When salsa singer Frankie Negron takes to the stage, he wants to quickly grab a modern audience accustomed to the electronic magic of modern pop and hip-hop.
To do so, he relies on a blend of contemporary hooks and tradition — and the power of his 13-member band, an ensemble that aims to dazzle a crowd with powerful percussion, blaring horns and danceable beats.
"There's been an explosion of the popularity of the DJ," said Negron, who performs Friday night at The Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. "He just comes in with his computer program and mixes all these different things and people go nuts and crazy and love it. I'm not hating on that. But I think there's still a market for real musicianship, musicians and live music. If can find a way to keep it going and keep people excited about live music, then that's what I'm going to do."
Negron has been keeping it going since the late 90s, giving salsa an urban edge to keep it relevant for younger listeners. He released his first album, Con amor se gana (You Win With Love), during the last Latin music boom in the United States, a period when the then still-fat record labels looked for youthful stars with crossover appeal.
The CD included songs from acclaimed producer Sergio George, who helped launch the career of a one-time Latin hip-hop and freestyle singer named Marc Anthony. Negron, who was then 18, employed a blend of salsa, rhythm of blues and pop designed to reach a younger generation of fans who, like him, grew up listening to varied musical influences — from El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico to Stevie Wonder. Though he didn't stray far from tradition, he initially had his detractors.
"People were saying, 'that's not real salsa ... they're killing the genre," recalled Negron, of Puerto Rican heritage. "Now people refer to it as, 'that's some classic songs; that's some awesome stuff.' "
Negron gained notice as a dynamic singer with range and control, capable of alternating between the high volume of some salsa singers and the rich tones and earthy sensuality of others.
In 2009, after more than a decade as a salsa singer, he released an English-language album, Independence Day on Airgo Music. Negron describes the record on which he fronted a melodic hard-rock band as a side project that reflects his upbringing in New Jersey, where he listened to the likes of Bruce Springsteen.
But the album, which included the Spanish-language hit Adicto A Tu Piel (Hooked on You) wouldn't turn him away from salsa, or his fans.
"They know in no way does that mean I'm going to leave the roots of who I am, la musica Latina and salsa in particular," Negron said.
Modern salsa largely sprang from the boom of the early 1970s, when Fania Music stars like Hector Lavoe and Willie Colon gave traditional Latin American genres the flavor of New York streets in well-told stories of urban life.
Many of today's songs, however, owe much to the "salsa romantica" craze that came later. Singers like Lalo Rodriguez and Eddie Santiago delivered melodramatic lyrics that often spoke to desire or unattainable love, themes that persisted in salsa well past the 90s.
That's a direction Negron seems to turn away from on his latest hit, Quemare Mi Cama — I'll burn my bed. Instead, he sings about a lost romance.
"It's not to drastically different from what I've done but it's already talking about something different," he said. "We're still talking about love but we're talking about love lost, you know, a breakup versus you know take me back or I love you or I found you and you're the most awesome woman on the planet."
But even though the song is about heartbreak, the rhythms are still strong, a nod to the dancers Negron calls to the floor, especially fans of old school salsa who flock to salsa congresses — huge events that celebrate Latin music and dance.
"A lot of my earlier stuff in the 90s was recorded really slow because that was the style," he said. "People weren't so much dancing to it. And then you know the salsa congresses started happening, and la salsa gorda as they call it, old-school salsa, became a lot more popular because it was great to dance to, including for myself. I mean I love that stuff and I love to dance salsa."
At 34, he's an internationally known salsa star with a strong fan base in the New York area, Miami, Latin America and Europe. He's one of the few who continues to tour and record. He's also embraced social media, hoping to grab new fans on salsa with a blend of classic style and new hooks.
"I definitely see that it needs to evolve to continue to keep young people interested in it," he said. "They're the ones that keep music alive for generations."