Music
8:58 pm
Sat April 5, 2014

Calle 13, On Being Loved And Hated In Latin America

Originally published on Sat April 5, 2014 10:27 am

The Puerto Rican rap duo Calle 13 is one of the most beloved and hated bands in the Spanish-speaking world. Its members are politically outspoken and opinionated. They've also undergone an unusual evolution: They went from making raunchy club hits to becoming Latin America's premier political troubadours.

When the group first surfaced in the mid-2000s, Calle 13's lyrics earned it comparisons to rapper Eminem. Frontman Rene Perez Joglar was foul-mouthed and self-deprecating, but undeniably talented. He was as funny as he was gross. Armed with the stellar beats and hooks created by Joglar's stepbrother Eduardo Cabra, the duo elbowed its way through a crowd of gold-chain-wearing Puerto Rican reggaeton stars, and became a club hit.

"Who cares if you like Green Day? Who cares if you like Coldplay?" Joglar taunted Latinas in one of Calle 13's most famous lines. "I swear that by law, all Puerto Rican women know karate, they cook with Salsa De Tomate, and dip the rice in avocado, so they can harvest nalgas de 14 kilates — 14 karat butts."

Nuria Net is the managing editor at Fusion, and she says that even at the time, she was in no way offended by Calle 13's lyrics. "Calle 13 rapped about the female body, the nalgas, the curves, the bodily fluids ... It was so much more graphic, and poetic, but even raunchier than reggaeton and urban music 10 years ago."

Beyond its concern for derrieres, from the very beginning the band also had a political streak. One of its first songs is called "Querido FBI," or "Dear FBI," and it was an enraged protest against the FBI's killing of Puerto Rican nationalist Filiberto Ojeda Rios. "They've pissed on our flag, he bled to death, my people, I tell you he bled to death," Joglar rapped.

Back in those days, Joglar says he "didn't care about anything. I had no commitments, I was relaxed." He might have been careless, but he had a huge impact on Latin music. Music blogger Juan Data says that Calle 13 broke a lot of barriers, adding, "It was the first time there was intelligent music in Latin America."

Musically, the band also evolved unexpectedly. While its counterparts kept riding on that thumping mix of Spanish rap and Caribbean beats known as reggaeton, Calle 13 experimented with sounds from across the Latin world, collaborating with rock bands such as Mexico's Cafe Tacvba, or Panamanian salsa legend Ruben Blades.

Calle 13 slowly cemented its status as a socially conscious band, but on the new Multi_Viral, its members reflect on the heavy weight of being outspoken in an increasingly polarized Latin America. The band is all grown up, but still finding out that being serious can get you in more trouble than being a raunchy joker. Joglar says he's been attacked by the right and the left alike, and even dealt with death threats. "Now I have so many commitments," he says. "If I say one thing, it's wrong. If I say the other, it's also wrong. It's like this game of Tetris, like a puzzle that gets harder to solve every day.

It's something Joglar addresses frankly in a new song, "Adentro." The intimacy and vulnerability of the lyrics represents a different approach for an artist who once got banned from playing in his native San Juan after publicly insulting the governor of Puerto Rico. Joglar says he's always been thoughtful about his message. But over the years, he's gotten furious reactions from both leftists and conservatives across the continent, and he says he's been rethinking his strategy for delivering his message.

He seems to come closer to an answer toward the end of Multi_Viral: "Asi Son Las Ideas" is a cinematic tune that's danceable but intelligent, about the viral nature and the power of ideas. It's Calle 13 101.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Calle 13, the Puerto Rican rap duo, first started recording in 2004. And in the decades since, they have become one of the most beloved bands in the Spanish-speaking world. They hold the record for most Latin Grammy wins - 19. They're also one of the most controversial Latin bands. They are politically outspoken and vocal supporters of the Puerto Rican independence movement. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports on how the duo went from making raunchy club hits to becoming Latin-American political to the troubadours.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: When they first stepped on the scene in the mid-2000's, Calle 13 got plenty of comparisons to another rapper - Eminem. Frontman Rene Perez Joglar was as funny as he was raunchy, armed with the beats and hooks created by his step-brother Eduardo Cabra, the duo elbowed their way through a crowd of gold-chain-clad Puerto Rican reggaeton stars and became a club hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATREVETE TE, TE")

GARSD: Who cares if you like Green Day? Who cares if you like Coldplay? Perez Joglar taunted Latinas in one of their most famous lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATREVETE TE, TE")

GARSD: I swear that by law, all Puerto Rican women know karate, they cook with Salsa De Tomate and dip rice in avocado - aguacate - so they can harvest nalgas de 14 kilates - 14 karat butts.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

NURIA NET: It was playful. It was very imaginative. I wasn't offended at all.

GARSD: Nuria Net is the managing editor at the TV and digital network Fusion. And she says, while most Puerto Rican hip-hop artists were riding the thumping mix of Spanish-language rap and Caribbean beats known as reggaeton, talking about sex and drugs and violence...

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

NET: Calle 13 rapped about the female body, nalgas, you know, the curves, bodily fluids. You know, is just so much more graphic and poetic, but even raunchier than reggaeton and urban music 10 years ago.

GARSD: Beyond their concern for derrieres made of highly valuable metal, the duo had a political streak from the very beginning. One of their first songs "Querido FBI" or "Dear FBI" was an enraged protest following Puerto Rican nationalist Filiberto Ojeda Rios's death in a shootout with the FBI.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUERIDO FBI")

GARSD: They've urinated on our flat. He bled to death, my people, I tell you that he bled to death, rapped Joglar furiously. He says back in those days, he just said what was on his mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

RENE PEREZ JOGLAR: (Through translator) Back in those days, I didn't care about anything. I had no commitments. I was relaxed.

GARSD: He may have been careless, but he had a huge impact on Latin music says blogger Juan Data.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

JUAN DATA: Calle 13 helped break a lot of barriers, introduce intelligent rhymes to the mainstream of Latin America, something that Latin-American mainstream radio or music in general never experienced before.

GARSD: Calle 13 experimented with sounds from across the Latin world, collaborating with rock bands like Mexico's Cafe Tacvba or Panamanian salsa legend Ruben Blades.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA PERLA")

GARSD: Calle 13 slowly cemented its status as Latin music's socially conscious band. But on their newest album, "Multi_Viral," the duo reflects on the heavy weight of being outspoken in an increasingly polarized Latin America. They're finding out that being serious can get you in as much or more trouble as being the raunchy jokester. Perez Joglar says he has gotten his fair share of attacks and even some death threats.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

JOGLAR: (Through translator) If I say one thing, it's wrong. If I say the other, it's also wrong. It's like this game of Tetris, like a puzzle that gets harder to solve every day.

GARSD: It's something he talks about frankly in the new song "Adentro."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADENTRO")

GARSD: He raps, some call me a communist, others a demigod the ultra-right hates me and so does the left.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADENTRO")

GARSD: Perez Joglar insists he's always been thoughtful about his message, but he's rethinking his strategy for delivering it.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

JOGLAR: (Through translator) I have always been thoughtful about my message. There's things I will say again, but in terms of a strategy, to reach people instead of scare them away, perhaps there are things I could do differently.

GARSD: By the end of the record, the band seems to have figured out how to deliver that message.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASI SON LAS IDEAS")

GARSD: The song "Asi Son Las Ideas" is a cinematic tune about the power of ideas, but it's also danceable and catchy. It's Calle 13, 101. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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