When you think of popular Latin music there are usually a few names that pop up automatically in your head: the ever-risque Pitbull, the sultry Shakira and the classic rock band Mana to name a few. But there are other important musicians out there who perhaps have not gotten as much radio time. Take Puerto Rican duo Calle 13 for example. Their name might not be as familiar, but they managed to take away an impressive nine wins at the Latin Grammys. Couple that with their past wins, and they have set a new record – one that takes the honor away from previous record-holder Juanes.
With a knack for slick rhymes and no fear towards politically charged messages, Calle 13, made up primarily of stepbrothers Residenté (lead vocals) and Visitante (instrumentalist and producer), is about more than just making danceable, chart-topping songs. Before their debut album even premiered in 2005, the band had already gained notoriety for a track called “Querido F.B.I.”
The track is a fierce criticism of government and an outcry against the negative state of Puerto Rico. Each line is loaded, and the track isn’t easy to listen to because it is so vivid – not to mention filled with expletives. The song is a reaction to the FBI’s killing of a Puerto Rican revolutionary movement leader and makes obvious references to both parties. It’s unlike virtually anything that is usually played on the radio.
Calle 13’s move was risky, but in this case, that risk paid off. The track gained popularity, probably mostly due to its subject matter, and helped get Calle 13’s name out into the music world. Most importantly, it showed that the duo was changing up the flavor of the genre they were being marketed in. Calle 13 didn’t exactly fit the reggaeton mold it was first thrown into because of the lyrics; hardly any reggaeton artists at the time created such polemical tracks. Already, the duo was challenging musical conventions, and they would continue to do so later on in their career as they blended genres in their complex songs.
In fact, the duo’s lyricism is very much a big part of what separates them from other groups. Each line is jam-packed with meaning, and the tracks maintain a musical fluidity that is hard to achieve. Residente delivers lines that are a mouthful as if it was second nature to him, showcasing his talent not only in politically charged songs but also in love songs such as “Tango del Pecado,” which translates to “Tango of Sin” and even “John el Esquizofrenico,” which translates to “John the Schizophrenic” a track about a man with some serious psychological problems.
The music itself changes as much as the lyrics, but always maintains a very hip-hop influenced Latin flavor that keeps you engrossed. Add into the mix intriguing vocal contributions from the duo’s sister and mother, and Calle 13’s sound just gets more fun and unique.
The duo has done well without even having a large number of mainstream hits. Residente notes that the Latin Grammy award for Best Latin Urban Album was given to Calle 13 without the album receiving any airtime on the radio. The duo even paired up with conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Orquesta Sinfonica Simon Bolivar for a performance, with Dudamel later handing the group one of its Grammys.
All of this only helps solidify the fact that Calle 13 has made quite an impact on Latin music, whether or not they first come to mind when you think of the genre. There is something engrossing about their characters; there is no shyness, there are no restrictions.
The duo is not so much about crafting a marketable identity but about sharing their culture and with it their problems with government, their views on marriage and love and even their interpretation of psychological problems. And that has helped them cement their place in Latin music from the beginning of their career to today.
Even if you’re not a fluent Spanish speaker, check out some of their tracks. After all, good music can transcend any language barriers.