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Reggaeton Gets Rich: And Rapper Daddy Yankee's Street Sounds Lead The Way
BY JORDAN LEVIN
March 6, 2005
He may have diamonds gleaming everywhere -- four-inch, gem-encrusted initials hanging from his neck, chunky gold and diamond bracelets, tiny Puerto Rican flags in both ears -- but reggaeton rapper Daddy Yankee (real name Raymond Ayala) still doesn't have a mainstream rap star's outsize swagger, the kind that seems to suck up all the air in the vicinity. His name, Puerto Rican slang for Big Daddy, is also full of bluster. But on a recent visit to Miami that included a career-making appearance on Univision's popular music-awards show Premio Lo Nuestro, Yankee, 28, seemed as hesitant as he was excited -- like he couldn't quite believe everything that was happening to him. He was anxious over hitting the right pose for a photographer, eagerly looking for an article featuring him in hip-hop bible Vibe Magazine.
Both he and his music have come a long way from their funky street roots in the slums of Puerto Rico, when both the Latin music and the hip-hop world looked down on reggaeton.
''I started in the hood, and lots of people dissed me as a delinquent, but now I'm here getting back my honor, big-time,'' Yankee freestyles in Spanish at a South Beach restaurant, laughing at the sunshine bouncing off the water and the reporters from his hometown of San Juan hovering nearby and the anticipation of mastering the Latin masses the following night. ``I'm gonna kill em on Premio, in the name of all Latinos. Shout out to all the babes and the bosses in Miami.''
If he can seem hesitant offstage, put Daddy Yankee in front of an audience and he burns so hot you wonder why the diamonds don't melt. Fourteen years of rapping take over with a machine-gun rattle of beats and rhymes. At his Premio performance at AmericanAirlines Arena last month, he stalked the stage like a hip-hop warrior, while his booming hit Gasolina sent an electrified crowd up onto its feet.
His appearance on Premio (along with fellow reggaeton artist Don Omar, who performed with Spanish pop singer Alejandro Sanz) marked a turning point for both Yankee and his compatriots in reggaeton, the dancehall-rap blend that rose out of Puerto Rico in the mid-'90s and is beginning to push its way into both the Latin and the hip-hop mainstream. In the last few months the genre has been adopted by mainstream Spanish-language radio, an acknowledgement of several years of solid showings on the Latin sales charts. This Saturday, Yankee headlines Reggaetonzol, a concert produced by radio chain Spanish Broadcasting Systems and its Miami station El Zol 95.7 FM, and featuring names like Pitbull, Fat Joe, Ivy Queen and others.
It's sweet for both Yankee and his music. ''People love reggaeton -- it's the industry that sometimes puts barriers,'' he says. ``[Reggaeton] is our hip-hop.''
And Yankee may be its first real star. His latest solo album, Barrio Fino, on his own El Cartel Records, has sold more than half a million copies and been in the top 10 of the Billboard Latin Album sales chart for 32 weeks, nine of them at No. 1. Gasolina has been thundering on both Latin and urban radio. Yankee has caught people's attention in a way that other top reggaeton acts like Tego Calderon and Don Omar haven't. The New York Times called Barrio Fino ''one of the year's best hip-hop albums.'' This weekend he opened for an Usher Showtime concert special in Puerto Rico, and he'll perform on MTV's Spring Break later this month. He's modeling for P. Diddy's Sean John clothing line, and has been featured in Vibe, The Source, and XXL. He's already done the requisite remix with producer Lil Jon, and on his next album he'll work with star producers The Neptunes.
''He's opened the door for everybody,'' says Angela Romero, associate music editor at Vibe. ``He's changing the perception of reggaeton.''
Romero says Yankee's qualities leave him poised to explode. ''This is reggaeton's answer to [P. Diddy],'' she said. ``Musically he's very Latin and at the same time . . . he's a true rapper. The girls love him -- he has that baby face and good boy look, but he tells these stories from the street. He offers the best of both worlds.''
It's a dizzying change for a kid who started rhyming on street corners in the poor San Juan housing development of Villa Kennedy. Yankee still has a gimpy leg from the time he was shot in his late teens, landing him in the hospital for almost a year, unable to walk.
''I saw death -- I felt it in my face,'' Yankee says. ''It was my pitch-black moment. I'm human, and yeah, I wanted to get revenge. But there's no coming back from that.'' Instead, he turned full-time to music. ``It made me want to testify, tell real stories. I just put it in my rhyme book. I decided to always be real, always be a hard-core reggaeton, hardcore hip-hop artist. You're never gonna find Yankee doing something pop.''
It's the classic hip-hop trajectory: the kid from the hood who fights his way to the top with stories of the street. But in the early 1990s there was no Latin hip-hop universe where someone like Yankee could climb to the stars. The Latin music industry shunned rap as lower-class and American. And the mainstream hip-hop world hadn't yet accepted rap in Spanish.
''We decided to make our own sound, which was to mix hip-hop with Spanish reggae,'' he says. ``We created reggaeton.''
Yankee identified with rappers like Dr. Dre (''he's still my idol''), NWA, Big Daddy Kane and Run DMC. ``They were from the same environment as I was in Puerto Rico,'' Yankee says. ``They were from the street, and we came from the street. I didn't know what they were saying, but the sound and the look . . . was just like us in Puerto Rico.''
At the same time, bass-heavy dancehall from Jamaica was booming in Puerto Rico, along with the Spanish reggae of El General. And the classic salsa of artists like Hector Lavoe and El Gran Combo still rang true for Yankee and other reggaeton pioneers.
''I don't listen to the new salsa -- I respect the old salsa more,'' he says. ``They were more barrio. They weren't afraid to speak the truth. It's like us, we're like the new salsa.''
Barrio Fino features a track with classic salsa singer Andy Montañez, and Yankee has approached Gran Combo about recording with them.
Reggaeton features a distinctive, fast, almost syncopated bass line with the heavy thud of Jamaican reggae, and rap/sung vocals that echo with the nasal, intense sound of classic salsa singing. It's got a slang so complex it's almost its own language (''Le gusta la gasolina,'' the chorus from Gasolina, is literally ''She likes gasoline'' but means ``she likes to cruise/she likes to go''). But the improvisation and rhythmic wordplay, the boasting street attitude, are right out of hip-hop.
The music started to bubble up in Puerto Rico with the release of Playero 37, a mix tape that featured Yankee and other rappers who had previously performed only on street corners and home recordings. It started to explode in clubs and taped recordings. But its obscenity-laced tales of guns, sex, drugs and slum life made it as controversial as gangster rap; radio wouldn't play it; the media and the authorities criticized it.
''It was straight underground,'' Yankee says. ``We put out a lot of music talking about the corruption in the government, about our environment in Puerto Rico. Some people felt like we were immoral. Gangs, drugs, sex -- that's the environment we live in, that's real.''
As reggaeton has started breaking into the Latin mainstream, it has moved away from violent street sagas and toward tales of women and partying. And as it has gained greater legitimacy in the hip-hop world (helped by the success of Latino rappers like Fat Joe and Miami's own Pitbull), artists are proclaiming their musical skills and verbal virtuosity as much as their street credibility.
And they are playing a major role in reclaiming Latinos' place in hip-hop, which gives Yankee's drive to success the added impetus of doing it for his culture and his island, as well as for himself. ''We were part of [hip-hop],'' Yankee says. ``But they've never given us the credit.''
''We're gonna take the credit on that if it happens and it's already happening. But the credit is for the Latin community. It comes from Puerto Rico, but we don't mind sharing it.'' And he grins.
Two days after his Premio performance, Yankee is standing under a glowering sky backstage at the Bayfront Amphitheater, waiting to go on at the Bob Marley Caribbean Festival and Food Drive. ''I'm tired -- how do I get my energy back?'' he says. But he ignites onstage, pounding the air, raking in energy while he rips off inhumanly fast rhymes, exhorting the hysterical crowd of black, white and Latina women pressed against the stage. Even the rain can't dampen their enthusiasm.
He seems almost dazed afterwards, sweating and shaking his head. ``I expect that from my Latin fan base, but to see white women, black, all screaming for you -- that's beautiful.''