Tego Calderon is big in New York and Miami. He’s huge across Latin America. And in his native Puerto Rico — forget about it.
So why is his upcoming album titled “The Underdog?”
Maybe because Calderon is king of “reggaeton,” a rebellious new style of Latin music composed of rap and dancehall reggae with a Latin twist. And Calderon’s political messages, inventive profanity and drug references have enraged many older listeners — much the way rap once did in the States.
Still, Calderon was nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2003, and has collaborated with superstar rappers like 50 Cent and on the remix to Fat Joe’s smash “Lean Back.” Now, at age 32, this father of two expects to continue mixing Latin dance tunes with social messages on “The Underdog,” his third album, expected sometime next year.
Speaking by telephone from Puerto Rico, Calderon talked in Spanish with The Associated Press about the beginnings of reggaeton; his popularity and unpopularity; and the content of his lyrics.
AP: Can you define reggaeton?
Calderon: Reggaeton is the new way the youth here [in Puerto Rico] express themselves, mainly it was a form of expression among the poor. It started out the same way as hip-hop did. Initially it was totally underground. In a 10-year span people got used to listening to our music, and the music earned a space in radio shows...but the very few radio programs that aired our music were canceled.
AP: What has been your biggest contribution to reggaeton?
Calderon: When I first started with all these salsa elements, and this different style of flow, everyone criticized me, and laughed at me, saying I was crazy. After the first record, I included drums, bomba, salsa, and now more people are open to experiment, and the same people that critiqued me are now following my trend.
AP: Has salsa lost flavor among young listeners because of reggaeton?
Calderon: It is a mistake to think that way. Young listeners have always listened to music that their parents oppose. Once it was the Beatles, rock, heavy metal, Elvis Presley, and so on. And we are the [new] rebels, but salsa is irreplaceable.
AP: Why do you think your music genre is so unpopular?
Calderon: Because we were coming from the underground, and our message was not so responsible. In the beginning nobody was listening to us, we were only recording so that our buddies in the barrio would listen to our music. All of a sudden everyone was listening to our music. At least here in Puerto Rico, it was playing in the rich neighborhoods, and that’s how this campaign against us began. I think there was also prejudice. Most of us [rappers], many of us have had problems with the law, most of us don’t have the best education in the world, we don’t come from rich families, and we have had to struggle to make a living. We represent the undesirable. I represent the undesirable ones with great pride. But just like [the rich] perceive us as undesirable, we view them as undesirable as well. But now, they have to buy our records.
AP: Why do you think YOU are so popular?
Calderon: Most rap singers came out [in their videos] with expensive cars, and stuff. I come out on a bicycle, and I portrayed someone who was working changing tires. I offered a different angle to life, and I talked about social justice in my lyrics while making people dance.
AP: Do you think the language barrier has held reggaeton back?
Calderon: I have never said this before, but what has made it easier for Tego to actually do the crossover without really intending to, is my skin color. I think that if the African-Americans in the U.S., if I were a person of another race, the same person, the same lyrics, but of another race, I would not have had the same support. Of course there is common ground, for instance my song “Loiza.” They understand what I am talking about. For black people this [understanding] is very important and this why they have embraced me. They understand that we are fighting the same war the only thing that is different is the language, and this fills me with satisfaction and pride.
AP: How do you plan to handle the topic of drugs in your songs, so incidents like the ones in Dominican Republic where your show was canceled last March [due to the song “Bonsai”] don’t happen again?
Calderon: I plan to visit Dominican Republic soon, before the year ends. And when the time comes, I will decide if I will speak to the Dominican Republic press or not. My responsibility in Dominican Republic is with its people, and my fans. And those who don’t like my presence in the country will have to present proof of my wrongdoings. You get me? I am simply writing my music for the people, not for the leaders.
AP: What are you going to do about the drugs?
Calderon: What do you mean what am I going to do with the drugs? In my show I don’t use drugs, my shows don’t induce drug use, that just happened, and that’s the end of it. The live shows of Tego Calderon are not about drug usage.
AP: Many people wonder how can someone who is the father of two children feel comfortable about writing songs that have lyrics that include violence, sex, and drugs?
Calderon: Newspapers are violent, and they thrive and live from violence, and journalists have children too. Politicians are violent, and are corrupt, and they lead our countries. Tego Calderon is just another human being, some human beings don’t like to show their dark side, but Tego is sincere and allows people to see both sides of him. Since this is not common, I understand that this may cause fear among those that like hypocrites. I am blunt, and I don’t have to hide. My son and my daughter are the most important people in the world, and I am the greatest of dads to them. I am better than any of those opposed to my lyrics because I guide them. Parents should first have to deal with soap-operas which teach our young people about sex, adultery, infidelity, aggression, plots to kill people. No one seems interested in fighting against actors.
AP: Now that the music has become international, how do you write responsible lyrics?
Calderon: I have always tried to be what I believe is true to who I am. I can’t stop being myself. I didn’t ask to be used as no one’s role model. I didn’t ask for children to like me. I have become more responsible with my personal life...that is going to be reflected in my music, because I will sound more responsible, but there are still atrocities happening in our world, and I feel my responsibility is to report them, and bring a message to the young ones in a way and a language that they are going to understand it.