When Bad Bunny dedicated his Grammy to Puerto Rico proclaiming it the “cuna y capital de reggaeton en el mundo entierro,” he was making a statement. While the small island pioneered and refined the subgenre (a mash-up of Jamaican dancehall, Panamanian reggae en español, and New York–style hip-hop) during the ’90s and early 2000s, the recent emergence of flourishing reggaeton scenes in places like Argentina, Spain, and especially Colombia has shifted the balance of power.
Artists like J. Balvin, Karol G, and Feid are among the most-streamed artists today, while others like El Alfa are quickly closing the gap. And while reggaeton has always had its roots in the Caribbean, there’s no doubt that the inclusion of Spanish-speaking countries outside of the Caribbean has allowed the genre to reach new heights.
But just what makes Puerto Rican reggaeton different from the many styles sweeping through Latin America and where are the best places to find it on the island? To answer that, we have to go back to the genesis of the genre which, controversially, is tied to two different places: Panama and Puerto Rico
“So, I think Panamanians created ‘reggaeton’ and Puerto Ricans created ‘reguetón,'” says Katelina “Gata” Eccleston, an artist and reggaeton historian whose podcast, “Reggaeton Con La Gata,” dives into the history of the genre.
To be clear, the two spellings can be used interchangeably. What Eccleston is referring to is the way in which these two cultures came about their respective sounds: Panama, through its closer ties with traditional reggae music and dancehall due to the strong Jamaican presence there, and Puerto Rico as an intersection for Panamanian reggae en español, Jamaican dancehall, and New York hip-hop.
“It’s not necessarily who did it first, it’s that we all did very similar things at the same time and called them very different things,” Eccleston clarifies.
These similarities can be chalked up to a kind of entrepreneurial spirit that characterizes the hip-hop movement in all its forms, one that pushes young innovators to use any means in the pursuit to express themselves.
“The underground in Puerto Rico existed because of a lack of resources,” says Maria Luisa Marin, a reggaeton artist that goes by Mussa Medusa. Marin says that a lack of resources for Puerto Ricans on the island means that natives have become incredibly good at making something out of nothing, and Puerto Rican reggaeton is a prime example of that.
“I think, much of [the sound of Puerto Rican reggaeton] comes from this idea of ‘we don’t have resources to create our own sound, so what can we use from the outside and convert it to make something that is our own,” she says.
For this reason, Marin believes that the quintessential sound of reggaeton from the island is firmly rooted in the Puerto Rican musical traditions that were created and popularized by the diaspora — traditions that Boricuas on the island sampled and mixed to create a slew of new genres. Before the genre was known as reggaeton, it had many names such as rap y reggae, under, and most famously, dembow (not to be confused with the Dominican genre of the same name).
The influence of these proto-genres can all be found in the DNA of the reggaeton currently being produced on the island: from rap y reggae, the penchant for rapid-fire lyrical flexing, from under, the raw, sample-heavy production known for iconic loops like the “wite” (a guitar sample from the Cutty Ranks song “A Who Seh Me Dun”), and from dembow, the eponymous thudding bass beat that underscores the genre’s songs.
Marin says ’90s DJs like Playero and Negro then mixed these sounds with Latin staples like congas and timbales to create a raw percussive symphony, simple in its execution but with an unparalleled ability to move a crowd. She references “Safaera” by Bad Bunny as a great example of Puerto Rican–style reggaeton.
But maybe the thing that makes real, down-home, Puerto Rican reggaeton most identifiable is its hard-hitting down tempo and sexually charged lyrics. At anywhere from 90 to 100 bpms, a thudding, slow dembow is the perfect backdrop for lyrics that encourage sexually liberated minds and bodies to meet on the dancefloor. And no discussion of Puerto Rican reggaeton would be complete without mentioning the man responsible for slowing it down and creating the subgenre of “perreo,” the legendary DJ Blass.
“When I interviewed Blass, he told me to my face that he was trying to transport people from the club to the bed and based the bpm of his reggaeton on the bpm of sex,” Eccleston recalls.
DJ Blass was known throughout the early and mid-2000s as a genius producer who took the already sexual overtones of reggaeton and dialed them up to eleven. Also, a fan of Blass, Marin seconds this unabashed sexuality as a core component of the island’s unique take on the art form. She points to how the burgeoning queer community has gravitated to that early ’90s underground sound to express themselves as a sort of new underground — people that have been locked out of traditional spaces and resources now using the music they’ve grown up with to empower themselves.
“Growing up in Bayamón, I heard reggaeton every day. In fifth grade, I was already perreando, says Marin, who admits she was all about daring to take boys out to dance rather than waiting to be taken. Reggaeton allowed her to embrace and demonstrate her sexuality. And she’s not alone.
Move through any number of circles on the island and you’ll find similar stories of how this crude, loud mixture of Jamaican dancehall, hip-hop, and traditional African instruments has impacted people in emotional ways. For many Puerto Ricans, their reggaeton isn’t just another genre of music or another style, it’s part of the very fabric of life on the island. And with no shortage of artists new and old making “reggaeton nasty again,” as Eccleston says, it will continue to be for years to come.
With that said, the following is a list of some of POPSUGAR’s favorite bars and clubs located around Puerto Rico. We’ve also brought in music journalist and native Puerto Rican Juan J. Arroyo for a few personal recommendations. With over a decade covering the urbano music scene on the island, Arroyo is well versed in where to find the best scenes on the island.
1. La Placita
No list about Puerto Rican nightlife would be complete without La Placita. Over 100 years old, La Placita isn’t just a single club or bar, but a town square made up of dozens of bars and nightclubs. You’ll find everything from traditional spots blasting ’70s-style salsa and merengue to more modern spots that play top 40. However, if you’re looking for reggaeton, La Placita provides that with an abundance of dimly lit, tightly packed clubs that provide the perfect atmosphere for un poco de perreo. Just be sure to plan for parking. When we say it gets packed, we mean it. From Thursday to Sunday, it isn’t uncommon to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a single street as droves of people maneuver on foot and with drinks in hand through the gridlock. It’s all part of the experience.
2. In the Clouds
“This monthly event with a revolving lineup of indie urbano acts, In the Clouds is the brainchild of rapper and entrepreneur Ferrori,” says Arroyo. “Every first Tuesday of the month, the show sets up shop at a different venue and brings the current best of the best of future urbano stars while also promoting local cannabis vendors, hence the name. The series boasts past performances by local up-and-comers Gyanma, GhostTheKid, Ana Macho, and more. And the best part is, you get a heads up on tomorrow’s trap stars while supporting the burgeoning cannabis economy. What could be better?
3. La Chuleria
Unadulterated, no-frills reggaeton; that’s what you get at La Chuleria. Save for the bright pink neon sign that marks its entrance, the club is an unassuming little spot with blacked-out windows that obscure the scene inside. But behind its single door awaits an old-school experience for fans of perreo. From the long narrow dance floor that lines the bar to the dembow pounding away through the night, La Chuleria is un party de marquesina in club form.
4. Aura Club
While the west coast of the island isn’t as metropolitan as Area Metro, there is no shortage of good music. For a more upscale reggaeton-filled evening, Aura Bar in Mayaguez has you covered. While the club has a sleek, modern look, complete with strobing, multicolored laser lights, and the occasional cage dancer, it hosts a variety of reggaeton acts and DJs that know how to get the vibe bien hasta abajo.
Another west coast staple, Mambo’s is located in the heart of Aguadilla Pueblo, right on route for 459. This means that you can spend the day surfing in Aguadilla or nearby Isabela and never be too far away from a good time. The rotating cast of DJs at Mambo’s starts spinning from 8 p.m. onwards, making it the perfect way to cap off a day spent on the island’s mellower side.
6. Fifty Eight
“Located in the popular La Concha Resort of San Juan’s swanky Condado neighborhood, this club is often a destination for many celebrities and notable artists, both as performers and fellow club-goers,” says Arroyo. “It’s a great spot to go get down and also keep an eye out to see if you recognize any familiar faces.”
7. El Hangar
While Puerto Rico has a very long way to go in creating safe spaces for queer persons, El Hangar is leading the charge by providing a lively atmosphere para que la gente LGBTQIA+ pueda perrear sin miedo. While not technically a club, this community center in Santurce is a great place to turn up, spread love, and express yourself no matter who you are. Because El Hangar is an event space and not a traditional nightclub, follow prominent DJs within the movement like DJ Lale, Tayshayra, and Mussa Medusa herself for the best insight into when queer perreo parties are going down.
“A legit, through-and-through nightclub or ‘discoteca’ as locals still call them, located in the heart of Santurce,” Arroyo says. “The crowd tends to lean toward the younger side more than other spots, but the bottle service is constant and the DJs make sure the hips don’t stop shaking.” And with three world-class DJs spinning from Thursday to Monday, we can see why.
9. Bryant Cafe Sports Bar
“Despite its unassuming name, this venue has become a hotspot for artists to perform. It regularly hosts indie reggaeton and Latin trap acts along with more high-profile and even OGs from the genre’s heyday for throwback nights. The atmosphere is definitely more loose and rollicking, but that’s part of the appeal,” says Arroyo. And with names like Rainao, Paopao, and J-King y Maximan having graced the stage, we can see why. With no dress code or exorbitant bottle service fees, Bryant Sports Bar Cafe is all about vibes and perreo.
10. La Factoria
While not exclusively a reggaeton club, La Factoria in Viejo San Juan is a Puerto Rican nightlife staple. A feast for both the eyes and ears, its multiple rooms boast old-style architecture that perfectly complements the Spanish Colonial architecture of the city that surrounds it. Even if you come strictly for some reggaeton vibes (usually in the second), do yourself a favor and walk La Factoria’s painted hallways and take in the salsa dancers twisting around on the dance floor on any given night.