This week Universal Music Latino releases a compilation called Heavy Hitters: The Best of Spanish Hip-Hop. Who are these heavy hitters? Best-selling rappers like Big Pun, Fat Joe, and Tego Calderón? Up-and-coming rhymers like Don Dinero and Pitbull? Or old-school pioneers like Vico C, Kid Frost, Delinquent Habits, and Mellow Man Ace?
No: Apart from a couple of tracks by established Mexican crew Control Machete, this collection is heavy on a slew of new artists signed to Universal Latino with debut albums that were either just released or are in the works. There's Los Nandez, whose Malandrines came out last month, and La Company, whose Cambiando el Juego hits stores this week. And then there's the newest of the new, 90 Millas, a hip-hop/reggaetón/R&B trio out of West Palm Beach that is recording a debut album while its vocalist is finishing high school.
As the major record labels are attempting to cash in on the popularity of urban Latino music, Universal Music Latino president John Echevarria confesses that 90 Millas makes for a particularly appealing product. "Here are three very young kids, writing their feelings, and these are Cubans doing reggaetón, which has basically been a boricua thing," he explains. "And I'm not going to hide it; those kids are quite nice-looking guys, which" -- he adds with diplomatic understatement -- "is not typical of the genre."
Cuban, good looking, and young, 90 Millas seems to the label head like the missing variable in the formula for bringing young Latinos back to Latin music -- especially in Miami. "With [Universal artist] Don Dinero it was the first time we were seeing young Cuban Americans buying Latin music," Echevarria points out. "It's been sort of a mantra [in the industry] that Cuban Americans don't buy Latin music at all. Miami was one of our worst markets. Our kids basically listen to 50 Cent and Eminem. Now I'm grateful to the genre because we're getting the kids back."
How did Latin music lose the kids in the first place? "We're continually crying about the loss of the tropical market," Echevarria admits of the industry. "But look at the difference between Rubén Blades and Willie Colón and the artists we're selling today. Are they telling people the stories that young people want to listen to?" He thinks urban Latin music supplies the best answer to that question by "telling them their own stories with the rhythm of hip-hop."
But what's to keep the major labels from sucking the life out of urban music the same way they sucked the life out of tropical? "The problem is credibility," Echevarria says. "This is a very streetwise market. We have to learn how to handle the genre. Obviously the regular radio channels are not going to play this, so we're going to play it on the streets."
But didn't I just hear tropical station Zol 95 (WXDJ-FM 95.7) spinning Don Dinero? "This is a pending issue not just for us, but for radio too," Echevarria clarifies. "Otherwise Anglo radio is going to take over that space. Latin radio cannot live forever on people over 40."
Okay, so how else does Universal plan to take itself to the streets?
For one thing, says the prez, the label is looking at successful independent events, like teenage promoter Melissa Giles's annual Soulfrito Music Festival. Echevarria sees the urban festival scene exploding over the coming year: "This is something that the kids need to see and need to dance to, or else [we can] forget about trying to work the genre."
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He is also paying attention to the grassroots connections being forged by popular local acts like 90 Millas. Nineteen-year-old rapper Maikel and twenty-two-year-old reggaetón DJ Victor, both recent arrivals from Cuba, hooked up with eighteen-year-old U.S.-born singer Ozeil, a regular with the Suncoast Community High School chorus. The three made 400 copies of a self-produced nine-song demo using sampled beats that combine hip-hop, reggaetón, and R&B. "Between the three of us, the record got around," says Maikel. They distributed the disc for free to DJs around Miami at clubs like Sundays on the Bay in Key Biscayne, Club Millennium in Doral, and Los Ranchos Nightclub in Hialeah Gardens. "It was strictly underground, but if you go to a high school in Hialeah [you'll find that] people really like our music."
About nine months ago, a copy made its way into the hands of Oscar Guitiau -- the producer and brother of Don Dinero whose record label, Guitiau Brothers Music, has a joint venture with Universal Music Latino.
One listen to 90 Millas's first single, "El Chulo de la Calle," is all you need to know about what struck the label's fancy. The reggaetón beat is tamed by producer Julio Acosta with a tinny synthesized snare teasing what may be the primmest bass line ever recorded, as a self-declared street tough (the "chulo" of the title) very gently woos his mamí. Maikel's high-speed rap and Victor's deep reggaetón voicing both manage to ride the beat well without sounding the slightest bit threatening. Just in case any doubt remains that 90 Millas is urban at its friendliest, Maikel describes the track as a kind of "reggaetón lite" that appeals not just to kids on the street but to "people of all ages."
Victor chimes in: "You're going to find what you like here. If you like pop, you'll hear pop. If you like rap, you'll hear rap. If you like reggae ..." That's exactly what the majors want to hear.