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On a recent Saturday night at Jackson's on 3rd, the floor is a sea of bobbing bodies, all grooving to the dem bow beat. The beat belongs to reggaeton (pronounced reggae-tone), a Puerto Rican music hybrid that fuses Latin hip-hop with Caribbean music, and the genre -- which has been kicking around the urban underground in some form for about 20 years -- is percolating into pop culture. And judging by the numerous club nights, the independent radio exposure, and the local reggaeton artists, Phoenix could be the next reggaeton hotbed.
In some cases, reggaeton's already overshadowed other music genres. Jackson's on 3rd primarily featured hip-hop and house music before the club introduced the Valley's first reggaeton night, back in 2002. The draw for hip-hop and house was decent, but nothing like the wall-to-wall throng of a thousand people that now hits the club every weekend.
When the DJ at Jackson's plays the Daddy Yankee reggaeton hit "Gasolina," people are so packed onto the patio floor that they can barely move. But the song's steady, driving drum machine track drags everybody out to dance. A Latina in a red dress leads a white guy in glasses to a tiny, unclaimed corner of the dance floor. A group of black men wander out of the club's hip-hop room and jockey for position on the patio. Everybody else just dances where they stand. Even Ray Acosta, president of Wu-Tang Records' new subsidiary, Wu-Tang Latino, is here, checking out the scene.
Local scenesters say it's still too early to gauge the success or longevity of the Valley's reggaeton niche, but there's no doubt the genre's exploding here. In addition to Jackson's on 3rd, clubs from central Phoenix to Scottsdale, including Axis/Radius, Hard Rock Cafe, Sky Lounge, Club Tropicana, Club Dwntwn, and Next, are hosting weekly reggaeton nights, and two Valley radio stations -- Univision's KKMR 106.5 and the independently owned 95.1 Latino Vibe -- regularly play reggaeton. A local reggaeton record label, Crime Scene Records, has emerged as well.
While the term "reggaeton" was coined in the mid-'90s, it just started to surface as the hot new club music in the United States this year. In cities with a high population of Hispanics, like New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami, reggaeton fills the clubs and floods the airwaves. And the genre is crossing over nationally, as Top 40 artists like Fat Joe, and 50 Cent have appealed to audiences beyond the Hispanic demographic through collaborations with reggaeton stars like Tego Calderón, and Ivy Queen.
The burgeoning success of a musical style so laden with Latin flavor isn't surprising for Phoenix, given that Arizona has the fourth largest Hispanic population in the United States. What's surprising is how swift the Valley's been to get in on a national scene before it's completely mainstream.
Jose Rodiles, general manager of 95.1 Latino Vibe, says there were only seven stations in the country programming reggaeton formats when his station signed on in May. Now, according to Arbitron, there are 39 stations, 27 of which just launched within the past three months.
Local hip-hop station Power 92.3 even got in on the action about six months ago, when it began airing a syndicated two-hour reggaeton show hosted by NYC's renowned DJ Kazzanova on Saturday nights. "Phoenix is really into reggaeton right now," says Power 92.3 program director Bruce St. James. "We've gotten great feedback on the show, not just via phone and e-mail, but in terms of ratings. Those two hours are among our highest-rated hours."
Power 92.3 also has a presence at Jackson's on 3rd on Saturday nights, where the station's begun adding reggaeton songs to hip-hop sets. St. James says, "Reggaeton's like a party. You can bring a lot of happy energy to a dance floor."
The newfound popularity of the three-year-old reggaeton night at Jackson's on 3rd, combined with confidence in reggaeton as the next big dance genre and its escalating success on a national scale, is what prompted many local club owners to book reggaeton weeklies.
"I think it's gonna blow up huge," says Maryn Robinson, who handles booking for Hard Rock Cafe, where reggaeton is on the musical menu both Thursday and Saturday nights.
"Reggaeton is the hottest right now," says Ivan Padilla of Sky Lounge, who began booking reggaeton at the club on prime nights that used to be dominated by house music -- Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. "We see Phoenix as a great market for reggaeton."
The success of 95.1 Latino Vibe has also helped to build club owner confidence. "People opened up to this," says Rodiles. "We're booking club nights because club owners understand this is bringing new flavor to the market."
Not to mention dollar signs.
Phoenix is bringing new voices to the genre, too, as reggaeton artists from other parts of the country have started moving here to look for their big break, migrating from cities where the scene is either already saturated or virtually nonexistent. Some local artists, like Rafy J -- who made his debut at the Reggaeton in the Desert festival at Glendale Arena this past weekend -- came all the way from Puerto Rico.
Local reggaeton artist and Crime Scene Records founder Raul Vargas, who performs under the moniker Lonely, founded his label in 2001, but he says nobody seemed interested in what he was doing until reggaeton started storming the airwaves.
"When we started, nobody listened to us because reggaeton was so new," Vargas says. "When that song 'Gasolina' came out, it opened a lot of doors and people wanted to listen to us."
Vargas says he is now connecting people from across the country with his label. The label's "beatmaster," Tron Lopez, is from Albuquerque, and the newest artists on the CSR roster -- Puerto Rican musicians Chino and Guayako -- came to the Valley from New York City.
"New York is too crowded, and there are so many people doing reggaeton that it's hard for underground artists to get noticed," says Vargas. "There is more opportunity here, and that's why artists are starting to say, 'Let's come out and bring reggaeton to Arizona.'"
And while Phoenix's piece of the big reggaeton picture remains to be seen, supporters are painting it with a passion. "I think in the Valley, [a big scene] will happen eventually," says Andy Herrera, who spins at Jackson's on 3rd as DJ Big Latin. "If it can happen in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas -- it can happen in Phoenix, Arizona. Why wouldn't it happen here? The music's hot."