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When Puerto Rican reggaeton duo Wisin and Yandel got together with R&B superstar R. Kelly to lay down the vocals for 2005's hard-hitting single "Burn It Up," there was only one problem: Wisin and Yandel didn't speak English, and Kelly, well, no habló español.
"We just improvised and used sign language to communicate with each other," recalls Wisin (a.k.a. Juan Luis Morera, age 28). "R. Kelly is a really down-to-earth guy, and it turns out that he really loves our reggaeton."
Kelly is hardly the only one.
Over the past few years, reggaeton a genre that mixes Jamaican dancehall reggae and Afro-Caribbean rhythms with Spanish rapping has become the music of choice for a new generation of Latinos. And Miami, more than any other city, has played a critical role in the genre's global success. "For us reggaetoneros, Miami represents the gateway to an international audience," Wisin explains. "Miami is the only city in the world that affords young Latin acts like us instant global exposure; the entire Latin music industry is basically based out of Miami."
Which is why it makes a certain sense that Wisin and partner Yandel (a.k.a. Llandel Veguilla, age 29) will be back in town February 22 for Univision's Premio Lo Nuestro (Our Own Awards) ceremony at the American Airlines Arena. The duo is up for three prizes: best album, best song ("Llame Pa' Verte"), and best artist.
The Univision show attracts the cream of the Latin music world, along with an estimated ten million viewers in the States alone. It has become so popular among non-Spanish-speaking audiences that the broadcast now includes subtitles in English.
Most important to Wisin, "It's the one awards ceremony where the fans get to actually vote for their favorite artists."
Regardless of how many trophies they take home, Wisin and his partner have won the allegiance of a growing legion. They are the first group ever to score four simultaneous singles on the Billboard Top 10 Latin chart, and the pair's fifth album, Pal Mundo, has sold an estimated two million copies worldwide. They also recently established their own successful indie reggaeton label, WY Records. They are in ever-greater demand for collaborations, including a remix of their dancehall banger "Rakata," performed with New York rapper Ja Rule. It's little wonder they recently sold out a show at NYC's Radio City Music Hall.
This is the sort of success Wisin says he never even dreamed about when he and Yandel first got together back in 1998. The two met at a small-town reggaeton party in their hometown of Cayey, Puerto Rico. Wisin, then seventeen years old, wrote rhymes and wanted to try his hand at being a rapper. Yandel, who was making a living as a barber but fancied himself a songwriter, suggested a partnership.
Early on, the duo came up with a division of labor that holds to this day. "I take care of coming up with the rhymes," Wisin says, "and Yandel writes the melody and the chorus of our songs. Reggaeton music tends to have a repetitive beat, so it's really important to come up with a catchy chorus and make it stand out. People will always remember a reggaeton song by how good the chorus is."
The pair also takes an active approach in music production, often collaborating with top reggaeton beat-makers Luny Tunes, Bones, and Naldo in order to get their distinctive sound: a wall of syncopated beats, punctuated by Wisin's sharp lyrical salvos and softened by melodious background vocals.
Reggaeton was originally conceived as a loose form of Spanish dancehall, brought to Panama by Jamaican immigrants working on the construction of the Panama Canal. The genre became popular in Puerto Rico during the early 1990s with the help of the song "Tu Pun Pun" by Panamanian star El General. Once in Puerto Rico, the music evolved again, incorporating aspects of New York hip-hop, most notably rapping. Long considered music from the streets, Puerto Rican reggaeton was loved by the young barrio kids but universally despised by the middle class.
Radio stations wouldn't play reggaeton, and the only way to enjoy the music was via street compilations (a.k.a. mixtapes) or at illicit street fiestas.
"When we started out, no one wanted anything to do with reggaeton," recalls Yandel, the quieter half of the duo. "But we took it all in stride. We could tell by the audience reaction when we preformed that we had something special going on. That's why we decided to just forge ahead and make our own albums."
Record execs bet that reggaeton would be a fad, and gave them the brush-off. Finding the traditional path to musical stardom blocked, the tandem looked for alternative ways to jumpstart their career. Inspired by the business model used by U.S. hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z and Fat Joe, Wisin and Yandel formed their own record company, selling homemade CDs directly to fans.
"We thought, Why not become owners of our music?" Wisin says. "Growing up, we saw how the American rappers had established their own labels, so it was natural for us reggaetoneros to want to follow in their footsteps."
To build their name, Wisin and Yandel began touring nonstop, and became known for their high-octane shows. "Performing for an audience is the best part of being an artist," Yandel says. "When we're on the stage, we get to see how the audiences react to our music. That's how we test all of our songs. If a mix is working, we can tell immediately by the way our public acts."
The partners have turned out five albums since their 2000 debut, Los Reyes del Nuevo Milenio (The Kings of the New Millennium), but their U.S. breakthrough came only a couple of years ago. Teaming with Luny Tunes, the genre's top production team, they produced the single "Rakata," which became an international DJ favorite. The most recent record, Pa'l Mundo, is a dance-ready fusion of hip-hop and reggaeton that incorporates dancehall and salsa rhythms.
"People love their [Wisin and Yandel] music because they're always evolving," notes Lisa M, a Miami-based reggaeton diva. "Soundwise, they never do the same thing twice."
That diversity can be heard on the latest single, "Dame un Kiss" (featuring their protégé Franco El Gorila). The song, built around a traditional reggaeton beat, is anchored by a propulsive surf-rock guitar loop that calls to mind Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction soundtrack.
Wisin and Yandel have used their success to recruit new talent for their label. This past November, they released Los Vaqueros, an album that showcases the next generation of reggaeton rappers. The album currently stands at number nine on the Billboard Latin album charts.
For all their acclaim, Wisin and Yandel insist they want to remain true to the barrio that brought them together. Like their English-speaking hip-hop counterparts, they emphasize street cred over corporate manners.
"We never left our hometown," Wisin notes. "We still live in Cayey, next to the people that saw us grow. We are living proof to other Latino kids that nothing is impossible. If we made it in the music business, other small-town kids can make it as well. That's why Latin people have always shown us love: They see themselves in us. We are one of them."