Two things were accomplished when, in July of this year, the Joy Ride record label announced the creation of a subsidiary, Joy Ride Latino. The first was professionalizing an underground scene that abounds in talent, allowing it to dream of conquering a gigantic market. The second was to shed light on a scene that’s basically unknown by the general public in Québec, a scene that begging to be heard. Here’s an overview of Québec’s Urbano movement, characterized by its solidarity.
Latino musical currents are well represented in Québec, and the longevity of the club La Salsathèque and of radio programs such as La Rumba du Samedi, on CISM 89.3 FM, to name just one, are a testament to the affection that music lovers have for these warm rhythms. But while hip-hop has become the dominant popular music genre across the province, local artists doing rap and reggaeton in Spanish remain a blind spot in the music industry.
It’s been that way for a long time. For every Boogàt, an established artist, how many artists like Agua Negra (a group founded by the composer El Cotola), Sonido Pesao and their Heavy Soundz collective, Cuervo Loomi, and other veterans of the Montréal-based Urbano sound have never been truly recognized? Cruzito, an Urbano artist and artistic director of Joy Ride Latino, believes it’s high time that changed – although he readily admits that the scene itself had some growing up to do in order to reach a wider audience.
When reggaeton was born in Puerto Rico in the early ’90s, “It was considered street music, an underground sound,” says Cruzito, whose parents were born in Honduras. And despite Daddy Yankee’s 2005 worldwide hit “Gasolina,” the rest of that scene was never fully recognized. “Yet, in recent years, Latino music began to appear as a phenomenon on the public’s and the media’s radar,” if only because of the metrics it was boasting: by 2014, the Colombian J Balvin, then unknown outside of Latin America, was garnering more than 200 million views on YouTube for his hit “6 AM,” which at the time of writing has accumulated more than 1.1 billion views! “Slowly but surely, it reached us too,” says Cruzito.
As he also points out, and without taking anything away from the talent and productions of the pioneers of local Urbano music – which includes Latin rap, trap, R&B, and reggaeton – the scene had to open up to other musical sounds. It had to free itself from the characteristic rhythm of reggaeton, the jerky backbeats borrowed from Jamaican music that form the “Dem Bow” riddim, named after the 1990 hit by dancehall singer Shabba Ranks (composed by Steely & Clevie and produced by Bobby Digital).
Even Carlos Munoz, Joy Ride Records’ founder and boss (whose roots are in Chile), had to be convinced. “I was not at all a fan of reggaeton at first,” he admits. “I felt it was sub-par rap; I was raised with Preemo [DJ Premier], Timbaland, and Dr. Dre, so the production quality of reggaeton seemed rough and less evolved – even though I was aware they had to produce their music with fewer resources. But when I saw that the Latino trap scene was infiltrating the reggaeton universe, then it started having some clout. The production value reached another level, and pop music got into the mix,” which rocketed artists like J Balvin, Malumo, Farruko, and Bad Bunny, to name but a few, into the worldwide pop stratosphere.
The Québec Urbano scene followed the same trajectory, according to Munoz and Cruzito, who’ve recently launched the first EP by the YNG LGNDZ collective, an offering highly representative of the state of reggaeton in 2021 with its trap, R&B and pop overtones. The two partners are firm believers that local artists have the necessary talent to break into the huge international market, as did the Montréal-based songwriter/beatmaker duo Demy & Clipz (Étienne Gagnon and Steve Martinez-Funes, childhood friends) with whom Bad Bunny shared his recent Grammy for Best Latin Pop or Urban Album for YHLQMDLG, on which they co-wrote and produced the song “Soliá.”
“The scene has truly evolved, and emerging artists are popping up with a totally contemporary sound,” says Martinez-Funes, citing singer-songwriter O.Z., also on the Joy Ride Latino roster. “He has his own sauce, as we say, a vibe of his own. When we started making music [over 10 years ago], it was harder to break through, to express ourselves and to produce. Today’s reggaeton is nothing like it was before, but Montréal’s scene is highly influenced by what’s happening elsewhere, just as our rap was influenced by the trap made elsewhere.”
With one foot in the local scene and the other in the circle of movers and shakers on the global reggaeton scene, Demy & Clipz hope to advance their career by serving as a conduit for local talent. “Local artists definitely have the talent to break through internationally,” believes Étienne, “Demy” Gagnon, who’s working with his colleague on a mixtape of their productions, featuring local singers and MCs.
Cruzito believes that the strength of Montréal’s Urbano scene lies in the solidarity that binds artists with diverse roots – a musician with Honduran roots will gladly work with another of Colombian, Mexican, or Chilean origin, etc. – and in its openness to other musical styles, as well as its cultural specificity. “I think a musician [from Latino communities] has an advantage over those from other provinces, even other countries, because we live in the Francophonie,” he says. “That’s a big plus for any artistic endeavour, because it’s another cultural universe. Montréal’s cultural DNA gets ingrained in you. I believe that the music made in Montréal, regardless if the genre, is distinctive. You just know it’s from Montréal.”