The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Record labels said Latin trap was ‘going nowhere.’ Billions of YouTube views proved them wrong.

Ozuna performs at the Latin Grammy Awards in 2018. He was the most-streamed YouTube artist last year, with more than 8.7 billion views. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

In 2018, Latin trap was everywhere. The “Te Boté” remix — a trap juggernaut featuring Latin heavyweights Bad Bunny, Nicky Jam and Ozuna — spent 21 weeks on the Billboard 100. The rapper Anuel AA climbed Latin music charts with a slew of releases. And Bad Bunny and Ozuna logged billions of plays on Spotify and YouTube.

Unlike Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi’s 2017 viral smash “Despacito,” Latin trap didn’t need a name like Justin Bieber to launch it into the pop stratosphere. The style of bass-heavy hip-hop, derived from Southern rap traditions created by African American emcees, has always been entirely in Spanish.

The first Latin trap songs to rise above the din were hard-nosed and provocative, attracting acclaim as well as controversy over lyrics about drugs, sex and violence. Woozy tracks such as the Bad Bunny-led “Krippy Kush” and Chris Jeday’s collaboration “Ahora Dice” reflected the hedonistic, tough-talking world of male rappers that, until recently, featured few female collaborators.

In its early days, the movement lurked underground, primarily in Puerto Rico. Ozuna and Anuel would duck into local studios, trying to kick-start their careers. Bad Bunny found time between college classes and his job bagging groceries to upload music onto SoundCloud. Bryant Myers recorded songs after school and shared them on social media.

“So many of the guys who are famous right now were just kids doing the same thing in the street,” Myers said.

But the music has morphed over time, and pioneers noticed the possibilities of mixing their high-hats and skittering beats with other styles of urbano, or Latin urban genres, such as reggaeton, R&B and dembow. Now the sounds percolating in Latin music are more experimental and varied than ever before, thanks in large part to its trap movement, which has heralded in a new era of boundary-pushing hits.

It wasn’t easy. Record labels told the Dominican rapper Messiah that Latin trap was “going nowhere.” Websites and Latin blogs told him the music was “cool” but had no future.

Of course, they were wrong.

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In the mid-2000s, Arcángel and De La Ghetto emerged out of Puerto Rico’s reggaeton scene, which was built by Afro-Latin rappers and musicians mixing hip-hop with reggae rhythms brought to the island by black Panamanian migrants. The duo had split their childhoods between parts of the U.S. mainland, such as New York and Tennessee, as well as Puerto Rico. They rapped in Spanish, but drew heavily from the hip-hop and trap they had connected with in the mainland. Their 2007 remix for the song, “El Pistolón,” with the reggaeton group Yaga & Mackie, became one of the earliest examples of Latin trap.

“I lived in Memphis for a while, so I started seeing that South style,” De La Ghetto said. “Trap music, it brought hip-hop to the club — you could dance it, you could jump to it, you could party to it, and that’s what caught my attention.”

“Latinos are everywhere, and there are so many kids that identify with hip-hop, so you started to see people bringing that quality in Spanish,” added Fuego, a Dominican rapper.

Artists from the Latin American diaspora eventually launched trap experiments of their own. Toward the end of 2014, Fuego, who got his start in the Washington area, released “Fireboy Forever,” an independent mix tape full of Latin trap songs that included features from reggaeton vanguards such as Farruko and Zion & Lennox. In New York, Messiah growled Spanish rhymes over popular rap songs; also in 2014, he teamed up with the Dominican DJ Flipstar and recorded “Sí Ta Bien,” a barking, boastful remix of Rich Homie Quan’s “Type Of Way.”

Messiah’s music was hard to classify, he said, because “there was nothing called Latin trap. It didn’t have a name; there was no movement.”

Still, he was appealing to listeners.

“I got full clubs jamming to my set, which was predominantly trap,” he said. “My music branched out everywhere.”

All the while, a younger generation in Puerto Rico started paying attention to mainland trap stars and the ways in which DIY artists had built fan bases on SoundCloud. In the past, De La Ghetto said, rappers like him “didn’t really have Internet access or phones like that. We couldn’t watch Future online.”

But the Internet age shifted the tectonic plates of the music scene.

“I would put the music on SoundCloud, and then [in 2015] I released, ‘Esclava,’ which went viral in Puerto Rico,” Myers said. “People would pay me a few hundred bucks to play at parties or whatever, and my rate started going up as I got more popular.”

Members of reggaeton’s old guard noticed the new class. De La Ghetto remembers producers and rappers raving about artists such as Ozuna and particularly Anuel, who had been shaping his sound on gritty underground tracks and remixes. But no one understood Anuel’s style in the beginning, De La Ghetto recalled.

“Then all of a sudden, Anuel did a couple of songs for kids in Puerto Rico, and I heard him again, and I was like, ‘Yo, that’s Anuel? He’s sounding crazy!’ He had that rawness.”

Collaborations between reggaeton and trap artists became frequent, and in 2016, the DJ Luian and Mambo Kingz hit “La Ocasión” — featuring De La Ghetto, Arcángel, Anuel and Ozuna — took things to the next level.

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Since 2015, Apple Music Latin programmer Jerry Pullés had been making Latin playlists that revolved heavily around reggaeton. But when “La Ocasión” dropped, he noticed a palpable shift in direction.

“I remember talking to my boss, and saying, ‘There’s something happening with this music, and it’s not reggaeton,’ ” Pullés said.

He created Apple’s “Trap Kingz” playlist, which became the go-to destination for Latin trap releases.

Even as Latin trap thrived on streaming platforms, its explicit content often barred it from radio. When the pop star Maluma joined Myers and other trap stars in 2016 for “Cuatro Babys,” which is about a foursome, a petition accused the song of demeaning women and ordered it pulled from digital services. Anuel drew controversy in June 2017 when a judge in Puerto Rico sentenced him to 30 months in federal prison for unlawful possession of a firearm.

Some artists never tied themselves to just one style. The success of such viral earworms as J Balvin’s “Mi Gente” gave Spanish-language music a boost in visibility, and Latin trap artists such as Bad Bunny and Ozuna seized the moment to work with the likes of Drake, Jennifer Lopez and Diplo. These collaborations showed how the genre’s versatility could translate into pop.

By the start of this year, Bad Bunny had released his groundbreaking debut album, “X 100Pre,” earned a Grammy nomination and got booked for Coachella. Ozuna, who has both a movie and a new album in the works, obliterated streaming records, beating Bieber as the most-streamed YouTube artist of 2018with more than 8.7 billion views.

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For decades, the Latin music industry banked on such marketable pop artists as Shakira and Ricky Martin. Acts that didn’t adhere to certain sound and image standards were often excluded — something artists such as the Afro-Latina singer Amara La Negra has pointed out over the years. Although criticism of the industry’s prioritization of light-skinned rappers remains, urbano’s rise has expanded ideas of what genres can create stars.

“It doesn’t have to be all tight latex pants,” Fuego said. “There just has to be a variety. But we need to be involved, too — us, the street dudes or whatever you want to call us.”

As Latin trap has become part of the broader urban umbrella, some wonder if it’s moment has passed and point out that what’s being released goes beyond a “Latin trap” label. Others insist that trap is here to stay; it’s just moving in a new direction.

“The music has to change, otherwise it’s all going to sound the same,” Messiah said. “There was a moment where everything was trap. But the other day, I was listening to a whole bunch of records, and you got things that are dance hall or more R&B, and that’s what it has to be.”

It’s not only the music that’s changing. Anuel was released from prison last summer after serving more than two years, but his homecoming concert was canceled after an offensive diss track he’d aimed at the rapper Cosculluela leaked online. Anuel referred to the song, which uses homosexuality as a taunt, as “the biggest mistake of my career, worse than going to prison” in a nearly six-minute YouTube apology.

Now, he says he’s focused on spreading a more positive example.

“My heart doesn’t get filled up with that hate,” he said. “To be honest, what’s the point of releasing good music and having everyone [into] you, but you’re a super negative example? You’re just lying to people who look up to you. I didn’t realize that before.”

Still, Anuel’s apologies weren’t enough for listeners concerned with homophobia in the genre.

When the openly gay trap artist Kevin Fret was killed in Puerto Rico in January, his murder ignited further debate about LGBTQ violence and discrimination. Amid a police investigation, Ozuna released a statement alleging that Fret had been extorting him over an explicit video he appeared in as a teenager. (The Puerto Rico Police, which is investigating Fret’s murder, did not respond to The Post’s inquiries.) The scandals roiling Latin music intensified after the reggaeton artist Don Omar posted a gay slur on Instagram, apparently in reference to Ozuna.

In response, Bad Bunny fired off a tweet that read, “Homophobia in this day and age? How embarrassing.”

Later, he released a video for his song, “Caro,” that stars a woman dressed as him and includes two drag queens, a move heralded as progressive by activists and fans. In just a few months, the video has racked up more than 69 million YouTube views .

Artists say this is just one of many signs that Latin urban music — and Latin trap — are welcoming fresh energy and entering a new chapter. They want to keep building momentum and proving the global power of their sounds.

“We’re breaking barriers, we’re connecting genres, and we’re making these connections,” Fuego said. “It’s still growing and glowing up.”