First in an occasional series marking the 30th anniversary of rap music.
At Banana Joe's, the humidity hangs heavy, frizzing hair and coating bodies with a fine layer of sheen. People are bumping up against one another, forming a tableau of erotic pas de deux, jazzed up by the funk of the "crunk" -- southern-fried rap -- thumping through the room. There's a whiff of danger here. Perhaps it's the women squabbling in the ladies' room, perhaps it's the acrid aroma of "stanks" -- crack-stuffed cigarettes -- being passed around the VIP section. Armando "Pitbull" Perez, all studied focus, partakes of none of this. Head bopping to the beat, he raises a glass, wraps a tattooed arm around this evening's honey. Then the DJ drops Pit's latest single, and Pit starts jumping up and down, dancing a little jig. Until the song ends. Moments later, Pit is out of there, his entourage snaking behind him, passing out CD singles as they go.
By all appearances, Pit's all about the party. But in reality, he's all about the business. Rap is, he says, "a 24-7 job." Business is the operative word here. Let's be very clear about this: He's a rapper, but this is about much more than rap.
"I look at this game from a different perspective," Pit says. "All that other [expletive] that people like -- the bling-bling? I like to keep my money at the end of the day. [Screw] this rap [expletive]. . . . I ain't no thug, I ain't no gangsta. I'm a hustler. . . .
"Music is my hustle. It's my crack, my cocaine, what I need you to get hooked on."
Indeed, he's the son of a hustler, the scion of a Cuban exile who Pit says made a fast fortune on la cocaina here during the '80s and lost it just as quickly. Pit looks at himself and he sees his father, but with a caveat: "I'm a whole lot smarter." As "this little chico" figures, he'd better be smarter if he wants the world outside of the "305" -- the area code for Miami -- to be hooked on him. After all, in the rap game, he's a bit of an anomaly: A Cuban American who raps in English and in Spanish. A blue-eyed Latino -- "You can't get much whiter than me" -- who's found a musical soul mate in the ebony-skinned King of Crunk: Atlanta's Lil Jon, the silver-toothed and dreadlocked rapper/DJ/producer, he of the trademark grunts ("Yeeeeeaaaaaaah!!") and the platinum-plated hits.
Pit's got the raps; Lil Jon's got the beats. Together, Pit figures, they'll be like Biggie and Puffy. Eminem and Dr. Dre.
Powerful. Ubiquitous. And paid.
Straight From the Streets
I want to make sure that
my kids' kids' kids are
gonna be straight when
I finish with this
so-called rap [expletive]
I'm not a rapper
As a matter of fact
[expletive] this rap [expletive]
I'm a businessman
I'm about my business, man,
I take care of business, man.
-- From Pitbull's "Volume III,
Unleashed" mix tape.
On Nov. 12, 1974 -- 30 years ago, seven years before Pit was born -- rap began at a party in the Bronx. DJ Kool Herc was at the turntable, toying with the vinyl records as they played. He'd find the beat in the song, and prolong it, yoking the rhythm in stretched-out sessions. Then he picked up the mike, and started rapping rhymes, little improvised ditties, just like the toastmasters did back home in Jamaica.
Herc never got rich -- some say they've seen him passing out fliers in Times Square -- but his noodlings spawned a new music form -- rap -- and, along with it, a new culture -- hip-hop -- that was firmly rooted in the street. Poor black and brown kids needed only a turntable and a mike to make art. Or for taggers, a can of spray paint. Or for break dancers, their own bodies, a boombox and a slab of cardboard laid out over concrete.
It was music that didn't need the marketing might of a record label. No one else took it seriously anyway. The street ruled, with beats rattling car windows and "mix tapes" being peddled out of car trunks. Now, rap has become a billion-dollar industry with global reach from Croatia to Compton. But in the beginning, it was the street, and not music execs, that determined who made it and who didn't. Even now, notwithstanding the heavy sway that MTV and BET hold over the tastes of the music-listening youth, the underground still has power.
Consider Pit, one of the thousands of young artists trying to push their way into a congested field of contenders. His is a path that mirrors the genesis of rap. Since he was a teenager, Pit has been perfecting his craft, haunting nightclubs, performing in the streets, at parties, wherever he could, engaging in "freestyle" rhyming battles with other rappers. Anything to get ahead. His efforts are paying off. Perhaps you've never heard of him. But stroll through South Beach here, and you will find his likeness plastered in windows of music stores.
Now, without the benefit of a record -- yet (his debut CD, "M.I.A.M.I.: Money Is a Major Issue," will be released Aug. 24) -- or a record deal with a major label, his first single, "Culo," an ode to bountiful backsides, can be heard blasting through radio stations from Washington to Los Angeles because of word-of-mouth popularity. Like rap, Pit came up in the streets, and it is in the streets, he figures, where he will make his musical mark.
"This is how you make a name for yourself with no record deal," Pit boasts, "no video, no publishing contract. My records climb charts. I'm selling me to the world. I'm not selling gimmicks.
"This is me. . . . When [expletives] come up to me in the street, reciting my lines, that's my payoff."
Dedicated to the Ladies
There's a formula to all this, a formula that has morphed and metastasized over the last three decades as rap has become increasingly commodified and commercialized.
Pit will break it down for you. He likes to philosophize, to expound and expand. He does this as he tools about Little Havana in his Nissan Maxima, trucker hat pulled low, a pale and stocky man laying it out as he juggles the two cell phones that ring nonstop, flitting between two languages -- "Dime que tengas!" -- and then on the other phone -- "I respect that you're a talented nigga, but business-wise, you're bull[expletive] "
An annoying little song plays on the radio, some anonymous tune by some anonymous flash-in-the-pan, its refrain a perfect example of what he's talking about, the whole equation behind radio-friendly rap:
I hate my baby's daddy
I hate my baby's daddy . . .
I hate my baby's mama
She's always causing drama
No doubt about it, the song is obnoxious; it caters to the baser instincts. But the beat is catchy, guaranteed to play a constant loop in the memory. Pit will grant you that the song is foul. Sure, the sentiment is horrible. (He's got no baby-mama drama, you understand, because even though he has two children by different women, he makes sure that the bills are paid. He doesn't know any other way. He's a "workaholic Capricorn.") But, there is something that he learned a while ago, and it's something that he's remembered as he aims his sights on getting more and more radio play: "The masses are asses."
In other words, "it is the stupid [expletive] that sells."
So it doesn't matter so much what you rap about. Yes, he has lyrics that traverse deeper territory: "We're taught to believe in religion / But religion is the reason / The twin towers are missing." But that's not always what the people want to hear. They want to go to a club, they want to dance, they want to hear a chant that they can remember and shout along to the beat, like Lil Jon's hits "I Don't Give a [Expletive]" and "Git Low," or Pit's single, "Culo."
"It's a radio game," Pit explains, "and the game is demographics. That's all they care about. . . . And at the end of the day, I gotta feed my family. Now I gotta do what makes the phone lines light up."
Which is to say he keeps it simple, something that, like the baby's-daddy ditty,will embed itself in the brains of its listeners. Something the ladies will like. Because, you see, it is the ladies who will talk up the records, who'll call the radio station, demanding to hear their favorite song.
Explains Lil Jon, Pit's mentor and producer, who made his start as a DJ on radio and in the clubs in Atlanta: "Women run radio. I make a song for the women. If the women are on the dance floor, the guys are going to be on the dance floor. If your song is hot in the club, it translates to radio. . . . Radio is geared toward women, because women spend the money."
So Pit's got his songs for guys, like his "305 Anthem" -- grunting, testosterone tracks. And he's got his songs for the girls, like "Culo," where he urges them, "I ain't got time for no games / I'm hopin' mami that you feel the same / I got what you need to feel the pain / Here's my number call me when you're up for an even exchange."
Not exactly furthering the feminist cause, but it's played in "high rotation" on radio in Orlando, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston, according to Keith Berman, associate radio editor for Records & Radio magazine.
Last November, Pit signed with TVT Records, a New York-based independent label that also reps Lil Jon. But he kept on with his own self-marketing campaign.
The song started out as a single on a mix tape -- actually a homemade CD. In the case of "Culo," Pit picked up the music tracks, melody and beats from "Pull Up," a song by the dancehall singer Mr. Vegas -- and put his own special twist on it. Club DJs were on to it right away.
"When I heard that," says Lil Jon, who first heard the song in a club, "I was like, 'Yo, that's a hit record. We got to put that out.' " The two recorded a version of the song together and Pit handed the single to a DJ at Miami's WPOW Power 96. Miami, with all its racial and ethnic diversity, is considered a good "test market," according to Pit. The song quickly took off around the country. Without benefit of a record, Pit had a hit.
"Culo" is now a video, playing on "MTV Jams!" and BET. It is a grainy, documentary-style video filmed on Miami's famed Calle Ocho in Little Havana, with Pit bouncing about onstage in a basketball jersey printed with the Cuban flag and scores of comely bikini-clad Latinas waving the Cuban flag, too.
Because you've got to represent for the people.
Latinos have played a prominent role in rap throughout its 30-year history, from the members of the Rock Steady Crew to the late Big Pun to Fat Joe to Nikki D to Cuba's Orishas. Now, says Pit, "it couldn't be a better time for a Hispanic. Because I don't know if anybody looked at the census report. We're the up-and-coming minority and we're just growing at phenomenal numbers.
"Which means that they're definitely going to want to cater to us, one way or another. So what better than a Latin rapper, right?"
In rap, everybody's got a back story. More than any other music form, in rap, an interesting bio makes for an interesting career. After all, rappers are storytellers, modern-day griots, so their own stories had better be good. Personas are crafted and polished to a pearly sheen. Afrika Bambaataa of the Zulu Nation was a gang warlord. The wildly popular 50 Cent, he of 2003's best-selling album, "Get Rich or Die Tryin' ," has his nine bullet holes. Tupac and Biggie died in a hail of lead; their music lives on. Will Smith was the Fresh Prince, the clean-cut rapper from middle-class Philly. Eminem has made millions with his narratives about dysfunctional families of the white working class.
Then there's Pit. His mother was a Cubana shipped to the States in the post-revolutionary exodus of Cuban children from the island, called the Peter Pan program. In Miami, she became a stripper, and it was at a strip club that she met Pit's father. Armando Sr. was a guajiro, a country boy from Cuba who came to the States and became seduced by the glitz and glam of the "Scarface" lifestyle. Not that Pit himself ever got to enjoy the fruits of that lifestyle.
His parents split when he was very young, and he and his mom bounced from run-down house to run-down house. At one point, he ended up in a foster home in then-rural Roswell, Ga. His foster family wanted to adopt him; blue-eyed and white-skinned, he fit right in. Except he never felt like he fit right in. Their white-bread culture was so different from his. They were, he says, so "proper," laughing at him and the way he tapped his feet to the beat whenever he heard music.
Rhythm, he figured, saved him. He is, he says, Cuban, Cuban to the bone, weaned on the sweat of Afro-Caribbean beats. He grew up reciting the poems of Cuban independence leader Jose Marti and nodding his head to the sounds of Snoop Dogg and Nas. It was a matter of time before he'd become a rapper, too.
His mother came to get him and they moved back to Florida. His dad wasn't around much, and Pit needed money, so he says he started dealing what his father had dealt. His mother kicked him out when he was 16. That, he says, is when he started dealing "the hard stuff" -- coke. He barely made it out of Coral Park High School; school bored him. Later, his girl, one of his babies' mamas, got a job supporting him so that he could get out of the life and focus on rap. Now, he says, thanks to rap, he's earning a living the legal way. And now he supports his girl.
"When you're a dope dealer, either you're good at it or you're not," he says with a shrug. "I thank God every time somebody asks me what I'm doing. I've got no money in the streets."
He pulls up in front of an industrial-looking complex, the residential facility where his father now lives. Armando Sr. climbs into the back seat, all silvery hair and snaggletoothed smiles. He speaks to Pit, his "Armandito." His Spanish is a guttural growl, his eyes misting with fondness as he looks at his almost-famous son.
"I'm proud of you, m'ijo," Armando Sr. says.
I'm proud of you, my son.
Armando Sr. wants to hear that song, the song that's about him, turn it up! Pit obliges, cranking up the volume on "Hustler's Withdrawal":
Not only did my father used to deal the dope
He used to do the dope he used to deal
I'm just keeping it real
Now my father doesn't have [expletive]
I don't have [expletive]
We don't have [expletive] cuz he didn't stack [expletive]
With all the money he made he didn't think for one second to put money away
That's cuz his mind was tattered with white thoughts
He's lucky that he didn't end up outlined in white chalk
Armando Sr. bobs his head to the beat, slaps his thighs, shouts out some of the words. Cackling the whole time.
On his arms are the tattoos -- "God's Angel," with his mother's birthday inked below: "7-21-51." His daughter's face is etched, in photographic detail, under the words "My Destiny." He wants to do the same for his son, but these days, he doesn't have the five hours to give to a tattoo parlor.
Pit is busy.
"I can get by with four hours' sleep," he says. "I'm lucky. That's why I've got to take advantage while I've got young blood. Four hours' sleep, while getting [expletive] up," and he's ready to go.
He was up till 3 the night before, hanging in the clubs, making sure that his music got played, making nice with the DJs. But he was up early this morning, and now he zips through Miami, skipping from appointment to appointment: Meeting with his banker. Stopping to lunch with his family and popping in on his grandmother. Doing a quick radio interview and an impromptu rap by cell phone as he gasses up his car. Stopping by his favorite barber to get things tightened up. Through it all, he's conducting business on his dueling cell phones. By nightfall, he's dashing from one recording studio to another, working with sound engineer Ray Seay on the mixing on a new song, "Toma."
He attacks his work with ferocity. He dubbed himself "Pitbull" because, he says, "they bite to lock. The dog is too stupid to lose. And they're outlawed in Dade County. They're basically everything that I am. It's been a constant fight."
"With other artists," says Seay, "as soon as they get a deal, they don't sell one record and they think they're superstars. With Pit, he was always working, trying to get down, trying to let people hear him, know what I'm saying?
"He was hungry. That sums it up. He hasn't reached his goal yet, so he's not trying to get all bigheaded."
As rap has matured in its 30-year ascendancy, there are now generations of rappers -- elders are now in their thirties and forties and beyond -- who can now mentor the younger ones. In Lil Jon, Pit has found that mentor.
The two met during one of Lil Jon's many forays to Miami. He heard one of Pit's earlier songs, "Oye," and invited him to "spit" a few raps on his album, "Kings of Crunk." From there, they began collaborating. ("Oye" also appeared on the "2 Fast 2 Furious" soundtrack.)
"He's going to be hot," predicts Lil Jon. "His music is going to speak for itself. . . . He understands the hustle of the game. He understands the politics. He understands you don't sleep right now."
Indeed, on this evening, there will be precious little sleep for Pit.
It's edging past 10, and dinner is takeout grabbed on the fly en route to a three-bedroom ranch house in Broward County, the home of sound engineer Al Burna. Inside, he repairs to a bedroom that has been equipped as a recording studio. Burna lays down some beats. Pit stands at the computer, hitting the replay button, listening to the beats over and over again as he mutters to himself, scribbling in a little notebook, composing a quick little rap that will be layered into another rapper's song.
One of his girlfriends pops by for a visit. He gives her a kiss, and gets back to work.
Ultimately, this is what it's about for any rapper. Never mind the marketing moves. Never mind the formula. It's about the rhymes, the street poetry, matching words to the almighty beat.
"You ready for me?" Pit asks Burna. "Let's go."
Pit steps into the recording booth -- a closet -- and dons his headphones, spitting out rhymes and repeating them over and over again until he's satisfied.
"From the top," Burna says.
It's past 1 in the morning. And Pit's work has just begun.