Daddy Yankee stands in front of a weathered three-story block in the Villa Kennedy area of San Juan, inside the government housing project where he spent his teenage years. Boricuas–the term used by Puerto Ricans to describe their Taino Indian heritage–peer at him from behind brightly painted iron grills. Shoeless kids with long limbs and Bambi eyes zip across the streets staring coyly. Homeboys with immaculate cornrows cruise past, nodding appreciatively from beat-up Chevys. Friends of all ages lean out of trucks to holler “Yankee! Que pasa?” He’s had a whirlwind of a day, but everyone gets a warm handshake, friendly verbal exchange, and a 100-watt smile.
“The Yankee you see on the TV is the Yankee you see on the street,” he explains sincerely. “If you holla at me with respect, I’m gonna give you back respect.” A 30-something mami steps forward. “Hola baby,” he says. “I have a two-year-old son,” she gushes. “He sings along to ‘Gasolina’ when it comes on the radio. I tell him the man that sings it was a boy like him from these projects. He says when he grows up he wants to be like Daddy Yankee.”
Fueling the Fire
“Gasolina” is the jump-up track currently taking Yankee’s career to another level. Produced by Loony Toons, the now-global reggaeton anthem starts with a frenzied, galloping b-line that explodes into Yankee’s passionate rapping and roughneck crowd calls. The lyrics–which roughly translate to “Gas, the girls need more gas in their tanks”–are suggestive enough to appeal to hardcore reggaeton fans but subtle enough for mainstream radio.
Earlier in the day Yankee appeared on From Another Point Of View, a talk show on Puerto Rican radio station WKAQ, to discuss the “Gasolina” phenomenon. The middle-aged female presenter, visibly delighted by Yankee, reveals, “I boycotted reggaeton. I thought the culture was vulgar. But what Yankee is doing, this is different altogether.”
Further confirmation of Yankee’s acceptance by mainstream Puerto Rican culture is seen on the set of Que Suerte, a primetime television talk show. As the host introduces him, “Gasolina” blares out over the pseudo-lounge space. Cue a laughing Yankee flanked by the program’s in-house eye candy enthusiastically attempting the perreo, the doggy-style reggaeton dance middle-class Puerto Ricans ardently protested against just five years ago. “Unless you live in Puerto Rico, it’s hard to understand how crazy that was,” says Yankee enthusiastically after the taping. “It took 12 years, but finally we are accepted.”
Reggaeton is described by Puerto Ricans as “music from the streets.” Emerging in the early ’90s, the genre is the culturally hybridized child of Jamaican dancehall, Panamanian reggae en español, salsa, bomba, and Latin hip-hop. Panamanian artist El General is credited as being one of the first artists, going back to 1990, to flex a Jamaican/Hispanic style. However his flow is more akin to Spanish deejaying over a dub beat than the type of reggaeton that’s currently blowing up dancefloors and airwaves.
Daddy Yankee remembers the genre’s humble origins. “We used to sample hip-hop and dancehall beats but in like ’94, ’95 we started making our own beats using the “Dem Bow” drum pattern.” [Dem Bow” was a ’90s dancehall hit by Shabba Ranks, produced by Bobby Digital (Digital B)–Ed.]
He points excitedly at a grinning dude leaning up against a parked car. “See my man DJ Playero? He’s the godfather of reggaeton. He hooked up a home studio in that apartment just there. We had a four-track, a reel-to-reel, and a mic–real basic.” He snaps fingers with Playero then continues. “It was our hip-hop. The people instantly loved it. Playero made the first reggaeton mixtape. It was huge. Then they started playing it in the clubs, cars, and at home; it wasn’t allowed on the TV or radio.”
From its inception, reggaeton was met with widespread disapproval. The artists’ hardcore lyricism described the desperate situation in the barrios where hustling drugs is the standard occupation. Even the seemingly clean-cut Yankee says, “I lived in the hood so you know what kind of job I had. If it weren’t for music, I’d be in jail or dead.”
Like gangster rap, reggaeton mirrored what was popping in the hoods. The Puerto Rican government, unwilling to acknowledge the thug lifestyle that fed and clothed the vast majority of barrio people, came down on the music hard. Kids playing reggaeton in their cars would be stopped by the police and their CDs and tapes destroyed. The music couldn’t be sold in stores and the country’s radio stations formed a united “no reggaeton” music policy.
With no official outlet, reggaeton was kept underground until 1998 when DJ Coyote set up the country’s first 24-hour reggaeton station, The Mix 107.7FM. “Everyone expected it to fail,” Yankee explains, “but in three months The Mix was the number one station. They couldn’t ignore us any longer.”
The Pride of PR
As mainstream society (particularly upper class ladies) warmed to reggaeton, the artists serious about making music a career toned down their lyrics. Rather than become a parody, Yankee continued to make tracks that were real to the barrio lifestyle but with fino, Spanish for class.
“I represent the barrio with pride,” says Yankee. “Accolades from around the world mean so much but they are nothing compared to the love and support I’m shown from the barrio people. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Pride and responsibility to his people is the main inspiration behind Yankee’s music. The track “Salud Y Vida‚” for example, appeals to people to stop depending on drug money. “Over 50 of my childhood friends have died. Stop the fighting. It’s not worth it,” he urges in his punchy Creole Spanish. “I’d rather have one dollar in my pocket than one million and be a slave to drugs. Don’t envy wealth. The most important thing in life is health. Life is for living. You can’t live on drugs.” “Quentame” is similarly heartfelt. The antithesis of reggaeton’s idiosyncratic “shake your ass, girl” rhetoric, it’s a touching love song that asks, “If I don’t have you, what will I do? Tell me why we built our lives together and now you want to leave? Come to me.”
Both these tracks, and the seminal “Gasolina,” can be found on Barrio Fino, Yankee’s first recording with support from a major label. To date it has sold a staggering 1 million units across Puerto Rico and the US; this figure is set to rise as Yankee takes on Asia and Europe this summer. Prior to his deal with Universal, Yankee had already released four stellar albums independently on his El Cartel imprint: El Cartel de Yankee, El Cartel de Yankee II, El Cangri.com‚ and Los Home-runes. With only the most street level promotion and distribution each record sold in excess of 100,000 units. “I did everything myself: distribution, promotion, production. It was real business,” says Yankee proudly. “I was on my grind. I’m from the hood. It’s all I’ve known to do. Follow my own path and hustle my own shit.”
After a decade of operating street-style, the hustle has paid off. In February 2005 Yankee was the first Puerto Rican to win the Best Urban Album Award at the prestigious Lo Nuestro Latin Music awards ceremony. P.Diddy has approached him to be the face of his Sean John clothing line. He’s collaborated with US hip-hop honchos Fat Joe, Lil’ Jon, and N.O.R.E, who tapped his reggaeton expertise to create the globally-charted anthem “Oye Mi Canto.”
“Reggaeton’s become so successful over 50 stations in the US are changing their formats to bilingual, half Spanish, half English,” says Yankee. “That’s how big it is.” Achievements closer to home include performing to 12,000 fans in Puerto Rico’s historic Roberto Clemente Coliseum and producing the track “Sabor A Melao” with salsa legend Andy Montane. “I was brought up with salsa,” says Yankee, once again flashing his dazzling schoolboy smile. “My father was a salsa drummer–he played congas. Salsa is our original street music so respect from those artists is very special to me.”
A little girl in a flower print dress hovers nearby clutching a tatty piece of paper. “Hey,” says Yankee softly, immediately squatting to become eye-level with the tiny autograph hunter. She smiles bashfully and the pair exchange quiet words in Spanish. Yankee scribbles a message. Bouncing with happiness, she skips back to her young mom waiting a few meters away with a stroller. Yankee, unmindful of his fresh denim suit and customized Daddy Yankee Air Force Ones, takes a seat on the dirty sidewalk.
“You know I used to play baseball,” says Yankee. “Then all of a sudden music became the most important thing in my life. Someone hired me for a show and paid me $50. When I got the money I felt like the richest man in the world. That’s when I said to myself, ‘I want to make a career of this.’”
He pauses to find the appropriate English words to express himself. “Truthfully, I’m just a street cat following a dream I’ve had since I was a kid. No matter what happens, I can never forget that.”
Five Important Reggaeton Albums
1. Don Omar The Last Don (Sellos Asociados)
2. Ivy Queen Real (Imperio Music)
3. Tego Calderon El Abayarde (White Lion)
4. Nicky Jamz Vida Escante (Pina)
5. Zion y Lennox Motivando A La Yal (White Lion)