On Puerto Rican’s journey from star reggaeton producer to banjo-toting, indie-folk singer
The man in the picture above looks more like the lost Puerto Rican member of Mumford and Sons than the one of the biggest names in reggaeton. But looks can be deceiving. At the height of the mid-2000s reggaeton craze, this shaggy, slight-of-frame blanquito was one of the genre’s most in-demand producers and visible personalities in Puerto Rico.
Danny Fornaris earned his dembow stripes by producing songs for artists like Tego Calderon and Voltio, not to mention the entire Calle 13 debut album, including hits like “Suave” and “Se Vale To-To.” He soon became known for making reggaeton beats that really broke the mold. In the years that followed, he played keyboards in Don Omar’s touring band, and became the official voice of the island’s only all-reggaeton station, Reggaeton 94. He started his own group, Fusssion Musik, which put out electronica-reggaeton fusions years before they became the norm (see: Don Omar’s “Sexy Robotica”; everything Pitbull has ever done).
Now, that’s all behind him. These days, Fornaris is on a top-secret mission to transform the Puerto Rican music industry from the inside out. As a solo artist, he’s been releasing music that is a far cry from the muscle-shirted, bottle-popping, sunglasses-at-night sounds coming today from the reggaeton side of things. His songs range from indie-pop/reggaeton hybrids like “Estoy Enamorado” to straight up bluegrass-tinted rock sung in Spanish, banjos and all. And, he says, Puerto Ricans are ready for it, if they’d only give him a chance.
We caught up with Fornaris over the phone to talk about his illustrious reggaeton past and glorious Latin-alternative future.
I was born into this business – my dad was a musician for many many years, and after that, he built a sound company. When I was little I was grew up running up and down the stages, going to concerts all over the island. So I was always exposed to the music business. But I never got a formal music education. I started played the drums when I was 16, but then I went to college and couldn’t play anymore because it was too loud for the dorm, so I started making beats in my room at my computer. Basically just playing around. That’s how it all hit me. I stopped going to classes just to stay at home and make music.
And how did that lead you to get into reggaeton?
One day my dad had gigs at the same time in San Juan and Mayaguez, where I went to college, and I had to run one of those stages for my dad. Tego Calderon was playing there, so I burned a CD of my best beats, and when Tego arrived, I went to him with a walkman and was like, “Yo Tego, my name is Danny, I have some beats you might like.” I kept bothering him and eventually his manager gave me his number. I kept calling over and over again for three months until he finally answered, and set up a meeting. That’s how it all started. I kept knocking on doors, going to different labels and studios. I let the music speak for itself. Then I got an opportunity to work with Calle 13, and so on.
You became an in-demand producer for having a style that was really unique – how did you develop your sound?
I think it takes its own path. I worked with the tools I had – my little studio, the sound libraries I could get a hold of. Anyone who says they caught a sound because it’s the sound they always wanted and had in their head – I’m suspicious of that. Most of the time great sounds happen by accident.
At the time, I mean, almost all the reggaeton we were hearing had a very similar, Fruity Loops-made sound – the sound pushed by production duo Luny Tunes and stars like Daddy Yankee – to me, your beats really stand out for their originality.
That’s true, I wanted to have my own brand of music – when you hear Fornaris, that’s a Fornaris beat. That’s always been something super important to me. When I was young, I made hip-hop or experimental beats. So when I got into reggaeton, I morphed those sounds to a reggaeton beat. I pitched the drums down for a heavy sound, and used leads that other people didn’t use at the time.
For one thing, it sounds like you came at reggaeton from a different angle than many other artists – you didn’t come from the caserios (public housing projects), for example.
Yeah, and by the time I got into the business it wasn’t underground anymore. It was national, even international. Even politicians, their jingles were reggaeton.
Danny Fornaris’ first single as a solo artist, “Estoy Enamorado”
How did your label/group Fusssion Musik, get started?
After Calle 13, I started working with a lot of artists, and I decided to start my own group. I wanted to produce artists from the ground up – identifying the talent, getting involved with the lyrics. It started as a label, but it became almost like a group by default. The music was a fusion of what was happening – the electronic music scene and reggaeton.
What’s your relationship to the reggaeton scene today?
I produced something a few months ago for J-King and Maximan. But I’ve lost contact a little bit. Because most reggaeton artists are no longer reggaeton artists, it’s evolved into the musica urbana (urban music) stuff. Now the artists are making ballads, kuduro – even dubstep. It’s crazy. I decided to concentrate on my solo career.
Organic music and a great arrangement, that’s the formula. Sooner or later everything will go back there: piano, guitar, organ, a drum set. That doesn’t get old. You have to rely on a great melody and a great chord progression because the sounds, they get old fast. Use the lastest synth, and two months from now it’s going to sound old.
I started making another kind of music, because I was always into Latin music, but I was also into brit rock. What happened is I started playing the guitar, and I fell in love with it. It changed my creative process. If you compose on a piano, you are inclined for something more ballad-y or down tempo. But with the guitar, it’s different – you play standing up, you move around with it, it’s more physical. You press the guitar to your chest and vibrate with it, and the resonator box resonates with you. I fell in love with that moment of inspiration with the guitar, when an idea first comes to you. It made me want to make music that transcends – not for the club today or next year. I want to make music that survives fifty years from now.
In the first single, “Estoy Enamorado,” there’s a indie-pop sound, but there’s also quite a lot of reggaeton in there, right?
That was on purpose. People know me as a reggaeton guy. I can’t just start making indie rock. Because the reggaeton fans aren’t going to like it, and the indie rock fans won’t like it either – they will say, “Now this reggaeton guy is trying to get into the indie scene.” If I came out with a total rock song for the first single, I would have made enemies. So I played it safe and came out with something that had reggaeton and pop in it. Keeping in mind, that I’m aiming towards a commercial career with this project. Then the 2nd single was “Sonrie,” a little more pop, and a little less reggaeton…
…And then “No Me Hace Falta Na,” which is basically a bluegrass song?
[Laughs] Yes, it’s a Latino bluegrass. What happened is I started writing that song as a cumbia. Then I started speeding it up, and the same rhythm became a country/bluegrass rhythm. All we needed was a banjo, so we got a banjo. I did a lot of research for it – I even saw I documentary about the African origins of the banjo. It turns out the banjo is just as African as our bomba drums. The banjo is nothing but one of our panderos (tambourines) we use in plena music, with strings on it. So I kept true to my Puerto Rican roots.
“No Me Hace Falta Na” by Danny Fornaris, with banjos aplenty.
Amazing. Is Puerto Rico ready for its reggaeton producers to make bluegrass?
People are always ready. They weren’t ready for the Rolling Stones until it happened. But if it’s catchy, if it’s what we call “melao” – sweet for the ears, people will like it. If it has a simple message and is straight to the point, people are always ready, man. People need more stuff like that.
When are we finally going to see a Danny Fornaris solo release?
My album is coming out – it’s ten songs. “Sonrie” and “Estoy Enamorado” won’t be on it, those were from the last album that never came out because of label stuff. I can’t wait for people to listen to it. The songs are catchy, and have a lot of feeling and honesty in them. They each have a real experience behind them. And I’m using all different rhythms – some merengue, some African rhythms, but on a rock guitar. I borrowed different things from every genre. It’s a bit of a risky album.
Well, it’s like my latest single, “No Me Hace Falta Na.” If you asked anyone before I released it to radio, they’d say “People in Puerto Rico aren’t going to like it. Puerto Ricans like reggaeton, ballads, and tropical music, that’s it.” But more people liked it than I even thought. And thanks to that song, I got more real fans – people who really like music and care about music, people who really will follow you wherever you go. People are ready for new propuestas (proposals). New sounds. They want artists to push the envelope.
Who is putting out this album?
We are in the middle of this right now – it’s unclear for the moment. Whether we have an label or not, it’s coming out either way. I still have my own indie distribution. But we’re looking to make it big – doing what needs to be done to make it international. It’s waiting to happen