Calle 13 Have Won the Most Latin Grammys in History. What's Their Secret?

From smashing Maseratis to mixing Irish pop into urban music, the Puerto Rican duo has not taken the usual route to award show success

Calle 13 pose with their multiple Latin Grammy Awards on November 10th, 2011 in Las Vegas, NV. Credit: Steven Lawton/FilmMagic

Calle 13 have already won 19 Latin Grammys – the most of any act in history – and at tonight's ceremony, the Puerto Rican duo is nominated for nine more. A decade after they began making music together, producer Eduardo Cabra (known on stage as Vistante) and rapper René Pérez Joglar (Residente) have evolved in many ways, adding more elements to their sound while denouncing the conspicuous consumption of their early years. This March, in the video for "Adentro," Residente went as far as to smash his Maserati with a baseball bat, then push it off a cliff.

"Adentro" is up for three Grammys tonight, and its parent album, MultiViral, will be competing for Best Urban Music Album (a category Calle 13 have never lost) and the broader Album of the Year. After a spontaneous free concert pushed the conversation back a day, Vistante and Residente spoke with Rolling Stone about winning awards, going viral and finding inspiration in Irish pop songs.

I heard that you guys ended up having a crazy evening last night in Lima. What happened?
Residente:
They wanted to cancel the show three hours before we were supposed to perform, because of something the promoter did wrong. We asked for a venue, security, musical instruments and equipment over Twitter. We performed at one in the morning, because it took us three to four hours to set up the whole thing.

We ended up using a bus for a stage. The energy was great. 15,000 people came to watch the whole thing and they were excited. Because so many people came and we didn't have the equipment to [project the sound well], some of the people started singing all of the lyrics, so all of the people in the back could hear and follow the show.

One of the themes of MultiViral is about how the Internet has changed the way information and music is disseminated. The fact that you were able to put on a show so fast through social media seems to be in line with that.
Residente:
Yeah, I think so. The way things work now, the Internet can be used to do whatever you want – for strikes or for other political actions. When I wrote the song "Multi_Viral," I was thinking about that. There's a collective anger worldwide. There are things happening in Egypt, the United States, Spain, and now in Mexico, because of the [missing] 43 students there.

You have historically had a lot of nominations in the Latin Grammys' urban categories, but your music has changed over time to incorporate more rock and folk sounds. Does the category "urban" still fit?
Visitante:
That's the nice thing about Calle 13. You can't identify it. It's very difficult to place. That's a common thing about all of our albums. My brother is not just rapping and singing; he's talking about the things that happen around us. That's why Calle 13 is still urban.

Residente: What I like the most about urban music is that you have complete freedom to talk about things. Because I'm a rapper, I can use a lot of words to express whatever I want. I can use 1,000 words and give a lot of details. When you create art, you paint what you feel and what's surrounding you, it doesn't really matter what style you use.

Visitante, you have additional nominations for producing both MultiViral and Bailar en la Cueva, by Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler. Did you approach those projects differently?
Visitante:
I didn't expect to be nominated for production, but the approach has been the same for every production I work on – it's the same way of working, but I achieved the sound differently. For Calle 13, I have to research new influences and try to take folk music and mix it with contemporary music. That's the way I have been learning. YouTube is very important to me. When I hear something new, I go to YouTube and start searching, and I read about the history of the music I'm working on developing. That happened with the last album with "El Aguante." I mixed Irish pop songs with contemporary music.

Do you feel like the Latin Grammys accurately reflect the best music coming out right now?
Residente:
There is something I like about the Latin Grammys, and it's the fact that the people working there are very aware of what's happening not just in Latin America, but also with musicians from Brazil and Spanish-speaking people coming out of Europe. The bad thing is when it gets mixed with the TV show and when the TV show gets aired back in Latin America. There are a lot of cool bands, and what gets aired only represents something like five percent of what's really happening.

In Puerto Rico, we have the problem that we don't get to hear nice music on the radio or on the TV all of the time. We have to do research. The people who run the Latin Grammys have a lot of credibility and I like them, but they also have to negotiate and maintain a balance between music from Latin America and the acts that the TV people think are going to be entertaining for Latinos watching in the U.S.

Visitante: The nominations help us to play live for the people in Latin America watching live on TV. That is very important to us. We try to do our best in our live performance. I know that the Latin Grammys are doing their best. There is a lot of timeless music in Latin America. I thought the Internet was going to help new artists and not the other way around. I don't know too much about the Anglo music world, but in the Latin world, the artists have been the same over the last 20 years, so it's very weird.