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When the fad goes fizzle

The reggaeton craze saw a quick burnout with fans and radio. Can an artistic recharge bring back the heat?

April 16, 2006|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

REGGAETON may be running out of gasolina.

Radio stations that flocked to the thumping Latino hip-hop style have seen their ratings slip in recent weeks. In at least three markets -- Las Vegas, Dallas and Miami -- stations that gambled on the music's growing popularity have since switched back to more traditional musical formats. And in perhaps the most worrisome sign yet, turnout was disappointing for a reggaeton concert last month at the Forum in Inglewood, headlined by Daddy Yankee, the genre's superstar, and rapper Snoop Dogg.

One year after the genre exploded onto the scene with Yankee's revved up hit "Gasolina," reggaeton is suffering from a lack of new artists and fresh material. The same handful of performers -- Yankee, Tego Calderon, Don Omar, Luny Tunes, Ivy Queen -- have dominated radio play lists, sales charts and concert lineups for more than a year, an eon in pop music terms.

"There's only the same five songs on the radio and the same five artists on all the compilations," says Boy Wonder, the New York-based producer of "Chosen Few," the hit 2004 reggaeton documentary. "People need to hear more new stuff."

Although most of the world didn't discover reggaeton (pronounced reggae-TONE) until last year, the brash and sexy genre dates almost two decades. Rooted in Panama and cultivated in Puerto Rico, the music mixes Latin hip-hop and salsa styles over an insistent, programmed rhythm based on the dembow beat of Jamaican dancehall.

During the last decade, the music survived as a mostly underground phenomenon with raw lyrics reflecting the rough-and-tumble reality of Puerto Rican barrios. The music broke big in 2005, with polished productions and a spruced-up image, to become the biggest Latin music sensation since Ricky Martin led the Latin crossover wave of 1999.

But reggaeton's sudden international success is also the source of its current troubles. The rap on reggaeton has always been that it's too repetitive. Without a deep catalog of hits to fall back on, new reggaeton radio stations found themselves stuck with a relatively small set of records to program. To critics and skeptical newcomers, it all started sounding like one long song being played 24/7.

"Radio launched these stations from nothing: Today you're playing cumbias, tomorrow it's reggaeton," said Gus Lopez, who heads the genre's leading label, Machete Music. "In order for them to go from 0 to 60 overnight, they ended up playing 'Gasolina' 80 or 90 times a week."

In addition to becoming monotonous through overexposure, it also started losing the street credibility that had been nurtured for years by its leading exponents.

In the feeding frenzy after Yankee's breakthrough, Latin labels rushed to release reggaeton records by whatever artists they could find, often second- and third-string players. Pop artists, such as Colombian superstar Shakira and Los Angeles-based banda singer Yolanda Perez, included reggaeton tracks on their records, akin to Madonna doing gangsta rap. Even J-Lo got into the act with plans to produce a reggaeton movie through her film company, Nuyorican Productions.

"Every record company jumped on the bandwagon when it was already flying down the street, but they missed it when the slow wheels were turning," said Machete's Lopez, who worked for years in Puerto Rico as reggaeton was developing. "When something is hot, everybody is going to try to throw money at it, and maybe in that rush to market we [the industry] didn't get the best records to radio."


The cooling trend

IT was headline news when Los Angeles's KXOL-FM (96.3) switched to reggaeton last May, dumping its easy listening format. In summer 2005, the station shot from 18th to second place overall and first among listeners 12 to 24 years old, according to Arbitron, the ratings service.

At that point, it seemed like there was no stopping reggaeton. A string of other stations followed suit, including eight in the Univision radio network. Clear Channel converted four of its stations to the so-called Hurban format, for Hispanic urban.

By the end of the year, however, KXOL had slipped to eighth place in the Los Angeles market, trailing three Spanish-language competitors with more conservative formats.

True believers insist the genre is simply undergoing a natural correction, like an inflated stock market.

Pio Ferro, vice president of programming for the Spanish Broadcasting System, which owns KXOL, described reggaeton as last year's "new toy." The novelty has simply worn off, he said.

"You constantly hear that in this business, 'Oh, yeah, reggaeton, it's over with,' " says Ferro. "We have every indication to believe that the radio station and the music are as healthy as ever."

Ferro doesn't blame reggaeton for the ratings dip at Latino 96.3. He blames it on the decision to experiment with new English-language hip-hop tracks that were not proven hits.

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