Daddy Yankee Illustration by Gustavo Dao
© Gustavo Dao
Music

Take a trip back to the birth of reggaeton in Puerto Rico

This is the incredible true story of The Noise, the infamous nightclub where DJ Negro laid the groundwork for what would become one of the biggest music genres in the world.
By Eddie Cepeda
13 min readPublished on
In a packed nightclub in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, spiffed up young men and women danced perreo, facing the stage, hips jostling against one another as the women bent to the floor. There was an urgency to the movements, a palpable sense that the clock would soon run out. The borrowed permits used by The Noise – the only nightclub for working class followers of a new body-thumping underground music – had expired. It was closing night.
It wasn't the first closing night, nor would it be the last. A total of four different buildings in San Juan were called The Noise over the course of 16 years. But on this night in 1992, it felt final. With no plans for a new location, like the last last time, the waiting line of singers knew this might be the final chance to perform at their beloved club.
DJ Playero arrived late to the party, with a young talent he was fostering, and asked his friend DJ Negro if the young kid could perform a song for the sold-out room. There was something special about this kid and even though all the club’s resident singers needed a turn, Negro obliged. He let the 16-year-old on stage, provided he sing one song and move on. He sang his song. Then another. And another. By the third song, Negro warned Playero he would cut the mic if the kid didn't stop. He was happy to give the talented rapper a break, not an entire concert.
His patience wore thin, and he cut the mic. "I thought you were more humble than that!" the kid exclaimed. DJ Negro responded that it wasn't personal. There were plenty of other artists who needed to say their goodbye, not just this young kid who went by the name Daddy Yankee.
You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know Daddy Yankee in 2018. For those who know reggaeton, Ivy Queen, Don Chezina and Las Gaunabanas are household names as well. For those artists, though, The Noise is the place that they remember. DJ Negro's nightclub served as reggaeton's Motown – a self-contained hit-factory that will never be equaled. The Noise survived everything, from government crackdowns to shifty locales, only to finally cave under the crushing stress of the genre's gentrification.
This is the story of that club, and the man who built it.
The Noise, pioneering reggaeton nightclub, illustration by Gustavo Dao
The Noise
DJ Negro was born Felix Rodriguez, in La Perla, a San Juan shantytown so bereft its streets literally have no name. It's allegedly Puerto Rico's biggest distribution point for heroin, a neighborhood fraught with a history of violence and exoticization. Featured in the record-breaking Despacito music video, it's existed for decades in extreme poverty and severe municipal neglect.
Rodriguez grew up in an old horse farm split into apartments. His father, who worked at the nearby shipyards, instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in him at a young age. "Everyone in La Perla is always doing business," says Negro. "Some were doing positive things, some negative." He worked as a grocery delivery boy and even sold hot dogs from his porch, but his career path took a turn when a shipment of 'lost' merchandise made its way to the neighborhood, and his father surprised him with a DJ set up.
He wasted no time monetising his developing DJ skills. With borrowed speakers from a neighbour, his mobile disco career began at age 14. It didn't go well. He blew the speakers, and immediately handed his earnings over to the neighbour.
Rodriguez's singular ability to spot and foster talent, coupled with his unflinching drive to succeed, however, showed itself early when he met a young Vico C. Rodriguez saw Vico C in a battle, performing as part of the duo VG Princes, and quickly realised Vico was the lone talent in the group. Vico rapped in Spanish – which wasn't common at the time – and his bars were inventive. At Negro's suggestion, Vico dropped his partner and the two of them began working together.
Today, they're often credited with creating the rap en Espańol scene in Puerto Rico. "There was no rap in Espańol before us," says Negro. They released three albums in their short partnership, including the influential La Recta Final and Mision: La Cima.
There was no rap in Espańol before us
DJ Negro
With the unexpected popularity of their song Viernes 13, the two were rising stars in their own right, and their work in Spanish hip-hop opened a path for Puerto Rican rappers to follow in their steps. But Vico C's management pushed for him to embark on a solo career and the two split on amicable terms.
The money from record sales and touring with Vico C was more than the young Rodriguez could have ever imagined, but he never saved a penny. Like many teenagers who find themselves with an influx of cash, he spent his earnings on partying and chasing women. When the duo broke up, he had nothing.
Instead of hanging out, looking for the next talent to produce, Rodriguez went back to work with his hot dog cart – something he'd always done when he wasn’t touring or performing. Selling hot dogs on San Juan's Escambron beach might seem like a peculiar move for one of the underground's rising stars, but for Rodriguez, it was all part of the hustle his father instilled in him at a young age. "My dad taught me how to make an honest buck, and to never steal," he said recently on the Masacote Podcast.
DJ Negro illustration by Gustavo Dao
DJ Negro
This hot dog sabbatical changed reggaeton's trajectory forever. As Negro worked the stand, plotting his next endeavor, the owner of Joseph Cafe recruited the young DJ as his club's new resident. Under the new selector, Joseph Cafe thrived. Perhaps too much. One night, Negro showed up to an abandoned space. The club had moved and nobody told him. The owner said his fee was too high to keep him on, but offered him his job back for a third of his original salary. He declined.
Out of a job again, Negro refused to sit around and wait for the next opportunity. Energized by the club experience, he put together a plan to open his own venue, since most of the patrons at Joseph Cafe went specifically to see him play anyway. He had difficulty finding a loan, though – his proposed location next to La Perla made it an undesirable investment for lenders and banks. Negro had to get creative, convincing his brother to finance the operation in exchange for 50 percent ownership. With the $4,000 he needed in hand, The Noise was ready to launch just a few steps away from Rodriguez's birthplace.
On opening night, Negro made a point to pay his old boss at Joseph Cafe a visit. He stormed the club, handing out hundreds of flyers promoting his new business. He was quickly ejected, but his old audience now knew where to go and The Noise became an instant sensation. Soon after, Joseph Cafe closed for good.
Puerto Rican reggaeton began at The Noise, and if anyone tells you any different, they don't know the story
DJ Negro
The first location of The Noise was in an old, run-down building in front of La Perla. With a coat of black paint and some blacklight bulbs, the decaying space hosted hundreds of kids in an area that most people traditionally avoided. It didn't matter. As the newly developing sound of what would become reggaeton grew in popularity, The Noise cornered the market. The club became the capital of perreo, as it provided the only place for San Juan's youth to dance to the emerging sound.
Keeping the club open proved onerous. "I opened The Noise with someone else's permits, so they closed it on me after a while. Then I opened it again, and they gave me a permit, but not a beverage permit, so I had to close it again," Negro explains over the phone from San Juan. But it was also clear that he had the exact amount of resourcefulness required: No matter how often his requests for permits were refused, there was always another person ready to sign the next one.
Negro chose to see barriers as opportunities. The high-cost of booking outside talent was a chance, for example, to let aspiring local singers make a name for themselves.
"There weren’t any singers here except for Vico C, Ruben DJ, and Lisa M. And there definitely weren't any reggaeton singers," Rodriguez explains. "In that era, there were only Panamanian reggaeton singers like Nando Boom and El General." So, when a song by Panamanian singer Pocho Pan caught Negro's attention, he asked if anyone could cover it live. This led to the discovery of Kid Power Posse, and what many – including Negro himself – claim to be the beginning of Puerto Rican reggaeton. "It began at The Noise, and if anyone tells you any different, they don't know the story," he claims.
Singers like Big Boy, Falo, Michael Immanuel, El Mexicano and Don Chezina all came out of The Noise's early days. "We would record songs to play in the club. The idea was to play them over and over," says Negro, explaining his system for crafting hits. "Inside the club, you would become famous. That's how I would fill the club without having to pay a huge booking fee for a famous artist."
Negro began to produce records for the emerging talent at The Noise as well, but "When I closed the second location, Playero came out with his first CD, Playero 37, which featured many of the artists that I recorded in my club. It had never occured to me to make a mixtape. You have to give it up to Playero for that. That's when I decided to start The Noise compilations."
The popularity of the mixtapes and the club made the brand an instant success. "There was no place for the youth to have fun. We [The Noise] were the only one, because clubs here didn't allow reggaeton. Even less after the mixtapes started coming out and the government would fine people $500 for listening to it," Negro explains. "That's why we released The Noise 3 as an all-clean-lyric compilation. When the government confiscated all the CDs [due to explicit content], they left ours alone, and we sold a lot!"
Asked if he knew they were propelling the rise of reggaeton by focusing mostly on dembow riddims, Negro gave credit to the club's revellers. "They wanted dembow. So we gave it to them, that's what shaped the sound."
Ivy Queen illustration by Gustavo Dao
Ivy Queen
One of the key artists to emerge from The Noise was a young woman named Martha Ivelisse Pesante Rodríguez.
"In that time, they didn't want women [in reggaeton]. There was one on Prime Records, but she flopped," Negro says about the genre's male-dominated scene. "When they brought me Ivy Queen, I remember she didn't know how to dress, but when she opened her mouth I thought, ‘Holy shit! She can sing!' But she didn't have any good songs until she started singing, ‘Muchos quieren tumbarme, les digo mira no no no que no van a poder'."
"When I showed [the rest of the guys] the song, they all freaked out and said, 'Who is this guy? He sings hard'. So I played along and said, 'Wait till you meet him'. When I brought her out, they couldn't believe it, and they had to accept her because she was just that good."
Ivy Queen gained popularity through the compilations, but Negro says she made her name live. "It was one thing to hear her on a CD, and a totally different thing when she got on that stage and battled people. That's why the public accepted her." Listen to The Noise Live and you’ll understand: Ivy Queen completely decimates her then-husband Gran Omar in a women versus men hype battle.
As things progressed, Negro found himself occupied more and more with the day-to-day tasks of running the club and distributing CDs. He stepped back from making music as a result, and enlisted the help of producers like Tony Touch, DJ Eric, DJ Nelson and others. With each release came wider popularity – among the public at least.
When The Noise toured Latin America, they found sold-out venues and a hostile press. "We had to fight [the press] to prove that this music was not thug music. There's people in The Noise who didn't even smoke or drink, but they liked to sing. They eventually accepted us because we were blowing up and the youth wanted to see us."
Suddenly, all the places wanted to play reggaeton. I had to close.
DJ Negro
Though reggaeton was a few years away from breaking in the US, major American labels took notice. In 1997, Sony picked up rights to the compilations and signed DJ Negro to a production deal. This led to Negro producing Ivy Queen's solo debut En Mi Imperio, and the release of The Noise's The Best Greatest Hits, which reached number eight on the Billboard Latin Album Charts. Reggaeton's breakneck ascension was around the corner. And with it came the club's downfall.
By 2008, reggaeton had spread from the caserios where it began and started to occupy a larger space in pop culture. Daddy Yankee, Ivy Queen, and even Shakira filled North America's airwaves with dembow. Clubs that once catered to the upper echelons of society – and thus avoided all things reggaeton – embraced perreo to keep up with the times.
“What happens when the 'nice' places have no customers, and the 'bad' places [like The Noise] are packed? The 'nice' places realise they have no clientele, and they start to play our music [reggaeton], but they can afford to do cheaper drinks, free entry, etc," remembers Negro. "Suddenly, all the places wanted to play reggaeton. I had to close."
Before it shuttered for good, The Noise hosted most of the genre's greats. "Tego [Calderon] sang for me for $300 bucks. Daddy Yankee $300, Nicky Jam for $300. Wisin y Yandel played for $200 bucks. They were big on the radio, but not on the same level they are now. They were big in Puerto Rico, but they were still a little raw," explains Negro.
He claims it would be impossible to replicate The Noise as a club in 2018. "It's easier to create an artist by launching their career online now, before playing them in the club. Now, if I play a new song, it has to already be a hit online, because if people haven't heard it, they'll clear the dancefloor. Back then, they heard the song in the club and wanted a copy to play in their car. Now they hear it in their car, or on their phone, and then they want to hear it in the club."
203 Calle Tanca's pink facade mirrors much of the colonial-era architecture adorning the narrow streets of San Juan. Tourists navigate these winding streets, and many surely find themselves at Fallo's cafe – unaware that they're in the final resting place of reggaeton's hallowed sanctuary, The Noise.
When The Noise opened in 1991, reggaeton had yet to be named. The Diablo Rojo buses in Panama rang with dancehall-derived reggae en Espanol, and El General filled airwaves and dance clubs across North America with his infectious take on the genre.
In Puerto Rico, limited monetary resources forced Rodriguez and The Noise to find creative ways to survive. They forged a self-sustained music industry inside the buildings they momentarily called home, spreading the sound of dembow tape by tape, CD by CD. For 16 years, DJ Negro kept reggaeton's nerve center pounding with perreo – hosting a revolution on the club's makeshift tarima – no matter what less-than-legal means he used to keep it open.