Latin Grammys Preview: How Top Producers From Colombia Are Defining a New Latin Sound

Ethan Miller/WireImage
Columbia's Castro (left) and Vives shared the 2014 Latin Grammy for best tropical song for "Cuando Nos Volvamos a Encontrar."

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The sounds of superstar artists from Colombia -- Shakira, Juanes, Carlos Vives -- have reached the top of Billboard's Latin charts ­during the past few years. Now, as the Latin Grammy Awards approach, a new wave of Colombian influence is shaping Latin music, with a rhythm drawing on the sound of reggaeton.

The Hot Latin Songs chart has been dominated for the past six months by J Balvin, a native of Medellin -- Colombia's second-largest city -- and Nicky Jam, whose hit "El Perdon" was recorded with Colombian producer Saga WhiteBlack. And at the Latin Grammys, which will air Nov. 19 from Las Vegas on the Univision network, Balvin is up for two awards while Jam is nominated in three categories.

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Also vying for honors are Colombian artists Bomba Estéreo, Chocquibtown, Maluma and Monsieur Perine and producers Andres Saavedra, Julio Reyes and songwriter-producer Andres Castro.

Billboard invited four in-demand ­producers -- Castro, 41 (Carlos Vives, Maluma); Andres Saavedra, 33 (Raquel Sofia, Avionica, Atelagalli); Alejandro "Mosty" Ramirez, 23; and Alejandro "Sky" Patino, 23 (both collaborators with J Balvin) -- to share views from their perspective in the studio on the new Colombian sound that's shaping Latin music around the globe.

Why is Colombian music hot today?

CASTRO Reggaeton has added new momentum to [the success] we all knew, like Vives, Juanes, Shakira. Now, there's a huge urban movement coming from Medellin and from Colombia's Pacific Coast, and it has generated a lot of interest from young artists who want to do different music with different sounds.

SAAVEDRA I'm intrigued by how the new urban movement coming out of Colombia is defining new pop. It's really blurring the line between pop and urban. Puerto Rican reggaeton was a little stuck, and what's coming out of Colombia is defining a new trend.

SKY Colombian music always has been admired and respected, but this urban movement has put the finishing touches on the big picture.

How do you define this sound?

CASTRO The reggaeton coming from Medellin is different from what was happening in Puerto Rico because it's a little ballad-y and danceable. It kind of joins the two worlds into one accessible sound. This has been part of its huge success. You also have artists like Maluma, who has urban ­elements with more of a "mountain" influence, and Chocquibtown, which has a very urban sound mixed with salsa.

SAAVEDRA J Balvin's "Ginza" could be a Justin Bieber track.

MOSTY Our reggaeton is less of a street genre. Violence in Colombia is not something we're proud of, so we like to concentrate on the positive. We wanted to take things to another level. At a technical level, reggaeton hasn't always been of great quality. And from there, we wanted to compete in another way but with a softer sound that didn't overpower the vocals.

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How does Colombia, as a country and culture, play into this sound?

SAAVEDRA It's something that you don't immediately hear, but it's there. Colombia listens with its hips. That's why certain beats come easier to us.

CASTRO There is a language and a rhythmic ­connection. We do have many Puerto Rican and Cuban influences, because we've been very close to that music. Even geographically, given our location [in the northernmost tip of South America]. But it's increasingly harder to know where music is coming from. There's so much more interaction and access.

But isn't Colombian music filled with nostalgia and history?

CASTRO Oh, yes. It's the mountains. You always hear the mountains in South American music -- in Peru, in Argentina. That's the root of Juanes' sound, and that's what you don't hear in other Caribbean countries.

Where do you think the energy and drive come from for this continuing, evolving sound?

SAAVEDRA It's part of the generational change that happens to everyone. Everything evolves. When Vives decided to record "Pa Mayte," he ­created "tropi-pop." Then Juanes came along with Colombian rock. Maybe the fact is nothing can stop a passionate, hardworking Colombian.

SKY (To Saavedra.) That's true. And the urban ­artists here in Colombia, they see what's ­happening with Balvin and Nicky Jam, and ­everyone's motivated -- not only in urban music, but also reggaeton. There was a time when that music wasn't on the charts. Urban music was leaning toward merengue and tropical. And now reggaeton has come back. It has returned to its essence, but with a Colombian touch.

SAAVEDRA To understand the magnitude of what J has done, it's as if Panama, which has never been a soccer power, suddenly beat Argentina and Brazil for the World Cup. It's very, very big. Pop is the genre that took longest to open the door to urban music. And now, the new pop is... urban.

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Do you see new trends right now?

SKY "Ginza" [Balvin's new single] is different from reggaeton. It's another format for the music -- faster. Americans will identify more. They're used to more uptempo songs, and reggaeton tends to be slower.

MOSTY We're also trying to really take things to another level. When it comes to sound, ­reggaeton hasn't always had the best track record. From where we are, we wanted to compete in a different way without sounding too harsh, like Puerto Rico ­reggaeton, which really explodes.

CASTRO Reggaeton has become "cool" for everyone. It doesn't have that stigma anymore.

SKY It's now a little like salsa choke [a mix of salsa, rap and Pacific Coast beats]. It's something that's starting to develop. We'll see where it's at a year from now.

How about alternative music. Is there room for that?

SAAVEDRA In the Latin realm, I think it's very niche. There's alternative stuff out there, but it has to make you move. What I'm doing lately is mixing in more electronic elements, and the sound is less rock and a little lighter.

Where do you see Colombian music going next?

SAAVEDRA The urban movement is still on the rise. As big as it is now, there are 300 up-and-coming acts in every corner. And with heroes like J, there's a big urban wave coming.

CASTRO It's hard to say. A year ago, radio stations had changed their names and become bachata ­stations. And in less than a year, it has been a 180-degree turn. But I'm hearing [the ­reggaeton drum kick] dembow everywhere. It's what everyone wants to do and what everyone wants to explore. Reggaeton is alive again.

SKY The catch-all phrase is going to be "Put some dembow on that." More than a song, it's a total fusion of urban and reggaeton. Even if it's not ­reggaeton, its rhythmic base has that. It's the ­texture that most people want to listen to now.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of Billboard.