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World Music Features

Calle 13
Published July 2, 2007

It was a dizzying first year for Puerto Rican half-brothers and musical partners Rene (Residente) Perez and Eduardo (Visitante) Cabra. And now, with their second CD, they’re determined to build on their already impressive debut, and re-sculpt reggaeton in their own image.

A hit debut album that seemed to burst out of nowhere. Videos filled with self-deprecating, sometimes black humor—and refreshingly free of tough-guy posturing or overt sexism. Three Latin Grammys. Collaborations with fellow reggaetoneros Voltio, and pop princess Nelly Furtado. It was a dizzying first year for Puerto Rican half-brothers and musical partners Rene (Residente) Perez and Eduardo (Visitante) Cabra. And now, with their second CD, they’re determined to build on their already impressive debut, and re-sculpt reggaeton in their own image.

In a way, they’re comparable to the Beastie Boys, whose debut full-length, 1986’s Licensed To Ill, gave them the image of beery pranksters who took nothing seriously. But three years later, the follow-up, Paul’s Boutique, was a dense and arty L.A. field report from three New Yorkers who’d traveled the world and settled across the country from home, and in the process expanded their sound far beyond hip-hop’s previously imagined limits, even sampling the Eagles and Pink Floyd. Similarly, Calle 13’s sophomore disc, Residente/Visitante, finds the group building on the reggaeton and hip-hop foundations of their debut, incorporating sounds and vocals from across Latin America. Even the album cover implies a stronger connection with a pan-Latin identity, featuring an almost Gothic-looking drawing of la Virgen de Guadalupe, her face in shadow and the band’s newly redesigned logo resting between her outstretched hands.

Everything about Calle 13 (translation: 13th Street) refers back to identity. As Residente explains it, “Calle 13 is not a band, it’s just us. The name started because [Visitante’s] father was my stepfather, so he used to visit me on Calle 13. I was residente of Calle 13. But at the same time, there are other things going on. Residente, now, with the immigration thing, has a lot of value–‘Resident’ and ‘visitor.’ Every place we go, sometimes we are residents and sometimes we are visitors.”

Starting out, the duo kept things tight, working almost exclusively with friends and family. One of Residente’s four sisters sings on both the debut and the new disc, under the name PG-13 (she’s still a teenager), and his grandmother is seen holding a disturbingly large, chromed handgun inside the CD booklet. They maintain a great deal of control over their music and image, too. “I always sit down with the directors,” says Residente of the video-making process. “They are friends of mine, so we brainstorm and then we start with various ideas. And at the end we present it to the label. And I’m in on the editing, too. That’s a problem I have–it’s difficult for me to give something to someone to do and forget about it. But I’m getting used to letting other people work, and [just] thinking about the music.”

The results of this insularity have been impressive so far: all of Calle 13’s videos have been superb, unsurprising given Perez’s arts background (he studied at the Savannah College of Art and Design). Their clip for “Suave” finds Residente cheating on a pretty blond dwarf—a friend of his, who also appears in the debut’s CD booklet. When she finds out, she becomes a giantess and begins chasing his car down the road like a monster in a 1950s horror movie. In the video for “Atrevete-te-te,” a song about introducing an “intellectual” girl to the joys of reggaeton, Residente plays a paperboy beguiled by an impassive conga line of girls in matching white miniskirts and platinum blond pageboy wigs who strut through the street as he, Visitante, and some of their friends catcall and wave from a tiny car. Just as the song’s lyrics deflate musical pretension (“Who cares if you like Green Day/Who cares if you like Coldplay,” Residente raps at one point), the video partakes in none of the jewel-encrusted, gold-draped clichés of hip-hop or reggaeton. “I think we’ll maintain that with ourselves,” says Perez. “We never had jewelry an

Calle 13’s self-created image as sarcastic wiseasses masks a keen awareness of political issues. Indeed, had one of their earliest songs made it to their debut CD, the group’s reputation might be very different. “Querido FBI” (Dear FBI) is a three-minute tirade, recorded only days after the U.S. government’s shooting of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos on September 23, 2005. Ríos, a leader of the Ejército Popular Boricua (Puerto Rican Popular Army), also known as the Macheteros. The organization has been linked to numerous terrorist bombings and attacks in support of Puerto Rican independence since its founding in 1976, and Ríos was was wanted by the FBI for his role in a 1983 Wells Fargo depot robbery by the Macheteros in Connecticut, and for jumping bail in 1990. He was shot while agents were allegedly attempting to serve an arrest warrant after surrounding the building in which he was hiding. Controversy continues to surround the FBI’s choice of September 23 as the date of the raid. The day is one of the most important dates to the Puerto Rican independence movement, commemorating as it does an earlier revolutionary group’s 1868 uprising against the Spanish, who ruled the island at the time.

“Querido FBI” isn’t much of a song; for most of its running time, only a snare and kick drum underpin Residente’s rantings. Thus, the lyrics jab into the listener’s head like shots from a nail-gun. “They have covered our flag with piss,” he barks, working himself gradually into a frothing rage worthy of Rage Against The Machine’s Zack de la Rocha as the relentless rhythm kicks him ever forward. “They are going to have to bury him standing up with the machete by his side…The FBI has gotten themselves a problem/They're fucked. The White House is fucked/Now I'm going to blow it up with style, in the name of Filiberto Ojeda Rios…They knocked down the man, but not his ideas/I spit at all the federals with diarrhea…Instead of shooting at our own housing projects/We need to shoot upwards, where it's cold/At those from the North.”