By now, most fans of Calle 13-the irreverent urban duo from Puerto Rico-have seen the act's video for "Calma Pueblo," in which people tear off their clothes as a sign of rebellion only to be shot down by unseen rifles. Featuring rock group the Mars Volta, the video and song are shocking, for not only the full frontal nudity-male and female-but also the relentless, aggressive beats and the lyrics, which disparage everything from lip-synching in live performances to payola to dishonest politicians.
"I had written eight pages of lyrics for the song, and I deleted and deleted," says Rene Perez (aka Residente), who, along with brother Eduardo Cabra (aka Visitante), make up Calle 13. "Because it's subject matter that can come off like cheap pamphleteering. And that's not what I wanted to do."
Calle 13 has perfected the art of vocal and voluble social commentary to a degree not found before in Latin music, and the duo has earned critical praise and multiple Latin Grammy Awards as a result. But the two artists aren't grim-faced ideologues-the brothers make sure to inject humor and dance beats into their music. Those two traits come together on their new album, "Entren los Que Quieran" (Anyone Can Come In), due Oct. 25 on Sony Music Latin. The set mixes politics with introspectiveness, or, as Perez describes it, "pretty songs, with good lyrics, but pretty."
Could those pretty songs make it to U.S. radio? Thus far it's been a rare occurrence for a group whose music defies definition and radio formats-and whose new album denounces payola as the means to get No. 1 hits.
Still, Perez says, there's at least one (still untitled) track on the new album that's "so good, it'll be No. 1 on every station. I don't even think I'll have to pay."
Calle 13 hasn't had a U.S. radio hit since "Atrevete Te, Te!" in 2006, from the duo's self-titled debut. (It reached No. 15 on Billboard's Hot Latin Songs chart.) And Sony says it hasn't been easy to get airplay.
"Latin America is their real home," Sony Music U.S. Latin VP of marketing Paula Kaminsky says, though she notes that singles will be worked to U.S. radio. Still, she adds, videos are essential to the group's promotion. For example, while the duo's new single, "Baile de los Pobres," likely won't go to radio, a video is being shot. And despite Perez's comments about brands in "Calma Pueblo" ("Adidas doesn't use me, I use Adidas," he says of his current sponsor), there are others waiting in the wings. Perez's rhetoric, Kaminsky says, "doesn't affect us. On the contrary, he's one of the artists most requested by brands. He's very attractive as a personality."
The fact that Sony supports Calle 13's persona and behavior makes for an unusual alliance. While Calle 13 has had relatively modest U.S. sales (the duo's last album, 2008's "Los de Atras Vienen Conmigo," has sold 54,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan), Sony is aggressively promoting the group throughout Latin America and Spain.
And the label allows Calle 13 to be unorthodox, as it was with the "Calma Pueblo" song and video, which originally were only released on the group's website.
"The Web is a very heavy tool," Perez says. "I wanted to do something exclusively for the Internet. The idea was to work freely, without any self-censoring. If there was no censoring [in media], this is the video I'd make. And since I have my Web page, I put it up there, so whoever wanted to watch could come and do so."