John Robinson on reggaeton

John Robinson keeps up with the new hip-hop movement

The girls in bikinis are all present and correct, as are the lyrics about money, sex and gang life. There's some large men in pristine sportswear, and some pretty ostentatious watches. And on most occasions you'd be forgiven for thinking that you were watching another hardcore hip-hop video - except that this isn't strictly hip-hop at all, but the day-to-day scene that surrounds its extremely popular younger cousin, reggaeton.

Right now, reggaeton is the most prominent new development in hip-hop culture, something you can tell by watching just how quickly some of rap's most established names are rushing to be associated with it. P Diddy has approached one of the music's most popular stars, Tego Calderón, to appear in an ad for his Sean John clothing line. Hip-hop magazine The Source is launching a reggaeton edition. Meanwhile, for two stars thought long past their best - Fat Joe and NORE - the genre has offered a new lease of life.

If it sounds like a musical miracle cure for weary thugs, it's one that originates in something that doesn't at first sound quite so promising. Reggaeton, in a nutshell, is Spanish reggae. From its early origins in Panama, by the mid-1980s, the music had migrated to Puerto Rico, where it picked up the hip-hop influence which eventually turned it into the slick hybrid of dancehall rhythms and Spanish rapping that it is today. As singles like Daddy Yankee's Gasolina amply demonstrate, it could be big, big business.

And, what's more, it's very cool. Like hip-hop itself, reggaeton is a formerly underground movement (early records were described as "under") that has steadily found its way into the mainstream. It's got its own nickname ("Perreo", meaning, self-explanatorily when you've seen the dancing, "doggie"), and its own big players (like production duo Luny Tunes). In the shape of talented, imprisoned rapper Tempo, it even has its own martyr to the prison system.

What it isn't, all concerned are keen to stress, is a novelty. "It's scary how big it's going to get," said Fat Joe, a rapper whose business looked in terminal decline until he recorded a track called Reggaeton Latino. NORE, meanwhile, who hit big in the US with his Oye Mi Canto single, has done better in putting his finger on just why reggaeton is big news. "The Latino people haven't been spoken to in a while," he has said. "This is what speaks for the inner-city Latino youth."

It's not just them, either, as reggaeton stars have already played to packed houses as far afield as Japan. One of the only challenges remaining for the genre is to build a life for itself here, a country which has spun its own anglicised, grimy, version of hip-hop, and which doesn't have a particularly large Spanish-speaking community.

Perhaps it'll make an impression as a heard-it-on-holiday favourite. Until then, though, one can simply admire hip-hop's ability to reconstitute itself, and brace oneself for the Snoop Dogg reggaeton record, which will surely be along within the week.

· DVD/CD compilation The Chosen Few is out on Sep 5


John Robinson

The GuardianTramp

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