Pin It
Ballantine’s x Boiler Room: True Music Studios Medellín
Photography @sebastian.comba

How the Colombian city of Medellín became the epicentre of Reggaeton

From Sky Rompiendo to Mabiland, Medellín’s fast-rising music artists, hottest producers, and veteran DJs explain what gives the city its sauce

At the dawn of the 21st century, Medellín, a city cradled in the belly of Colombia’s Aburrá Valley, was processing the trauma of decades of violence at the hands of Pablo Escobar and the notorious Medellín Cartel. From the 1970s into the 1990s, Medellín was an urban battleground for a powerful and devastating drug empire, earning it the world’s most dangerous city with a murder rate that topped 381 per 100,000 people in a population of 2.1 million in 1991.

Back then, it felt impossible to imagine a future where Medellín could shake off its shadowy past. But, as the noise of gunfire and car bombs petered out in the wake of Escobar’s death in 1993, a decade on, the mid to late 90s were being defined by a new sound filling the city’s airwaves and sound systems: Reggaeton.

Exported from Panama (Reggaeton’s roots) and Puerto Rico (where the music gained prominence), Reggaeton heavyweights like Daddy Yankee found an enthusiastic audience in Colombia, specifically in the mountainous terrain of Medellín. The city made it its own, and, in 2022, J Balvin – whose 2017 track “Mi Gente” was the first Latin song to reach number 1 on Spotify’s Global 50 Chart and was remixed by Beyoncé – Sky Rompiendo – whose rap sheet includes collaborations with Pharrell and Cardi B – and Karol G are the local names representing Medellín to a global audience, often dubbed the epicentre of Reggaeton.

Last month, Ballantine’s x Boiler Room brought True Music Studios – a series of events celebrating local scenes on a global scale – to Medellín. A year ago, Ballantine’s ‘Resetting The Dancefloor’ report revealed that one in three people had experienced discrimination at live music events. True Music Studios was born with the aim to ‘reset’ these spaces by ensuring diversity in line-ups, removing the pay gap between artists, and making the dancefloor safe and inclusive. Across Medellín’s two-day takeover, we celebrated the city’s contribution to Reggaeton with an all-star panel, featuring Mabiland, DJ Mixtime, and the Rudeboyz. This was followed by a party, with a line-up of local defining talents, Motivando a La Gyal, DJ Dever, Jey Danny, SOG, Ryan Castro, and Sky Rompiendo, who curated the night.

In the midst of it all, we caught up with five people who have witnessed first-hand and helped define Reggaeton in Medellín, as well as those pushing it into its future.

DJ MIXTIME

A legend on the airwaves since the mid-90s, DJ Mixtime is a veteran DJ and consultant of the Medellín music scene. He witnessed first-hand the seeds of the city’s Reggaeton scene as it hit Colombia's shores from Puerto Rico via Panama, and has helped nurture it since.

“(Since I began, Medellín has) changed completely, musically and aesthetically. But I wouldn’t call it a change; I would call it an evolution. The city has a history in which musicians and the people themselves have had to learn, and there's a culture that music teaches to the city. 

“What makes us special… I call it colour. Reggaeton in Medellín is special musically and lyrically. We don’t cover the same topics or use the same language or words that artists use in other places. We have a certain way of speaking that’s very local, very ‘paisa’, which for some reason has been very well accepted in the rest of the world.

“We gave Reggaeton a certain order. When you talk to artists from other places, they don’t have that. We participate in the entire process: we compose here, we produce here, we interpret here, and we have a certain camaraderie that allows us to be a specialised industry. We’ve created our own sound and style, and that style has strengthened so much that it’s now reaching the entire world, with the same strength, or more so, than people from Puerto Rico, for example.

“I’m an electronic DJ, and I feel that’s where we’re going with Reggaeton. But, artists that are making house fusion now, like J Balvin, Karol G with DJ Tiesto, I think that’s where music is moving. It won’t just be in a specific style of Reggaeton; we will see fusions that are starting to arise, that will shape the future of the genre, or at least the artists of the genre, it will make them more versatile.”

SKY ROMPIENDO

Sky Rompiendo is undoubtedly one of the world’s biggest producers and was born in Medellín. He grew up listening to his parents’ jazz and salsa records and began making music while still in high school, often turning up to the studio in his uniform. He has helped bring a Colombian sound to the masses through his credits with J Balvin, Travis Scott, The Weeknd, Pharrell Williams, and more.

“(Medellín) took Reggaeton, and we made it feel like home. Reggaeton is not Colombian, it’s from Puerto Rico. But when it got to us, it was like we took care of it, started making Reggaeton, and started growing it. So there are generations who have been hearing it since they were born to their parents.

“We have a very poetic way of writing sometimes. I think Colombians always take care with the way of writing. Of course, there are different artists; we have a whole palette of artists here, and I cannot tell you that we sound like this or like this. But the artists that I work with are very honest about what happens in the street, they keep it real in the songs, and they grab those stories, and tell them, like the closest they can, as if you were hearing that in the street or from some friend in a party or something."

MABILAND

Mabiland was born in Quibdó, situated about 150 miles southwest of her now-home of Medellín. As a queer Black woman and quickly rising to be one of Colombia’s hottest artists, she is helping to widen the historically macho-heavy scene. She pays homage to the country's love of Reggaeton by fusing elements with a more dominant R&B sound that borrows from rap, neo-soul, and trap. 

“When you are born and raised Quibdó, what you call ‘perreo’ is a way of expressing yourself. I know that a lot of people in Reggaeton are crazy about me recording with them. I know a lot of people want to do something different because Mabiland helped change the game. That’s why they give respect, not just to me or what I represent, but to the scene that’s with me – not behind me, but next to me. We’re doing it so well that everyone wants to do a perreo with Mabiland. The thing is, not everyone can. I’m open to making whatever music makes me happy; it’s because I feel it. Whether (my music) it’s romantic or intense, it will have my roots because no one has what Mabiland has."

DJ DEVER

DJ Dever was born in Cartagena, Colombia, but has made his name in Medellín as a pioneer of the country’s various music scenes: from dancehall to Champeta. But it was Reggaeton that sparked his interest in a career in music which sees him touring around the country and helping to develop fellow artists like Kevin Flores and Lil Silvio.

“Reggaeton is something that since I began making music has nourished me very much because of the rhythm, what we call the ‘tumpa tumpa’ – the kick and the snare. So, Reggaeton around the world has been identified because of that rhythm, and it’s catchy; regardless of the language, people can adapt to it, so what really changes is the flow. On the coast, we tend to abbreviate our words, but here, the ‘paisas’ speak very differently. So, in different regions, there are different sounds, and you can see that right here in this country.

“What makes Medellín exciting regarding Reggaeton is this is where it began. When Puerto Rican artists started to come to Colombia as a base, the industry was strengthened. This is like being in Puerto Rico, but it’s not an island; there’s a bit more industry here. Puerto Ricans sometimes come to live here because there are more possibilities to work with more people.”

MOTIVANDO A LA GYAL

Motivando a la Gyal is a collective of women, trans, and non-binary people who use skill-sharing and knowledge-building to construct a more unified and equitable future for all. Whether DJ’ing for the dancefloor or learning to code and programme, they are ensuring that the male-heavy industries of Medellín and the world beyond are more diverse, inclusive, and, ultimately, safer. The collective was the recipient of the £10,000 grant from The True Music Fund which supports talent and communities after True Music Studios events take place.

“Reggaeton inspires us because we are what surrounds us – all of us grew up with it. Dance inspires us, the rhythm, the neighbourhood, and through lyrics and the structure that Reggaeton has. We wanted to take control of that so it can inspire us to be empowered. As women, we end up being an object in Reggaeton, but we have to change that position. We recognise what Reggaeton means as a rhythm, the drums and what they do to our bodies, our hearts, and how that helps release the body.

“Medellín filtered Reggaeton and made it radio music. Aesthetically it matched what’s experienced in our neighbourhoods. Even though it wasn’t born here, the producers who heard it first thought to transform it and make it their own, and it became pop. Medellín is a city surrounded by mountains; it’s a cradle, a valley, we can see music circulate here, and people relate to it. It talks about what I do when I’m on my motorcycle, it talks about being at parties; there’s a certain identification with it. Being in this location and geography, it’s given a lot of importance and everyone wanted to be involved in Reggaeton. The city’s conditions and climate make it easy to move around and go to parties. Everything is so nearby, making the scene stronger after it arrived like a tiny virus.

“(We hope Reggaeton) becomes more inclusive, and we see more participation from girls and non-binary people. That women become empowered not just in the party or what we call the underground, but that we produce and sing and become protagonists and connect and we can take it farther. Also, that Reggaeton is not just left at the parties, but it can have a social impact and cultural impact.”