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Before the music was called reggaeton, it was known as "Spanish Reggae" or Reggae en Español. Traveling along mass media circuits as well as diasporic networks, Jamaican popular music spread around the world in the 1960s and '70s. Reggae arrived in places like Panama and Puerto Rico as quickly as it reached more traditional centers of migration, such as London and New York. Panama was the first country to introduce Reggae en Español. The music eventually made its way through Central America and continued evolving and coming to prominence in Puerto Rico where it became reggaeton. Reggaeton started as an adaptation of Jamaican reggae to the Spanish language and overall culture in Panama and Puerto Rico.
Since the early 20th century when Jamaican laborers were used to help build the Panama Canal. Afro-Panamanians had been performing and recording Spanish-language reggae since the 1970s. Artists such as El General, Chichoman, Nando Boom, Renato, and Black Apache are considered the first Spanish reggae DJs from Panama. El General is often considered the father of reggae en español, blending Jamaican reggae into a Latinised version. It was common practice to translate the lyrics of Jamaican reggae song into Spanish and sing them over the original melodies, a form termed "Spanish reggae" or Reggae en Español. Meanwhile, during the 1980s the Puerto Rican rapper and reggaeton artist Vico C released Spanish-language hip hop and reggaeton records in his native island. His production of cassettes throughout the 1980s, mixing reggae and hip hop, also helped spread the early reggaeton sound, and he is widely credited with this achievement.8] The widespread movement of "Spanish reggae" in the Latin-American communities of the Caribbean and the urban centres of the United States help increase its popularity.
Meanwhile hip hop and reggae in Puerto Rico were on the rise due to the increased popularity of Jamaican ragga imports. Towards the middle of the decade, Puerto Ricans were producing their own "riddims" with clear influences from hip hop and other styles. These are considered the first proper reggaeton tracks, initially called "under", short for "underground". As Caribbean and African-American music gained this momentum in Puerto Rico, Reggae Rap in Spanish marked the beginning of Boricua underground rap and served as an expression for millions of young people. This created an entire invisible, yet prominent underground youth culture that sought to express themselves through Reggae Rap in Spanish. As a youth culture that exists on the fringes of society and criminal illegality, it has often been publicly criticized. The Puerto Rican police launched a raid against underground rap by confiscating cassette tapes from music stores under Penal codes of obscenity, issuing fines, and the demoralization of rappers through radio, television, and newspaper media.
The term "underground", coming out of hip hop discourse, associates underground artists as asserting a self-identification that rejects the commercialization of music. In San Juan "underground", however, it was not just about authenticity or ideology, but was literally about position in the market. "Underground" music was circulated via informal networks, copied from cassette to cassette, until the mid 1990s. DJ Playero was one of the most famous producers of "underground" at the time, releasing several underground cassettes that featured early performances of some soon-to-be-famous artists like Daddy Yankee. The basis for reggaeton was laid in Puerto Rico at this time, with the melding of Spanish reggae, with influences from fast dancehalls, hip hop and various other Latin American musical genres.
The genre morphed through the years, at various points being termed "Melaza", "música underground", and "Dem Bow". This last name originated from reggaeton's distinguishing rhythmic feature: the Dem Bow (alternately spelled dembow) beat, relying heavily on the snare drum, which is used in nearly all reggaeton songs today. This beat, or riddim, was produced under the direction of Jamaican record producer Bobby "Digital" Dixon and performed by Steely & Clevie. It first became popular in the song "Dem Bow" (They Bow) performed by Jamaican dancehall artist Shabba Ranks in 1991. The song and beat achieved greater popularity among Spanish-speaking Latin Americans when Panamanian artist El General released the song "Son Bow" in 1991, a Spanish language cover of "Dem Bow" using the same musical track. It should be pointed out that neither Shabba or El General sang reggaeton as neither the genre nor its title were as yet formed. Additionally "Dem Bow" was just a single song in Shabba's catalog, with Ranks not singing another significant song using the "Dem Bow" beat. However, the influence of the original Bobby Digital beat is undeniable, and modern reggaeton often still reflects the original instrumentation, as well as the original rhythmic structure.