Cuban Duo Gente de Zona Are Transforming Urbano And Making Latinx Music History
Gente de Zona is revolutionizing Latinx music like no other Cuban artist has in modern history.
The Grammy award-winning Havana duo, made up of director Alexander Delgado and Randy Malcom, captured international attention in 2014 with the release of their mega-hit “Bailando” with Enrique Iglesias, a tropical earworm that landed at the No. 12 spot of Billboard’s Top 100 chart, signaling the return of Latin urban music three years before Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” guaranteed the explosive comeback.
Since then, the group, which was the first act signed to Marc Anthony’s entertainment company Magnus Media, has continued to churn out massive successes. There’s “La Gozadera,” the Anthony-assisted, upbeat love letter to Latin America that picked up an award for "La Combinación Perfecta" at the 2016 Premios Juventud; the Latin AMAs-nominated “Traidora,” also featuring the Puerto Rican salsero; the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart-landing "3 A.M," another banger collaboration, this time with Mexican duo Jesse & Joy; and the Latin pop jam “Ni Tú Ni Yo" with Jennifer Lopez– just to name a few.
With each global hit, Gente de Zona has helped introduce new audiences to reggaetón cubano, a style of the urban genre that’s unique from the more popular riddims of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Panama and now Colombia. Cubatón, as it has been dubbed on the Caribbean island, blends classic reggaetón beats with Cuba's traditional musical styles, like son, timba and guaguancó, and pairs the joyous soundscapes with more family-friendly lyrics than the grime of old-school reggaetón and new-wave Latin trap.
Gente de Zona’s addictive strains, recorded and performed with a live band, has torn through geographical and political barriers in ways previously unseen. While Latinxs and Latin Americans alike agree that cubanas Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan are reinas of salsa and Latin pop, respectively, both women reached worldwide renown after their exile from Fidel Castro-controlled Cuba to the U.S.
But with easing political tensions between the two nations and talent capable of energizing the planet whole, Gente de Zona has been able to achieve superstardom that extended outside of the Antilles, into the 50 states and beyond– all while initially residing in Cuba. The feat, alone exceptional, is made all the more astounding for fellas creating music in the oft-condemned and devalued urbano genres.
VIBE VIVA chatted with Delgado and Malcom at the Sony Music Entertainment office in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the pair was preparing to give their first solo concert on the island. Walking in singing Gomba Jahbari's reggae en español knockout "Acho Puñeta," just like every other Boricua this fall, we had a lively conversation on the duo’s rise to global fame, creating space for cubatón in the urbano musical takeover, gaining inspiration from the genuine joy that lives in the pulse of the Cuban people and their forthcoming album, Otra Cosa, among so much more.
Gente de Zona has been around for more than 15 years, but you really started gaining global success in about 2014, with the smash hit “Bailando.” How do you think you were able to break into the international scene in a way many Cuban artists haven’t been able to in the past?
Randy Malcom: “Bailando” is a really good song, but I think what it did was give us the opportunity to really express what Gente de Zona is, right? It helped us get out of anonymity because it was a great song and it showed the identity of who is Gente de Zona. Our magic, the sealing of our style of music with our distinct voices, is what attracted an international audience.
I had the pleasure of visiting Cuba several times this year and was immediately drawn to the style of reggaetón being made there because it's much different from what we hear coming out of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Panama and now Colombia. It’s been described as cubatón, but what exactly is that? How would you describe it?
Alexander Delgado: When reggaetón came to Cuba from Panama, back when El General was making music, we called what we were creating cubatón because we maintained our roots. Cuban artists mixed Cuban music with the reggaetón base and created something organic.
Randy: We mixed urban elements with Cuban rhythms, like son, the timba and the guaguancó, and that's where the cubatón identity is.
I loved the artists I heard while in Cuba, but unfortunately, they’re not getting the same mainstream, international attention as other reggaetóneros. Who are some of your favorite less-known cubatón artists and acts that you think people should keep on their radar?
Randy: Many! Well, from our generation, I believe that El Micha is now expanding to the rest of the world. El Chacal and Jacob Forever, too. There are a lot of us from this generation doing it.
Alexander: I think that Gente de Zona entering the international market has allowed other artists to create a space for themselves there, too. For example, in Miami, there is now a radio station that promotes reggaetón from Cuba. Through that, we have been able to participate in a lot of events and shows, and I think in the next year we will have a bigger position in the international audience.
You were recently the focus of an HBO special, Gente de Zona: En Letra de Otro, where you had the opportunity to return to Alamar, a community in Havana where you grew up, to perform classic Latin hits. What was this like for you, being back where everything started?
Randy: Oh, it was incredible. It was a lot of songs we heard as kids. And the good thing is that HBO and Sony allowed us to choose the songs we wanted. It wasn't strict. It was very free: we pick the songs and perform them in the manner that we want. Alexander chose five songs and I chose five songs, and we brought these classics to 2018.
But it was still very cubano, with us putting in all of the elements that we just talked about, the son, the guaguancó, the bolero, and it was an incredible experience. And to film it in Cuba with HBO made it even better. That made it everything, all the memories we had there in that place growing up.
I know when you first started off in Havana, some people were confused about your style, rapping over classic Cuban rhythms. Why did you keep doing this style of music despite the pushback?
Alexander: The early critics showed us that we were capable of doing this but that it was just a matter of time. When we first started, we didn’t have a lot of time to work and only had about three or four songs, and I never felt that was sufficient for the people to understand the potency of the artists that we were.
I think that with time, well, really, I think that because of the first initial experience where no one had faith in us, we had the opportunity of time, to sit in the studio and dedicate our time to this. We always maintained the faith in our chemistry and that we can do this, and we did.
And being back recently, how is it received there now?
Alexander: It’s a huge difference. Everyone who said no to us is feeling it. [Laughs]
Randy: You can really feel the change, and we felt it, too. We made our music, and in the past, it was just Cubans singing along to it, but now in every concert we have people in every country who are singing, dancing and enjoying it, too. It’s incredible.
Being in Cuba, I witnessed joy as I had never seen it before, and I also feel and see it in your music. Where do you think this genuine happiness and zest for life comes from?
Alexander: This is just our culture. We have a culture that is very family-oriented, very traditional, very much about living together. That idea where children leave the home at 18 years old doesn’t exist in Cuba. You stay living there until you die. [Laughs] It’s true even in relationships.
You can get a divorce and still live together. [Laughs] So that’s our culture. We can say these things and laugh at ourselves for them. And it’s very difficult to be Cuban. It’s not like how it is in other parts of the world. Everywhere has its problems, but in Cuba, we know problems and we know how short life is, so you have to enjoy yourself. If you’re not laughing, life will slip by you without you even realizing it.
Last year, you embarked on your first U.S. tour. While Cuban exiles have done this in the past, it’s definitely not as common for expats like yourselves. What does this mean to you, understanding the history of political conflict between these two nations and yet the vast Latinx community in the U.S. that loves you?
Randy: It was incredible. We knew there were a lot of Cubans in the U.S. When we did shows, we’d go to where we knew Cubans had arrived, mostly Florida or New Jersey or New York, areas where there were already established Cuban communities. But after our album Visualízate won a Grammy and “La Gozadera” became one of the most-listened-to songs in the world in 2016, we went on a tour around the U.S. I think we went to more than 20 cities, and it was an amazing feeling. I didn’t know there were so many people in the U.S. who listened to Gente de Zona, that it was more than just Cubans.
In your wildest dreams, did you anticipate touring the U.S.?
Randy: I think so. We knew that the people were aware of who Gente de Zona was and we knew people wanted to see this tour. They were writing us letting us know this is what they wanted. So it was finally time to do this.
And now you'll soon hit the stage in Puerto Rico. As the saying goes, “Cuba y Puerto Rico, de un pajaro las dos alas” (“Cuba and Puerto Rico, from one bird the two wings”). Why did you want to perform here?
Alexander: First, we weren’t satisfied with the three times we were here previously because we were invited for special events with our performances lasting about 10 to 15 minutes, and fans can’t receive the full Gente de Zona experience within that time.
Time is really important to our shows. For an island where people are familiar with our music and who we are, but aren’t familiar with how we can put on a show, we thought it was time for that. And we wanted to be in Puerto Rico because we know that Puerto Rico is one of the strongest countries in music of all Latin America, so we thought it was the moment for them to see us live and really see what we are capable of doing.
I want to switch back to music. You recently dropped “Te Duele,” a song about an ex who hurt you and is now attempting to come back into your life. What do you do when you are in this situation: entertain or ignore her?
Randy: It depends on the person and the situation, and it's a situation that can happen to anyone. It's part of life. It's happened to me, it's happened to him and I'm sure it's happened to you. And what we like to do is convey the stuff that happens in real life in our music, so that people can identify with it and feel good about it, whichever part resonates with them.
Along with “Te Duele,” you also recently released “Lento” with Thalia and “Nadie Como Yo” with Malu Trevejo. What can you tell us about what you are currently working on?
Randy: We just released a song and music video with El Micha, who I consider as one of the best Cuban urban artists right now, called “Hazle Completo el Cuento.” This song is going to be a part of our next album, which is called Otra Cosa.
I can't say much more about it other than it's something we are working on, and there will be more reggaetón and maybe trap, because this is where the industry is right now.
Exciting! Talking about reggaetón and Latin trap, we see a lot of collaborations among these genres. We can have six artists on one song or remix. You’ve worked in the past with a lot of major pop stars and salseros. You just noted that you recently worked with El Micha, but can we expect more of this, collaborations with other reggeatóneros?
Alexander: Yes, yes, definitely! What I think is that we can adapt to what they do, but I sometimes see it’s a little difficult to adapt to what we do, because it’s a little more complicated. But we can do trap or reggaetón. That’s the advantage of having live music.
Urbano music has exploded in recent years, but trends, as we know, often come and go. In 10 to 20 years from now, where do you see Gente de Zona and what do you hope the people are saying about this group?
Randy: In 20 years, I’ll look a lot older and I hope to leave a legacy in music, in Cuban music for the world. I hope they’ll talk about Gente de Zona as something that revolutionized music and the entire world.
Twenty years, that’s a lot of time. My kids will be older, and maybe they’ll be the ones taking over this. I’ll just sit back and drink my coffee while telling them the history of what was and what is Gente de Zona.