By Ed Morales
Beefs and clap-back answer songs are a tradition in hip-hop, from Biggie versus Tupac and Jay Z versus Nas all the way back to Roxanne Shanté versus The Real Roxanne. But the recent clash between Puerto Rican MCs Residente (a.k.a. René Pérez Joglar), formerly of the Grammy-winning alt-urban group Calle 13, and Tempo (a.k.a. David Sánchez Badillo), who returned to the game in 2014 after serving 11 years in prison, puts a unique spin on the tradition. Known as a tiraera, which can translate as “throw-down” or “shoot-out,” this battle centers not only on personal putdowns, but also Caribbean politics and the artistic value of pop-reggaetón itself.
The current tiraera began at the Billboard Latin Music Conference in April, when, during a sit-down with Billboard Latin editor Leila Cobo, Residente remarked that the top five records on the Latin Billboard charts were “identical, all using major chords.” He added, “If you give me 30 minutes, I’ll make a hit for you right now. It’s very easy and shows a lack of respect to artists who are making real music.”
Residente, who went on hiatus from Calle 13 in 2015, has had amicable ties with mainstream reggaetón artists — but he has faced some criticism, including from rapper Ivy Queen, who felt that it was unfair for his band to win the Latin Grammy in 2007 over so-called "real" reggaetón artists like herself. As an artist, he is generally perceived as closer to “alternative” or “world” music, pursuing collaborators like salsa legend Rubén Blades, Mars Volta guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López, and even Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Meanwhile, the reggaetón genre has shifted over time from its hardcore urban roots to pop-ish dance music, a move seen in the careers of Wisin & Yandel and Don Omar, who have worked with mainstream stars like Enrique Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Jennifer Lopez.
The runaway crossover success this summer of “Despacito,” by reggaetón star Daddy Yankee and pop singer Luis Fonsi (with a Spanish-language-challenged assist from Justin Bieber), represents the ultimate triumph for this softer version of reggaetón, pioneered by Colombian MC J Balvin. Perhaps not ironically, the location shoot for the video itself casts a Hollywood sheen on La Perla, the hardscrabble San Juan neighborhood previously immortalized in a Calle 13 song with Rubén Blades released in 2009.
Seizing on Residente’s dis, Tempo — an OG who was part of the “playero” scene of the late 1990s in Puerto Rico that immediately preceded the reggaetón explosion — responded quickly with “Calle Sin Salida” (“Dead-End Street”). The trap-ishly languid track backs an attack that excerpts Residente’s diatribe at the Billboard Latin conference, then moves on to the usual questioning of his masculinity, invoking his now-ended relationship with former Miss Universe Denise Quiñones. From there, the battleground shifts to the evolving dramas of Puerto Rico’s unstable economic situation, what constitutes an “authentic” Puerto Rican, and whether artistic and musical education makes you an elitist out of touch with the streets.
“Hypocrite! / I thought you were from here … Are you nationalist, for independence, American?” Tempo criticizes Residente for “parachuting in” to a May 1 protest against austerity measures being imposed on the University of Puerto Rico, pointing out that he lives mostly in the States and Buenos Aires, Argentina (the hometown of his wife, actress Soledad Fandiño). He takes shots at Residente’s “intellect, studies, and doctorates,” claiming he has no identity of his own.
Perhaps taken by surprise, Residente stewed for a couple of days, releasing some DIY videos on YouTube threatening revenge. Finally, he released “Mis Disculpas” (“My Apologies”), a tour de force with beats from Trooko, an L.A. producer whose previous work with Residente appeared on 2016's The Hamilton Mixtape. Residente's relentless rhyming sprees show a superior, crafted precision as he elaborates on his political commitment (support for just-released political prisoner Oscar López Rivera) and his island MC friends and role models (Vico C, Tego Calderón), and throws in references to Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso, and Puerto Rican poet Juan Antonio Corretjer.
Residente seems to be hell-bent on defending education, whether it’s about music (he’s worked frequently with live bands) or attention to rhyming structure (he climaxes the song with a hyperkinetic rhythmic shift at the end). His idea of authenticity is to idolize “consonant rhymes,” insisting that “social media does not determine the caliber of a person.”
In his subsequent throw-down, “El Bruto” (“The Stupid One”), Tempo tries to attack Residente politically by accusing him of supporting Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, whose regime faces daily protests; casting doubt on Oscar López Rivera’s heroism; and calling Residente an “arrogant two-faced Communist.” (For his part, Residente answered that “I am not a communist, socialist, or capitalist. I believe in something new.”)
Finally, this past Sunday, Residente and Trooko released “La Cátedra” (“The Lecture”), in which he claims to have broken the Guinness world record for longest rap song, coming in at 1,900 words and usurping British rapper Harry Shotta’s “Animal.” While this is impressive, it's worth adding the caveat that in general, the Spanish language uses more words to say the same thing as a comparable passage in English. Put any Spanish paragraph into Google Translate and you’ll see this effect.
In “La Cátedra,” Residente astonishes by not resorting to a roughneck pissing contest (aside from claiming that Tempo owes $100,000 to former MLB outfielder Angel Pagán). Instead, he embarks on a long discourse on Latin American politics and culture, even more intricate wordplay, and, perhaps most damning, points out the irony that Tempo does not know what he means by a musical time signature.
In terms of sheer prodigious talent and execution, Residente versus Tempo hardly seems like a fair fight. But it does bring up some nagging and still unsolved contradictions. Because of Puerto Rico’s economic problems and cultural isolation, many artists, professionals, academics, and, yes, workers are forced to the mainland to find a better life and have their message heard. Yet this can come at the cost of losing some small part of a claim to their national identity, and all the coded “being down” props that go with it.
Does music have to have intellectual integrity to be fun and popular? Why are people often drawn to the simplest beats and rhymes? Residente may have been talking down to Tempo, but the pop-reggaetón genre is reaching more people, for better or worse. In an ironic way, both artists may have managed to lift their careers with this skirmish, and in the process, engaged in a dialogue that might in the long run make the music better.