Earlier this year, while quarantining in upstate New York, the Martinez Brothers got a call inviting them to work with the rising Puerto Rican star Rauw Alejandro. Steve and Chris Martinez are known within the sometimes insular world of house music, where a hit might pick up a few million streams, while the major-label reggaeton industry prefers to count by the billion. Unsure how the collaboration would play out, the producers packed their bags and boarded a flight to Miami in September. “We went into the session a little nervous,” Steve says, “getting all our reggaeton beats together.”
But Alejandro didn’t need them to work on reggaeton: He wanted one of his songs to include a house component, and he asked the Martinez Brothers to help steer it. The resulting track, “Química,” is one of two prominent recent releases in the Latin mainstream pushing a hybrid of house and reggaeton — the other being “Dakiti,” the Bad Bunny and Jhay Cortez collaboration that’s been the biggest song on Spotify for more than a month.
“Everything [in reggaeton] for the last two years has been a lot more slow-paced,” says Marco “Tainy” Masís, who co-produced “Dakiti.” “To get some variety, people are trying to merge reggaeton with something else, experimenting a little more.”
There’s a long tradition of interplay between house and reggaeton. Steve Martinez points to “Robi-Rob’s Boriqua Anthem,” a Nineties collaboration between the producers C+C Music Factory and El General, a crucial figure in reggaeton’s early history; Uproot Andy, another DJ and producer, also references a different El General hit, “Funkete,” which had elements of the two styles. “While reggaeton most obviously comes from dancehall and hip-hop, there was still house music in the mix from the beginning,” Andy adds.
And plenty of listeners still enjoy both forms. “House music is big in Puerto Rico, though a lot of people don’t know that,” says “Química” co-producer Hector “Caleb Calloway” Lopez. “When you’re 15, you go out to a reggaeton party and then you go to an afterparty and they’re playing house.”
But the music industry likes to codify genres for commercial purposes, which ensures that mainstream reggaeton popular in the streaming era has little overlap with house. Reggaeton hits typically bounce along with tempos around 88 to 96 beats per minute, according to Tainy, while house usually stampedes closer to 120. Both genres favor a four-on-the-floor kick drum, but reggaeton gets its skip from slapping snare drum patterns staggered on off beats, while house often embraces a squarer form of propulsion, slamming home the two and the four .
The commercial centers of these genres can be wary of anything that deviates from the formula. “Both the electronic and reggaeton worlds are very specific and very critical of things that are different,” says Calloway, who spent several years on the DJ circuit and held down a residency in Ibiza before making his name as a producer for the likes of Alejandro and Bad Bunny. That rigidity around genre, not uncommon in the music industry, means that “a lot of artists or their teams are scared” to deviate from preexisting blueprints, Calloway continues. But “Rauw and Bad Bunny don’t care.”
“Dakiti” seems to exist halfway between house and reggaeton. Tainy started the keening, waterlogged beat at least three years ago, but no one wanted to use it at the time. This summer, the producer collaborated with Splice, a company that offers royalty-free samples for a modest fee, on a sound pack, making snippets of some old and unreleased material available online. When Jhay Cortez, a longtime hit writer recently turned solo star, was bored in quarantine in Puerto Rico, he downloaded that collection of sounds from Splice and started playing around with “Dakiti.” (Tainy had actually sent him the demo years ago.)
While Cortez started to invent melodies for “Dakiti,” he put a simple kick drum behind the track as a guide. Soon audio files were flying back and forth between Cortez, Bad Bunny, and Tainy, who prepared to add the snares and hi-hats that would transform the “Dakiti” demo into something more aligned with the reggaeton mainstream. But “Jhay wasn’t feeling it,” Tainy says. “He sent it with just a kick, and we got used to it.”
There’s a ghost of a reggaeton percussion pattern during the hook of “Dakiti,” but it’s low in the mix, as if leaking in from a house party down the street; the track’s primary engine is that naked kick drum thumping at around 110 beats per minute. That’s quick enough to lap your average reggaeton track, but still slow enough to lag behind a house single, and the producers never add extra oomph to the kick the way they might in a conventional house record. “We were trying not to get it all the way across the line to house, but also not take it to typical reggaeton [territory],” Tainy says. “It took people two or three listens to get used to it.”
Just two weeks after Bad Bunny and Jhay Cortez released “Dakiti,” Rauw Alejandro put out his debut album, Afrodisíaco, which contains “Química.” (Tainy’s presence is felt on Afrodisíaco as well — listen to the sumptuous “Pensándote.”) If “Dakiti” finds a middle ground between two genre poles, “Química” induces whiplash by careening happily from one to the other.
“Química” is also an oldie: Alejandro started it in a writing camp several years ago, according to Calloway. The demo was originally picked up by the veteran reggaeton duo Wisin and Yandel before ending up in the hands of another long-running pair, Zion and Lennox, who appear on the final version. As Alejandro worked on his solo debut, he became increasingly interested in rejuvenating the track with a house-music twist, leaping all the way from 95 beats per minute to 120.
“Química” feints like it’s any other mainstream reggaeton hit, softening a curt drum pattern with gentle melodies. Steve Martinez says the instrumentation — a flicker of acoustic guitar and some bright synthesizers — already reminded him of house classics from Todd Terry and Masters at Work. “As soon as I heard that, I knew exactly what kind of drums we wanted,” he explains. After a beeping transition, the sonic equivalent of a timer counting down to an explosion in an action film, “Química” lurches forward as if shot out of a cannon, veering from reggaeton to hard-charging house.
“We’re not the first” to mix the two styles, Steve says. “But it hasn’t been done much in a modern sense.”
“Química” is not a hit on the scale of “Dakiti,” but Calloway says he’s been hearing enthusiastic responses to the track from a lot of fellow artists. “People are saying, ‘This is a game changer; we’ve been trying to do things like this for a while but we got scared, or the label didn’t want us to,'” the producer notes. “A lot of people play it safe, but this needs to happen more.”
Tainy is already plotting his next shift. “Maybe we’ll do a drum and bass track with a reggaeton artist,” he says. “That sounds exciting.”