How Puerto Rican Producer Tainy Became an Architect of Modern Reggaeton

2027

Turn on any Latin pop radio station, and you’re almost certain to hear Bad Bunny’s new single “Estamos Bien,” an emphatic track with a gloriously idiosyncratic beat. Yet even more popular with programmers is “No Es Justo,” an airy reggaeton single featuring J Balvin and Zion & Lennox. And still riding high five months after its release is Cardi B, Bad Bunny and Balvin’s “I Like It,” an exuberant bilingual collaboration that continues to enjoy play on both Spanish- and English-language stations. All three of these hits happen to be co-produced by 29-year-old Marcos “Tainy” Masís.

Usually, the luckiest producers enjoy a brief run at the top before they are de-throned by their competition. In contrast, Tainy has helped shape the sounds of reggaeton — and then Latin trap — for more than a decade without pause. The global ascendance of Latin music has been one of the most important narratives in the last decade of pop music, and Tainy has been one of the key behind-the-scenes players in that story. 

Masís started young: He was signed by the time he was 15. He met Josias de la Cruz, later known as the producer Nely, through church. De La Cruz was a few years older, and he entered the music industry first, but he kept in contact with his old friend, and listened to the beats Masís made with the program FruityLoops. When one particular beat seemed studio ready, De la Cruz took Masís to meet Francisco Saldaña, better known as Luny.

Luny’s productions with Víctor Cabrera (Tunes) helped fuel reggaeton’s first global eruption in the 2000s. “Reggaeton was really underground,” Masís explains. “People would just grab loops and put on some melodies that probably don’t go with the chords. It was all over the place. Luny Tunes put it like how it’s supposed to be: arrangements, chord progressions, those synths that make it more like a song and not as much just a freestyle.” This quickly brought them success: Luny Tunes produced Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina,” which famously cracked the Top 40 in the U.S., proving once and for all that reggaeton had the power to bewitch listeners who didn’t speak a word of Spanish.

Masís made a beat for Luny on the spot, won his approval, and was thrown into the studio mix. “They started giving me chances — ‘I got this a capella, you want to mess with it?’” Masís recalls. He would leave school each day to observe nearly every reggaeton vocalist of note: Ivy Queen, Don Omar, Tego Calderón, Nicky Jam, Zion & Lennox and many more. In particular, he formed a strong relationship with the duo Wisin & Yandel, who had recently scored a brawling hit titled “Rakata.” In 2006, the group climbed to Number One at Latin radio with “Pam Pam,” another highly chant-able single. This one was co-produced by Masís, marking his first major chart success. He was 18 years old.

Like many young producers, Masís initially focused on emulating the beatmakers around him, but he soon came to an important realization. “For it to be reggaeton, you need the drum pattern,” he says, “but other than that, you can try whatever you want.” He started hunting for other elements to meld with a reggaeton base. “Listening to Timbaland, the synth arpeggios he was using on the Justin Timberlake album [Future Sex Love Sounds], I tried to see how could I fit this into reggaeton,” he says, in what now seems prescient, an anticipation of many forms of fusion to come.

Masís is particularly proud of “Abusadora,” a single he produced for Wisin & Yandel in 2009 that still sounds strange and kinetic nearly a decade later. It’s full of odd electronic gurgles — some point to trance, others point to New Age music — and autotune melodies that add extra stickiness to Wisin & Yandel’s headlong, staccato raps. It won a Latin Grammy for Best Urban song.

But adventurous beats like that didn’t always find a home. “Sometimes when you work with artists you have a batch of beats that you would really like to do, and sometimes artists won’t even look at them, won’t understand them,” Masís explains. His experiments with a trap sound were generally rejected as well: “People in Puerto Rico didn’t always take those beats because they didn’t think it was cool; they needed reggaeton to be on the radio, on the streets,” he says. “I was listening to what Anglo artists were doing at the time, so I did trap, because I was trying to move towards that side and work with those artists.”

If artists rejected his more unconventional beats, Masís didn’t get overly discouraged. He found some artists who were more open to bucking Latin pop convention, like Arcangel, who emerged from the same scene in the mid-2000s. And Masís kept looking for ways to scramble his sound. This meant that he was remarkably well-positioned to embrace — and in some cases, help fuel — two of the biggest trends in Latin pop music this decade.

The first is the softening of reggaeton: Conversational singing is now far more common than gruff rapping. With his usual farsightedness, Masís had already shown his willingness to embrace melody. He had helped Arcangel, who sings as well as he raps, make the whispery, tuneful “Sola” and the R&B-esque “Cuando Tu No Estas” in 2013. Even more surprising, he had also joined forces with the bachata star Romeo Santos on 2011’s “Magia Negra,” which is basically Top 40 electro-pop in Spanish. There were few other reggaeton beat-makers credited on Santos’ Formula Vol. 1 album.

So it’s not surprising that Masís was able to find a home in a world that suddenly prized melody more than ever before. Yandel connected Masís with the Colombian artist J Balvin, one of the preeminent reggaeton softeners, and the two hit it off. Balvin released a remarkable string of singles last year, and Tainy was responsible for “Bonita,” a dazzling collaboration with Jowell & Randy; the sandpapery texture of the synths that underpin the verses reaches back to “Abusadora.” Alongside Balvin’s trusted young producer Sky Rompiendo, the men worked closely on Balvin’s new album Vibras, which debuted at Number One on the Latin albums chart in May. It includes “No Es Justo” and several other songs that are even more dangerous.

The second trend that has boosted — and changed — mainstream Latin pop has been the rise of trap, a Spanish-language version of hip-hop from the American South. Gatekeepers often dismiss youth-driven movements, and trap, which is known for its explicit content, has faced resistance — for example, you won’t hear much of it on Latin radio. But where others hemmed and hawed, Masís saw promise. “Every time I listen to something that has something different, something recognizable, that catches my ear,” he explains. “That happened to me with Anuel AA.”

Anuel AA, a Puerto Rican rapper who helped bring Latin trap to an international audience, was close friends with Masís’ younger brother; all three used to play basketball and hang out at the studio. “The first time I heard him, I was like, ‘yo, I want to work with him,’” Masís says. “Most of the kids when they start rapping, they sound like anybody else; I can’t tell who they are. Anuel had a different voice.” Masís co-produced “Sola,” which caught the attention of Daddy Yankee, Wisin, Farruko and Zion & Lennox. All of them hopped on the remix, helping Anuel AA earn his first chart hit as a lead artist and further legitimizing Latin trap artists in the eyes of radio programmers and record label executives.

Masís also introduced himself to the majority of American listeners this year by co-producing Cardi B’s “I Like It.” He was brought on to help with the song by Atlantic Records’ head Craig Kallman; the assignment was an easy fit for Masís, since he had been mixing Latin and American sounds since he was in high school. “They had the sample, some guide drums, no chorus,” Masís says. “We added more instruments on top of the sample to make it more interesting. It’s three verses, so we had to put stops and adjustments for it to not get boring.” He also helped calibrate the drum-programming to create the right level of mayhem. “It couldn’t be nothing soft,” Masís says. “That kick needed to sound big.”

“I Like It” is drawn from the Bad Boy Records school of hit-making that was popular in the 1990s: Take a very recognizable song that was already a smash, loop its most recognizable part, then create another smash. In contrast, Masís’ work with Bad Bunny — Balvin connected the two — on “Estamos Bien” is more exciting, resulting in the creation of a uniquely oddball trap record. The song opens with the sound of a choir, and the primary melodic motif is a synthesizer that performs stylish figure-eight-like loops that instantly catch the ear. After a trap mid-section, the track ends with a dance coda, which few listeners expected from Bad Bunny.

When Masís flew from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico to work on what would become “Estamos Bien,” Bad Bunny already had “the intro melody and his voices” in place. “But [the song] needed a beat,” Masís says. “We did it super quick, in a day or two.” The dance portion was originally slated to be longer.  He told me, ‘yo, I would really like some movement,’” the producer remembers. “I put a shaker on it — when the second verse is going to start, a little shaker comes in. He starts to dance, ‘this is crazy!’ So I started messing around, making it a little more dancehall-y. He’s like, ‘let’s do the rest of the song like this!’”

But Masís urged caution. “It sounded super dope, but at the same time, I wanted to be careful, because his really hardcore fans are trap fans, and that’s what they’ve heard from him from the beginning,” the producer explains. “Just a little bit of the song was going to be trap. I told him, I think that’ll be too short. So let’s go back into the trap part after the shaker enters and just change it at the end.” Bad Bunny agreed to the alternative plan. He still liked the song so much that he sent it to be mastered the next day, before Masís had even finished making his final tweaks.  

Masís plans to keep working with Bad Bunny, who is in the process of putting together a debut album. At the same time — after churning out career-defining hits for countless reggaetoneros — he’s decided it’s time to release his first album under his own name. “This will be the first time I’m not following what the artist is looking for at the moment,” he says happily. “I can do exactly the sound I want to do.” So if you also start to hear more Latin trap songs shifting into shaker-led, dancehall-inspired outros, don’t be surprised: Throughout Masís’ career, the “sound that he wants to do” eventually becomes the style that everybody else wants to imitate.