The Reggaeton Bible?

The Source Latino made its debut on newsstands across the nation this week. The South Beach-based publication is the first nationally distributed magazine to concentrate solely on the Latin hip-hop and reggaeton markets. While this is an exciting development for these woefully underreported genres, the actions and stature of its American counterpart ensure that it will not only have an instant impact, but also that it will be subjected to an intense degree of scrutiny and not-undue cynicism.

Over the course of its first six years (from its humble Harvard beginnings in 1988 to the staff walk-out in 1994), The Source rightfully earned its moniker as "The Bible of Hip-Hop." It covered hip-hop in terms its devotees understood; championed underground acts; and provided a refreshing anecdote to the mainstream media's hip-hop coverage, which was generally patronizing, uninformed, and latently racist.

But allegations of corruption as well as pervasive and persistent financial mismanagement have haunted the magazine over the past decade. The Source's greatest misstep, though, was knowingly and methodically inserting itself into the story via championing the rap career of so-called "founder" Ray Benzino. This ensured that the magazine's objectivity was effectively compromised, and has resulted in an ongoing public war with Interscope CEO Jimmy Iovine, arguably hip-hop's most influential figure.

Though forecasts of The Source's imminent demise have been pervasive and largely unsubstantiated for many years, there is no doubt the magazine is little more than a glossy, advertorial-ridden shell of its former self. Whether or not The Source Latino will be able to shrug off the historical baggage of its parent, both in terms of editorial direction and public perception, remains a question.

Despite these looming doubts, the introduction of the magazine couldn't come at a more critical juncture for the reggaeton community. Although the Puerto Rican-based genre has been around since the late Nineties in Latin America, it was largely dismissed as a niche market here in the States. But for all intents and purposes, that changed in 2005. The genre had its first identifiable Top 40 hit with Daddy Yankee's ubiquitous "Gasolina," and radio stations solely dedicated to the genre have recently sprouted up in unlikely places such as Denver and the Bay Area. In November Wisin y Yandel's Pa'l Mundo debuted in the Billboard Top 40 and sold more albums its first week than any previous reggaeton album. In a testament to how quickly the genre is emerging, that mark was broken just last week with Don Omar's Da Hitman Presents Reggaeton Latino.

And the commercial hip-hop world has taken note. N.O.R.E. might have been the first to step through the door with his hit "Oye Mi Canto," but since then, everyone from 50 Cent to Fat Joe has, to varying degrees, embraced the genre. This year also saw the emergence of boutique labels such as Roc La Familia (an offshoot of Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Records) and Wu Tang's Wu-Latino. Much of this reeks of blatant cultural opportunism, but it's also another indicator that reggaeton is here to stay.

Despite these achievements, there are effectively no venues for critical commentary about the genre. Sure, Web blogs such as www.reggaetonline.net and Miami's own broadband video channel www.barrio305.com have done an admirable job of reporting on the various interworkings of the reggaeton world and even dealing with some of the outlying issues. But these publications have a limited impact and are more often than not preaching only to the choir.

Developing some form of critical framework for the genre is vital not only because it will temper the influence of major labels and radio programmers — who do not necessarily have the best of intentions — but also because it will set parameters for how the genre is discussed and how it deals with the underlying aesthetic, cultural, and political issues. For one thing, the genre isn't even clearly defined. Is it merely the application of Spanish raps over dancehall's Dem Bow riddim, or is the genre more elastic and able to incorporate various sounds and languages? And what place will politics have in this cultural dialogue? Will reggaeton deal head-on with the issues of classism, regionalism, homophobia, misogyny, and nationalism that haunt the Latin world, or will it merely be another vehicle for clubgoers to shake their asses?

If the decision is left entirely up to Sony, Universal, and Clear Channel, you can bet on the latter scenario. It will be an innocuous and stale genre that serves as little more than a point of entry for marketing firms wishing to win friends and influence America's increasingly affluent and politically powerful Latin communities.

I hope The Source Latino can step up and provide this sense of critical oversight and direction, but we're not optimistic. The test issue that was given away at the magazine's launch party earlier this year at crobar looked promising, though. The magazine was split in two — one half in Spanish and the other in English. Profiles of superstars such as Tego Calderon, Daddy Yankee, and Ivy Queen were tempered by pieces about lesser-known artists — including local acts such as Sito and King Nene. However, the issue seemed unwilling to address any of the cultural topics in a meaningful way, and relied too heavily on a T&A formula (Were two pieces that featured Christina Milian really necessary?), but I'm willing to be patient and hope that more in-depth and thoughtful investigative pieces will come. After all, the magazine might not be ideal, but right now it's the only game in town.

 
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