Calle 13 has been the best thing in Latin music since they quietly burst out of Puerto Rico three years ago with their self-titled debut. And there hasn’t been a musical act so original, funny, irreverent or catchy since. Their live shows are unparalleled, musically-rich and a totally energetic spectacle. What seemed like an underground revolution was quickly embraced by critics, the establishment (multiple Grammy awards, MTV endorsements), and audiences as far as Argentina and Spain.
Like they say in their own song “La Fockin Moda” from last year’s Residente o Visitante, Calle 13 literally became the shit. Everyone from Shakira to Gustavo Santaolalla wanted to work with them. In their second album, they took on socially-conscious issues such as immigration, but at the same time, MC René Perez (Residente) insisted on irreverence, getting ridiculously crass and vulgar in some songs. But this album didn’t seem as fresh–the local cultural references were now Pan-Latino–, but musically, it was a huge step up, with producer Eduardo Cabra (Visitante) playing with cumbia, tango and electronic music.
Perhaps prematurely, merely a year and a half later, Calle 13 is releasing a third album, Los De Atrás Vienen Conmigo, and the formula is repeated once again. Big time collaborations (Café Tacvba), predictable themes, but musically Eduardo has now gone as random as 80’s freestyle (best song in the album is “Electro Movimiento” featuring the amazing Cuci Amador from Miami’s Afrobeta) and Emir Kusturica-style gypsy from the Balkans.
Even though they say “Calle 13 viene sin lubricación” in their new song “Fiesta de Locos,” the album seems very easy to swallow for a Calle 13 connoisseur like me. I still think they’re the shit, I obsess and analyze every song and every performance. Yet, once again, I feel unsatisfied and want more. I can see them quitting Latin music in a few years and doing other projects once their enormous success gets impossibly bigger and stops being fun.
I spoke with Rene over the phone the other day. He’s now an expert doing media interviews, which is surely not fun at all. Still, we spoke about (not) working with Juanes, pulling a Jamiroquai in the new album, still being scared of airplanes, and about his sister Ileana’s upcoming solo album. Can’t wait for that one.
Remezcla.com: You’re part of MTV’s Choose or Lose campaign, yet as a Puerto Rican, even though you’re an American citizen, you can’t vote in the presidential elections.
Rene: That’s right, as a Puerto Rican I can’t vote, and ilegales can’t vote either, so each Latino vote vale por cuatro. It’s important that everyone votes, because candidates are super different and this election will affect what happens with Latinos in this country. Well, maybe nothing will happen, but I think it’s important to vote, I think.
ЯE: I haven’t been able to listen to the new album much because they don’t want to give me a copy, seems its a very high-guarded secret…
R: Oh, they didn’t give you a copy?
ЯE: I did listen to a few, and “Electro Movimiento” is the best song so far because it’s different.
R: Jajaja! We were finishing the album and we wanted to do something with freestyle. My brother made the beat, then also a friend from Argentina, Rafael Arcaute, who works with Calamaro and Fito Paez [and Dante Spinetta, Emmanuel Horvilleur…RBD!] produced it . I knew the chorus had to be una muchacha. I knew a bit about Afrobeta because of Iván [Gutiérrez] who was mixing our album in Miami. I said, traigan a Cristi, and we were there all night working, we improvised a lot.
ЯE: Did you ever listen to Freestyle from the late 80s, like Lisa Lisa?
R: Not really, I listened to more popular stuff, like salsa, Rubén Blades, Hector Lavoe. My parents would play a lot of salsa but also rock like Led Zepellin, cosas viejas.
ЯE: And now you have Ruben Blades on your album in the song “La Perla.”
R: The Rubén Blades song is un candombé, un ritmo de Uruguay. We got the idea when we were there on tour.
ЯE: What I like about that song is that Ruben is rapping.
R: Si, Ruben rapea, and he sings too. We also have La Chilinga in that track, a percussion group from Buenos Aires–they’re like 18 people. We recorded the wind section in Puerto Rico, the percussion in Argentina and Rubén’s vocals in Panamá.
ЯE: Why do you dedicate that song to La Perla [a lower class neighborhood in Old San Juan, in Puerto Rico]?
R: For me, it’s an important barrio that always opened the doors for me, before I did Calle 13, when I used to rap. The more things we do there in La Perla, the more videos we do there, they won’t move [the people who live there]. [La Perla’s prime location outside the old city walls in front of the ocean makes it a real estate developer’s dream.]
ЯE: Ruben knows La Perla?
R: Yeah, he does. In fact, he told us that he did vocals for Maelo’s [salsa legend Ismael Rivera] song “La Perla.”
ЯE: I’ve heard you have some cumbia villera songs in the album.
R: Yeah, we have a track with cumbia villera, another one that’s kinda disco/funk like Jamiroquai, another one is more Balkanic like Emir Kusturica, and there’s a Dixieland track, from New Orleans.
ЯE: What happened to the song you had recorded with Juanes? Did his record label finally clear the rights so you can use it for the album?
R: No, lo sacamos, we had to pull it out… we put Ileanita [René and Eduardo’s sister, aka PG-13], y ella le metió ahi super chevere.
ЯE: Ileana instead of Juanes??????
R: Si, but we changed the lyrics. The song has the same title because we had already ordered the CD booklets to be made, but now the title doesn’t have anything to do with the song. But we didn’t want to take it out porque estaba chevere.
ЯE: Why would you even want to record with Juanes? Do you like his music?
R: Nada, el tipo siempre nos ha caido bien y en verdad el tipo es muy buen guitarrista… I haven’t heard all his music, to tell you the truth. I wanted to open up our collaborations. A mi me pareció cool, it didn’t bother me, es un tipo bastante real, and yeah he’s pop. Obviously, we respect the guy and we do have limits of who we collaborate with. But I wanted to open the possibilities and bring in someone who maybe people thought we wouldn’t work with.
ЯE: Are you already working on Ileana’s album?
R: Yes, we’re already starting to work on it, probably for next year. She writes most of the ideas, because I’m not a woman, and she is my sister and I can be sensitive but it’s not the same. You have to understand the menstrual cycle, no puedo hablar igual.
ЯE: Jajaja I think being a woman is more than having your period.
R: Si, obvio. What I mean is that even though we’re pretty similar, we’re very different. I write some of the lyrics but she and my other sister are working on that too.
ЯE: Why do you still care about dissing reggaeton artists? Why are they relevant to you?
R: Es una espinita que me saqué de encima. It’s not that I diss all of them, just los llorones, those who have complained and those who have threatened our credibility as an urban group. I could very well not give them importance, but I think they can be important within what I do, and that’s why I wrote the track ["Que Lloren"]–it’s a critique. It’s not just dissing. Remember, they pretend to come from “la calle,” but being middle class in Puerto Rico is just as fucked up as anything. Besides, you don’t have to suffer to do rap. Even though we already have a space in urban music, I’m explaining to them what “urban” means to me. Because being a “rapper” and singing a ballad is not urban to me.
ЯE: So you’re not scared you’re going to get shot?
R: Jajaja no… first of all, they won’t do it. I have a big family, my brothers, I have like 20 cousins…Second of all, I’m scared of other things, like airplanes.
Lyric-wise, Los De Atrás Vienen Conmigo is chock full of Calle Thirteen’s usual tricks and metaphors. Let’s take a survey of recurrent themes and styles:
Calle 13 Romántico: restrained tone, although still exalting the virtues of buttocks.
Sample lyric: “te quiero hacer volar como Peter Pan, por encima del Viejo San Juan” (“Electro Movimiento”)
Calle 13 Perreo: wants to make sure you dance even if you’re a fresa.
Sample lyric: “para que brinquen como popcorn de microondas” (“Electro Movimiento”)
Calle 13 Shocker: prefers to rap about bodily excrements, the more the merrier.
Sample lyric: “soy rebelde como una vaca que no quiere dar leche” (“Fiesta de Locos”)
Calle 13 Versus the World, especially reggaetoneros.
Sample lyric: “tu te vendiste mas barato que una prostituta en la autopista” and “reggaetonero no lo cojas personal, tampoco te estoy tirando a ti, le estoy tirando al que te escribe” (“Que Lloren”)
Calle 13 El Intelectual: torn between commercial success and making the masses think
Sample lyric: “mi música no es para las discotecas, es para sembrar una semilla en un par de cabezas huecas.” (“Que Lloren”)