Hip-hop has always been obsessed with geography. Coming from the streets may give a rapper credibility, but coming from particular streets—or, for that matter, a particular hood, side, city, region, or coast—gives him an identity and situates him within the larger hip-hop culture. But this obsession with the local has produced a kind of isolationism: While the world devours American hip-hop, America ignores the hip-hop of the rest of the world. The recent influx of three international styles—reggaeton from Puerto Rico, grime from Britain, and baile funk from Brazil—suggests that this situation may finally be changing. Taken together, they dispel the notion that globalization breeds homogeneity. Each is the product of a country importing American hip-hop, blending it with native traditions, and refashioning it in its own image.
Reggaeton (pronounced reggae-tone) emerged from the barrios of Puerto Rico (and, to a lesser extent, Latin American countries) back in the mid-1990s. The sound is an amalgam of foreign and domestic styles: hip-hop, reggae, merengue, and the Puerto Rican dance music bomba. It has succeeded in America due to some clever viral marketing: DJs began remixing popular American hip-hop songs with reggaeton beats, interspersing Spanish verses with the original English ones. The songs spread throughout the American mixtape underground and eventually found their way onto the playlists of trendsetting urban radio stations like Hot 97 in New York City. (For more on reggaeton’s sound and artists, click here.)
Reggaeton is now in the curious spot of being both ubiquitous (in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami) and totally unknown (everywhere else). It won’t remain that way for long—all the major labels set up Latin urban imprints last year, and P. Diddy just threw his hat in the ring, announcing the formation of Bad Boy Latino. Other top American MCs and producers—Lil Jon, 50 Cent, The Game, and Fat Joe among them—are now working with established reggaeton stars, appearing on and remixing their tracks.
British grime is also enjoying a vogue in America, though of a less mainstream sort. Instead of bubbling up through the streets in America, as reggaeton did, grime was handed down by a community of MP3 bloggers and music tastemakers like the Fader magazine and Pitchfork. First came Mercury Prize-winner Dizzee Rascal, riding a trans-Atlantic wave of adulation in early 2004. Now the rest of the U.K. grime scene is trying to make the leap, targeting a flurry of compilations and solo albums at American listeners. The style grew out of London’s mostly black projects, called council estates, sometime around 2002, and spread via pirate radio, which functions in Britain essentially as mixtapes do here. The name originated as an adjective for the sound: a spare, gritty mix of depth-charge bass, pinging synth notes, retro video-game effects, and paper-thin drum beats that owe as much to the British traditions of garage and jungle as to American hip-hop. The lyrics are dense and percussive—so much so that they almost serve as a second drum track to many of the songs. (For more on grime’s sound and artists, click here.)