The king of conscious reggaeton speaks out about, well, just about everything.
In 2005, when reggaeton first came to a car stereo near you following the breakthrough success of Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina,” Tego Calderón was one of the first major stars to rise with the genre, alongside Don Omar and, of course, Yankee himself. But as the entire Latin music industry mobilized to promote a slick, pop-friendly version of reggaeton, Tego always marched to the beat of his own drum machine. While Yankee was working to convince girls that they liked his “gasoline,” Tego was riffing about black cultural politics on the track “Loiza,” or collaborating with salsa legend Oscar D’Leon on “Llora, Llora,” all while keeping it loose and sexy. With his trademark afro and lazy-lipped flow, Tego kept it real.
As it turns out, Tego’s realness paid off. The reggaeton craze came and went. Daddy Yankee fell off the map, Don Omar is busy dancing kuduro, and instead of dembow, the phrase of the moment is musica urbana (urban music), a blend of rap, R&B, and dance music in Spanish. Yet Tego is still here, and still doing his proverbial thing. Just last month, El Abayarde put out a new all hip-hop mixtape titled The Original Gallo Del País – O.G. El Mixtape (punning on the phrase “original gangster” in Spanish by calling himself the “original rooster”), and he is dropping a big album in 2013 called El Que Sabe, Sabe.
We caught up with the rooster himself, phoning in from his studio in Puerto Rico to chop it up about the industry, the issues facing his island commonwealth today, and what music can do to change it.
Really it was about having presence in the street, which is what we usually do before launching a new album. Ever since I launched my third disc, I always do a mixtape before it, but I never dedicated much time to it as this one. They usually are previews of what’s going to be on a disc, but this one I wanted to be its own thing, and that’s why it‘s had the success it’s had I think.
Many people think of you as a reggaeton artist, but there’s not a single dembow beat on the mixtape. Why did you choice to avoid reggaeton on this release?
I always wanted to do an album of only hip hop, which was how I got started and is where I feel most comfortable. It wasn’t the idea at first, but along the way I realized that it was something I always wanted to do, so I thought, “well let’s just do it in this mixtape.” So why doesn’t it have any reggaeton? I really didn’t think it needed it because it was for the street, for my people, for those who really understand me.
But are you still interested in working with the reggaeton genre in general or not so much?
Of course, of course, on my upcoming album El Que Sabe Sabe there are quite a few reggaeton tracks. I also have reggae, and reggae mixed with metal, and salsa. I’m just having fun with the music making process. I’m in a mature stage in my life and I want to make the music I want to make, experimenting with different rhythms.
Ever since reggaeton blew up after Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina,” most artists have chosen more of a pop direction, while you have done more and more socially engaged tracks. Do you feel like you chose a different path than the rest?
I feel that I chose a path with character and with value and honestly, I’m not thinking about what others are doing. I feel that it was a life process, you know? When you get into this business, it doesn’t matter whether you have a moral compass or not. When you start out in this business as a rookie, there’s a lot of pressure from people that get close to you and get into your head. They want to act as if they are your best friends and they start to influence you and distort the vision of what you want to create. And I don’t doubt that I was a part of this epidemic at one point, but my compass has stayed true in the end. I sincerely feel that I have kept doing what I came here to do.
I want to talk a little bit about some of the individual tracks from your mix-tape and what they’re about. In the track, “Cosas Que Pasan” (“Things That Happen”), you talk about the issues facing Puerto Rico. What is, to you the biggest problem facing Puerto Rico today?
We have to start by educating Puerto Rico as if it were a child, how you teach a newborn, you know. This country was founded as the spoils of the Spanish-American war, given to the most capitalistic country in the world. It’s been mistreated and its people have grown up with a history that is kind of… I don’t know. I think education is a big problem, but the political status is another one, criminality is a another, and violence against women. We have all the problems that exist all over the world but the greatest problem is the kids. The youth don’t really value life anymore.
In that same track you mention famous Puerto Rican activists like Pedro Albizu Campos. Coming up in November, Puerto Rico will vote on whether it wants to pursue statehood or independence in a plebiscite. Are you in favor of independence?
Yeah, I am pro-independence. I grew up in a pro-independence household but that’s not why I follow it. I don’t support the independence party of Puerto Rico, I don’t always agree with them, but I do support the independence of my country.
Throughout your career, including this mixtape, you talk a lot of about your Afro-Latino identity. Why has it been important for you rep black roots in your music?
In reality that’s one of the things that I came here to do because I didn’t feel represented by anybody, by none of the Latin singers. As a black man, there wasn’t any singer that made me feel a sense of pride. When the “blackness” theme is addressed in music, it’s typically treated in a funny and lighthearted manner. I did a tune called “Loiza” about Afro-Puerto Ricans and it’s a song that sold well – that’s the kind of thing I came to do. I’m descended from Africans and we should maintain a unity amongst us no matter what language we speak.
On the song “Robin Hood,” and throughout the album, there’s a lot of traditional percussion. Was that something that you consciously chose for the album?
There is some percussion and I played on several songs. In “Robin Hood” I played batá, and I played a drum kit on “Se Ajuma.” I also play the congas in a couple of songs and that’s not new in my music, what is new is the fact that I’m playing live instruments. In that past I used all drum machines, but now I have a studio space and that’s what is being reflected there, a longing to make music with a lot of honesty and sincerity.
In the song “Suerte” you name-call various traditional religions in Latin America. Are you a spiritual person?
In that song I wanted to support all the different devotions seen as pagan by the Catholic Church but that make a lot of people feel good. I wanted to pay homage to all those faiths which are looked down upon, which are practiced hidden away in the closet but are not widely accepted. For myself, I am very devout to everything. I think that anything that makes you a better human being, whatever it might be — doing exercise, whatever. Whatever you want to believe that makes you better is fine with me.
In the song “Like We” you say that “the generation is puerquisima” (sucking). Do you think that rappers today aren’t as talented as they used to be?
No, I’m talking about principles, not talent, although that applies too, but no – it’s about principles. Nobody keeps their word, there is no loyalty anymore, and that’s what I’m referring to, attacking somebody that fits all those traits. This is directed to somebody not as an artist but as a person.
I think that the state of music per se is bad. It’s not a problem only in reggaeton. It’s a problem with music in general because there is a lack of content in everything. On the other hand, when something is good they bombard you with it so much that it gets tiring. That’s the record industry for you.
Thankfully, now there are other vehicles and you don’t have to depend so much on the record labels. Now what the label brings to the table is actually less than what they take away from you. Nowadays if you have the resources to do it yourself, then you can go ahead and do it yourself and you’ll get the same result.
What I hear coming from the industry sounds the same. I don’t like to listen to it, because it sticks to you, at least in my case. I retain all that stuff and then I might put something down on a piece of paper thinking its mine. Unfortunately, sometimes I do listen to it, because my kids want to put it on in the car, but I don’t like it.
Do you still listen to heavy metal?
Yeah, I like it. You know, you can’t stop liking music, if you liked it once then you will keep on liking it, at least that’s what I think. I like Motorhead, I listen to them and Black Sabbath too.
I read an interview of yours a few years back in which you said that eventually you wanted to leave music and go live a peaceful life in the countryside. Is the campo life still the goal?
Of course! But right now I have things to do. But more and more I’m seeing it as a real possibility of building a studio somewhere in the countryside. Then I could record in the urban studio or the campo studio. They would be completely different vibes that could be reflected in the music. It’s something that I could see happening soon.