Reggaeton has been one of the biggest genres in music globally for 20 years. In truth, there probably should have been a reggaeton-focused television series ages ago, but Netflix’s Neon fills the gap admirably. It’s a comedy-drama about the music industry in the vein of shows like Atlanta, Dave, or Rap Sh!t — or maybe even a less testosterone-fueled, more music-focused version of Entourage or How To Make It In America. Conceived by New York Times best-selling author Shea Serrano and showrunner Max Searle, Neon follows the exploits of Santi, who moves from small-town Florida to Miami with his two best friends/managers in tow, hoping to capitalize on a viral hit.
Naturally, he runs afoul of the usual pitfalls of the music industry, from disinterested power players to the travails of simply funding his independent operation. He’s got a few contacts and many of reggaeton’s established stars in his corner, though, and the determination to push through the adversity he faces in his pursuit of stardom. The show is a reliably funny, often poignant look at the journey to make it in the modern recording industry that remains grounded in reality even as Santi racks up unlikely wins. After all, every success story starts with the odds stacked against the protagonist, and Santi — played by Tyler Dean Flores of Falcon And The Winter Soldier and Miguel Wants To Fight — is exactly the kind of kid you want to see win.
What struck me most throughout my binge — all eight episodes are out this week, October 19 — was how authentic and true to the music and culture of reggaeton Neon strives to be. Much of that can be credited to the original music created for the series by executive music producers Tainy & One Six (Lex Borrero and Ivan Rodriguez), who made efforts to make songs that not only enhanced the story of the show but could also live in the real world as legitimate reggaeton hits. It helps that Daddy Yankee is also a producer on the show and makes a cameo — as do other Latin music stars like Jon Z, Jota Rosa, LYANNO, and more.
Ivan Rodriguez of One Six graciously agreed to a Zoom interview with Uproxx to reveal more of the process behind creating music for the show that could stand on its own, the global impact reggaeton has had, Flores’ commitment to getting the character just right, and faking it ’til you make it.
What was it about this project that was so attractive that it just had to live in this format?
I think the most important thing about this project was that we’ve seen culture really lend a lot of love and support to the creators, in the same way that we create from our point of view, as Latinos. We love the idea of representation and we love the idea that we’re creating music that really represents us and our storytelling. The moment that Scooter’s team brought this to us and we sat down and really got into the characters and what the story was about. It was a no-brainer, because it was really telling the story of a lot of us, whether we’re upcoming artists, producers, songwriters, people that are trying to make their dreams happen. As Latinos, we really connect to that story. We live that story in real life.
It really did feel authentic to my own personal experiences with the musical industry, especially in terms of people inflating their own importance, or trying to make it seem like they’re bigger than they are. How close is that to your real-life experience, or do you have any examples of things where you had to go in the back door or fake it until you made it?
That’s one of the beautiful things about this show. When you break down some of those “fake it ’til you make it” elements of it, they’re all so real. Driving up in the car that you’re sleeping in, you’re driving up to the meeting, and then you put on your best clothes. Everybody’s faking it until you make it, even the person on the other side of the boardroom. This show really brings to life the “fake it ’til you make it” element of artists, but in a beautiful way that they’re believing in their vision, and that they have their friends. It’s like, “My friends are the manager and the creative director, and they just believe in me and we believe in each other, and really we’re all faking it, but we really want to make it.”
One of the things that has always fascinated me about movies and television shows that try to take on music and the musical industry, is that a lot of times the music itself is not necessarily authentic to what we would be hearing in the real world. How did you go around making sure that the music itself was something that can conceivably live outside of the show, and just be like a song that you would hear on the radio?
I think we started off the right path, because sometimes these projects and these shows get done, and for whatever reason they don’t bring the right people into them. I really do this, and Tainy really does shift the music in Latin as far as the sound of reggaeton, and where that sound lives. All the little details that make the music connect with people. He really does this for all the biggest artists in the world. Bad Bunny, Jay Bobbin, Rauw Alejandro, Selena Gomez, et cetera. So him being part of this project really allowed for the music to really be super credible, and sound as good as everything else, but also with the understanding that these songs weren’t some songs that were on a hard drive somewhere or that were just created without thinking about it twice.
We were really doing character-building with these songs. So yes, when you hear them at first listen, you’re like, “This is a banger. This feels good. This is exactly what I thought it would be.” But when you get into the lyrics and you get into the small details of what he’s saying, his delivery, even being a Latin person living in the United States, we lean into the accent not being all the way from a Latin country. Being from a guy that lives in Fort Myers, how he would sound, how would his accent be in Spanish? And I think that really shows if you’re paying attention to both the show and the music at the same time. Then you’re like, “Wow, they really went out of their way to make that really vivid through the music and really connect.”
Tyler Dean Flores is an incredible performer. He really brought the character of Santi to life. What was it like working with him on stuff like performance, and how much coaching did he need to be a real reggaeton star?
I love Tyler. He’s my friend now, and that’s amazing to be able to connect with him. When he came into the studio, it was just great because he was also getting into that character mode in his mind of everything that the character brings to the table and who he is. So as we were creating the music, it wasn’t just about the performance, but also picking his brain. If we were doing a song for this particular scene or this particular feeling in this part of the season, he would really break down to me how he was feeling as the character and the emotions that he’s trying to portray. By doing that, his character really informed the music.
When it came to Tyler being Santi, the character on the mic, it was really that same thing, getting in that mode, him really listening to a lot of reggaeton music already, but doubling down on that and kind of becoming an artist for those weeks. Really honing his craft and getting into the swagger and the delivery that it would take to get inspiration. He was listening to a lot of Rauw Alejandro. I think that was the main inspiration for the musical side of the character. It really felt like we were actually crafting an artist there for those weeks.
What do you hope people take away from the story of Neon from this first season? Hopefully, there will be more seasons. What do you sort of expect people to learn about reggaeton, about Latin culture, and what do you hope for the future of the show?
The main thing that I feel people are going to really connect to both the music and the storytelling. They’re going to see how the reggaeton genre, even though it is drums and it feels good and it’s danceable, and it also has the element of the street and youth culture, is really a way to express how Latinos feel. Reggaeton is another way that Latinos express how they feel, their lives, their dreams, their aspirations, and their ambition. I think they will really see that through the show on both the character side and also on the music, that reggaeton is beyond a genre. It’s really like a form of expression for Latinos.
Neon is streaming on Netflix