Irreverent, impertinent, and unapologetic, the Puerto Rican duo Calle 13 has never been interested in abiding by the norm. And though they have parlayed their unique vision of hip-hop and reggaeton into critical acclaim and financial success, don't hold your breath waiting to hear them on mainstream airwaves. Stepbrothers Residente (René Pérez Joglar) and Visitante (Eduardo José Cabra Martínez) are outspoken in their disdain for pandering for airplay.
"Calle 13 is Calle 13," says Residente, the group's lyricist. "That's the best way of describing our music." And he responds to the fact that some people might not understand their concept with habitual frankness: "They don't have to listen to us." But if six Grammys (five Latin and one general market), swooning critics, and a rabid fan base are any indication, their unyielding candor has served them well.
It began, perhaps, three years ago, with the second single off Calle 13's self-titled debut album. Using a few repetitive vowel sounds, "Atrevete-te-te" ("Dare to Do It") was part of a lengthy 13-bar response to a label rep's advice to keep hooks short and sweet. Yet the song followed listeners around all day like a wad of grime-blackened bubblegum they stepped on while dodging midday traffic on Biscayne Boulevard. It was, simply, further proof the powers that be don't always know best.
"We approve everything first," Residente says, "not the label. They're helpful, but we make all the creative decisions."
And in a time when the old formulas of the music industry fail, the wisest thing a pair of dyed-in-the-wool artists such as Residente and Visitante can do is stay true to themselves. Which is exactly what they've done on their third album, Los de Atrás Vienen Conmigo. Roughly translating to "Those in the back come with me," it pays homage to those who've helped the group along the way.
There's something on this record for anyone who liked any aspect of the group's previous work. And for the uninitiated, Los de Atrás is an excellent introduction.
"It's got a little of the first [album] and a little of the second," says Visitante, the group's musical director and producer.
"The last album was darker, slower," Residente adds. "But it was necessary at the time we did it."
An admittedly more balanced proposition, Los de Atrás returns to the playful lyrical style and upbeat rhythms of the duo's debut while never losing the edge the group honed to a razor-sharp bite on its followup. Tracks such as "Fiesta de Locos" ("Lunatic Party") and "John el Ezquizofrénico" ("John the Schizophrenic") — Visitante's personal favorite — are at times downright chilling.
But that ubiquitous balance remains, spanning not only the content and pacing but also the musical landscape of the record, incorporating eclectic influences along the way. "It's very varied in terms of both styles and concepts," Residente says. "Our music has become more universal. The lyrics and the music speak to more people now."
Where the last album melded distinct sounds from across Latin America with urban and alternative foundations, Los de Atrás broadens the scope. Now the music incorporates sounds as far-reaching as Eastern European gypsy rhythms, plus others more familiar, such as Dixieland, jazz, and even freestyle.
Indeed the album boasts a good old-fashioned freestyle jam called "Electro Movimiento" ("Electric Movement"). It comes complete with the genre's distinctive Miami-flavored breakbeat and a high-pitched, amorous female counter-chorus sung in English. Residente cheekily responds in Spanish: "I have no idea what you're saying to me/But you better not be insulting me."
"I meant it," Residente laughs. "We recorded that song in Miami with a group called Afrobeta and it sounded great, so we put it on the record. It was fun, mixing the English and Spanish parts like that."
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The surprises don't end there. The first single off the album, "No Hay Nadie Como Tu" ("There's No One Like You"), is a chronically catchy and indefinable amalgam featuring seminal Latin rock band Café Tacuba. "The song doesn't fit into any one genre," Residente says. "It's not rock; it's not rap; it isn't electronic. It's a mix of rhythms that don't necessarily pertain to one genre. It's a song by Calle 13 and Café Tacuba, and each group's presence is evident on the track."
Perhaps the most interesting cameo on the record comes from legendary Panamanian singer-songwriter Rubén Blades. During a meeting between Calle 13 and Blades at the Latin Billboard Awards, both parties agreed they should work on a project together. Thus "La Perla" was born, inspired by a shared respect for the historic San Juan, Puerto Rico neighborhood of the same name.
An impoverished area nestled in prime real estate between the ocean and Old San Juan, La Perla has long been a source of controversy on the island. And in the tradition of the poignant immigration missive "Me Voy Pal Norte," off Residente o Visitante, Calle 13's members once again address social issues close to them. This time, however, they do it through a heartfelt illustration of their youth, which is augmented by Blades lending his immediately identifiable chops.
This collaborative spirit continues for those lucky enough to see the band live on its current tour, which features an 11-piece backing band. "Fans are going to see lots of energy," Residente says. "The band sounds bigger now. We've grown a lot since we performed in Miami last year, touring Latin America, performing in Viña del Mar [Chile] and Spain. You're going to see a band that's even stronger than before."