Long before the Rolling Stones headlined Havana, making music in Cuba was a grind for Alexander Delgado, founder of reggaetón duo Gente de Zona. “I’d get on my bike with an assistant and pedal him 12 miles to the studio, which used egg cartons for sound insulation,” he says. “It took us an hour to get there. He was very short and very fat!”
These days, Gente de Zona — Delgado, 36, and Randy Malcom, 32 — jets around the world on private planes. In 2014, just as relations between Cuba and the United States began to thaw, the pair had a record 41-week run atop Hot Latin Songs with Enrique Iglesias‘ “Bailando,” on which they’re featured. On April 22, Gente finally released its U.S. debut, Visualízate, on Sony Music Latin and Magnus Media, which is owned by Marc Anthony, who signed Gente after Pitbull brought the pair to his Miami house in 2015. “They were some of the most charismatic guys I’d ever met,” recalls Anthony. “I just heard the future of music.”
Delgado was raised in Alamar, a Havana community of housing projects divided by zones — hence Gente de Zona, or People of the Zone. “I tell stories of what’s going on in the neighborhood,” says Delgado of Gente’s music. Cuban radio didn’t bite at first; the pair’s rap-heavy sound was too urban for party-sanctioned airwaves. But Gente grew a huge local fan base anyway, attracting the attention of Descemer Bueno, a Miami-based singer-songwriter-producer expat who met with the duo in Cuba in 2013 to collaborate. Bueno had initially written “Bailando” with Iglesias, but the singer shelved it; Gente wrote and recorded new parts and released its version with a YouTube video, rekindling Iglesias’ interest in the song. He added his vocals, and the rest is chart history.
Gente followed “Bailando” with two more hit collaborations, both with Anthony, whom they frequently open for on tour. Today, the two fly back and forth between shows in Europe, and family visits in Cuba, and Miami, where they now live part-time. Is U.S. citizenship next? “I haven’t thought about it — I don’t want to lose my roots,” says Delgado. “I’m too busy representing Cuba.”
Get to Know Gente
Names: Alexander Delgado, Randy Malcom
Sound: Raw reggaetón with traditional Cuban rhythms
Cosigns: Pitbull, Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony
Hit List: 2014’s “Bailando” with Iglesias and Descemer Bueno (No.1, Hot Latin Songs, 41 weeks); 2015’s “La Gozadera” featuring Anthony (No.1, Tropical Songs); 2016’s “Traidora,” featuring Anthony (No.1, Tropical Songs)
Family Matters: Malcom’s father was in esteemed timba band Charanga Habanera before he defected to Mexico
This article originally appeared in the May 7 issue of Billboard.