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Lito and Polaco blame it on outside forces. "Look, rap was outselling merengue and salsa. But then came all this bad publicity in the States over the music, the shooting of Tupac [Shakur, 1996], the Ice-T controversy over the 'Cop Killer' song , and the effects were felt in Puerto Rico," says Polaco. "We were shut down."
When rap next surfaced, it showed the influence of Jamaica's dancehall reggae, heard through tapes brought by visiting Panamanian musicians (in Panama, where there's a large Jamaican population, reggae in Spanish is very strong). It morphed into reggaetón, spilling out of the ghettos and into the clubs.
"Cassettes made by some of the genre's top DJs, such as DJ Negro and DJ Playero, started circulating among the corillos [crowds of fans] of this music," remembers Andrés Ramos, content editor for one of the island's hip-hop Websites, www.phantomvox.com (launched by none other than former Menudo member and "Livin' La Vida Loca" composer Robi Draco Rosa). "I think in that respect the hip-hop community here has a lot to learn from the people that took rap to the masses."
Radio exposure helped spread the word on reggaetón two years ago, when independent FM station Mix 107.7 underwent drastic programming changes. That marked a turnaround in the growth of the sound.
Twenty-eight-year-old Jaime Ortiz, better known as El Coyote, started young in radio, at age eighteen. He used to host a reggaetón program on Y-96 FM, acquired later by Miami impresario Raúl Alarcón's Spanish Broadcasting System (SBS).
"I went to them with the same proposal I presented Mix 107.7: to offer the latest music to the most radical music fans," remembers El Coyote. "SBS didn't think it would work."
As programming director at Mix 107.7, El Coyote proved the naysayers wrong. He hit a chord with fans by shying away from normal radio formats and presenting not only rap and reggaetón, but dance, trance, drum and bass, and techno -- music that doesn't find airtime easily. And for each genre El Coyote has recruited "specialists" who know what's playing in their field.
One of these is Richie Rich, who, at 29, also owns a booking agency for rap and reggaetón artists.
"What we offer in this radio station no one else here does because most programmers are very conservative, or are older, or are not aware of what's out there. And when they try to copy us, it's not the same," says Rich.
In reggaetón shows such as "D'Pary" and "El Salpafuera," hosted by 26-year-old Candyman, the station wins its time slots, says Rich. He cites the latest ratings by monitoring agency Arbitron, which places Mix 107.7 as the fastest-growing radio station among young listeners on the island.
"We're in the 'mainstreaming' stage of reggaetón, where whatever prejudices that exist against the music will tumble," says Candyman. "Because when Lito and Polaco can sell over 100,000 records, believe me, prejudices do come down."