El Sistema, the new album from the veteran reggaeton duo Zion & Lennox, opens with a mini-mix that cycles through some of the biggest hits they’ve released over the last two decades: There’s a snippet of 2009’s “Yo Tengo Una Gata,” a sliver of 2015’s “Pierdo La Cabeza,” a few seconds of the famed “Zun Da Da” chorus that Zion recorded as a solo act, and tons of the booming, deep-voiced ad-libs that Lennox has been perfecting since the Nineties. The track is a celebration of the success they’ve seen since joining forces as teenagers in Puerto Rico and becoming pioneers of the genre.
“That intro takes you on a journey through the years, like a time machine, preparing you for El Sistema and all the new music we have,” Zion says on a recent FaceTime call with Lennox from Miami. “It was an idea we came up with and a lot of people have told us how much they like listening back to these songs.” Lennox adds, “It has that essence of everything that Zion & Lennox is — a lot of reggaeton, a lot of perreo.”
El Sistema builds on the duo’s long-standing history together. They recently recounted how they were just kids when they began tinkering with recording equipment in their neighborhood in Carolina. Zion had a local reputation as a singer, and Lennox’s brother, the rapper Mackie Ranks, approached Zion one day about coming by his home studio. Eventually, they teamed up, playing off the contrast between Zion’s upbeat delivery as a singer and rapper and Lennox’s full-toned baritone.
El Sistema shows how that interplay has only become more refined as the pair has experimented with new styles and collaborated with new artists. The project is just the beginning of what they have in store — they share that they spent time both before and during the pandemic cranking out new music and have much more they hope to release this year. Below, they reflect on their two-decade career, the process of putting together El Sistema, and the direction they see the genre going next.
This interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity.
El Sistema coincides with your 20-year anniversary as a duo. How has your musical partnership evolved over the decades?
Lennox: In the beginning, I remember I still hadn’t figured out my voice and my part. I knew I was dedicated to the verses. But little by little, I found myself as I learned more about music. Now, we feel blessed to have reached the level we have in the industry. It’s been 20 years — two decades of a lot of success.
Zion: When you’ve been together for more than 20 years, there’s more maturity, there’s more discipline, there’s more focus. I feel like we’re in a moment where fans are supporting us, and it really makes us want to keep going, because we want to leave a legacy behind for the next generations coming up in music. We’ve inspired a lot of people, a lot of artists who are successful today, so to have been able to collaborate for so long and keep going, it means a lot to us.
You have veterans like De La Ghetto on this project, as well as newer stars like Rauw Alejandro, Sech, and Natti Natasha. What do you think about the new artists coming up in the industry and where do you see the genre going?
Lennox: The genre is really evolving, and these new artists are really pushing the industry with new music, new styles, new images. We’re seeing young artists that are giving the genre new life. I’m a big fan of this thing that’s happening, with artists mixing a little bit of electronic sounds and club sounds in the genre, so I hope we keep seeing more fusions and different approaches in the music.
One of the highlights on here is “GOTA GOTA,” the song you have with the Dominican artist El Alfa. He fits right into the album and your sound.
Zion: I was in the studio with [the producer] Chael… and I got inspired as a soon as I heard the beat, and that’s where the ideas for the intro and the chorus started coming out.
Lennox: And that’s when I came in, because this was during the pandemic. So we sent it to everyone. I was in Puerto Rico and recorded my verse —
Zion: El Alfa was the last one to jump on it. We started this project before the pandemic and finished it during the pandemic. Lennox was recording at his house, I was working in a home studio where I was staying. I was in Colombia for a few months during the pandemic and they closed the borders when I was still there, so it was a lot of sending files to finish some of the songs.
What side of you do you want fans to see on El Sistema?
Zion: I want people to go “Whoa! Zion & Lennox, after 20 years, they’re still releasing music that everyone is into” — and not to sleep too much on us, because we have way too much music coming right now in 2021 and 2022.
What can you tell us about some of the music you have in the works?
Zion: We’d love for the rest of it to come out before the end of the year so we can hit people twice: boom, boom! It would be awesome to see what the label thinks, because we’re ready. It’s a lot of songs that tell a story and some that feature artists from our generation, legends that are super-established in the urbano movement. There are collaborations with electronic sounds, we have a corrido that’s spectacular. It’s actually a really different kind of corrido because we use a cuatro —
Lennox: It’s a really special string instrument from Puerto Rico.
Zion: Exactly, it’s a traditional instrument from Puerto Rico and it gives it a really special touch that we think people are going to like — among other things that I can’t tell you because we can’t give everything away. [Laughs.]
After 20 years in the industry, you’ve seen this genre change so much. What are some of the things you’ve learned having witnessed how the music has evolved?
Lennox: As the genre has grown, what I’ve learned that there is opportunity for everyone. Music is universal and the genre isn’t about one country — there’s space for everyone.