, but Reggaeton lyrics also have hidden positive messages that need to be noted to really validate Reggaeton, not as a disgusting art form or a degradation of those styles that came before it, but instead as the beautiful end to an evolutionary pathway.


Since the recent rise in popularity of Reggaeton I have been eager to learn more about the history and culture of this unique style of music. Reggaeton is a form of urban Latin music, which became popular in Latin America in the 1990s and spread to North America, Europe, and Asia over the next decade. The music fuses the styles of several different styles of music including: reggae, hip-hop, and Latin music. The rhythm that is found in Reggaeton music is referred to as Dem Bow and if you have listened to any type of Reggaeton music you are probably familiar with the “boom-ch-book-chick” rhythm. Other characteristics of the music include drum machines, “rapping in Spanglish” and fast-paced dance beats. The song below displays the early style of Reggaeton music and you can clearly hear the Dem Bow rhythm.

The history of Reggaeton starts in the one place most people would think to look first: Jamaica. As the birthplace of the highly recognized genre of Reggae (a partial namesake for Reggaeton), performed by great musical artists such as Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, Jamaica is also where Reggaeton finds its earliest roots. Some Jamaicans, displeased with their current lifestyles set out to find more work. The majority of these unhappy immigrants packed their bags for Panama (Samponaro, 490). There, the immigrants found much work because just as Panama was named an independent country in 1903, work on the Panama Canal began which created many jobs for the locals and the Jamaican immigrants. Now, this massive immigration of peoples led to an inevitable melting pot of cultures. The native Panamanians also known as Amerindians along with the Spanish and other Europeans who had settled there began to interact with the Jamaican immigrants, which ultimately resulted in not only a genetic mixing of the two groups but also a cultural mixing. Even after the Panama Canal was finished, Jamaicans who had then been effectively integrated into society remained in Panama, adding to the cultural atmosphere, and more importantly to the music scene. Jamaican immigrants came with their knowledge of pre-Reggae notions, that classic beat with hits on two and four, along with a plethora of traditional Jamaican instruments, and began to combine their knowledge of “riddim” with those of the local Panamanians. However, because living in a foreign country is difficult if one does not dedicate oneself entirely to becoming integrated, many of the Jamaicans began using their Patoit less, a language that had previously dominated the their music, and moved over to Spanish, the language of the locals. This led to the creation of such popular bands like Renbato y las 4 Estrellas, duly noted as the first popular Reggae band to perform in Spanish Armed with this new language, and the rhythms and melodic approaches of both Jamaican and Panamanian origin, the two cultures, previously independent of each other, began collaborating musically. This collaboration led to the genesis Dancehall.

Keep in mind, the fusion of these cultures spans several decades. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that reggae really became noted as a popular form of music and was transplanted into Panamanian society. Although the immigration to Panama took place in the early 1900s, those immigrants kept close ties with their homeland culturally and therefore musically. So it is not surprising that when Reggae in the early 1960s became popular in Jamaica it also became popular in other places that had dense populations of Jamaican immigrants like Panama.

Dancehall was the next step towards Reggaeton. It took the musical ideas and concepts that had previously constituted Reggae in Jamaica, the traditional drums and instrumentation, and the local music of Panama, and translated these to the electronic world. Admittedly, Dancehall was hardly electronic at its birth, but it was created on the brink of digital instrumentation so these new digital concepts were quickly integrated into the style. It is considered by most the basis for the electronic beats that we hear in today’s Reggaeton. Unfortunately, since all the parts could now be created electronically, the instrumentalists that performed Reggae were no longer required because their parts could just as quickly and certainly more affordably be synthesized on machine rather than recorded by actual musicians. This began to occur regularly because the cost of hiring musicians is so much more than the cost of using previously created drumbeats and horn parts. With the establishment of this process of synthesizing music, all that was needed now was a DJ or Disc Jockey who would sing preset lyrics or improvised lyrics over digitally synthesized beats. It was at this time that a song crucial to the creation of Reggaeton was written

“Dembo”, a song written by Shabba Ranks, who sang over a synthesized riddim created by Bobby Dixon is definitively known as the song that paved the way for Reggaeton. It was the riddim from this song that essentially defines the genre of Reggaeton. If it had not been for the innovations of Bobby Dixon and his collaboration with Shabba Ranks on this piece, the genre would not have taken the turn it did and we not have the Reggaeton we know today. These subsequent recordings that Marshall refers to are what make up the proto-Reggaeton music that led to the unavoidable emergence of Reggaeton in the 1980s. However, before Reggaeton could achieve recognition, it had one more stop on its itinerary: Puerto Rico.

From Jamaican Reggae to Panamanian Dancehall and finally Puerto Rican Reggaeton, the evolution of the Caribbean musics had finally reached its end (for now). The events that followed in Puerto Rico and the Reggaeton fan base that subsequently formed will be discussed in later sections. However, at the moment it is important to understand why the Puerto Rican public did not immediately accept Reggaeton after its initial creation. The following quote from Samponaro’s “Oye Mi Canto”, explains why Reggaeton still had a long way to go from becoming recognized by the entire Puerto Rican population:


Reggaeton is a very interesting and rather new genre of music with roots in Reggae music that was formed in Panama and adopted by several Latin American cultures that made it into what it is today. Puerto Rico has produced the most the most Reggaeton artists and is often confused as the country of origin for the music. Reggaeton is a unique blend of urban hip-hop and rap fused with Latin influences. These characteristics are not seen in any other type of music and this in turn makes Reggaeton music all the more interesting to listen to.