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When the fad goes fizzle

Times Staff Writer

REGGAETON may be running out of gasolina.

Radio stations that flocked to the thumping Latino hip-hop style have seen their ratings slip in recent weeks. In at least three markets -- Las Vegas, Dallas and Miami -- stations that gambled on the music’s growing popularity have since switched back to more traditional musical formats. And in perhaps the most worrisome sign yet, turnout was disappointing for a reggaeton concert last month at the Forum in Inglewood, headlined by Daddy Yankee, the genre’s superstar, and rapper Snoop Dogg.

One year after the genre exploded onto the scene with Yankee’s revved up hit “Gasolina,” reggaeton is suffering from a lack of new artists and fresh material. The same handful of performers -- Yankee, Tego Calderon, Don Omar, Luny Tunes, Ivy Queen -- have dominated radio play lists, sales charts and concert lineups for more than a year, an eon in pop music terms.

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“There’s only the same five songs on the radio and the same five artists on all the compilations,” says Boy Wonder, the New York-based producer of “Chosen Few,” the hit 2004 reggaeton documentary. “People need to hear more new stuff.”

Although most of the world didn’t discover reggaeton (pronounced reggae-TONE) until last year, the brash and sexy genre dates almost two decades. Rooted in Panama and cultivated in Puerto Rico, the music mixes Latin hip-hop and salsa styles over an insistent, programmed rhythm based on the dembow beat of Jamaican dancehall.

During the last decade, the music survived as a mostly underground phenomenon with raw lyrics reflecting the rough-and-tumble reality of Puerto Rican barrios. The music broke big in 2005, with polished productions and a spruced-up image, to become the biggest Latin music sensation since Ricky Martin led the Latin crossover wave of 1999.

But reggaeton’s sudden international success is also the source of its current troubles. The rap on reggaeton has always been that it’s too repetitive. Without a deep catalog of hits to fall back on, new reggaeton radio stations found themselves stuck with a relatively small set of records to program. To critics and skeptical newcomers, it all started sounding like one long song being played 24/7.

“Radio launched these stations from nothing: Today you’re playing cumbias, tomorrow it’s reggaeton,” said Gus Lopez, who heads the genre’s leading label, Machete Music. “In order for them to go from 0 to 60 overnight, they ended up playing ‘Gasolina’ 80 or 90 times a week.”

In addition to becoming monotonous through overexposure, it also started losing the street credibility that had been nurtured for years by its leading exponents.

In the feeding frenzy after Yankee’s breakthrough, Latin labels rushed to release reggaeton records by whatever artists they could find, often second- and third-string players. Pop artists, such as Colombian superstar Shakira and Los Angeles-based banda singer Yolanda Perez, included reggaeton tracks on their records, akin to Madonna doing gangsta rap. Even J-Lo got into the act with plans to produce a reggaeton movie through her film company, Nuyorican Productions.

“Every record company jumped on the bandwagon when it was already flying down the street, but they missed it when the slow wheels were turning,” said Machete’s Lopez, who worked for years in Puerto Rico as reggaeton was developing. “When something is hot, everybody is going to try to throw money at it, and maybe in that rush to market we [the industry] didn’t get the best records to radio.”

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The cooling trend

IT was headline news when Los Angeles’s KXOL-FM (96.3) switched to reggaeton last May, dumping its easy listening format. In summer 2005, the station shot from 18th to second place overall and first among listeners 12 to 24 years old, according to Arbitron, the ratings service.

At that point, it seemed like there was no stopping reggaeton. A string of other stations followed suit, including eight in the Univision radio network. Clear Channel converted four of its stations to the so-called Hurban format, for Hispanic urban.

By the end of the year, however, KXOL had slipped to eighth place in the Los Angeles market, trailing three Spanish-language competitors with more conservative formats.

True believers insist the genre is simply undergoing a natural correction, like an inflated stock market.

Pio Ferro, vice president of programming for the Spanish Broadcasting System, which owns KXOL, described reggaeton as last year’s “new toy.” The novelty has simply worn off, he said.

“You constantly hear that in this business, ‘Oh, yeah, reggaeton, it’s over with,’ ” says Ferro. “We have every indication to believe that the radio station and the music are as healthy as ever.”

Ferro doesn’t blame reggaeton for the ratings dip at Latino 96.3. He blames it on the decision to experiment with new English-language hip-hop tracks that were not proven hits.

“That was a mistake,” said Ferro. “The radio stations that play the hits and play them frequently do better than the stations that play a bunch of new music and don’t let anything get established. People love to hear what they know, and they know what they love.”

“And remember, we’re just learning the audience.”

The station learned a tough lesson in the preferences of its audience with the disappointing turnout at last month’s Forum concert, Reggaeton-Hip Hop Live, which it sponsored.

The show had been trumpeted as a landmark teaming of reggaeton and hip-hop, and promoters predicted a sellout because of the double-barrel attraction of Yankee and Snoop Dogg, who appears on Yankee’s latest CD, “Barrio Fino en Directo.” Yet the show drew just 8,500 fans -- or 5,000 fewer people than a concert last fall at the same venue with an all-reggaeton lineup starring Calderon and Omar.

The turnout called into question the notion that reggaeton artists could accelerate their push into the mainstream by hooking up with their hip-hop counterparts.

“I don’t think it was a good combination, to be honest,” says Rick Valenzuela of RikRaf Entertainment, which manages L.A.-based Latino hip-hop acts. “Just because Snoop did one song with Daddy Yankee doesn’t mean that it’s going to the next level. It doesn’t elevate the game in any way.”

But beyond box office, there are other signs that the reggaeton/hip-hop strategy is not catching fire. Only one reggaeton artist, for example, appears in regular rotation on Power 106, LA’s hip-hop powerhouse KPWR-FM (105.9).

And who might that be? Daddy Yankee, with a remix of his latest hit, “Rompe,” featuring rappers G-Unit.

Other reggaeton artists are relegated to Power 106’s special programs, such as the weekly “Pocos Pero Locos” show and the syndicated “Subelo Reggaeton Radio,” hosted by reggaeton radio pioneer DJ Kazzanova, program director for Univision’s La Kalle station in New York City, WCAA-FM (105.9).

Kazzanova says the genre needs recharging. And for that, he’s counting on upcoming new releases from heavyweights such as Calderon and Omar.

“Some of the biggest players in the game haven’t dropped new albums,” says the radio personality. “When they do, it’s going to be another peak. Also, this music is very summerish -- it’s the vibe of people who want to be outside blasting the reggaeton.”

Others still see hope in emerging or maturing artists. Radio is starting to feature new tunes with fresh names, including the irreverent Calle 13 and three other Puerto Rican duos: Wisin & Yandel, Yaga & Mackie Ranks and Rakim & Ken-Y. Several new artists are featured on “El Draft 2005,” the latest compilation from Boy Wonder, who looks to New York as the source of new talent and trends in reggaeton.

Meanwhile, back in Puerto Rico, where it all started, reggaeton remains as hot as ever.

The island is still producing a steady stream of new artists -- the rest of the world just hasn’t heard of them, says Ricardo Villanueva, editor of In the House, touted as the first international magazine devoted to reggaeton.

“Whether reggaeton stays here or gets exported to the outside,” he says, “the music will live on for years.”


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