Reggaeton and electronic music have a long history. 2021 revived it.
By Isabelia Herrera
It takes nerve to stretch the boundaries of reggaeton, a street sound a little more than three decades old propelled by its signature dembow rhythm, a two-bar loop threaded from Jamaican dancehall. Maybe a dizzying breakbeat arrives from drum-and-bass, like on Tainy and Rauw Alejandro’s “¿Cuándo Fue?” Or perhaps there’s a strategically deployed four-on-the-floor rhythm, a staple of house music, as on Farruko’s “Pepas.”
In 2021, producers and artists from across the reggaeton landscape warped the genre into electronic directions, rendering reggaeton in 4K, an ultra-glossy sound for bottle service nightclubs, razor-sharp stilettos and neon-clad festivalgoers. Sometimes they even immersed themselves completely in the contours of dance and synth pop, sidestepping the building blocks of reggaeton altogether.
For some, the idea that electronic music and reggaeton could inhabit the same space is unimaginable. Reggaeton has been shaped by myths that condition how it is perceived by wider audiences: the notion, for example, that it is only allowed to operate in certain scenes, or that it is just vulgar party music. But for years now, in the underground, reggaeton has been interfacing with left-field styles of club music, reminding listeners of its boundlessness.
Today, in queer immigrant nightlife, the gritty textures of hardstyle, grime and techno often scrape against the architecture of reggaeton’s sound and feeling. This is Black music born in the diaspora, a soundtrack of pleasure and protest that has always carried the promise of subversion. The rave-reggaeton sounds of the present simply press us to look closer, reminding us of a capaciousness that has always been there.
This year brought a flood of EDM-reggaeton fusions: “Pepas” garnered remixes by festival juggernauts like David Guetta, Tiësto and Robin Schulz, and peaked at No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100. J Balvin and Skrillex’s “In Da Ghetto” samples the eponymous 1993 house track by David Morales and the Bad Yard Club featuring Delta. Jhay Cortez released “Tokyo” as well as “En Mi Cuarto,” which was produced by EDM heavy-hitter Skrillex.
And then there is Rauw Alejandro, the Puerto Rican singer who released his second full-length studio album in 2021. On “Vice Versa,” at least four tracks integrate elements of dance, disco and house. Producer Tainy’s decision to puncture “¿Cuándo Fue?” with a crashing jungle break will go down as one of the most satisfyingly disruptive moments in Spanish-language music this year.
This is not the first time reggaeton and electronic music have crossed paths. During a video call from Puerto Rico, veteran reggaeton producer DJ Nelson said he was “fascinated by house tapes — Chicago house, New York house” since he was 12 years old. Around 1988, he started producing and left the island for New York, where he looked up the addresses of different labels on LPs, dropping off copies of his demo at their offices. Eventually, he landed a single with the influential house label Strictly Rhythm.
Nelson returned to Puerto Rico in the early ’90s and ended up pursuing a life in the movement that would become reggaeton. But he kept electronic music close to his heart, both as a producer and a club DJ. In 1997, he teamed up with artist Alberto Stylee to tweak the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” into a proto-reggaeton (or “underground”) track called “Vengo Acabando.” In 2000, he dropped a mixtape with DJ Goldy called “Xtassy Reggae,” which spliced house and dance-pop hits — like “In De Ghetto” and Mousse T., Hot ’n’ Juicy and Inaya Day’s “Horny ’98” — and affixed them to reggaeton and dancehall templates.
With the advent of production software like Fruity Loops, an arsenal of plug-ins and presets became available to reggaeton producers. Others began integrating these electronic elements into reggaeton, like DJ Blass, who released a pivotal mixtape series called “Reggaeton Sex” at the turn of the millennium.
But it wasn’t until the late 2000s that these compounds started to take off commercially. Katelina Eccleston, founder of history platform Reggaeton Con la Gata, said the period between 2007 and 2011 heralded the sound of “perreo galáctico,” or galactic perreo. This was reggaeton adorned with cybernetic synths and digital metallic excess: Arcángel’s “Chica Virtual” (produced by Nelson) and “Pa’ Que La Pases Bien” (produced by Tainy), or Tony Dize and Yandel’s “Permítame,” also from Tainy.
Tainy, a reggaeton prodigy who began making beats at age 14, was especially drawn to producers like the Neptunes and Timbaland, who were incorporating electronic flourishes into their tracks for pop and rap stars. “If they could do it and they’re coming from the hip-hop scene, maybe I can do the same in my scene,” he said of his mindset during a video call from Miami. “It was a risk, ’cause nobody was using those elements,” he added, referring to house kicks, snares, rimshots and hi-hats. He ended up bringing that recipe to songs like “Permítame” as well as major hits, like Wisin y Yandel’s “Abusadora,” which won a Latin Grammy in 2009.
At the same time, a new sound was percolating in the underground. In 2009, DJ-producer Dave Nada famously invented the genre moombahton when he slowed down a Dutch house remix of Silvio Ecomo and Chuckie’s “Moombah” to 108 beats per minute, hoping to appeal to a house party full of reggaeton lovers. Over the next few years, the sound was repurposed in a variety of new contexts, alongside cumbia, funk Carioca and other styles. These fusions consolidated under the catchall label “global bass.”
“Perreo galáctico” dwindled in popularity around 2011. But only a few years later, around 2015, colossal EDM artists like Major Lazer and Skrillex started recruiting superstars like J Balvin for collaborations. “Everybody in electronic music started making reggaeton,” Nelson said. “Steve Aoki started making reggaeton. Diplo, Mad Decent, the whole world.” The veteran sees it as a continuation of his early pathbreaking accomplishments. “I love the idea that it happened, because those are my roots.”