Word on la calle

Pub date September 4, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Times are tough in the music biz. Not only are CD sales slumping, but radio stations are losing ad revenue to online ventures. One of the only genres or formats holding it down commercially is Latin music — a fact that falls well below the radar of your average gringo.

This shouldn’t be so surprising, considering that Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States and represent the fastest-growing segment of the population. Another factor fueling Latin music’s stateside success is the rise of reggaetón, the energetic blend of hip-hop, Jamaican dancehall, and Puerto Rican sounds that tops the Latin charts and even garners airplay on mainstream hip-hop and R&B stations. The so-called Latin boom that reggaetón triggered — far surpassing that of the late ’90s — inspired media behemoth Clear Channel to convert dozens of stations from English to Spanish in 2005 and roll out a new reggaetón-heavy format known as Hurban.

Although Hurban doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue — it’s an awkward combination of Hispanic and urban — radio execs are hoping it will be easy on the ears of US Latinos ages 35 and younger, who represent somewhere around $350 billion in purchasing power.

In the Bay Area, the Hurban phenomenon is represented by San Rafael radio station KWZ, 100.7 FM ("La Kalle"), owned by Hispanic media titan Univisión. Although the name suggests urban edginess, the station’s director of programming, Bismark Espinoza, explains, "It’s basically a top 40 station…. It’s a Spanish CHR [contemporary hit radio station], if you will." Earlier this summer, the station dumped its tagline "Reggaetón y más" as the gasolina-fueled genre hit a sales plateau. Pop artists such as Shakira, Maná, and teen sensation RBD get more airtime now. Reggaetón still dominates the playlist, however, and DJs lace their bilingual banter with Puerto Rican street slang like perreo, which can mean dirty dancing or doggy-style sex — either way, the Federal Communications Commission wouldn’t have a clue.

Bilingualism is the most innovative aspect of Hurban radio. In attempting to reach the ostensibly bicultural second- and third-generation young adults of Generation Ñ, Hurban stations hire on-air personalities who can code switch between Spanish and English with the fluidity of a United Nations translator — or a Spanglish-spitting street hustler. "If our audience talks like that, we just try to relate to them as much as we can," Espinoza says. "It’s just natural — the way they talk on the street, the way they talk to their families, the way they talk to their friends."

La Kalle has the language down. The music is another question. In June the station ranked number 24 in the region, with four other Latin stations ahead of it. In order to compete, the station’s programmers continually experiment with the format, trying to stay on top of the remarkably varied musical tastes of young Latinos. Espinoza contends that the latest craze is a hybrid of reggaetón and Dominican bachata balladry. Sometimes referred to as "crunkchata," the tropical style is favored by artists such as Aventura, Rakim y Ken-Y, and Toby Love, who top La Kalle’s request lists.

Tropical music? This is California, carnales. Given that the vast majority of Latinos in the Bay Area are of Mexican descent, where’s the Chicano rap? Where’s the Mexican banda? No doubt, Chicanos in San Francisco like their island music. They’ve been dancing to salsa con sabor since the days of Cesar’s Latin Palace in the Mission District. But the hottest thing right now among Mexican Americans is regional music from their homeland: ranchera, grupero, Tejano, norteño, and banda. All four of the top-ranked Bay Area Spanish-radio stations play some variation on a Mexican theme. For listeners between 18 and 34, the second most popular spot on the dial is KRZZ, 93.3 FM ("La Raza"), a regional Mexican station in San Francisco.

At its core, regional music is steeped in the cultural traditions of rural Mexico, in folkloric forms that have been around for more than a century. But Chicanos are coming up with their own cutting-edge hybrids of rap and Latin music. Los Angeles duo Akwid melds banda with breakbeats, and Jae-P pairs G-funk with norteño. These artists earn some airplay on Hurban stations but get very little love on Bay Area urban radio, despite the fact that they each sell hundreds of thousands of records.

La Kalle’s Espinoza insists that urban music with Afro-Caribbean roots is much hotter right now than "urban regional" sounds like Akwid’s. One notable exception to Mexican American obscurity is Chicano rapper Down, whose chart scorcher "Lean Like a Cholo" is currently in heavy rotation on La Kalle. Similar to urban-regional artists, Down wears his brown pride on his throwback jersey sleeve, but he does it by invoking Southern California barrios, not rural Mexican pueblos. His homeland is Nuevo LA, a city with the second-largest concentration of Mexicans in the world.

Given the size of the Mexican American population, you have to wonder how many Chicano artists are out there searching for a record deal or some airplay. "Some people blame the radio stations, some people blame the record companies," Espinoza wearily attests. "I don’t know. I listen to my kids — I play whatever is hot." But Mexican and Chicano music is hot right now. It just can’t seem to find a home on youth-oriented "urban rhythmic" radio formats like La Kalle, much less English-only Bay Area stations such as KMEL, 106.1 FM, and KYLD, 94.9 FM, whose audiences also lean heavily Hispanic.

Although Mexicans and Chicanos are currently relegated to the broadcast barrios of Spanish radio, it will be interesting to see how those borders open up once media companies realize the American mainstream is more brown and proud than ever.