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Owen Maigret's Conquering Label 

S.F. export digging for reggaeton gold in Panama

Wednesday, Oct 25 2006
If any visual artist captured the ethos of the San Francisco house music scene during its '90s salad days, it would be Owen Maigret. As with hippies and their cherished Grateful Dead poster art, an aging raver need only glance at one of Maigret's expressionistic blue-green musclemen figures to be transported to a trippier time. First seen on party fliers and the Wicked crew's mixtape covers, Maigret's paintings favored organic shapes, purplish flowers, and pliable-looking king's crowns. Like the music they were inspired by, many of his images suggested a chemically enhanced openness and tranquility.

Some of his later work, however, took a grittier turn that would foreshadow Maigret's current project — establishing a record label in Panama City devoted to the now sizzling reggaeton sound. An image on his Web site image entitled "The Knife" is the most telling in this respect. Three men, with faces reminiscent of the classical comedy/tragedy masks, loom over a drawn blade, its tip soaked in blood. It is this feeling of betrayal and outrage that dominates Maigret's recounting of his label Conquering Lion Soundz's brief history.

"We get mad respect here," he says over a crackly phone line from Panama, "but in the three years I've been operating my label, everyone except my business partner [the Panamanian DJ Fulo] has stolen from me. I've been involved in the music industry for a long time, but I am not used to meeting people and assuming they are a liar and a thief and then it turns out to be true." He then rattles off a long list of former associates, rival label owners, and dissatisfied artists who have attempted to bankrupt him by all manner of treachery. "Even my bank lies to me here."

Maigret is unapologetically bitter about his company's tenure in Central America, and it's not like he was naïve about the music industry's shadowy inner workings before starting. He moved south after a successful career in San Francisco's rave scene, which rarely operated aboveboard. During the '90s, he owned the prominent clothing and music retail shop Housewares on Haight Street, threw around 70 underground warehouse parties, and co-operated the house label Soulfood Recordings with noted local producer Rasoul.

What brought him to Panama initially was real estate — where he "made a fortune," he says — but along the way he fell in with some of the originators of the reggaeton phenomenon, which involves lusty Spanish rapping over one particular dancehall "riddim" from the '80s (Shabba Ranks' "Dem Bow"). Maigret discovered that reggaeton was much older than its U.S. fans would believe — its rollicking, club-tailored beat seemed to come out of nowhere two or three years ago. With DJ Fulo's guidance, he traced its roots back to Panamanian reggae en espanol records that were at least 15 years old. And although the music's exact genesis remains murky, some accounts have it that reggae made its way to Latin America via the descendents of Jamaican immigrants who had come to work on the Panama Canal up until World War I.

The history Maigret uncovered was at odds with the claims by a recent crop of breakthrough Puerto Rican rapperos, who declared their island to be the music's birthplace. Today, many non-Panamanians are cashing in hugely on the sound, the most prominent being Puerto Rican Daddy Yankee, whose "Gasolina" has been inescapable on urban radio; his frequently underwear-clad countrywoman Ivy Queen; and U.S. rapper N.O.R.E., who managed a major rap-reggaeton crossover hit with "Oye Mi Canto." Meanwhile, the most prominent Panamanian artists have achieved only Third World fame — their earnings meager and recognition concentrated around the equator.

Maigret decided to start a company so that overlooked Panamanian reggaeton rapperos, producers, and singers might gain recognition and start seeing a paycheck. "I came in and paid every artist every time," he says. "To the average Panamanian in the music business, that makes me a fool. Musicians never got paid anything, so because I'm paying people what they deserve, or almost what they deserve, people think I'm a moron."

Apparently, even his artists agreed. In a country with such a meager standard of living — the CIA puts its per capita income at just under $7,000 — a small payout can quickly turn into bigger demands.

"I have 23 signed artists, and all of them want a sports car immediately," he states. "I told them, 'You have to work,' so they worked. Two weeks later — 'Where's my sports car?' I told them, 'No guys, this is the music industry, not the movies.'"

Despite his pessimism, Maigret might well be incubating something that could make him and his bling-dreaming stable quite an income one day. As CD sales sag worldwide, the Latin music category continues to be the industry's lone winning horse year after year — shipments of Latin CDs increased by 13 percent in 2005, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, whose report cites the emergence of reggaeton as a reason for this. And at least three Conquering Lion artists have plausible crossover potential — the bubbly rappero Harmony; the clarion-voiced singer Baby Karen; and Dante, a feisty, braggadocios emcee whose flow leans toward those popular in American hip hop.

The Bay Area has quickly become a viable market for reggaeton as well, although it's split along language lines. La Kalle (105.7 FM) is a new radio station devoted entirely to "reggaeton y mas," and while its DJs flip into English occasionally, its ads and Web site are all in Spanish. The turnouts for concerts here featuring Puerto Rican heavyweights are also heavily Latino.

Jahyzer, a Cuban-American dancehall DJ who is a mainstay in the local English-speaking reggae scene, reports that traditional reggae crowds will get down to reggaeton, but only in small doses. "Out in New York and Miami, reggaeton is huge, but it either gets played in the salsa club or the house club, where the Latin majority is," he says. "Here, things are a bit more diverse, so you can run it at a dancehall party and people would respond to it, but probably not all night." Smoky, the host of the always solid Sunday night reggae dance King of Kings at the Shattuck Downlow in Berkeley, has taken to closing his sets with a reggaeton section.

Since the Panamanian music market, which Maigret says he's penetrated to a significant degree, is so paltry (a strong release might sell a few thousand copies), and Conquering Lion's first compilation La Plena is just recently available in U.S. stores, the fledgling label does not have funds to meet his hungry team's demands or aggressively market his releases back home in the U.S. yet. Aggravating matters further, Maigret reports that major-label representatives, combing Panama for artists to sign in the wake of the reggaeton explosion, have been tempting his artists with promises of hefty advances.

"I told my artists that the terms [being offered] were awful and you have to pay back advances. Plus, I reminded them they were under contract to me for two years," he says. "But still they wanted to go. P. Diddy and Rockafella all came down here, but they had to go home because I have seven lawyers, plus the prosecuting attorney for the country of Panama, and my contracts are airtight."

Ces One, a founding partner in the U.S. arm of Conquering Lion and its Berkeley-based business manager, has talked Maigret through many of these predicaments over the phone. "The thing is, Owen has taken a lot of those artists from obscurity to for-sure-ity, and he has intimate relationships with them," he says. "I advise him to be diplomatic, but I've offered to fly down and punch people in the face, too."

In the end, Conquering Lion's proposed path into U.S. clubs and radio takes an extreme dogleg to the east first. "We're starting to get our tracks to break in Spain" — where reggaeton is treated less like a novelty in part because fans understand the lyrics — "and now when you get a hit in Spain, you get a hit in Europe and Latin America," says Ces One.

But even without the glimmers of instant success, Maigret would probably maintain his struggle, in part because of innate character, in part for poetic justice. Local dancehall DJ and label owner Steffen Franz, the U.S. distributor for La Plena, says his longtime friend has an "artist's temperament." "Not just the artist's temperament, but the fine artist's temperament," he adds. "Owen would rather cut his ear off than sign some big-level deal he didn't believe in. He is one of those people who will probably go kicking and screaming to his biggest successes."

Regardless of his bittersweet feelings about the Panamanian national character, Maigret keeps the label afloat in choppy waters because he wants to see the true forebears of reggaeton get their due. "Since Panama is just this drug country that was under Noriega, they got left in the dirt," he says. "There's something just not right about that."

About The Author

Darren Keast


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