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Latin Grammy winners Calle 13 on hip-hop swag and Julian Assange

Calle 13 talks about pairing up with Julian Assange & Tom Morello, plus the bus concert it gave in Peru

When the Puerto Rican duo Calle 13 hit the international airwaves in 2005 with its eponymous debut album, it quickly smashed early perceptions that it was just another reggaeton act.

Yes, the lyrics were bawdy, but they were also funny, smart and poetic, with clever wordplay and references to everything from stuck-up Latin-pop girls to the dark powers of Darth Vader. Plus, there were clarinet riffs and 1970s funk beats. Calle 13 was reggaeton as a parody of reggaeton, with songs that took on the relentlessly macho nature of the form in songs like "Vamo Animal."

Fast-forward nearly 10 years, and the band — composed of members René Pérez Joglar (a.k.a. Residente) and Eduardo Cabra Martínez (Visitante) — remains a musical force to be reckoned with. The pair released its fifth album, "Multi_Viral," earlier this year to generally ecstatic reviews. Rolling Stone included the album on its list of the "45 Best Albums of 2014 So Far", along with compilations by Jack White, Skrillex and Beck.

On Thursday, Calle 13 took the stage at the Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas, where they brought the crowd to its feet with the anthem "El Aguante" ("The Endurance"). It was a historic night for the band, which was nominated in nine Latin Grammy categories and took home two trophies, for urban music album and for alternative song. These wins put Calle 13's Latin Grammy haul at a record-setting 21 awards, making the band the top winners in the 15-year history of the Latin Grammys. (This is in addition to the two regular Grammy Awards the band has already has to its credit.)

Over the years, Calle 13 has moved away from reggaeton, embracing hip-hop and rock, as well as Irish jigs and Latin American Nueva canción (New Song), a folk style known for its socially conscious lyrics. In fact, the band is quite political, supporting environmental efforts in Ecuador and independence for its native Puerto Rico.

The pair took time out of a busy touring schedule to chat in Spanish via telephone about their latest album, their myriad collaborations — from Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine to Julian Assange of Wikileaks — as well as an improvised concert the pair recently held in Peru.

"Multi_Viral" has some pretty remarkable collaborations: guitar by Morello and spoken-word elements by Assange, actor John Leguizamo and Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, who wrote the seminal "The Open Veins of Latin America." How did these come about?

Cabra: We wanted to collaborate with people who weren't really related to music. We wanted to expand the idea of the collaboration. [René] went to the Ecuadorean embassy [in London] and met with Assange, and that meeting ended up being streamed. People participated. That was so cool. There was a real connection there with him.

Pérez: [With Galeano], I met him in New York. We spoke to him for a whole afternoon and shared many stories. Galeano was someone I had read and really enjoyed. He's not pretentious. He makes himself understood. He places words well within the context of a narrative. He has a beautiful voice. The piece he reads is from "Ventanas" [a collection of his poetry], which went really well with "Respira el momento" ["Breathe the Moment In," the first song on "Multi_Viral"].

The album also has a song with Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez, a very sweet tune titled "Ojos Color Sol" ("Eyes the Color of the Sun"). How did you manage to arrange a session with Rodriguez given that he still lives in Cuba?

Cabra: [Rodriguez] did an interview in Mexico and he mentioned something we did that was positive. So we looked for a contact. We got an email. It was a whole process. It was incredible. Our family had always played different types of music, including Silvio, growing up. In Puerto Rico, they love him. So to be able to collaborate...

Pérez: He was hard to get a hold of. But we did. And he was super cool.

Cabra: It was definitely complicated [because of the U.S. embargo]. But because the collaboration was a cultural thing, there were no limits. When it's cultural, you can do it.

Eduardo, you do much of the musical work on Calle 13 albums. This latest one features a variety of songs and musical styles. How do you go about putting these together?

Cabra: The first songs, I don't think about very much. I just try to feel what's going on. Then, when I'm on the fifth or sixth song, that's when I really start to get the direction of the album. That's when I start to balance. For example, on the latest disc, the first five songs were on the softer side, such as the song we did with Silvio. So we had to even that out with songs that could give the album a bit more force. It's an eclectic album, so it really comes down to balance.

When the band got its start roughly 10 years ago, you were identified with the reggaeton movement. But since then, your sound has evolved to include rock, hip-hop, folk and more. Do you ever think about going back to your reggaeton roots?

Cabra: They put us in the reggaeton category [at first] because of some of the singles we released. They were within that genre. But in the end, it was not the only thing we did. We grabbed that rhythm, but we were incorporating acoustic instrumentation. We've picked up Irish music and Cuban music. And we incorporate it without overthinking it. What was clear is that we were different. And we never got to the point where we repeated a sound recipe. You can put all of Calle 13's music on a table and each has its own unique recipe. Will I pick the genre up again? It all depends on how I feel. Any album is about the moment. It's a portrait of the moment in which you made the record.

The song "Adentro" ("Inside") is a pointed criticism of the violence and consumerism present in so much hip-hop. What's the reception been?

Pérez: The song is trying to take on the issue of swag. Who is more gangster? Who has more chains? It's all of the exagerration and show-off you see in the music videos, showing what you have and making other people feel bad that they don't have it. The video has had [more than] 20 million views and that's without radio play. That, for me, is very important. Thinking about Puerto Rico, there is a lot of violence. And some rappers there, they don't do anything to help staunch it. They support it. So, it's a song for all rappers. What's interesting is that no one has responded.

The band has been outspoken in support of independence for Puerto Rico. Why has this been an important issue for you?

Pérez: It really has to do wtih human rights. At this point, the choice is between being a state and being independent. But this whole thing of being a colony, it doesn't work. Obama is my president even though I can't vote for him. 

René, you once mentioned in an interview that you've taken heat from all sides because of your political positions. How so?

Pérez: I get the most trivial stuff. I'm living in New York and people tell me, "Oh, you live in New York, yet you want independence for Puerto Rico? Why don't you renounce your citizenship?" Please. There are people who struggle from outside and those who struggle from within. We've always worked for Puerto Rican social causes and will continue to do so. But I will not stop using the tools I have, which is music and some of the benefits that come to me from being a musician. You can follow your ideals with the tools you have.

Last week, you gave an impromptu concert from the top of a bus in a plaza in Lima, Peru, after a concert of yours was canceled. What happened? And how did you pull it off?

Pérez: It was pretty simple. This was something that has happened twice there with promoters. Apparently, they hadn't made payments to the stadium, so the concert had been canceled. But there were all of these people who had bought tickets. So, in three hours we invented an event.

Cabra: It seemed unjust that the public should have to pay for that. [René] called a friend who is a super collaborator. We started to ask about possible locations and got in the car and started visiting sites. Within four hours we had found a plaza that would work. We didn't have our gear. But our priority wasn't to sound perfect, it was to connect with people. Usually, when you play your last song, people shout, "Otra, otra." ("Another, another.") When we got to our last song in the plaza, they were saying, "Thank you! Thank you!" It's the first time people said thank you. I left feeling so satisfied.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.



Nov. 21: This post was updated to include the results of the Latin Grammy Awards, which took place Nov. 20.

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