Reggaeton lyrics tend to be more derived from hip hop than dancehall. Like hip hop, reggaeton has caused some controversy, albeit less, due to alleged exploitation of women , and to a lesser extent, explicit and violent lyrics. Further controversy surrounds perreo, a dance with explicit sexual overtones which is performed to reggaeton music. Perreo was the subject of a national controversy in Puerto Rico as reggaeton music and the predominantly lower class culture it derived from, became more popular and widely available.
During the 1990s reggae production took off seriously in Panama. Meanwhile hip hop and reggae in Puerto Rico were on the rise due to the increased popularity of Jamaican ragga imports. Towards the middle of the decade, Puerto Ricans were producing their own "riddims" with clear influences from hip hop and other styles. These are considered the first proper reggaeton tracks, initially called "under," a short form of "Underground." As Caribbean and African-American music gained this momentum in Puerto Rico, Reggae Rap in Spanish marked the beginning of Boricua underground rap and served as an expression for millions of young people. This created an entire invisible, yet prominent underground youth culture that sought to express themselves through Reggae Rap in Spanish. As a youth culture that exists on the fringes of society and criminal illegality, it has often been publicly criticized. The Puerto Rican police launched a raid against underground rap by confiscating cassette tapes from music stores under Penal codes of obscenity, issuing fines, and the demoralization of rappers through radio, television, and newspaper media.
The term "underground", coming out of hip hop discourse, associates underground artists as asserting a self-identification that rejects the commercialization of music. In San Juan "underground", however, it was not just about authenticity or ideology, but was literally about position in the market. "Underground" music was circulated via informal networks, copied from cassette to cassette, until the mid 1990s.
DJ Playero was one of the most famous producers of "Underground" at the time, releasing several underground cassettes that featured early performances of some soon-to-be-famous artists like Daddy Yankee.
The basis for reggaeton was laid in Puerto Rico at this time, with the melding of Panamanian Spanish reggae, with influences from dancehall, hip hop and various other Latin American musical genres .
The genre morphed through the years, at various points being termed "Melaza," "música underground," and "Dem Bow." This last name originated from reggaeton's distinguishing rhythmic feature: the Dem Bow (alternately spelled "Dembow") beat, relying heavily on the snare drum, which is used in nearly all reggaeton songs today. This beat, or riddim, was produced under the direction of Jamaican record producer Bobby "Digital" Dixon and performed by Steely & Clevie. It first became popular in the song "Dem Bow" (They Bow) performed by Jamaican dancehall artist Shabba Ranks in 1991. The song and beat achieved greater popularity among Spanish-speaking Latin Americans when Panamanian artist El General released the song "Son Bow" in 1991, a Spanish language cover of "Dem Bow" using the same musical track.. It should be pointed out that neither Shabba or El General sang reggaeton as neither the genre nor its title were as yet formed. Additionally "Dem Bow" was just a single song in Shabba's catalog, with Ranks not singing another significant song using the "Dem Bow" beat. However the influence of the original Bobby Digital beat is undeniable, and modern reggaeton often still reflects the original instrumentation, as well as the original rhythmic structure.
Reggaeton's popularity in the U.S. may also owe some credit to popular Latin Rap artists such as Mellow Man Ace (who produced "Mentirosa", the first platinum single by a Latin rapper, in 1989) or even Gerardo with his Latin hip hop hit "Rico Suave", a top 40 in the U.S. in 1991.
Reggaeton expanded and became known when other producers followed the steps of DJ Playero, like DJ Nelson and DJ Eric. In the early '90s albums like DJ Playero's Playero 37 (in which Daddy Yankee became known) and The Noise: Underground, The Noise 5 and The Noise 6 were very popular in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Singers like Don Chezina, Master Joe & O.G. Black, Baby Rasta & Gringo, and Lito & Polaco among others were very popular.
Many now popular producers, such as Luny Tunes, Noriega and Eliel, first appeared in the reggaetón scene in 2003. Albums such as Mas Flow, The Last Don, and Las Gargolas 4 expanded reggaeton's popularity among Latinos in the United States.
Reggaeton beats are highly versatile. The great variety and flexibility of reggaeton beats can be illustrated by Luny Tunes' CD The Kings of the Beats, which is a collection of purely instrumental beats. Reggaeton beats can be based on merengue, bachata, bolero, salsa and hip hop beats. Other subgenres of reggaeton include Romantikeo, Bachateo and Salsaton.
Despite the similarities, reggaeton only roughly fits into the Latin hip hop category but is not synonymous with hip hop. True Latin hip hop has beats that almost exactly resemble mainstream hip hop beats. These "hardcore" Latin hip hop artists include Big Pun, Fat Joe, Akwid, and Jae-P. Reggaeton, though, has rap-styled lyrics but has a very different beat that is influenced not by hip hop, but by reggae, dancehall, merengue and techno. Although reggaeton has been influenced by hip hop, it has also borrowed features from many other genres as well and is not considered to be Latin hip hop.
Reggaeton and hip hop are often remixed together, and reggaeton songs and live concerts may feature hip hop artists such as Lil Jon, 50 Cent, and Eminem. Hip hop songs such as Usher's Yeah and Snoop Dogg's Drop It Like It's Hot have been remixed by replacing the original beat with a reggaeton beat. In other remixes, reggaeton DJs may rap out an English song in Spanish.
As reggaeton has gained popularity, there is a new trend of hip hop and reggaeton artists collaborating on songs. Snoop Dogg was featured on Daddy Yankee's Gangsta Zone in his album Barrio Fino En Directo ; as was Paul Wall on remix to Yankee's earlier hit song entitled "Machete." The remix of Daddy Yankee's song Rompe featured Lloyd Banks and Young Buck of G-Unit. And Yankee's first U.S. hit Gasolina was remixed, adding Miami rapper Pitbull, and Crunk music producer Lil Jon to the track. Sean Paul collaborated with him on the song 'Oh Man' on his most recent album, The Trinity. Hip hop producer Pharrell produced and sang on the track 'Mamacita' with Daddy Yankee as well. American rapper Juelz Santana was featured on Don Omar's song Conteo on Omar's album King of Kings which was featured in the movie The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Luny Tunes produced the R.Kelly song 'Burn It Up' with Wisin & Yandel on his album TP3 Reloaded as well as producing the remix to Paris Hilton's song Stars are Blind again featuring Wisin & Yandel, which has sold over 300,000 songs on iTunes. Popular reggaeton producer Héctor "El Father" produced the hit song 'Here We Go Yo' with Jay-Z, whom he collaborated with to produce his most recent album "Los Rompe Discotekas" (The Club Bangers) which came out in early summer 2006. Reggaeton artist Voltio raps alongside with R&B group Jagged Edge on the song 'So Amazing'. The song 'Wanna Ride' was recited and sung by distinguished reggaeton artists Wisin & Yandel together with veteran rap group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and which was featured in the movie Take the Lead starring Antonio Banderas. A remix of the song 'Rakata' by Wisin & Yandel features rapper Ja Rule. The official "Chosen Few" remix to the song "Hello Mama" by Hector "El Father" features American rapper Jim Jones. Both genres are accepting influences from each other today as these musical blends also signify a cultural blending pot in today's urban scene.
Reggaeton started as a genre composed of mostly male artists, with a slowly increasing number of female artists debuting over the years. Notable female reggaetón artists include Ivy Queen, Mey Vidal, Adassa, and Glory.
Reggaeton lyrical themes are versatile. Typical themes may include dancing, love stories, partying, short anecdotes of the rapper's life, and problems in life. Popular reggaeton songs are mainly intended to be danceable, rhythmic, party-like songs for young people. Reggaeton may or may not be objectionable depending on the artists, song, and the listener's interpretation, as one reggaeton song may have many interpretations because a song's meaning may not be very clear and direct; Many of the songs are highly subliminal. For example, the song Gasolina is often considered appropriate for children and has made it into the Reggaeton Niños series. However, because of the various possible connotations and literal interpretations of the song, some people criticize Gasolina as having possibly inappropriate sexual content.
Latino ethnic identity has been a common theme in reggaeton, articulated musically, lyrically, and visually.
Usually, reggaeton CDs are not labeled "explicit" like many hip hop CDs are. One exception is that Daddy Yankee's Barrio Fino en Directo (Barrio Fino Live) was labeled explicit for objectionable content in the live concerts (and for explicit language by Snoop Dogg in the song "Gangsta Zone"), even though the regular studio version of Barrio Fino was not labeled explicit. Some reggaeton artists, such as Alexis & Fido, are able to circumvent radio and television censorship by using sexual innuendo and lyrics with double meanings in their music. Some songs have also raised concerns about women's depiction on their lyrics
In some Latin American countries such as Cuba, where ideas and language are an integral part of the appreciation of music, there is an alleged critical backlash against the increasing popularity of reggaeton. This rift supposedly exists often among members of the Cuban Hip Hop community. According to British music lecturer Geoff Baker, many critics claim that the music's lyrics do not explore any subjects past "sex, dancing, and the singer himself, in various combinations." Baker also believes that because reggaeton has an allegiance to so many Caribbean and Latin American countries, it overshadows distinctly Cuban forms and variations of music, such as Cuban Hip Hop, even though Hip Hop is ultimately an anglo-american musical genre.
This new genre was simply called "underground." It contained very explicit lyrics about drugs, violence, poverty, homophobia, friendship, love, and sex. These common themes, which in many cases depict the troubles of an inner-city life, can still be found in reggaeton today. "Underground" music was recorded in "marquesinas" (or Puerto Rican open garages) and distributed in the streets via cassettes. These marquesinas were crucial to the development of Puerto Rico's underground scene due to the state's "fear of losing the ability to manipulate 'taste'". Marquesinas were often in "housing complexes such as Villa Kennedy and Jurutungo." Despite being recorded in the projects of Puerto Rico, the majority of the recordings made in marquesinas were of high quality, which helped in increasing their popularity to the Puerto Rican youths of not only the projects but those of the middle and upper class as well. The availability and quality of these cassettes led to the genre's popularity, crossing over socio-economic barriers in the Puerto Rico music scene. The most popular cassettes in the early 1990s were DJ Negro's The Noise I and II, and DJ Playero's #37 and #38. These recordings spread out the genre from the marginalized residential areas into other sectors of society, particularly into private schools. By the mid '90s "underground" cassettes were being sold in commercial music stores. The genre caught up with the middle class youth and inevitably found its way to the media.
By this time Puerto Rico had a few clubs dedicated to the underground scene. Club Rappers in Carolina, and club PlayMakers in Puerto Nuevo were the most notable. Bobby "Digital" Dixon's dembow track was exploited in order to appeal in the context of the club. Underground music wasn't intended originally to be club music.
Underground rap music in Puerto Rico faced harsh criticism. In February 1995, there was a government-sponsored campaign against underground music and its cultural influences. Puerto Rican police launched six raids at records stores in San Juan, in which hundreds of cassettes were confiscated from record stores and fines were imposed (in accordance with Laws 112 and 117 against obscenity.) The Department of Education banned baggy clothing and underground rap music from the school systems. In the following months after the raids, local media demonized rappers, claiming they were "irresponsible corrupters of the public order."
The Puerto Rican chapter of Morality in Media asked the local authorities to intervene and ban selling underground music, which subsequently required that all local productions being sold displayed a Parental Advisory label. By 1998 DJ Negro released The Noise 3 with a mock up label that read Non-Explicit Lyrics. The album contained no cursing until the last song. The album was a hit and underground music further crept into the mainstream. Senator Velda González of the Popular Democratic Party and the media continued to view the movement as a social nuisance.
In the mid 1990s, the Puerto Rican Police and National Guard even went as far as to confiscate reggaeton tapes and CDs in an effort to get the "obscene" lyrics out of the hands of consumers.. Schools also banned hip hop style clothing and music in an effort to quell the influence of reggaeton in the educational environment. In 2002, Senator Velda González led public hearings in an attempt to regulate the sexual "slackness" of reggaeton's lyrics and the perrero style of dance associated with the genre. While the effort did not seem to negatively effect the general public's opinion about reggaeton, it did reflect the unease of the government and upper social classes with what the music represented. Due to its often sexually charged content and because of its roots in poor, urban communities, many middle and upper class Puerto Ricans found reggaeton to be threatening, "immoral, as well as artistically deficient, a threat to the social order, apolitical, [and] misogynist."
Despite earlier controversy, reggaeton slowly began gaining acceptance as an important part of Puerto Rican culture, helped in part by politicians, including Velda González, who used reggaeton in election campaigns to appeal to younger voters, starting in Puerto Rico's 2003 elections. Currently, Puerto Rican mainstream acceptance of reggaeton has grown increasing more visible with reggaeton's appearance in popular culture, including a 2006 Pepsi commercial featuring Daddy Yankee. Other examples of a change in sentiment within the greater population of Puerto Rico can be seen in some religiously and educationally influenced lyrics. "Reggae School" for example is a rap album produced for the sole purpose of teaching math skills to children, reminiscent of School House Rock.
Despite Puerto Rico's struggling economy, reggaeton stars have been able to achieve success not only as global stars but as local entrepreneurs; this has been evidenced in industry labels such as DJ Nelson's Flow Music, Daddy Yankee's El Cartel Records, and Wisín and Yandel's WY Records. Through production models derived from U.S. hip hop artists and based in grassroots movements, reggaeton has been an artistic vehicle gaining worldwide popularity, a far cry from its previous reputation as an infamous underground product of urban youth.
Underground clubs, youths in the inner-city ghettos, and huge hip hop moguls all participated in pushing the genre to the top of the charts.