Welcome to Cancionero Latino, a new column in which we discuss the hits that shaped the History of Latin Pop and their contribution to the evolution of our musical culture. For our second installment, we take a look at Proyecto Uno’s “El Tiburón”, merengue-house’s crowning achievement.
The Latin urban genre — however you wish to describe it — has a long and fascinating history, all across several countries and styles, yet thousands of music journalists today, even in Spanish-speaking media, still reduce that history to the rise of reggaetón and the pop sounds that developed from its influence. Even in that aspect, most music commentators center on the Puerto Rican side of the argument, particularly on the Boricua/New York scene that led to Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina”, which is not only unfair but it’s also counter-productive; there were countless artists that achieved considerable success in all of Latin America as far as 15 years before Yankee, all stemming from the same hip-hop, reggae and dance music roots, and entire subgenres and movements originated almost simultaneously in the US, Central America, and the Caribbean.
One of those styles that enjoyed significant success in the 1990’s, and that reigned supreme as the leading Latin urban sound for a certain period was merengue-house. This sound is a product of the New York-based Latin diaspora, and it emerged out of the creative cultural explosion of the late 80’s- early 90’s, where the rules of the game we play today were originally set. The Dominican community had brought bachata and merengue to the Big Apple from the first waves of migration in the 20th Century, but it was during the 1960’s, when the largest wave of Dominicans arrived in North America, that their music really became a a fixture of the Latin music landscape in NYC. Since then, several Dominican artists were part of different underground movements, and naturally, many of those living in the Bronx and Manhattan became involved in both hip-hop and dance/club music cultures. It was a matter of time before these sonic confluence sparked a genre, and thanks to the efforts of producer Nelson Zapata, merengue-house (merenhouse) was born.
Zapata, an East Side-based musician who was also deeply immersed in house music, rap, and dancehall, founded Proyecto Uno in 1989. It was originally a full-on merengue band, created for a high school talent show, but they quickly moved onto the dance music world due to the involvement of member Pável de Jesús in the club scene, particularly as a sound engineer/assistant for Frankie Knuckles and David Morales. They began producing tracks together at the legendary Quad Studios, most notably, a merengue-flavored, Spanish-sung cover of Black Box’s iconic “Everybody, Everybody”, translated as “Todo El Mundo”. The song became their first club hit, but it was the completely electronic tune “Brinca” that gave them their first taste of international stardom. Proyecto Uno’s first massive performance was in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to a crowd of 50,000 people, and the big shows kept coming, having toured Colombia, Panamá, México, and of course, back home. A triumphant Dominican homecoming.
1993 saw the release of the group’s biggest-selling singles. The first of them, the album’s title track “Está Pegao”, was huge in the night clubs, and it served as the mainstream introduction of rapper/singer Magic Juan, who was also in “Brinca”, but is featured more prominently here. Magic has been an influential force in Latin urban music ever since, being one of the few merenhouse-era survivors still working in the reggaetón revolution. But it was their second ’93 hit the one that’s still remembered as the ultimate merengue-house smash. “El Tiburón” famously samples the show-stopping intro to disco classic “Got To Be Real”, a 1978 hit for L.A singer Cheryl Lynn, but even more iconic is the post-chorus refrain “no pare, sigue, sigue”, which became not only a popular phrase all over Latin America, but also incredibly influential as a chant for sporting events, club parties, and most importantly, weddings; “El Tiburón”, like most Latin party jams, is a wedding staple, a tune that every single group that works in that circuit just must learn. That’s the place where this song shines the most.
Proyecto Uno’s international notoriety ushered in the era of merenhouse in the Latino mainstream; artists that were part of the early scene, like Boricua singers Lisa M. and Fransheska, got wider audiences, and the Zapata and de Jesús-produced Sandy & Papo scored a huge hit with “La Hora de Bailar“; at the same time, the groups Ilegales and Fulanito became industry darlings with a string of bangers that further established the genre into the turn of the millenium. But that still pales in comparison with P1’s biggest claim to history: having brought traditional merengue back to the music spotlight. Waves of artists, benefitting from the trend, revived their careers, other important groups emerged, and performers from other genres started incorporating merengue into their sound, especially reggae and hip-hop DJs and MCs, which is something we still see today in the Spanish-speaking pop universe. The legacy of this Dominican-American movement is still alive, and we should acknowledge its importance in all of Latin music. Before reggaetón dominated, there was merenhouse.
Se tenía que decir y se dijo.