They were two 22-year-olds from Puerto Rico, scraping by on low-paid club gigs and hoping for their big break. They would play several sets a night, sometimes until seven in the morning. They had no label, no publisher, no major connections. Their music was edgy, but not necessarily in a cool way. Over spare fusions of reggaetón and trap, they sang of gunfights, drug deals and the anguish of wanting a better life — the kind of material the Latin music mainstream dismissed as trashy and balked at playing on the radio.
In 2015, Anuel AA and Ozuna were just getting started at a moment when the charts favored Romeo Santos’ romantic bachata and the smoother beats of J Balvin and Nicky Jam. But the two outsiders impressed each other: Ozuna with his deceptively sweet tenor and knack for hooks, Anuel with his gruff voice and rebellious swagger. After Ozuna reached out about remixing Anuel’s rowdy underground hit “69” in 2015, they formed a fast friendship. “We recorded it and released it in four days,” says Ozuna in early January, over Zoom from Miami. He’s joined by Anuel elsewhere in the city; both speak in Spanish. “We got together almost daily in the neighborhood to make music. We were on fire. That’s how the parties revved up again in Puerto Rico. We revived them.”
They lit up more than just the party scene. Today, the 28-year-olds are the leaders of a new generation of reggaetón artists who have brought the genre to the forefront — prior to the pandemic, Anuel, Ozuna and Bad Bunny were among the few Latin artists filling arenas in North America — with their freewheeling career ethos: highly collaborative, extremely prolific and able to pursue their creative whims thanks to the flexibility of streaming and social media. “I think we’re the first artists who generated income in the digital world in a major way,” says Anuel. “Thank God, we hit precisely when streaming hit.”