Words by Wayne Marshall—
Not to be confused with the dancehall singjay (and Tami Chynn spouse) of the same name, Wayne Marshall is a renowned ethnomusicologist who has taught at Brandeis and Harvard, where he is a faculty associate at Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and the brains behind oft-cited music thinkpiece blog WayneAndWax. Reggaeton and its roots are a particular area of expertise—he’s the editor of the 2009 anthology Reggaeton, along with Raquel Rivera and Deborah Pacini Hernandez—so we asked him to break down a selection from the early days of what was then known as “underground” music in Puerto Rico. His choice? Bebe, Ivy Queen, Baby Rasta & Gringo and Point Breakers’ contribution to 1996’s seminal The Noise 6 mixtape/compilation. Read on and, after you’re done, be sure to read Wayne’s recent essay on Boston’s Caribbean pirate radio underground over at Cluster Mag.
Before reggaeton was reggaeton, back when a sassy and singular singjay could simply demand that “reggae respect Ivy Queen” — back in 1996 to be exact — San Juan’s The Noise selected a telling site for the video promoting their latest maratón mixtape. Opening with scenes of turnstile hopping raperos (later shown accompanied by a cop playing spoiler), a bubble-goose sporting Bebe quickly assumes the foreground, flip-tongue spitting double-time triplets worthy of many a dancehall deejay. Meantime, a montage of backdrops offers proof of pilgrimage to Shea Stadium, the Unisphere, Times Square, and Central Park, where a snowball fight announces as clearly as anything that we’re not in Puerto Rico anymore.
These may seem like far-flung signposts to some, but the iconic images mirror the mongrel sounds propelling Bebe’s and Ivy’s raggafied raps. Like their proto-reggaeton rival, DJ Playero, The Noise mobilize a set of rap and reggae referents that contemporary listeners in NYC, or any of its sister cities — not least San Juan — would instantly recognize. Sometimes in the same measure, more often in marked alternation, The Noise’s DJ Negro, DJ Nelson, and other in-house producers layer dusty breaks and wailing sirens, Dembow drums and Stalag horns, Cypress Hill-style tea-kettle loops and basslines for jazzed-up jeeps.
This mid-90s melaza, a densely intertextual mix of hip-hop and dancehall — sometimes called “musica negra” but mostly known simply as underground — supported a youth- and class-inflected cultural politics of blackness precisely by embracing, if not amplifying, the Nuyorican dimensions of Puerto Rican culture. In this sense, the wintry New York backdrop for The Noise 6 offers a vivid illustration of what scholar Juan Flores describes as a “notable reverse” in the “the translocal Puerto Rican sensibility.” Instead of an “emigrant longing for the beauties of the long-lost island,” we witness a shift, at least among some, toward the Bronx and El Barrio as primary “places of fascination and nostalgia.” It might seem a little much to saddle an obscure video with no less than carrying what Flores calls the “cultural remittances” of “transnationalism from below,” but the whole point is that little things — a sampled snare, a snowball — can make a big difference.