The assignment? Go to Puerto Rico and follow reggaetón's royalty for the latest edition of the "My Block" series.
I looked at it not only as an opportunity to gain valuable field experience, but also a chance to bring greater exposure to a genre I have been preaching about here at MTV News since 2003. The role I played in Puerto Rico was that of shooter/production assistant and my team's translator — and it definitely led me into some interesting situations.
We got to work immediately after arriving on the island, and I soon found myself in a neighborhood where homes were painted the color of tropical fruit and seemed safe, but there was plenty of evidence of mean streets: Half a block from the sherbet-colored home where we were shooting were the charred remains of an abandoned car. The house belongs to the mother of Luny (a.k.a. Francisco Saldana), who — with his partner Tunes (a.k.a. Victor Cabrera) — is Luny Tunes, the reigning hitmakers of reggaetón. Incredibly, they've crafted hit after hit in a tiny studio they built themselves in back of the house.
Due to space limitations in the small studio, a couple of us on the team waited outside while the interview was conducted. But once it was over, Luny's mother treated us to a feast fit for a king: Rice, beans, chicken, plantain and even glazed donuts were included in epic meal. Even though I'm not Puerto Rican (I'm Dominican), I felt perfectly at home in this Latin/ Caribbean family setting.
The next day, when Don Omar and his posse arrived at the popular beach destination Paseo Piñones for our shoot, it was like a scene from DMX's "Ruff Ryders Anthem" video: I was surrounded by a huge platoon of buzzing motorcycles and ATVs. Probably thanks to the ruckus, word spread quickly that Don Omar was in the area, and before long we were surrounded by such a large crowd that cars couldn't get through. I was smack in the middle of this madness when I was very surprised to hear my head producer ask me to clear the way. I shouted in Spanish, "Por favor dejen que los carros pasen" ("Please let the cars pass"). I was expecting to be ignored, but before I could blink the crowd parted like the Red Sea.
The following day, we interviewed the man most responsible for exposing reggaetón to the U.S.: Daddy Yankee. Despite his iconic status on the island, he was chill and very down to earth.
|Take it to the streets with Voltio, Tego Calderón, Calle 13 and Sway in these hot clips. |
After leaving the crowded location with a high-drama exit that would make James Bond proud, we headed to one of Yankee's old 'hoods — and wherever this man goes, a large crowd soon follows. This time, along with school kids, there were senior citizens, men on bikes and even a man trying to sell Yankee a baby alligator! We'd barely finished shooting before heading off to yet another location, following Yankee in his Bentley to Hiram Bithorn Stadium, where the World Baseball Classic was taking place. Puerto Rican pride was in full swing: When Yankee threw the game's honorary first pitch, the crowd roared louder than any I've ever heard.
As if Daddy Yankee weren't exciting enough, the fourth day brought our interview with Tego Calderón — the man whose music first got me into reggaetón. Yes, I'll admit it: I've been exposed to the music since 1994, but I hated it until I heard his El Abayarde and his unofficial second album, El Enemy De Los Guasibiri. I confess I was a bit nervous to meet him, but he quickly calmed my nerves: Like Yankee, he was just one of the guys, mingling with the crowd, signing autographs and never once complaining.
The first leg of the interview took place at Tego's favorite food stand in Loiza. It wasn't the most sanitary cooking operation — the cooks smoked cigarettes over the meals they were preparing — but it was so delicious. While we ate, a few guys from Tego's entourage began playing congas and the place livelied up in a hurry: Sway was dancing with members of the crowd that had gathered.
Later in the day, we headed with Tego's crew for a shoot in one of the most dangerous 'hoods in PR, Tocones. Due to an ongoing drug-related gang war, the area is so dicey that we'd been warned not to enter the location without getting a " 'hood pass" — which we finally obtained, via various friends and acquaintances of friends, on the condition that only one of our cars enter the neighborhood. (Word had it that our cars would have been shot at if we'd entered without clearance.) I wasn't in that car, and the rest of us headed to a more neutral location nearby where, after just a few minutes, the congas came out in full force and another block party was soon under way.
Day five was my last full day on the island, and with two interviews to shoot, I knew it would be a long one. The first, a lighthearted talk with the legendary reggaetón DJ Nelson, went off without a hitch — in stark contrast to what was awaiting us later in the day.
The second shoot took us to an area called La Perla with the group Calle 13. This area is regarded as one of the poorest, most drug-infested 'hoods on the island, and again we found ourselves making calls to get our 'hood pass — there is only one roadway leading into and out of the area.
Although La Perla is just a five-minute drive down the coast from the tourist-heavy El Morro, the people live in extremely harsh conditions: Many buildings in the area are either abandoned or seemingly were never finished, and the aroma of marijuana is everywhere. The members of Calle 13 were completely unfazed — one who calls himself Residente, fittingly enough, said his grandmother used to live there — chatting easily during the interview. Despite the neighborhood's rough conditions, it has a remarkable beauty that's hard to put into words. Like so much else in La Isla del Encanto, you have to see it for yourself.