Spanglish FM

Santa Fe Reporter | July 7, 2005
Anyone who’s uttered a “yo’ mama” joke is familiar with “playing the dozens.” Rooted in the African-American oral tradition, playing the dozens entails the use of impromptu insults for entertainment’s sake. The crew of MEGA 104.1 FM’s “Big Benny en la Mañana” delights in such banter. During a recent broadcast of the show at the Clear Channel New Mexico headquarters in Albuquerque, Big Benny, his cohort Tomás the Pool Boy and special guest Dan Mayfield of the Albuquerque Journal repeatedly “snap” on each other.

When Big Benny directs the conversation to his newly shorn locks, Tomás responds, “That’s not a haircut. That’s an oil change.” All three men laugh heartily at the joke. None more so than Benny, who—true to his radio moniker—is big. “That was good,” he tells Tomás when the show breaks, “an oil change.”

After the break, the crew starts snapping again, but now they’ve turned their attention to celebrities. Discussing the release of Bewitched, Benny and Tomás wonder which is harder to believe—that Nicole Kidman is a witch or that a woman as attractive as she would be involved with Will Farrell. Bewitched’s romantic mismatch gives the DJs the perfect segue to discuss Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez. Why is J Lo with Anthony, they ask in laughter. That guy is “muy feo.”

While bantering, Benny and Tomás often slip into Spanish. More significantly, they spin records with Spanish lyrics and Latin beats to a primarily English-speaking audience. With the motto “Latino and Proud,” MEGA is what’s called an “hurban,” or Hispanic urban, radio station.

Since last November, Clear Channel has implemented four hurban stations nationwide. That includes MEGA 104.1 FM, which debuted in February with a range that extends to northern New Mexico. Formerly a rock station (and the temporary dial spot for Clear Channel’s “Radio Free Santa Fe” before that), 104.1 FM has increased more than five percentage points in ratings since its hurban makeover.

Although Hispanics were named the nation’s largest ethnic minority in 2003, the English-language music industry has largely ignored them. Until now.

The success of “hurban” stations and the rise of reggaetón—a mix of reggae, rap and Caribbean rhythms—are two indicators of the rising Latino influence in radio. At Clear Channel, such programming came about after the company conducted demographic studies and discovered there is an untapped market in young Latinos—who fall disproportionately into the under-35 age bracket. “We decided that there was a huge opportunity to reach English-primary Latinos with a format that would present music Latinos 18 to 34 prefer and in a bilingual presentation that closely mirrors their lifestyle and language use,” Alfredo Alonso, Clear Channel’s senior vice president of Hispanic radio programming, says.

Clear Channel’s move was apt, according to DJ Lian of the Southside Café at the Quality Inn in Santa Fe. “Hispanics want to assimilate with their MTVs and BETs,” Mexican-born Lian says. “It’s natural that radio would target this Latino market that isn’t being serviced. Before, urban radio was aimed at African-Americans.” Tanya Fisher, a 32-year-old MEGA listener of African-American and Panamanian heritage who also applauds the hurban format, says. “It’s not all Spanish,” she says. “It’s Spanglish. It’s a good mix because that’s how young people are living, with one foot in the English world and one foot in the Latin world.” But that’s not the only reason Fisher, who has lived in Santa Fe for four years, appreciates the station. When tuning into MEGA, “It feels like I’m back in an urban area,” the Washington, DC native says. “It seems like I turned on the radio in New York.” And that, say some native New Mexicans, is the problem.

DJ Automatic has reason to begrudge MEGA. He works for competitor KISS 97.3 FM (owned by Univision Radio). But as the DJ airs his concerns about 104.1 FM, it’s evident he’s more critical of the hurban format in general than MEGA in particular. Though Clear Channel’s hurban station in Miami is the company’s only such station near the Atlantic, Automatic feels the hurban format as a whole has been modeled on the tastes of East Coast Hispanics. “Radio is trying to capitalize on this trend by grouping Latins together,” Automatic says. “They’re saying the Latins in New York love it; the Latins here will love it too. But, down in the Southwest, we have no Puerto Ricans; it’s Mexican and Spanish culture.” Automatic, a native Santa Fean, isn’t Latino. However, he feels intimately acquainted with Hispanic culture as a result of growing up the lone “white boy in an all-Hispanic neighborhood.” In addition to being a KISS staffer, Automatic is a DJ for Chicanobuilt, an organization dedicated to the reclamation of Chicano culture via art, music, fashion and poetry. At the recently closed Paramount Night Club, Automatic and other Chicanobuilt DJs spun hip-hop for a mostly Chicano audience. But the artists featured in the crates of the Chicanobuilt crew were typically African-American. To reach Chicanos, the DJs did not spin Spanish hip-hop or spotlight Hispanic rappers as hurban radio does now.

In its efforts to reach local Hispanics, however, Big Benny, a Chicano from Carlsbad, says MEGA has slightly deviated from the general hurban format. For example, because Hispanics in this state primarily speak English, MEGA does not have the bilingual broadcasts featured elsewhere. But Clear Channel has been careful not to Anglicize MEGA. While DJs mostly speak English, they consistently pepper their talk with Spanish words and phrases. And when Spanish words are used, the DJs often translate for listeners who are unversed in the language. After urging listeners not to be cochinos, Tomás the Pool Boy says, “don’t be dirty.”

The music played on MEGA also has been selected to suit New Mexico Hispanics. “In the Southwest, we have MB Riders, Play-n-Skillz, Baby Bash and Lil’ Rob,” Benny says. “The East Coast has Daddy Yankee and Don Omar, but we can coexist.” On MEGA, a classic Snoop and Dre track, such as “Nuthin but a G Thang,” might be played and then followed by an R&B record such as Amerie’s “One Thing.” Only the “One Thing” version MEGA rocks has been embellished with Spanish rap vocals not featured on the original. After such a track, MEGA might spin a record with Latin rhythms performed exclusively in Spanish or that features one of the aforementioned Southwest rappers. “The kids love it,” Benny says. “They’re blaring it. It’s a lot more acceptable than playing [traditional music in Spanish].”

But format isn’t the only question hurban stations raise. Concerns also linger around ethnocentric slogans such as MEGA’s “Latino and proud.” The Latino label—used more commonly in states with a hodgepodge of Hispanics—doesn’t always register with New Mexico natives who pride themselves on tracing their lineage to Spain or feel more connected to local lands than Latin America. “In northern New Mexico I didn’t really hear it much when I was growing up,” DJ Timbalero of the now-defunct Bar B at the Paramount says of the Latino tag. “Now I hear it all the time. Almost anything in Spanish in America is becoming labeled Latino.” DJ Automatic questions Clear Channel’s motives for employing the term. Are Latinos who don’t listen to hurban radio not proud of their heritage, he wonders. Answers Alonso, “The words ‘Latino and proud’ are at the core of who we deliver to as an audience. Latinos are proud of their heritage. Their lifestyle and language use may be different than their parents, but they still remain loyal to their roots.” But what about hurban music fans rooted in other cultures—are they invited to tune in to MEGA? Yes, says MEGA Program Director Omar Romero. “We’re reaching the Anglo side, African-American people.” Benny jokes that MEGA especially welcomes listeners who report to Arbitron. Joke aside, neither Benny nor his cohort Tomás deny that working for a station customized for Latinos is exhilarating.

Separated by 11 years in age and 800 miles in road, Tomás and Benny developed their affinities for hurban radio differently. Tomás, 22, grew up along the beaches of Southern California. A skateboarder and surfer, he preferred the sounds of Led Zeppelin to the hip-hop, R&B and cumbia “hurban” music star and fellow San Diegan Frankie J favors. In fact, when Tomás entered the radio world three years ago, he did promotional work for rock stations. Even now, he helps out at MEGA’s metal sister station, 104.7 The Edge. But rock, according to Tomás, “is so repetitive. All the bands sound the same.” Joe Ray Sandoval, a Chicanobuilt DJ and promoter, agrees. “It’s just the same songs I was listening to as a teen—Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, AC/DC,” Sandoval says of one local rock station. Sandoval isn’t any more impressed with groups the industry has churned out recently. “When I heard the White Stripes for the first time I thought, ‘I can just listen to the Velvet Underground instead.’” Though rock has been declared dead more often than Elvis and Tupac have been declared living, Sandoval and Tomás may have a point about the music’s lackluster appeal, at least in cities with large Hispanic populations.

Since last fall, Clear Channel has converted various rock stations to “hurban” stations with marked results. Furthermore, with a few producers monopolizing the majority of mainstream rap, hip-hop also has fallen into danger of becoming homogeneous, Benny says. “Hip-hop is becoming about, ‘who produced your album,’” he says. “There’s a need to hear something different.” And hip-hop with a Latin twist offers the public a sound to which they’re unaccustomed. Thus, when Clear Channel asked him to make the switch from metal to hurban, Tomás didn’t hesitate. The only station of its kind at Clear Channel New Mexico, MEGA is an outcast of sorts, Tomás says, but the music it plays “is a breath of fresh air.” What’s more, he has found a niche for himself on “Big Benny en la Mañana.”

Having a show on an hurban radio station is a dream realized for Big Benny. The 33-year-old came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s. During this period, Latinos made an impact on American popular music via artists such as Gloria Estefan and Lisa Lisa, who is now enjoying a renaissance thanks to the Black Eyed Peas cover of her hit, “I Wonder If I Take You Home.” But Benny was always more of a hip-hop head than a pop aficionado. And role models in rap were few and far between. Though Cypress Hill rose to international prominence, other Latino rap artists, such as Mellow Man Ace, Kid Frost and A Lighter Shade of Brown, never achieved the acclaim of Cypress Hill. Overall, Latinos seemed destined to dwell in the hip-hop world’s periphery, a fate DJ Lian puts as follows: “We were welcomed to the party, but there was never really an avenue for us.”

That Latinos existed on hip-hop’s margins didn’t curb Benny’s dream of being a DJ. “When I was in eighth grade I’d make my own tapes and put them in the stereo,” he remembers. When radio DJs talked, little Benny would instruct his parents not to change the station. He wanted to listen and learn. Having been in the industry for a dozen years, today Big Benny is a radio veteran. And he’s never been more excited about the direction music is taking than now.

The American hip-hop world’s recognition and collaboration with Spanish language rappers is particularly exciting to Benny. Discussing the recent release of “Dónde Están Las Mamis”—a single by Zion y Lennox, featuring Pitbull, Miri Ben-Ari and Fatman Scoop—Benny’s lips turn upward, his voice rises and his eyes bulge as if he’s about to go into Tom Cruise-on-Oprah hysterics. Benny’s reaction is not unwarranted. The artists who perform the song represent a veritable gumbo of cultures. Rapper Pitbull is a Cubano from Miami. Spanish language hip-hop duo Zion y Lennox hail from Puerto Rico. Then there’s Fatman Scoop, an African-American “party” rapper with a large European following, who’s recently been featured on singles by Missy Elliott, Ciara and Mariah Carey. Rounding out the group is Miri Ben-Ari, an Israeli musician known as the hip-hop violinist due to the frenetic way she works the strings. The artists themselves seem to recognize their grouping is unprecedented. “Y’all never thought that Latins would take it this far,” is a lyric from the track. The collaboration is indeed a stretch from the crumbs DJ Lian recalls English-language rappers scattering Latinos’ way previously—an “ay mami” here, a “papi chulo” there.

A growing music movement has fueled the English-language music world’s interest in Spanish-language rappers. It’s called reggaetón. “It is catching on with people,” Romero says. “I would describe it as the beginning of an era.” The rapidity with which reggaetón has spread reminds Benny of another grassroots movement in music. “It’s about to happen the way hip-hop did,” he says. “We’re on the cusp of something really huge.”

Reggaetón (pronounced “reggae-tone”) shares three major similarities with hip-hop. The music is spreading throughout the country by virtue of its popularity among Caribbean youths on the East Coast. Reggaetón songs chronicle matters of interest to the young and disenfranchised. “You have people who rap about what’s going on in life, about partying,” Quinée Butler of the Web site says. And although the music has existed for years and is gaining momentum (two reggaetón songs recently topped the Billboard charts) naysayers proclaim it as a fad.

What some call a fad has roots three decades back. In the mid-1970s, Jamaican immigrants introduced reggae to Panamanians after settling in their country. Exposure to reggae resulted in Panamanians recording the music in Spanish. Over a decade later, when Puerto Ricans received reggae imports from Panama, they added influences from hip-hop, dancehall and drum ’n’ bass (as well as other forms of electronica) to create reggaetón. By the 1990s, reggaetón thrived in Puerto Rico, not to mention the Dominican Republic and Cuba. When Caribbeans “visited relatives in New York or Florida on the East Coast, they took the music with them, and reggaetón spread word-of-mouth,” Butler says.

In the past year, however, reggaetón has spread to virtually every region of the US. Butler herself is an example. She’s a Nebraskan and first heard the music in that state. Her Web site is owned by a Canadian company.

The reggaetón wave is the phenomenon that should really be dubbed the “Latin explosion,” according to Tomás. The so-called Latin explosion of 1999 “had Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias,” he says. “It was all pop.” But reggaetón, with its “fast-ass [Latin] beats,” has more to offer. And Tomás is certainly not the only one who holds the music in high esteem. In Santa Fe, reggaetón is spun at several clubs, including Garrett’s Desert Inn, Club Alegria and the Southside Café.

Were it not for the Southside Café’s art deco stylings (blue geometric patterns on the wall, an oblong red fireplace) and the couple of patrons donning cowboy hats, one might forget the club is in the City Different. Women with flowing raven manes wear pastels, white pants and miniskirts that would look more appropriate on Miami’s South Beach than, say, Cerrillos Road. All the tracks DJ Lian plays are in Spanish, including techno and the bubblegum pop upon which Fisher and Tomás frown. But when Lian makes these selections, the night has just begun. No one is ready to dance. Guys in distressed denim huddle in corners. Couples cuddle at the tables lining the club. But then Lian plays Shakira’s “La Tortura,” and even the timid cannot help but move to the voice of the Colombian and Lebanese chanteuse.

Shakira is one of a series of artists, including Usher, 50 Cent and Alicia Keys, to come out with a reggaetón remix of a track. And after “La Tortura,” Lian spins “Yo Quiero Bailar” by Ivy Queen, the sole female reggaetón star. Ivy Queen has a throaty voice as commanding as it is sexual. Because her voice is the focus of the song, a vulnerability is present on “Yo Quiero Bailar” not found on reggaetón cuts by male artists. The naked quality of the track inspires Southside Café patrons to gyrate as vapor shoots from the ceiling. But hips don’t swivel for long. The next tune Lian plays is not as sensual as “Yo Quiero Bailar,” nor is it in the reggaetón genre.

Area DJs such as Automatic say they cannot play an entire block of reggaetón. “If I play more than three reggaetón songs it gets tired to them,” he says. According to Timbalero, all reggaetón songs have virtually the same beat. “I would say your typical reggaetón song has the snare drum and the upbeat on the two and four. [The music] will subside certainly if it doesn’t get more

creative and expand.” While Butler agrees to an extent with Timbalero, she says, “Also, reggaetón has evolved. They have added salsa and merengue and hip-hop.”

Automatic does not believe the music has staying power. While reggaetón artists touch on universal themes such as love and injustice, Automatic says the lyrics such artists write don’t much matter. Reggaetón “is another language,” he says. “I don’t think reggaetón will catch on outside of the Spanish-speaking market. It just isn’t going to work.”

Sandoval, however, has the exact opposite opinion. “The Spanish language—that’s the appeal of reggaetón,” he says. “It’s a lot of people’s native tongue.” Reggaetón also appeals to people who did not grow up with Spanish, according to Timbalero. “It’s really catchy, groovy music,” he says. “I know plenty of people who have a fairly minimal understanding of reggaetón lyrically but still listen to it.” Fisher adds that there’s a voyeur factor for non-Latinos. “Look at salsa and merengue,” she says. “How many non-Spanish speakers dance that because they’re intrigued? It is about the rhythm. They have a way to tap into the culture because music is universal.”

Moreover, Butler says, the music’s staying power is evidenced by its history. “If it was a fad, it wouldn’t have survived in the underground for so long,” she says. “It’s been around for 14 years. It’s already established. It will continue to thrive well into the future.” She also thinks it’s important to examine how invested the English language music world is in reggaetón. “You have Bad Boy Latino jumping on the bandwagon, Wu Tang Latino,” she says. “People have put a lot of money into this. The only reason some of those record companies came up with Latino labels is because of reggaetón.”

Even if mainstream America fails to embrace the music, Benny and Fisher believe the burgeoning numbers of Latinos in the US will ensure reggaetón’s success. “There are more Latin people in the US who are so engrossed in the Latin culture; you can’t continue to not have that overlap,” Fisher says. Adds Benny, “Whether some people like it or not, Latinos aren’t going away. We’re growing. We’re the majority. Our piece of the pie is going to get bigger.” SFR

Santa Fe Reporter

When it was founded in 1974, the Santa Fe Reporter's mission was to create lively competition for a stodgy and timid daily press. That tradition continues today. The Reporter investigates beneath the surface, presenting in-depth stories often overlooked or uninvestigated...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 132 E. Marcy St., Santa Fe, NM 87501
  • Phone: (505) 988-5541