Music Roots reggaetón

La Kalle brings red-hot, Latino hip-hop hybrid to the local airwaves

"Reggaetón is not anything we went looking for - it found us," says J.D. Gonzales, vice-president of Univision Radio. "Sometimes in radio, whenever you try to strategize and find the right formats for the right markets, it's very obvious that a particular niche or a hole in the market is not being served. And we found that this was definitely viable for San Antonio."

95.1 FM La Kalle's John Henry Medina, stands in the station's studio. Medina, who goes by "Romeo" on the air, is the program director of the new station. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

On July 27, Univision Radio, the largest Spanish-language broadcaster in the United States, launched La Kalle 95.1-FM in San Antonio, officially bringing the rhythms of reggaetón to the city's airwaves. Those who drive with their windows down are probably becoming more familiar with the Spanish-fueled hip-hop hybrid, as it often seems like Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina" has been bumping out of rides continuously for the last month. With La Kalle, San Anto joins New York, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Fresno, California among the cities cashing in on the reggaetón craze. It comes at a time when the movement is generating so much national heat that MTV2 has introduced a weekly world-beat show called "Rhythm and Reggaetón"

For 26-year-old emcee Chiko Rico, front-man for the local reggaeton trio Mezclatazo, the radio station serves as validation. "First of all, this is long overdue," he says. "That was my first reaction, but I was happy. They finally got a station that represents the culture, the whole movement that's been going on.

"What you really need is someone that already knows the music or knows what's hot so that you can be on top of everything that's going on. Somebody that is authentic when they speak it. Overall, I think it's good because now more ears are getting to hear the music and appreciate the music that's been around for 15-plus years. It's just taken this long for it to get to where it needs to be."

Most music historians trace the genre to the mid-1970s, when Jamaican immigrants traveled to Panama to work on the Panama Canal. It was there that the first Latin-American reggae recordings were produced, but most recognize 1985, when Puerto Rican rapper Vico C released the first Spanish-language hip-hop record, as the true birth of reggaetón. At that point, it established its unlikely fusion of hip-hop, Latin-American dance rhythms, and reggae.

"It reminds me very much, in very similar ways, of the way that Tejano grew here in San Antonio and is still very strong here today," Gonzales says. "Even artists that weren't Tejano were trying Tejano. You had the mad rush of the major record companies investing in artists and that improved the product. And we're seeing the same thing but on a much larger scale. We're talking all of Latin America. Reggaetón is not just Puerto Rico. It's popular with Mexicans, with Cubans, with Brazilians, with Chileans, with Argentineans. If you go to a concert in any one of the major U.S. cities, it's not uncommon to see people waving their flags, and to me, that defines a movement."

"It reminds me very much, in very similar ways, of the way that Tejano grew here in San Antonio and is still very strong here today."

- J.D. Gonzales
Univision Radio

In the last few months, many hip-hop heavyweights have embraced that movement through ventures that promise to push Latino hip-hop to greater commercial heights. In May, Sean "Diddy" Combs announced the formation of Bad Boy Latino, a label he launched with Cuban-American rapper Pitbull, which has already signed acts such as Daddy Yankee and Houston's Chingo Bling. Staten Island's Wu-Tang Clan followed in June with Wu-Tang Latino, which is helmed by industry veteran Ray Acosta. Not to be outdone, Jay-Z stepped into the ring in July with Roc La Familia, which swiftly signed Houston emcee Aztek Escobar.

For Gonzales, the recent outreach from corporate hip-hop coupled with reggaetón's demographic appeal speaks volumes about the music's potential staying power. What we're finding out is that The Beat `San Antonio's lone hip-hop station` attracts second- and third-generation Hispanics that are English-dominant. Reggaetón attracts first- and second-generation Hispanics that speak both languages. I don't think that there ever has been a Spanish-dominant 18-34-year-old contemporary radio station, first-generation; one that really has mass appeal."

Ultimately, Chiko Rico and his Mezclatazo bandmates El Habanero and Clandestino view the recent developments with cautious optimism. "What it tells me is they finally see that we're not the minority anymore," Rico says. "They understood that there is money there to be made and there always has been. They see that, with the marketing and promotion, you can get the numbers, you can go platinum in Spanish.

"So it's a good thing in that respect, but also in another way you have to be careful and not let yourself get exploited. You have to understand they're looking at it as a business not necessarily that they love or like what we're doing or our cultural product, but they see dollar signs in it. Now Latinos are going to be able to make more money, which is going to make the Latino community stronger, and it can only do good."

By M. Solis