Esta Fiesta No Termina: On the Legacy of Proyecto Uno

Leonel Manzaneres de la Rosa explores the influence of the Latin urban music pioneers.
By    February 21, 2020

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Leonel Manzaneres was a background dancer for the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Whatever the name you ascribe to it, Latin Urban Music has a long and fascinating history, covering a wide range of countries and styles. However, thousands of music journalists — even in Spanish-speaking media — continue to reduce its history to simply the rise of reggaetón and the pop sounds that developed from its influence. Even in that aspect, most critics 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. Countless artists achieved considerable success throughout Latin America, as far as 15 years before Yankee, all stemming from the same hip-hop, reggae and dance music roots. To avoid remembering these other scenes is to sell the urban genre  and Latin pop in short. 

One style that reigned supreme as the leading Latin sound during the 90s was merengue-house. A product of the New York-based Latin diaspora, it emerged out of the creative cultural explosion of the late ’80s and early ’90s, where the rules of the modern game were originally set. The Dominican community had brought bachata and merengue to the Big Apple since the first 20th century waves of migration, but it was during the 1960s, when the largest wave of Dominicans arrived in North America, that their music really became a fixture of the Latin music landscape of 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 this 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 same legendary Quad Studios where ‘Pac got shot; 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 was 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 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. Like most Latin party jams,  “El Tiburón” 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 merenhouse to 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.

Benefiting from the trend, waves of artists 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 Proyecto Uno. 

Se tenía que decir y se dijo. 

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