We may be at peak reggaeton. Justin Bieber is celebrating—or appropriating—the genre, depending on whom you ask. Spotify's wildly popular "Baila Reggaeton" playlist brings big followings to obscure artists, seemingly overnight. LGBQT reggaeton parties like Mami Slut draw new followers every week. And we all know it's just a matter of time before Drizzy drops a fire reggaeton record.
But before reggaeton even had a name, for many Latinx kids, it was the sound of our coming of age, mainly at quinceañeras. We didn't know we were dancing to the next multibillion dollar genre. We were just dressed-up, klutzy teens navigating the awkward hardships of attracting a partner to "bust a scam" (make out) with by night's end. Quinceañeras were where thousands of Latinxs had their first drink, dance, cigarette—you name it—as one of our closest friends celebrated her symbolic entry into adulthood in a big wedding-like white gown. It was also where many, including myself, first heard reggaeton, or a precursor of it, over a decade before Daddy Yankee brought the genre to an international stage.
I could never bring myself to dance, but one night the stolen Presidente did the trick. As Edgardo Franco, a.k.a. El General, sang "Tu pum pum mami mami.." a metonym for a woman's nether-regions over the infectious but simple "dembow riddim" (the dancehall-derived rhythm responsible for reggaeton), I was dragged to the floor. What began as dancing quickly shifted to full contact grinding, horrifying the adults in the room (if you know how thin a suit can be, even more horrifying in retrospect). But our strength was in numbers, and there was nothing the adults could do. Some even joined.
With reactions like this, it's no wonder El General found worldwide success. Many written histories of reggaeton fail to mention El General's influence on the genre, opting rather to leave his contribution as simply "reggae en Español." But hair-splitting distinctions like this didn't matter on the dancefloor: Our Saturday night escape was found in the pulsating rhythms and explicit sexual innuendo. It helped foster fond memories to hold us over as we made it through Sunday morning Church services. His music was the perfect soundtrack to block parties, weddings, and clubs across Latin America and Latinx communities in the United States. It was addictive and facilitated interaction between the sexes. El General was there to fill awkward silence with sweaty dancing.
The genesis of El General's music can be traced back Panama's public transportation system. A sizeable Jamaican diaspora stayed in Panama after the building of the Panama Canal. Reggae and dancehall are some of the cultural gifts that came with it. An obsessed Franco and his friends started a musical group, and made their own versions in Spanish. Taking a cue from the Jamaican buses known for their sound systems, they blasted their tapes on city buses, helping a scene develop around this style of reggae en Español or "Plena." Franco then made his way to New York where he refined the sound with Jamaican producer Michael Ellis.
El General's music was made for the dance floor. His 1988 release Estas Buena, which opens with a Spanish-language cover of Shabba Rank's "Dem Bow," could pass as a straightforward dancehall album. But his career evolved with his sound. Salsa, merengue, and other latin elements gave this brand of dembow a unique quality. His chant was unmistakeable, and a charming tongue-in-cheek delivery accompanied now-obviously problematic lines like "Tienes unas caderas que parecen carretera."
Franco's heavy involvement in the New York club scene might be what led to his initial American market success. The cheeky sense of humor on a song like "Rica y Apretadita" (literally, delicious and tight) filled Spanish language airwaves throughout much of the 90s. But El General's early single "Tu Pun Pun" first found airplay in American markets, eventually working its way down to Central and South America. His is 1991 hit "Muevelo" was produced by a young Erick Morillo, who would go on to produce "I Like To Move It" and become a house music legend in his own right.
El General would then solidify his cross-over potential by featuring on the C&C Music Factory hit "Robi Rob's Boriqua Anthem." Then, 17 platinum and 32 gold records into his career, he announced his retirement. In 2004 El General went on a farewell tour, announcing he was stepping back to focus on producing. But after a couple of years, it seemed as though he had disappeared completely.
Then, in 2008, a video interview surfaced of him explaining his return to the Jehovah's Witness faith, and his commitment to staying away from music. The interviewer asked what would happened if big offers came in; Franco said the offers had never stopped. Eight years later, a well-produced video tract for the Jehovah's Witnesses further quelled any questions of his commitment.
The video shows a young Franco in a padded sound booth, as he lays down the vocals for an unidentified song. A shrewd manager pours him a glass of rum to calm him as he takes his headphones off in disgust over the lyrical content. The real Edgardo Franco narrates this, and he recounts the time spent as El General. Franco asserts that this was an empty and dark era for him. He equates his platinum records and many accolades as "trophies from the devil."
But Franco smiles as he talks about the constant barrage of offers to come back to music, which often involve private jets and stacks of money. It's almost as if he still finds it flattering. He seems at peace with his new life and has no regret about passing up every offer that comes his way. And with 90s nostalgia at a peak and reggaeton back on top in the global spotlight, the offers must be nothing short of staggering. But nothing, he says, can bring him back to the life he left so many years ago. Not even the opportunity to claim his rightful throne as the father of reggaeton, a title he doesn't shy away from.
"Honestly, it's a music that comes from Jamaica," he said when asked where reggaeton came from in an interview with Mexico's Vanguardia. But he knows his place in the grand scheme. He doesn't hesitate when asked who the father of reggaeton is. "As far as the Hispanic market, it's me. Vico C from Puerto Rico's influence is undeniable, but he focused more on hip-hop" he says.
Whatever his place in the scope of reggaeton, one thing is certain : El General had Latinxs the world over dancing, twerking, and grinding to delightfully decadent spanish-language dembow, years before "reggaeton" was a household word. Legendary singer Celia Cruz supposedly once told him he'd go far if he found a new rhythm. He listened, bringing Spanish-language dembow to a large audience, forging a path towards reggaeton.