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Cheat Sheet

Urban Tropical 101

by Rachel Devitt

Urban Tropical 101


In its original heyday, salsa -- that catchall name for the boiling mélange of soul, funk, jazz, son and a host of other Afro-Latin and folk rhythms and dances that began heating up in N.Y.C. and elsewhere in the mid-20th century -- was an edgy, urban scene that had musicians, dancers and fans setting the city and world on fire. Merengue, on the other hand, began as a source of cultural pride and sometimes resistance, possibly originally for slaves and later for Dominican immigrants building a life and community in the U.S. Over the decades, however, tropical music has settled onto a decidedly mainstream and, more specifically, pop turf, with clean, crisp lines and hooks innocuous enough for an after-church party with your abuela.

But in recent years, a bunch of young upstarts in merengue, salsa and other Caribbean-oriented genres have taken stabs at reconnecting tropical music with its edgier, more urban, and less, well, corny iterations. The young guns of salsa -- hot young things like NG2 and N'Klabe, for instance -- often ground their bright horns and swaying son in booming hip-hop beats, R&B-edged hooks and smooth, swaggering rhymes. Meanwhile, cool kids like Rita Indiana pair their merengue with hipster-fried electro-pop, indie rap and a punk fierceness.

These whippersnappers aren't the first to try to "cool" off tropical music, of course. They were preceded by several similar, earlier movements: There was the "merenhouse" mix of merengue and electronic dance music in the '90s, for one, and the brief but fascinating "salsaton" (salsa + reggaeton) trend of the mid-2000s. So our Cheat Sheet for next-gen salsa and merengue covers various moments and movements in tropical music renovation. For example, dig into cuts by cool kids like Ilegales and Proyecto Uno (merengue-pop outfits that began dabbling in hip-hop, house and dancehall with great success), DJ innovators Nuyorican Soul (aka Masters at Work) and urban-edged salsa crew DLG. You'll also find examples from the other side of the spectrum, like the Los Cocorocos comp, featuring reggaeton stars like Don Omar teaming up with Latin dance legends like El Gran Combo and Tito Nieves.

Finally, check out the movement's more peripheral participants, like salsa star India (who served as key vocalist for Lil Louis Vega's sonic experiments) and pan-Latin crew Ozomatli (who've tried their hand at a bit of everything, including hip-hop-tinged tropical music). Whatever you're listening to? You're going to want to dance.

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