The more serious and radical Calle 13 frontman Rene Perez gets, the more popular and populist he becomes.
Forget being on the radio — the Puerto Rican group’s music is far too unconventional for that. Or winning awards, though with a record 10 Latin Grammy nominations, they’re likely, come Nov. 10, to add to the awards Calle 13 has already accumulated.
What Perez wants to do is move the masses, not only to dance — although that’s frequently and irresistibly the result — but to think. Call him the greatest current incarnation of immortal Parliament Funkadelic leader George Clinton’s dictum to “move your ass and your mind will follow.”
“At the end you want your message to reach everyone,” says Perez. “We’re not going on some trip where nobody understands what we’re doing. I want Beyonce’s fans to understand what I’m doing. I don’t want to have an orgy singing to the intellectuals, talking about my stuff, and everyone agrees with me.”
Rapper-songwriter Perez and his stepbrother and Calle 13 composer-bandleader Eduardo Cabra bring their musical riot act back to Miami Saturday at The Plaza at AmericanAirlines Arena. Tickets to the concert at the outdoor venue between the arena and Biscayne Bay are general admission and relatively low-priced.
When Calle 13 burst onto the scene in 2005 with the raucous reggaeton-esque hit Atrevete te te! (roughly “Get wiii-iiii-ild”), its clever outrageousness and wild musical fusion were exhilarating but seemingly fragile. Could such a group survive in Latin — or any kind of — pop music?
But with each of its three subsequent albums, Calle 13 has grown in depth, ambition and political consciousness. And it has created a singular position for itself in the Latin music world, acclaimed by the likes of NPR and the New York Times, finding a mentor and collaborator in Ruben Blades, the salsa musician and godfather of politically conscious dance music, and creating a documentary film on a voyage the group took around Latin America.
Despite the lack of commercial radio play, Calle 13 has built a powerful, popular credibility: Perez has two million Twitter
followers, and he’s become an in-demand musical guest for artists such as Shakira, Juanes and Alejandro Sanz.
The songs on the group’s latest album, Entren Los Que Quieren (Enter Those Who Wish), address class, violence, education and outright rebellion – led by Perez.
“Calm down people, cause here I am,” he howls on Calma Pueblo. (In the video, tight-suited urbanites rip off their clothes and careen naked through the streets.) “What you won’t say I will say.”
The sexual and scatological language that gave Perez’s early songs much of their jolt has been replaced by a more powerful poetic inventiveness. The outrageous humor is still there, with Perez frequently playing a cartoonishly macho, hyper-sexual figure, but it’s expressed with more thought and nuance.
“We’ve matured,” Perez said on a stopover in Miami Beach this summer. “I try to tell the same ideas I’ve always had, but in a way that doesn’t frighten people, so they understand and respect [those ideas]. I don’t use as many bad words … [because] in certain places they use that as a tool to take away from the value of what I’m saying.”
Quieren features raucous dance-floor anthems like Baile de los Pobres (Dance of the Poor) and Vamo’ Portarnos Mal (Let’s Misbehave), calls to break down class barriers and social order in a sweaty, booty-bumping tidal wave – much like the concerts the bare-chested Perez leads in arenas from Europe to South America.
“I was looking for a creative way to make people dance, that you could listen to in a club, where it seems like people like the simplest things, and to say something about the differences in social classes,” he says. “But I didn’t want it to be a cliché, and it’s really hard to talk about rich and poor without falling into a cliché. So I started using humor.”
But the album also contains the chillingly deadpan denunciation of violence La Bala (The Bullet) and the yearning, dreamlike La Vuelta del Mundo (Around the World), a love song to destiny and the possibilities of the unexpected.
“It has to with a moment when you find that you can make a decision that’s totally different from what you’re used to making,” Perez says. “You’re in the office working every day, almost 24 hours a day, and there’s a moment when you stop at your computer and say, ‘Enough, I’m leaving, I’m going to do something else.’”
It was inspired, in part, by Perez’s desire to keep pushing himself and Calle 13 beyond what they’ve already done. “It seems like I’m talking to a woman, but I’m talking to destiny,” he says. “I’m in love with what life puts in front of me.”
The son of an actress and a labor lawyer, Perez, 33, a former art school student, has always had an ambivalent relationship to hip-hop and reggaeton. Even while he adopted their vocal and rhythmic styles, their street credibility – and occasionally (if ironically) their swaggering sexuality. Now he’s rejected hip-hop altogether.
“I don’t have any interest in having any relationship with hip-hop anymore,” he says. “It doesn’t promote anything I like about music. Everything is a monologue about this lifestyle.
“I don’t know if it’s because people like to identify with the artists, or it seems cool to them, they believe they’re heroes. But I don’t think they’re heroes. When they killed people like Tupac here in the U.S. they killed them for the stupidest things.”
Yet Perez is not beyond asserting some hip-hop-like musical machismo (again, with a touch of irony) in talking about his ambition to write in English (and eventually in other languages).
“It’s a goal of mine right now because I want to communicate with people here in the United States,” he says. “There’s this thing in hip-hop when you’re a rapper with the competition, who’s better. I’m not into that. But you’re not going to be able to say you’re the best rapper, because I’m going to do it in your language. If you can do it in Spanish, you can talk about being the best rapper ever. But I’m going to do it in Spanish and in English. I’m gonna invade you guys. I’m not gonna bleach my hair blonde, I’m not gonna shake my booty. I’m still gonna be who I am.”