The Language of the Streets

Wearing a black bowler hat and baggy pants, Latin hip-hop MC Platano steps inside Hoy Como Ayer and struts through the crowd. He settles near the back of the club, where he anxiously awaits the stage while watching the SoFla Kings finish their set. The Kings (consisting of MCs Bombillo and TropyCo) rhyme in rattling Spanglish over bone-crushing crunk beats. With long and pointy dreadlocks and loose-fitting hip-hop jerseys, the Latin hip-hop duo looks and sounds like three different cultures jammed into a blender.

The clubgoers at Hoy Como Ayer clearly love the dynamic. They sing along to each song and heave toward the stage as the beats crescendo. At the end of their set, the SoFla Kings send an effusive shout-out to Miami's Latin hip-hop movement. It might sound hokey — particularly in a city like Miami — but the scene at Hoy Como Ayer seems infused with a genuine sense of momentum, purpose, and unity.

"All of us [in Miami] got different styles," comments Bombillo after the show. "But we all support each other because we all are on the same boat, you know, the Miami sound. We are all in it together."

For those who don't know, SoFla Kings and Platano are among the crme de la crme of the local Latin hip-hop/reggaeton community. They sell thousands of copies of their underground mixtapes on Miami's streets, have a weekly Tuesday-night gig at Hoy Como Ayer, and when reggaeton superstars such as Tego Calderon and Zion y Lennox come to town, they regularly open the show for them.

Though to an extent they may be leapfrogging from the success of that genre's superstars — and are regularly dubbed reggaeton by those outside the scene — SoFla Kings and Platano have very little to do with the genre aesthetically.

"None of us are really reggaeton. We are Latin hip-hop artists. In the past we have worked with the reggaetoneros, and we don't hate on them. We feel good about their successes. For them it has been a long time coming and they deserve it. But what we do in Miami is Latin hip-hop," comments TropyCo.

That may be true, but the temptation for acts such as Platano and the SoFla Kings to conflate the very different genres of Latin hip-hop and reggaeton is both great and persistent. There's a pervasive mainstream interest in reggaeton, and major labels are scouring every square inch of Miami in search of the next Daddy Yankee. It's doubtful the A&R agents will squabble over what are, in their minds at least, meaningless genre definitions. As with Seattle's grunge explosion in the Nineties or crunk's ascent in the first half of this decade, if the sound is even in the ballpark (and, in this case, if your skin is the right tint), then fans, labels, and even some of the bands themselves will happily overlook differences in semantics.

However, the SoFla Kings make no such compromises. "I'm always thankful for the doors that people like Daddy Yankee have opened for us in Miami, but I want the people that haven't heard of us yet to understand that [our style] is not new. Platano, Sito, Pitbull, and us, we have been doing this mix for years," explains TropyCo.

The SoFla Kings began flirting seriously with music around 1998. They were soon approached by Warner Bros., but the talks fell through because of the group's unwillingness to retreat on one major issue. "[Labels] wanted us to choose between English and Spanish. But to us it didn't feel right," TropyCo says.

Meanwhile Platano's star began to rise when he hooked up with Miami hip-hop artist Don Dinero a couple of years ago. "[Don Dinero] took me under his wing. People like Don Dinero and Pitbull are really the cabecillas [headhunters] of the Miami scene. Don Dinero was one of the first ones to commercialize it in Miami, and he was the first Miami artist to get radio airplay on the salsa stations."

As with the SoFla Kings, the temptation for Platano to jump on the reggaeton bandwagon is great. "[The popularity of] reggaeton has helped me a lot," Platano comments. "For people to see me, a Miami artist, opening a concert for a Tego Calderon, it's great because it validates your work. And major labels see that and we get a shot."

But the differences between the Miami's Latin hip-hop faction and artists like Tego Calderon are striking. The SoFla Kings and Platano generally don't employ the Dembow riddim, the basis for all Puerto Rican reggaeton, but instead draw more heavily upon Southern hip-hop influences.

"We are not out to imitate anyone. We just take the sounds that are around the city. We mix Miami's 2 Live Crew with Puerto Rican legends like Vico C and Eddie Dee and then add our crunk beats to it," remarks Platano.

The final deal-breaker is once again language. True reggaeton, according to the genre's purists, is sung only in Spanish. Even within the Latin hip-hop community, there is a stigma associated with the English language. The fallacy goes that if you rhyme in English, you're selling out.

Of course, TropyCo, a Miami native, thinks this distinction is silly. "The way we talk in Miami is in Spanglish," he comments. "That's how most Latinos in the U.S. really communicate."

Really, the squabbling over language is indicative of the age-old struggle of trying to negotiate where you're from with where you're at. And while your roots are undoubtedly important, if Miami artists strictly adhered to tradition, then both reggaeton and Latin hip-hop would have a very limited scope — commercially and artistically.

Can you imagine what the urban music landscape would look like if hip-hop had never left its birthplace of the Bronx? Besides, outside of urban centers such as Miami, New York, and Los Angeles, we're all considered just Latin. It's a very obtuse generalization at best, but it also implies a certain unity that could be powerful.

And right now the feeling of unity among Miami hip-hop artists is palpable.

"We are organized. And as you can see, we have our own style. This is the sound of Miami, and we are gonna blow up. New York artists support each other; so do the artists in Atlanta. Now it's our turn in Miami to stand together," explains Platano.

Back at Hoy Como Ayer, the performers have finished their sets. Throughout the night you'll hear one common call to arms as the crowd and performers continually chant, "Three-O-five." The Miami telephone area code has become the de facto mantra for the emerging Latin hip-hop scene. As for TropyCo, things are looking optimistic: "The movement is always evolving, and I hope ... no, I think the world is ready for it."