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Medellín & reggaetón: the story behind a never-ending perreo

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For those who have not yet had the opportunity to visit Medellín, perhaps the metaphor that best explains its natural shape is kind of football stadium: a wonderful greenish valley that extends over the heart of the Central Andes mountain range, surrounded by imposing mountains that seem to be the perfect grandstand to enjoy a city with its own magical glow.

The city of eternal spring, or Medallo –as the second most populated city in Colombia is colloquially known– has always had a mystique that is difficult to explain, a kind of enthusiastic strive or “hustle” that’s transmitted from generation to generation, and under which the paisas –a term used to refer to people born in Antioquia, the department of which Medellín is the capital– take shelter to face any kind of adversity.

Music has been no exception to the rule. A relatively small city, surrounded by enormous natural custodians, has managed to tell its own story when it comes to countless musical genres: in 1935, the greatest figure of Argentine tango, Carlos Gardel, died in Medellín’s local aerodrome, awakening since then an unwavering fascination for this romantic genre; during the eighties, in the midst of the darkness and violence brought about by drug trafficking, a group of young metal devotees decided to channel their rage through a handful of raw songs that, shortly after, would inspire the sound of the so-called “Norwegian black metal pioneers”, Mayhem.

During the nineties, drug dealers who traveled to Miami would return with cassettes and vinyls of electronic music, creating years later a loyal culture around genres such as freestyle and techno; the hitmen of the time, camouflaged among the humble neighborhoods of the steep communes of the city, found shelter in the salsa songs coming from Puerto Rico, making the hymns of Héctor Lavoe, Ruben Blades and Henry Fiol sound in every corner of the popular neighborhoods without pause, a tradition present to this day.

But it has been one genre in particular that has managed to transcend all forms of expectation, reinventing its roots in its own way, infusing it with local spices and expanding the sound of Medellín to global levels never before imagined.

Reggaetón, the term conceived on the island of enchantment –whether by Daddy Yankee or DJ Nelson– found its place in Medellin in the early 2000s. Back then, in the city it was common to find illegal cable or television signals, something like a smuggled DirecTV with randomly selected channels. Thus an entire generation was molded from the Dragon Ball battles on Frecuencia Latina (Peru), French rap video clips on MCM, and with the live presentations and interviews of two specific programs from Puerto Rico: Jamz (Telemundo) and The Roof (mun2).

Each show seemed to be the introduction to a totally unknown universe, but which at the same time, had several similarities with the recent history of Medellin: stories from the hood, exorbitant luxuries and sensual women, perfect ingredients for a city always ready to take for its own hands whatever it wants. 

In this way, almost in the blink of an eye, the city was dressed with clothing brands such as Sean John, Rocawear, Dada Supreme, Nautica and Tommy Hilfiger, smuggled garments brought from the United States and Panama that would become a new sustainable business model for Medallo, basically thanks to the simple appearances of some unknown singers in a program on a foreign channel. These same names: Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, Ivy Queen, Tego Calderon, Wisin & Yandel, Plan B… just as it had happened years before with salsa, were taking over the sound systems installed in the streets and neighborhoods of the city of the eternal spring.

Step by step the whole city, from the humble communes settled in the hills and mountains, to the wealthiest and most exclusive neighborhoods of the city, was adopting this sound composed of dembow, sandungueo and a lot of blin-blin. The city’s radio stations began to leave aside the traditional genres that made up a large part of their usual programming: merengue, vallenato and even salsa now went to the bench to make way for Daddy Yankee’s “Latigazo”, the hot bombs of Luny Tunes & Noriega on Mas Flow and the new corner guaguancó introduced by the so-called ugly of the pretty girls, Tego Calderón.

Along with the radio boom, reggaetón was giving Medellín new inputs and resources to continue forging this emerging industry: bootleg CDs were sold in schools with the new albums downloaded from pages like Blinblineo.net and ElCorillord.com; nightclubs, as a bet, began to open their doors to minors: Seven Eleven, Crazy’s Club and Lomalinda in Sabaneta, were some of the first places where alcohol was exchanged for intense perreo, filling entire rooms with teenagers thirsty for the thundering productions of DJ Blass, Luny Tunes, DJ Joe, DJ Rafy Mercenario, among others.

Things escalated quickly, and from small venues intended for minors, they moved on to stadiums full of people. Daddy Yankee landed in 2002 to present the hits from his album El Cangri.com at the Polideportivo Sur in Envigado, in front of no more than 2000 people. Only a year later, Ramón Luis Ayala would set foot on Medellin again, this time in the company of his colleagues Héctor & Tito, Ivy Queen, Tego Calderón and Don Omar, all summoned for the concert called “Los bosster del reggaetón”, which would congregate in the city’s main football stadium, the Atanasio Girardot, more than 53,000 people ready for a real perreo marathon with their new idols.

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“If Puerto Rico could do it, we can do it too”, was the premise that began to circulate in the new urban voice to voice of the city. That was how the first names of reggaetoneros from Medellín began to appear: Tres Pesos, Golpe a Golpe, Final y Shako, Fusión Perreo, Reykon and a young kid who understood from the beginning that reggaeton was the business, J Balvin.

From there, reggaeton marked a before and after in Colombia’s musical history. Despite having its detractors, the new street genre boosted the local economy in its own way, refreshing the panorama from many edges such as music production, nightlife, tourism and even the textile industry. Names like J Balvin were responsible for planting the seed and paving the way for new generations to take on a job that now seemed simple: to conquer the entire planet. Even pioneers of the genre such as Nicky Jam have publicly acknowledged Medellín as the true cradle of reggaetón.

“How did we get here? We came to sleep on dirty mats in Queens,” Balvin confesses to Ryan Castro, the mastermind behind the 2021 anthem “Jordan”, and for many the next star of Colombian reggaetón, during his first visit to New York City.

Days before, Castro shared his excitement to meet “the buildings of the King Kong movies” and to find an own ad of him in the middle of Manhattan: “Life is beautiful and all people who work with love have their reward, from the ghetto and from the humble neighborhoods of Medellin to have the announcement of my tour in #TimesSquare”.

Reggaetón paisa representing the culture. That’s what it’s all about.

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