Urban and Latin Music Genres

Last article we talked all about pop music and its history, now we’re going to take a look at the urban and Latin music genres.

First up: urban music.

Also referred to as urban contemporary music, this genre originated in the 1980s and 90s as a solution for “advertisers who felt that ‘black radio’ would not reach a wide enough audience” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Its sound is defined by rhythm-and-blues or soul artists with mass crossover appeal.

Today, urban music tends to be a phrase referring to hip-hop, rhythm-and-blues, and soul genres. When urban music first populated American radio, it was mainly black artists. Now, with artists like Justin Timberlake, Nelly, Eminem, and Mariah Carey (all who I previously mentioned as pop/R&B artists) dominating this urban genre, skin color no longer defines this genre. In order to fully understand urban music, you have to understand where it comes from, and in order to accurately understand this we must look at what it encompasses: hip-hop (rap) and R&B.

I know what you’re probably thinking: “Didn’t we just talk about hip-hop and R&B in the previous article? This is old news to us.”

Not necessarily. I discussed R&B and hip-hop as elements blended into today’s pop genre, not as standalone genres.

Hip-hop (Rap)

Hip-hop started in 1973 with by DJ Kool Herc, who is considered to be music’s founding father. He emceed over the instrumental breaks in records and thus, rap was born.

The block party that DJ Kool Herc was hosting was typical of black and Puerto Rican youth in the early 1970s. These groups were denied access to dance clubs, so they created block parties hosted by DJs.

The first commercially successful recording was a group called The Sugar Hill Gang with the tune “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. Two albums that helped bring rap into the mainstream were Raising Hell by DMC and Licensed to Ill by the Beastie Boys.

From there, artists like Salt-n-Pepa, N.W.A., Public Enemy, Jazzy Jeff, and the Fresh Prince all made a name for themselves in the rap genre and various subgenres.


The other half of the urban genre began much earlier than its counterpart. Starting in the late 1940s and early 50s, it began with jump blues, which included a mix of gospel, jazz, and blues. This genre would evolve into Soul and Funk, which had a different sound depending on where you were. In Philly, there was a highly orchestrated sound. In Memphis, a gritty Stax sound, and in Detroit the oh-so-infectious Motown sound.

Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard are just a few of the artists who defined R&B’s distinct sound.

The most important moment for both of these genres is when they were fused together in the late 80s by a producer named Teddy Riley from the Bronx. This fusion of hip-hop and R&B was coined “New Jack Swing,” and Riley went on to directly influence artists such as Bobby Brown and Michael Jackson, as well as producers like Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds.

Though it’s common now for a rap song to feature an R&B singer or for a rapper to add a few verses in an R&B song and instantly become a hit, it was highly uncommon in the 80s for anything with these characteristics to get any play on mainstream radio. It wasn’t until the 90s that urban music became a mainstay for mainstream American radio.

Now you should understand why urban music is so important to American music history. Not only does it feature the blending of two genres that people once thought should remain pure, urban brands a lifestyle: music, clothes, and a way of life.

Last but certainly not least, we have the history of Latin music. Before I was exposed to Latin music or music inspired by Latin roots, I thought Latin music was kind of like the Latin language: dead. Not just kind of dead, but deader than dead. As in, everyone knows Latin is a dead language, that’s how dead it is. But you’ll be pleasantly surprised, just like I was, by how alive and well Latin music is in today’s culture.

It Takes Two to…

That’s right: tango. We’ve all heard the saying, and we’re all at least a tiny bit familiar with the tango whether we’ve danced it before or not.

Most dances that have become household names in America are also subgenres and types of Latin American music.

Tango was a new rhythm created by the working class in 1890s Argentina. At first, it was just the name given to the drums played by African slaves. The intimate choreography was originally designed to mimic the relationship between the prostitute, her pimp and a male rival. Tango didn’t make its way to the US until the 1910s, but it instantly made an impact. The most popular dances before then were the Viennese waltz and the Polka, neither of those coming close to the intimacy the tango created between two partners. 


Another genre of Latin American music that you may also recognize as a style of dance is the samba.

The word was first used in 1838 to describe a dance style created by the working-class African-Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro. The rhythm of samba was meant for three things: singing, dancing, and marching in a parade.

The first record to be dubbed “samba” was sung by a black musician by the name of Ernesto “Donga” dos Santos. It wasn’t until 1933, nearly 100 years after the phrase was coined, that samba emerged in the US. This was due to a film by Vincent Youman: Flying Down to Rio. It popularized the samba dance and music styles in America.


One other well-known Latin American music subgenre is salsa. While most of us Texans know this as a great dip for chips (and everything else that can be dipped), salsa is a popular dance and music style that has been called by many other names before finally being renamed salsa.

In America, this style was known as “son” for many years until 1973 when it was renamed for a TV special.

I’ve got bad news and I’ve got good news. The bad news is that we’ve finished learning all about music history, so no more Music Appreciation 101. Don’t be disappointed though, because now we get to move on to the fun stuff. Stay tuned to see what exactly the fun stuff is!