Inside Latin Trap, the Viral Sound Too Hot for American Radio

Bad Bunny, De La Ghetto and the slow-rolling music that's becoming too big to ignore

De La Ghetto performs in Miami on April 23, 2017. Credit: John Parra/Getty Images

In 2015, Jorge Fonseca, a veteran A&R for Sony Music Latin, made a trip to Puerto Rico in search of new sounds. "When you go to the island, the streets speak to you," he tells Rolling Stone. "You hear the kids with the cars, and they tell you what's happening." On this particular visit, he noticed something different blaring from passing vehicles: "I started hearing less reggaeton and more trap."

Reggaeton has been the commercially dominant wing of Spanish-language hip-hop for more than a decade, launching global stars like Don Omar and Daddy Yankee. But a surging Latin trap sound is responding to more recent developments in American rap, embracing the slow-rolling rhythms and gooey vocal delivery popularized by Southern hip-hop. "Latin music has needed something new and fresh for a long time," says Luis Rivera, Program Director for Latino Music at Music Choice, which controls audio and video content for cable TV subscribers. Despite being almost entirely shut out of American radio, Latin trap has taken off.

Last year, Fonseca featured Puerto Rican artists like Anuel AA, Bryant Myers and Noriel on the compilation Trap Capos: Season 1, which became the first "Latin trap" LP to reach Number One on Billboard's Latin Rhythm Albums chart. Now a variety of artists associated with the movement are riding high: Five of the Top 30 music videos on YouTube's chart last week involved artists associated with Latin trap – Bad Bunny, Chris Jeday, Karol G – accumulating more than 170 million views total. Bad Bunny, the sound's best-known proponent, also appeared three times in the Top 25 of Billboard's Hot Latin Songs chart. Univision rolled out a trap channel on its app in January, and in April the Univision-owned X96.3 station in New York City started broadcasting an hour of Latin trap at night. Ismar SantaCruz, Vice President and Managing Director of Radio Strategy at Univision, estimates that the scene has quadrupled in size in the last year.

"It goes beyond trap: the music we call 'Latin urban' is now diversifying into many different forms," says Horacio Rodriguez, VP of Marketing for Universal Music Latino. "It's popping in the streets right now with zero radio airplay. It's a counter-culture of young kids listening to this music."

There's always been variety within the catch-all term "Latin urban," but reggaeton has long been the primary money maker. "An artist who liked rap would do a rap song and then three reggaetons – that's on the charts, that's bringing in the bills," explains Messiah, the New York City-based Dominican rapper who calls himself "one of the pioneers of Latin trap."

"I grew up listening to hip-hop, so I always wanted to make hip-hop in my market," adds Alejandro "Sky" Ramirez, who produces for J Balvin. "But I never got the opportunity, because it was not commercial. It had no possibilities."

Messiah saw a shift occur after he did a Spanish remix of Kazzie and Rick Ross' "Yeah OK" in 2014 and heard packed clubs rapping along to it. Last year, established star De La Ghetto released the smash "La Ocasión" featuring longtime collaborator Arcángel and young stars Anuel AA and Ozuna. The official video currently has over 418 million views.

"When that song came out and the chorus was super catchy, this wave was here to stay," Rivera says. He introduced the first Music Choice video playlist dedicated to Latin trap this month.

The underpinnings of "La Ocasión" will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of modern American rap. In place of reggaeton's signature beat, there's a lumbering bass, yammering hi-hats tapping out 32nd note patterns and a clipped, stupor-inducing keyboard loop. The young vocalists on the track easily blend singing and rapping, while the veterans stay closer to scratchy, declarative hip-hop. Both camps deliver lusty come-ons. There's even an all-star remix featuring Daddy Yankee, Nicky Jam, J Balvin, Farruko and Zion.

DJ Luian, who co-produced the track, also runs the Puerto Rican imprint Hear This Music, now distributed by Sony Music Latin. He helped launch the career of Hear This signee Bad Bunny after he heard his single "Diles" on SoundCloud. Bad Bunny sings and raps with an unhurried, conversational tone; his "Soy Peor" video now has 330 million views.

"He can do a song with Drake; he can do a song with Travis Scott," Sky says of Bad Bunny. "He is the guy to take this to another place."

Older stars have stampeded to endorse the latest style, boosting its mainstream exposure. The Colombian star J Balvin's Energia album contained songs like "35 Pa Las 12," a booming, American-rap-radio-ready collaboration with the Dominican singer/rapper Fuego. The upcoming Farruko record is titled TrapXFicante. Maluma, a supple pop-reggaeton heartthrob, anchored the hook of the Trap Capos single "Cuatro Babys."

Fonseca was gunning for a smash when he asked Maluma, who is also signed to Sony Latin, to participate in Trap Capos. "We needed to make an international hit song – we had to put somebody that was big on there," the A&R vet explains. "It was over when we put that song out."

Not everybody was enthralled: some denounced Maluma for singing about juggling four women who sleep with him on command. A petition on Change.org asked streaming platforms to remove the song from circulation because "the lyric and the images incite direct violence towards women." This month, officials in the Canary Islands revoked public funding for a scheduled Maluma concert, saying "we can't support something with public money that denigrates women."

The controversy hasn't seemed to slow the spread of the music: "Cuatro Babys" is now certified quadruple-platinum. "They wanted to stop it, but instead it just ended up getting bigger," Maluma says. "I thought it was going to be a song that was just underground, and it became this worldwide sensation." Responding to critics, he adds, "At the end of the day, people are not obligated to listen to that type of music if they don't want to."

There is still one medium left to conquer: radio. Despite peppering the Hot Latin Songs chart with hits all year, Bad Bunny only just cracked the Latin Airplay chart this week as a guest on Becky G's "Mayores." Chris Jeday's trap-like "Ahora Dice" is one of the few in the style to appeal to radio programmers. Though Ozuna, another popular young singer associated with the rise of trap, has had success at radio, singles like "Tu Foto" lean towards reggaeton.

"You and I could be having this conversation 15 years ago about reggaeton," acknowledges Victor Martinez, President of Hispanic Broadcasting Radio, when asked about the lack of Latin trap songs on the airwaves. "It would be the same conversation: We have problems with the lyrics, with the raunchiness.

"Radio has the doors open for [Latin trap] to come right in, they just have to help us out," he adds. "The problem from my side is they don't put out clean versions." However, sometimes radio takes matters into its own hands. According to SantaCruz, "Cuatro Babys" became so popular so quickly that his programmers crafted their own family-friendly edit.

The massive success of the new wave of Latin urban artists have quickly earned the notice of American singers and rappers as well. "We're already getting calls from mainstream artists that want to remix or work with our Latin trap artists," Rodriguez notes, and Maluma says he recently went into the studio with a number of American producers in L.A. Last month, PnB Rock remixed Bad Bunny's "Soy Peor."

Fonseca is banking on the movement's continued growth and is currently working to assemble Trap Capos: Season 2. "Music is not U.S.-based anymore," he says. "Views can come from anywhere. A hit can come from anywhere."