[Originally published on GlobalRhythm.net.]
Calle 13 started out as the court jesters of Latin music, throwing witty social satire atop reggaeton and hip-hop beats. But on their second album, 2006’s Residente o Visitante, they exhibited a political consciousness as sharp as their black humor, as well as an expanded sonic palette that incorporated music from all around the Latin world. On their brand-new third release, Los de Atrás Vienen Conmigo (The Ones Left Behind Are Coming With Me), rapper Residente and multi-instrumentalist/producer Visitante venture even farther afield, exploring sounds from Dixieland jazz to the Balkan chaos of Emir Kusturica. We spoke to Residente on the eve of the album’s release, and a New York concert with Mexican electro-funksters Kinky.
What's the song “Que Lloren” about?
Well, I think it’s not the best song on the album, but I don’t know, some people like it. I’m criticizing some of the reggaeton artists who try not to give us space in the urban community. I think there is a misunderstanding about the words ‘urban music.’ I’m explaining in that song what is urban music for me.
Are you perceived as art school kids playing around with reggaeton?No, but – they see us as crazy people, making alternative whatever. They don’t know what we are doing. I don’t think they see us as art school kids making urban music. They know that we are for real, and they know that we have good lyrics the thing is that some of them criticize us because they don’t understand some of the things we’re doing. That’s what I’m talking about in the song.
If you’re seen as weirdos, working on a track with Café Tacvba probably isn’t gonna help.
Yeah, well, it depends on the people, you know, and how – if you know about music, you know that Café Tacvba is one of the greatest bands, if not the greatest band in Latin rock music. So the thing is, maybe they don’t know about Café Tacvba. Not every one of the reggaetoneros - maybe some of them do.
Didn’t you record a collaboration with Juanes for this album, also?
Yeah, but right now it’s not on the album because of problems with the record label. So I have Café Tacvba and I have Ruben Blades. I still have the song with Juanes, but my little sister is singing [his part]. She’s got a great voice.
How did you manage to get Ruben Blades to rap on “La Perla”?
He just did it by himself. He wanted to try it. He raps and also he sings. It’s nice, because rapping sometimes can be difficult, if you try to push the bar to the limit. It’s difficult to write, also. The way he was writing, it’s difficult because he’s putting a lot of words into one sentence.
Yeah, but I’ve heard his old records from the ’70s and his vocal delivery from back then was almost speaking, sometimes.
Yeah, he used to do that all the time, and also the music on that track is like – we tried to maintain that old-school sound. It’s not salsa, it’s candomble from Uruguay, the rhythm, but also has, like, the drums, the electronic drums that you can hear on the song are old-school, like from his band.
“Electro Movimiento” features lyrics in English; can you see yourself rapping in English in the future?
I’ve thought about it, but the thing is right now I can barely have a good interview with you in English. I have to learn more English. Maybe this year, I want to have a tutor or teacher to teach me a little bit more. And I need to have the street thing going on, otherwise I’d be a rapper with words from the dictionary only. I need the slang. I have a little bit of that, and I know it could be interesting – if I rap the same way I rap in Spanish, it could be huge.
Sometimes you’re rapping really fast on this album. I admit my Spanish is not that good, but I’m completely lost. Do you worry about losing people?
No, no, because the people in Spanish they understand everything. And also the music is so great that even if you don’t understand, you’re gonna like the music. Especially in live performance, there’s a band – we’ve got eleven people, horns, drums, guitar, bass, piano, everything.
Yeah, I was wondering how big a band you have now to play music this complex.
On the stage we are 11. With me, my brother and my sister, and eight band members. We have two trombones and one trumpet, timbales, conga, drums, guitar, bass, piano and my brother plays piano but also plays other instruments like accordion, Theremin…I don’t know.
Did you always have that many? I thought you had fewer people, around the time of the first album.
Yeah, we always perform with a huge band. The thing is, sometimes we bring the horns and sometimes not.
Your last album was more political than this one. Was that a deliberate choice?
This one is mixed. I have political things going on, but at the same time I’m using a lot of black humor on this album. I’m talking about everything – politics, religion, sexual things, and just regular stuff for dancing. But even if I make a song just for the club, I say things also. I take sentences to say things.
In one song you call people out by name, like Don Francisco. When people start to think Latin society is in decline, do they blame you?
Not all the time they wanted to, they tried to do that once with “El Tango del Pecado,” but then they figured out that this is not the case, that Calle 13 is not to blame for things that happen in Latin America. It’s the opposite. As soon as they started knowing the group better, they started figuring out what Calle 13 is, that I’m making fun of the things that are around us. They stopped blaming me for things.
The song “Un Beso de Desayuno,” from the last album, was very soft there’s nothing like that on this album. Was that deliberate?
I wanted to have a song like that on this album. Maybe I can do it later on. I always like to have those types of songs on the albums. The good thing about this album is that it’s very fast. Even the song with Café Tacvba that is a pretty song – the lyrics are very nice, it’s a good song – is fast, also, the rhythm. The first thing we talked about before we did it was to make an album packed with fast rhythms. The last one was slower.
It seems like you’re taking not only rhythms from various parts of Latin America, but electronic music and things, and I heard the same thing on Tego Calderón’s last record. Do you think that’s happening more now, that even people who are affiliated with reggaeton are moving past the clichéd reggaeton rhythm and doing more interesting stuff?
Maybe. The thing is that with us, we are not with reggaeton all the way. We’ve never been that way. On the first album we had three reggaeton songs, on the second album we had two, and on this album we have none, or we have one, but you don’t feel it because it’s funk, we have horns and live drums playing along with the reggaeton beat, so you don’t feel it. But yeah, we experimented with more North American rhythms this time, like Dixieland from New Orleans, because we performed at a jazz festival there last year or earlier this year, and we just took the rhythm and made “Ven y Criticame.” And we have funk also, because we performed in Spain with Jamiroquai. It depends on our travels when we travel, we make songs. That’s the way it is. On the last album, a lot of the time we were in Latin America, so we used a lot of Latin American rhythms. Last year, we were in the U.S. and Europe, so that’s why we mixed it.
I know hip-hop producers listen to each other and compete with each other to see who can come up with new sounds is there anyone you listen to that makes you think, We need to step our game up and beat this guy?
We’re not trying to listen to – like, we listen to music, to hip-hop and everything, but we’re not trying to do the same thing ever. Like, last year I was listening to Emir Kusturica. That’s not hip-hop, it’s Balkan music. We took his music and made a song, “Fiesta de Locos.” That’s the way we work. We’re trying to avoid hip-hop also, the rules of hip-hop in terms of music. I like it, I like hip-hop, but there’s a lot of music in the world, and you can mix it and rap over it all.