If anyone knows what reggae has to do with reggaeton, it's probably Notch. On his debut album, "Raised by the People," the son of a Jamaican-Cuban father and a black and Puerto Rican mother presents s
If anyone knows what reggae has to do with reggaeton, it's probably Notch. On his debut album, "Raised by the People," the son of a Jamaican-Cuban father and a black and Puerto Rican mother presents something like a photo gallery of his musical roots: dancehall, reggaeton, roots reggae, salsa and R&B, delivered back and forth in Spanish, English and patois.
Norman Howell spent his childhood in the inner city of Hartford, Conn. absorbing the music played by his father, a bass player in a local reggae band that backed touring acts like Toots & the Maytals and Horace Andy. (The Latin music came during "music appreciation time" with his mother's relatives, who would drink and dance while babysitting him).
Notch initially followed his father's footsteps as part of reggae-R&B duo Born Jamericans on the Delicious Vinyl label. But after the act split up in 1998, Notch's father encouraged him to explore his other musical side.
"He said 'Listen, you've got a lot of different backgrounds to you,'" recalls Notch. By delving into Latin sounds, said his father, "'you might find a lot of musical answers.'"
Notch got a major hint after he got his hands on a mixtape by Doo Wop and Latin DJ Tony Touch, which combined raps in Spanish and English. He started fusing his dancehall with Spanish lyrics, and when his label didn't get it, he took a trip down to Puerto Rico where a producer introduced to him by a friend suggested he speed up the beat.
By 2002, New York's Hot 97 had picked up "Hay Que Bueno," a dancehall track he'd recorded with Spanish lyrics. A reggaeton remix by DJ Blass hit first on radio in Puerto Rico and gradually found its way to clubs on the mainland, just as reggaeton was finding its commercial boom.
"I was doing R&B bilingual and mixing patois in English over hip-hop and Latin-infused music," says Notch. "I was never doing reggaeton... I didn't look at it like, this reggaeton is going to blow me up. I was happy that now the Latin community could be interested in more of what I had to offer."
Notch sang on a slew of tracks by fusionists like the Brand New Heavies, Sublime and Thievery Corporation, as well as reggaeton heavyweights Daddy Yankee and Voltio.
He finds connections between Jamaican poco drums and the Latin tropical timbal; he notes that salsa radio from Cuba bleeds onto Jamaican airwaves. "The upper echelon of Jamaica, their downtime is going to salsa nights," he notes.
After talking to several labels, who were looking for a "token reggaeton artist," he signed a joint venture between his imprint, Cinco por Cinco, and Machete Music. "They allowed me to do my trilingual thing and switch it up," says Notch. "They weren't trying to use me as the reggaeton guy."
His album "Raised by the People" debuted at No. 12 on Billboard's Latin Rhythm Albums Chart on the strength of bilingual reggaeton single "Dale Pa' Tra (Back It Up)." Another album highlight is roots reggae track "No Problema," also sung in Spanish and English.
Even if not everyone gets the fusions, "I'm gonna keep on doing catchy melodies," says Notch with pride. "Everything is in me."