Photo: Martín Biaggini

A.T.R. Tango’s Next Revenge Comes In Trap Form

By | 10 February, 2020

Tango’s next revenge might be coming from an unexpected camp: modern urban music. Yes, that includes trap, the often maligned derivative of hip-hop that has recently taken over the Latin pop world. 

Argentine trap, in particular, has gained unprecedented traction in the last couple of years with artists like Duki and Paulo Londra crossing over to the international field (Londra has a guest appearance on Ed Sheeran’s latest album!) and it arguably took the place that Argentine rock had in the ‘80s. Amongst this boom of trap artists there’s Ysy A, who recently made it to the local news thanks to his hit single “Traje Unos Tangos,” a tango-trap fusion, signed by the A.T.R. production team, that accumulated millions of views on YouTube overnight with a black-and-white video that evoked the golden era of tango.

Old Friends From The Old School

Rewind. Back in the early ‘00s tango had a sort of glorious renaissance moment when electrotango brought it back to the global dancefloors, after it had spent the previous four decades or so on cryogenic suspension. Then, like everything in this world of cyclical music consumption, the novelty wore off, the trend faded away and tango, more or less, retreated back to its niche. But at least it had a tangible impact in tango’s birthplace (the Río De La Plata basin, or Buenos Aires and Montevideo, to be more precise) where the younger crowd learned to look for inspiration in a genre that not long before was widely considered music for grandparents. 

Diverging tangentially from the current scene of indie tango that’s firmly planted in Buenos Aires underground, a handful of old school hip-hop heads emerged with a master plan to bring tango back to the forefront in their own way, by making it palatable for the younger segment of the audience. They go by A.T.R. (or Argentina Tango Rap, very self-explanatory), an artist collective led by a couple of familiar faces from the rap in Spanish scene. Familiar at least for myself, and those few who were paying attention to rap in Spanish twenty-five years ago. 

One of them is a rapper and beat-maker who goes by the name of Smoler. Some may remember him as part of the 2001-Latin-Grammy-winners Sindicato Argentino Del Hip-Hop. The other one is guitar player and singer Mariano Rucci who, along with his brother, the drummer Alejandro, were part of the underground rap group 9 Milímetros. I met all three of them, for the first time, on the same spring night of 1996, at the now-defunct nightclub named Dr. Jeckyll in Belgrano, Buenos Aires, and that night coincided with my very first step as a music journalist when they suggested I should start interviewing rap artists, and I did. 

Many years have passed and I’ve since lost complete touch with all of them and so did Smoler with the Rucci brothers. Each went their way and they eventually got replaced by another wave of younger rappers and then another, as happens in this business. I shifted my focus away from hip-hop journalism (for the most part) and moved to the United States. But now that rap, especially in its current incarnation, trap, has become tremendously popular in Argentina, people have started digging around and asking about the history and roots of the local scene. Amongst these people was Martin Biaggini, a college professor currently carrying a research project and up-coming series of books rigorously documenting the origin and evolution of urban music in Argentina. He started tracking down names, found me, found them, and voilá, all of a sudden we were all getting in contact again through the magic of the interweb. 

“In 2017 Martín Biaggini interviewed us for his book. He also interviewed the members of Sindicato separately,” recalls Mariano Rucci, “After the interview, he offered us to do a promotional song for the book, like a soundtrack of sorts to the book, and he suggested we should do it with Smoler. So, after 22 years of being completely out of touch my brother and I showed up at Smoler’s studio and decided to make music together.”

“In the beginning it was going to be just that song, titled “De Pibes,” but that one led to another and another,” Mariano adds through the phone, from Smoler’s studio, where they were about to go into rehearsal. “We loved what was coming out of it, after more than two decades, coming back to urban music mixing it with tango, which is what we both were kind of doing, on our own way. Today we have more than ten tracks released and over thirty more in the works.”

Some of the tracks, like the aforementioned “De Pibes” are performed by themselves, but in many others they take the back seat, occupying the role of producers and allow rappers from the new generation such as Ysy A, to jump on the mic and do their thing. But it’s not just rappers. A.T.R. also includes a live orchestra, tango dancers and even live painters for their performances. A clear attempt at trying to kick-start a whole cultural movement, rather than just a gimmick-centric fusion.

Music From The Hood

Neither Smoler, nor the Rucci brothers, are neophytes in the tango-rap connection. Back in 1997 I was part of the audience during a show in which Smoler’s group debuted their first attempt at a rap song over a tango beat: “Tiempo Perdido.” It blew my mind. So much so, that I went home and that night wrote an article for my fanzine about how dope it would be if that was the way Argentine rap found its unique identity that distinguished it from the rest of rap in Spanish that was coming out at the time from Latin America. If hip-hop beats had borrowed so much from jazz in the U.S. it made perfect sense to me that the Argentine adaptation of the genre should be looking for samples in tango records.

“You know that’s right. You were there,” emphasizes Smoler. “We always tried to play a little bit with tango music and a few nice things came out of there. Unfortunately, they didn’t get professionally released, but there must be some cassettes out there. Just today I was telling Mariano about that time we did our version of “La Cumparsita”.” 

Indeed, it was that rap song, “Tiempo Perdido,” that they originally performed over “La Cumparsita”. That was, to my knowledge, the first time anybody had seriously tried to work out a connection between tango and rap. 

“La Cumparsita” is one of tango’s most recognizable standards. It was conceived in Uruguay in 1916 as an instrumental piece, but had different lyrics added on top on multiple recordings that helped popularize the song during the following decades. It’s often an entry point to tango, one of the first tunes any tango musician learns how to play. It made sense that, in that new incarnation, it had rap lyrics and a boom-bap beat. “Tiempo Perdido” was an underground hit and was eventually recorded over a different beat (using samples of Astor Piazzolla’s “Balada Para Un Loco” instead), but never got properly released. When Sindicato signed with Universal Records in 2000 and recorded their mainstream-appealing debut album that would earn them the Latin Grammy, tango was, inexplicably, nowhere in their palette. “It’s true,” responds Smoler, “but in those years we—for me it was always about doing rap with Argentine samples, but we were a group, and the rest of the group wanted other things more in the line of classic hip-hop.” 

(One can only wonder what would’ve happened in an alternate timeline where Sindicato Argentino Del Hip-Hop, honoring their name, had their major label debut with a tango-centric album right around the same time Orishas were doing the same thing with Cuban son, and predating the electrotango boom. But we are not here today to ponder what-ifs.) 

The Rucci brothers never mixed tango and rap when they were in 9 Milímetros, but once that band broke up Mariano in 2002 formed Yira: “one of the earliest local attempts at electrotango” in Argentina. 

“Yira lasted 16 years. We toured Europe three times with it and released six albums,” recalls Mariano. “During that time I made a lot of demos mixing tango with hip-hop but, because we were a group with many people with different ideas of what directions to take it, I kept leaving those ideas on the side, for another moment.” 

Many others did accomplish remarkable fusions between tango and rap during the electrotango boom of the ‘00s. Starting with the Santaolalla-directed Bajofondo collective which includes in its core group two members of Uruguay’s most prominent rap groups of the ‘90s: Plátano Macho & Peyote Asesino. Of course, Gotan Project had its collaboration with Koxmoz (Sindicato’s archnemesis) in “Mi Confesión” (2006). And on the crossover side of things there were “It Takes More” by British rapper Ms. Dynamite in 2002 and Calle 13’s “El Tango Del Pecado,” in 2007. We could all agree that the ‘00s decade was quite fertile ground for tango-rap exploitation, but aside from loose songs here and there, no rap group tried to capitalize on the trend using it as their brand. 

From Guardia Vieja To New School And Beyond

It isn’t just sonically that tango and rap make a good match. Both genres are associated with greater cultural movements and it doesn’t require much of a trained eye to see the obvious compatibility between them: being both cultural subcultures birthed of the disenfranchised lower classes with abundant references to the gangster lifestyle and prison slang on both genres. 

Tango may have evolved into high-brow music for export once it got orchestral and achieved unprecedented levels of sophistication, crossing over to the international market in its prime, but at its origins it was ghetto music (with African roots as Juan Carlos Cáceres argues in his book Tango Negro), despised by the aristocratic porteños.

“Fundamentally, I believe that tango, since the beginning was an urban expression of marginal people,” argues Mariano. “Don’t forget that in certain parts of the high society tango was forbidden. For the aristocracy it was taboo. There were prisoner tangos, like Edmundo Rivero’s, for example. Tango had its place in cabarets. It was connected to the drug dealers world of the time. Modern urban music came to occupy that same space here in Argentina, appealing to the poorest among our youth. Both genres had that in common, the urban and popular aspects of it. Also, in the visual aspect, with the plastic arts of fileteado you can draw a parallel to graffiti and the dance, don’t forget that tango originated as dance music and it was first danced exclusively amongst men, like the b-boys. They are two genres and cultural movements that here are deeply connected.”

When it comes to the music itself, however, tango can be tricky to mash-up with hip-hop beats. For the most part, tango lacks clear percussion patterns, there are almost no drums, no break beats, and the orchestral arrangements are too complex, without too many clear loops to cut. “Tango orchestras rarely kept a constant tempo, they’d go up and down a lot, so it’s not easy to find an exact loop that works,” explains the expert beatmaker Smoler. “What you have to do is chop it on the MPC, but it loses the cadence of tango even if the sounds are the same. So, with A.T.R. what we managed to do was that. To keep the sound and rhythm of tango combined with hip-hop beats. But we play the tango parts with live instrumentation, not samples. A merge of both worlds.”

The formula works remarkably well. Even when they get away from the classic boom-bap beats from the ‘90s and get into contemporary trap territory.

“What we are trying to do is to take tango to the new generation of young kids that have access to urban music and it’s their communication channel,” explains Mariano Rucci, “They don’t need any instruments other than their voices and they go to the parks to freestyle over a beatbox. We want to take tango back to them. Trying to bring it back to those roots and let kids know what a bandoneon is, because they don’t even know that nowadays. Now in public schools they are starting to teach about tango again, after at least 30 years. One of our goals is to bring tango back to that social segment. To the young kids.”

In order to appeal to those kids, they made the smart decision of inviting young talents to get on the mic. Ysy A is the most visible of them, so far, but there were many others (such as El Doctor and even cumbia villera hit producer JMastermix) and there will be more. “The connection with the trap artists came through the label we’re with,” recalls Mariano Rucci, “It was casual. These are guys that weren’t necessarily fans of our old school rap, but they definitely knew of us as referents of the genre. Smoler specially, is a mandatory reference of Argentine hip-hop, maybe even at a Latin American level. These references didn’t go unnoticed for them. But they are the age of our sons.” 

“Coincidentally, during a meeting with the label,” he adds, “one of the managers who works with Ysy A told us that his grandfather had been the main jeweler for all tango performers. There you have another connection! During the golden age of tango jewelry was quite common amongst singers and bandoneon players. So this guy had it very clear that there was a connection there and he brought in Ysy A. We already had a demo of the track with a trap beat and it became an instant hit. I think today it has close to 9 million plays.” 

Now everybody knows that tango has a huge export potential (especially in Europe and East Asia), and the novelty factor of the fusion plus the unexpected international appeal of Argentina trap artists can result in a winning formula. Only time will tell, but the three heads at the core of A.T.R. are putting all their bets on it. “We have faith that this will reach beyond Argentina. We are trying to close some shows in North America and Europe. It’s happening slowly. This is still a very new thing. But tango has a level of projection abroad that we hope the response to this new thing will be very positive,” concludes Mariano Rucci, “We’re optimistic about it. We are working really hard in that direction.” 

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