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It took the Puerto Rican duo Calle 13 about a year to catch on, after quietly debuting stateside in 2005 on White Lion, a small reggaeton label in partnership with Sony BMG, but catch on they certainly did. By the end of the following year, Calle 13 had become the hottest new artist in popular Latin music, garnering Grammy attention as well as widespread critical notices and steadily mounting album sales.
Comprised of vocalist el Residente (born Rene Perez) and producer el Visitante (Eduardo Cabra), the duo isn't a standard reggaeton act, which partly explains why they went unnoticed for a while. Make no mistake, though. To a degree their music is reggaeton that unmistakable rhythm is front and center, and el Residente does rap over the beats as you might expect but there's much more to it than that. For one, the beats of el Visitante are inventive, incorporating aspects of hiphop and characteristics of electronica, and are a world apart from the industry-standard trademark of Luny Tunes and that production team's assembly line of band-wagon-jumping imitators. Secondly, the raps of el Residente eschew reggaeton cliches, showcasing a healthy sense of humor and an almost clownish approach to sarcasm (a la Eminem) again, a world apart from the kingly bravado of most reggaeton vocalists, and the obligatory glimmers of misogyny and violence that accompany such streetwise swaggering. Moreover, no doubt he does flirt with sex a lot, albeit playfully, if not outright jokingly, rather than commandingly or, worse, violently. All of this, along with some creative and funfilled videos, made Calle 13 a refreshing alternative to the onslaught of reggaeton overtaking Latin music in 2005. In essence, el Residente and el Visitante offered a style of reggaeton that was both hip and unique one that was OK for women to embrace without a guilty conscious, one that critics (as well as the Grammys) could uphold as trailblazing, and one that was just plain fun.
Perez and Cabra first met at the tender age of two, when the former's mother married the latter's father. The parents would later divorce, yet the brothers remained close over the years. Their moniker, Calle 13 (13th Street en ingles), arose from their living situation: because Cabra came to visit his brother regularly at his residence (i.e., 13th Street), rather than vice versa, he was "the visitor" whereas Perez was "the resident." The brothers were always artistic; el Residente even went so far as to earn a master's degree in fine arts stateside. They began recording music together in 2004, with the idea of hosting their work on a website, beginning with two demos ("La Tripleta" and "La Aguacatona"). Within a year's time, they began shopping for a record label to release their music commercially. White Lion was a logical choice, for it was the home of Tego Calderon, whom the two admired. Elias de Leon, the owner of White Lion, was forwarded the tape and realized immediately that there was something special about the music. He called el Residente, who was working as an architectural draftsman at the time, and the two men met the following day. White Lion signed Calle 13 soon afterward, and the label financed the duo's first video, for "Se Vale ToTo," which el Residente shot and edited himself with the help of his cousin at the cost of 14,000. Furthermore, de Leon hooked up el Residente with established reggaeton vocalist Julio Voltio, who was also signed to White Lion, and the two collaborated on the song "Chulin Culin Chunlfy," which became a sizable hit.
After generating some buzz on Puerto Rico radio with lead single "Se Vale ToTo," White Lion released Calle 13 in December 2005. The album opened well, at number six on Billboard's Top Latin Albums chart; however, the sales were heavily Puerto Rican in basis (the selfgoverning island is a U.S. commonwealth and therefore eligible for Soundscan computation) and subsequently languished until late summer 2006, when a second single, "AtreveteTeTe," began getting stateside airplay, beginning in Southern California. Another boost came when Nelly Furtado, concurrently riding high on the charttopping success of "Promiscuous Girl," invited el Residente to collaborate with her on a new version of "No Hay Igual" that would be released to Latino markets as a single and video. The buzz continued to build month by month, partly fueled the September 2006 announcement of three Latin Grammy nominations, for Best New Artist, Best ShortForm Video, and Best Urban Album. In addition, there was the announcement of three nominations for MTV Latin America Awards; the duo was invited to perform with Furtado on the awards show, too. In fact, the Furtado affiliation proved quite fortuitous, as MTV also invited Calle 13 to accompany the pop singer for the world premiere of the new MTV Tr3s channel targeting acculturated Latinos.
By this point, toward the end of 2006, Calle 13 was the hottest new artist in popular Latin music. The duo's year-old debut album had become a Top Ten success, as the pace of its sales grew week by week, and their videos were exceptionally popular Internet streams. All the while, Calle 13 continued to gain notoriety in additional Latin markets such as Mexico and Spain.