MIAMI (Billboard) - With its distinctive and catchy mix of hip-hop, reggaeton and tropical and electronica beats, Calle 13 was one of the biggest breakout stories in the Latin world last year.
The Puerto Rican duo’s debut album has sold more than 200,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and more than 350,000 worldwide.
Careful strategy went into that success. The act’s incendiary, potty-mouthed lyrics have kept it from gaining massive radio airplay or many major TV appearances. But Calle 13 has been embraced by alternative outlets and media, including the digital world, which played a crucial role in the success of its self-titled debut, via ringtones in particular.
A close listen to the group’s sophomore album, “Residente o Visitante” (Sony BMG, April 23) reveals clever rhymes (think Eminem at his best) that go from witty to salacious to outright shocking. It’s not just sexual content, juvenile posturing and verbal attacks, of which there’s plenty. Calle 13, which won the Latin Grammy Award for best new artist in 2006, also delves deeply into subject matter meant to make you squirm, including social malaise, corruption, injustice and violence, all set to complex beats and arrangements.
The members of Calle 13 — stepbrothers Rene Perez (aka Residente, rapper/lyricist) and Eduardo Cabra (aka Visitante, music writer/arranger) — drew few looks when they entered Novecento, a trendy Miami restaurant, to discuss their new album with Billboard. Short, fair and slight, and sporting zero bling, they look more like university alt-rockers than the enfant terribles of Latin music whose racy, graphic lyrics have unleashed many a controversy.
Q: Your first single, “Tango del Pecado,” is very satirical but has caused quite a stir because it exhorts people to listen to your “Satanic music.” Did you expect such a reaction in this day and age?
Perez: I never do something expecting something. I do things because I like them. The only track we recorded with a specific intent was (second single) “Cumbia de los Aburridos,” which we conceived as a radio-friendly track, because it’s hard for our music to get played (on the) radio. This album is full of vices to eat up your brain. Within that, “Cumbia de los Aburridos” is the chocolate cake with strawberries. So people can eat it, and later discover what else is in there.
Cabra: What we knew was, this wasn’t a “second” album. It was an album. What happens as far as topics, performance and irreverence is something completely different from our previous album.
Q: Why not pick “Cumbia de los Aburridos” as the first single?
Perez: I was against that. It sends the wrong message, if our first single sounds like our previous hit (“Atrevete Te, Te!”). The fact is, we’ve never been strong on the radio. And that doesn’t mean I’m going to start to record stupid reggaeton songs. That’s not our trip. And the idea was to come out with a track that was contrary to what was expected.
Q: There are many explicit tracks here, but “Malasuerte con Calle 13,” your duet with Spanish rapper La Mala Rodriguez, is particularly sexual, and openly talks about such things as scatological sex. Why so explicit?
Perez: It’s a style. Like George Bataille’s “Story of the Eye” (a classic erotic novel of excess and sexual extremes). I can use double-entendre, but I can also be crude. La Mala herself suggested she was going to be crazy and sexual with me and wanted me to be aggressive too. So I put in a couple of things that play with that Latin macho attitude. I say things that are real, that people think about.
Q: You also include quite a bit of social commentary here, and you just came from two weeks in remote areas of Latin America, where you’ve been filming a documentary about your experiences with different, isolated populations. Tell us about that.
Perez: We wanted to spend time with different indigenous groups in Latin America and with people from the countryside. People no one visits. Our objective is to air the documentary and have people see what happens in these communities. I can help by presenting their problems and their situations. I would like to establish a connection between Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans, because we’re an island, and we’re isolated. And I’ll use my image in some way so it’s entertaining for young viewers.
Q: How does your writing process work?
Cabra: The first album was built mostly over the lyrics. This had more of the beats first and then the lyrics. Many of these tracks were written while we were traveling in specific countries, and as things were happening. Many tracks are responses to specific comments or accusations.
Perez: Lately, I use the Internet a lot. I look up topics, watch pictures and videos.
Q: Have you considered recording in English?
Perez: It’s hard to translate. If I can say the same stuff in English, I’ll do it. Because you want to communicate, whether you sell albums or not. You want people to listen and understand. I can’t change the world by teaching everybody to speak Spanish. But you’re not going to see me doing bilingual stuff, or saying stupid things like “kick your ass” in English.