For a man who's been blasted by an AK-47 and had part of an earlobe ripped off by a hysterical fan and who, at this very moment, is draped in so many diamonds that he looks as if he's crashed into a Harry Winston display case, Daddy Yankee has an alarmingly light security detail.
As in, nada.
The reggaeton star's current posse consists of two road managers and three publicists (yes, three), and you can't help but wonder if there's an exit strategy should some sort of chaotic situation wedge itself onto the schedule.
Like, say, an encore of this summer's Puerto Rican Day Parade episode on Fifth Avenue, where Daddy Yankee -- who's something like the Puerto Rican Eminem or 50 Cent -- was swarmed by a bunch of squealing, grabbing, hyperventilating Boriquas who refused to back away from his float. ("It was like this crazy Puerto Rican Beatlemania," recalls Ray Mendez, Yankee's videographer. "I've never seen anything like it.")
Then again, that was Daddy Yankee in his element: "The People's Champ," as he half-jokingly calls himself, surrounded by His People, who know him as the king of reggaeton, the Spanish-language music of the moment that's equal parts hip-hop and reggae dancehall, spiked with Colombian cumbia, Puerto Rican salsa and plena and Dominican merengue and bachata. (Put down the "Rough Guide to World Music," reader; that was all just a music-geeky, laundry-list way of saying that reggaeton is rap en espanol set to a jumpy rhythm that sounds not unlike a horse galloping across a Caribbean island.)
Anyway, this is Daddy Yankee now: Strutting into a chichi Japanese restaurant in midtown Manhattan with snooty hostesses at the door, a koi pond in the middle of the dining room and $22 sushi rolls on the menu.
In this trendy place with the impenetrable reservation book, the People's Champ is surrounded by People Who Have No Idea Who He Is.
Older people. Yuppier people. Whiter people.
People who've surely heard Yankee's ubiquitous reggaeton anthem, "Gasolina," if only because they've had little choice (the high-octane track is always blaring out of somebody's car), but who couldn't be bothered to answer "Gasolina's" opening, English-language query of "Who's this?" Never mind that a tidy little clue ("Dah! Dee! Yan! Keeeee!") immediately follows.
In this setting, then, seated among the unknowing, there's little concern that Daddy Yankee might need security protection -- which may be why his handlers decided this is where dinner should be.
It's certainly not because Yankee is craving yellowtail carpaccio with grapeseed oil and ponzu-wasabi tobiko. (Thanks, he says, y'all go ahead, I already had a tuna sandwich.)
Nor is it for the beverage selection: When a waitress comes by, Daddy Yankee -- who doesn't drink alcohol -- asks for a bottle of water and a Diet Pepsi with lemon, and when he's told the restaurant only has Diet Coke, he says sure, and then wonders why we're all looking at him like he's just kicked a dog.
See, he recently signed an endorsement deal with PepsiCo International, which means he's ordered a competing product, and . . .
"It's not for me, papi," he says with an impish grin.
Instead, he explains, it's for the Puerto Rico-based publicist sitting one seat to his left, not to be confused with the Miami-based publicist two seats down, who's different than the Los Angeles-based flack seated across the table, the latter only recently having been hired to help promote the U.S. leg of the "Who's Your Daddy?" tour that opens Aug. 27 at Madison Square Garden.
With a Sept. 30 stop at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, plus dates scheduled in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Boston, Dallas and Miami, among other cities, it's the first national, large-venue reggaeton tour. That suits Yankee's status as the breakout star of a genre that's finally exploding in the United States after having bubbled in the barrios of Puerto Rico since the early 1990s.
With a platinum album in last year's "Barrio Fino," plus the runaway success of "Gasolina" -- an exceedingly catchy song about a girl with a serious party jones -- Daddy Yankee has become the boyish crossover face of reggaeton, surfacing everywhere from the July cover of hip-hop journal the Source to MTV: The "Gasolina" clip is up for one of the youth-culture-shaping network's Video Music Awards two weeks from tonight, pitting Yankee against the likes of My Chemical Romance and the Bravery.
"There are so many big names in hip-hop, like Jay-Z, 50 Cent, 2Pac, Biggie and Eminem, but in reggaeton, Daddy Yankee stands out," says DJ Eddie One, host of a Sunday-night reggaeton show on Sirius satellite radio and the producer of several popular reggaeton mix tapes. "His name is so big right now, he's like the Hulk Hogan of reggaeton."
Immensely popular in dance clubs and baseball stadiums, Yankee's music is even being played by mainstream Top 40 and rap radio stations these days, by and for people who quite possibly have no idea what he's rapping and singing about. Of course the songs are played far more frequently by Spanish-language outlets like Washington's El Zol (99.1 FM, WLZL) and La Mega (simulcast on 92.7 FM, WBZS, and 94.3, WBPS). And that's to say nothing of the half-dozen radio stations in New York, Texas and California that are playing reggaeton and nothing but, on a nascent format that features the likes of Don Omar, Tego Calderon, Ivy Queen, Wisin y Yandel, Hector "El Bambino" and, of course, el jefe himself, Daddy Yankee.
Not Your Parents' Music
This is no mere fad, though. It is not neosoul or baile funk or electronica recast.
Rather, it's a Significant Socio-Cultural Development -- one that's galvanizing young Latinos from Guatemala to Gaithersburg.
Especially Gaithersburg, etc.: The Washington area has the nation's 14th-largest Hispanic population, one that grew about 20 percent from 2000 to 2003 to more than 530,000, the Census counters say. Infinity Broadcasting was so inspired by the demographic surge that the radio giant abandoned the alternative-rock format of WHFS seven months ago and turned 99.1 into the tropical, all-Spanish El Zol.
Nationwide, the Hispanic population is growing three times as fast as the U.S. population as a whole, according to Census figures, and it's growing ever-younger, too: Half of the 41 million Latinos in the United States are under the age of 27.
Reggaeton is the perfect sound for that population explosion -- an eminently danceable, cathartic release of a soundtrack for an emerging pan-Latin youth culture both here and in Central and South America, where it's similarly en boga. It's music about ladies and love and parties and street life, sometimes sexual, at points misogynistic, occasionally violent enough to create controversy -- and very much not your parents' music, which is pretty much the point.
"We finally have something we can all say is ours," says DJ Eddie One. "I'm Salvadoran, and we can relate to reggaeton more than regional Mexican music. And Mexican people are jumping all over it, too. Everybody is. It's a universal sound for young Latinos, and it's just blowing up like crazy."
Says Fat Joe, a Bronx-based Latin American rapper who's collaborated with several reggaeton artists: "Latinos finally have a genre of music that represents them, and they're supporting reggaeton in such huge numbers that people can't help but notice there's a revolution going on."
Friends with Daddy Yankee since the late 1990s, the oversize rapper is calling from the set of a video shoot with Ricky Martin -- like Yankee, a Puerto Rican pop-culture phenomenon.
Not that there's much of a parallel between the two.
"What happened with Ricky was totally different," Fat Joe says. "He was making pop songs for white America. Your man Daddy Yankee, some black and white people who know what's going on in the 'hood and the clubs are supporting him and loving him. But he's speaking Spanish, and he's speaking directly to the Latino people, and the people who know the language really dig it."
Says Yankee: "Reggaeton means the same thing to Latino youth as hip-hop does to African American kids. We didn't have artists to look up to before. But the young kids now, they're looking at Daddy Yankee and Tego Calderon and Ivy Queen like kids in the American 'hood look up to 50 Cent or 2Pac. I'm representing for my culture and my people. It's their music."
Stepping Up to the Plate
The Daddy Yankee story begins roughly 13 years ago, in Puerto Rico.
He was Raymond Ayala then, a young baseball player from the Villa Kennedy housing projects in San Juan, the son of a salsa drummer and a manicurist, with three siblings, a hardscrabble existence and a dream of becoming the next Roberto Clemente. Though he didn't speak much English, Ayala was a fan of American hip-hop -- N.W.A., Run-D.M.C., Rakim -- and so he began to dabble in music, too, writing rhymes in Spanish, battling in freestyle competitions, getting his songs onto the streets through mix tapes, working with a pioneering local music figure by the name of DJ Playero.
In the boastful spirit of American hip-hop, Ayala dubbed himself Daddy Yankee -- local slang for Big Daddy -- and he began to develop something of a regional following, even as he continued to pursue a baseball career.
He was a switch-hitting third baseman -- a good enough contact hitter and sure-handed fielder, he says, that he was getting noticed by big-league scouts who were increasingly interested in giving him a contract. Until, one night, when he was 17, he was leaving a recording studio, and somebody yelled out "Carlo!" and opened fire with an AK-47, a bullet boring through his right leg -- all of it a horrible mistake.
"They thought I was a friend of mine," Yankee says now. "It's the same thing that happens in the 'hood here. I was the victim, but it wasn't for me."
One shot, and his baseball dreams were crushed. He still has the bullet and a metal rod in the leg, not to mention a limp that so many people think is affected.
And he has a story, too, about serendipity -- how a teenage tragedy took him to No. 1 with a bullet, etc. ("I became a major-league artist," he says.)
But first, about the assailant -- what happened to him?
"He disappeared. What can I tell you, man?"
Maybe, like, you know: Where'd he go and who sent him there?
"I had nothing to do with it. I don't lift a finger. One day you're there, one day you're not. That's just the streets. I was innocent. I was one of the popular kids in the 'hood and people were looking out for me, you know what I'm saying?"
So the transaction reads: A sporting career for a life and a limp to be named later, and it all sounds so very Tupac Shakur.
Ayala became Daddy Yankee for good (though his mother refuses to acknowledge the nickname, and not just because it's strange for a mother to call her baby boy Daddy). And at about the same time, a new genre began to take shape, one that borrowed from the sounds and styles that were popular in Puerto Rico: American hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall and Panamanian reggae by the likes of El General, plus salsa and such. When reggaeton was birthed, though, it was treated like something of a stillborn child: The music industry rejected it, and the Puerto Rican establishment was so alarmed by the tone and tenor of the lyrics that there were Tipper Goresque threats to ban it -- cue "We Shall Overcome (Reggaeton Remix)" here. (And you might as well start dancing, too, because everybody else will be.)
"A lot of people didn't believe in us or trust us," Yankee says. "The government didn't understand the subculture. To them, we were just criminals and dumb kids doing this music. We had to prove we were too smart for the system. And we did it. Now look."
Blazing a Trail
Now it's not uncommon to hear reggaeton songs used in political advertisements in Puerto Rico, and more than a few pols have asked Yankee to perform at campaign events. American record companies that previously couldn't be bothered are suddenly elbowing each other like shoppers at an after-Christmas sale, scrambling to cut deals that give them seats on the new bandwagon: Atlantic is teaming up with Tego Calderon, and Puff Daddy and the Wu-Tang Clan are starting their own Latino imprints. And in February, the behemoth Universal Music Group launched a full-service label dedicated to "Hurban" (short for Hispanic urban) music, which the company's news release says includes "the hottest new movement, reggaeton."
Universal, by the way, named its new label Machete, which also happens to be the name of a song by Daddy Yankee, whose music happens to be distributed by the new company.
"Yankee opened the door for us," says Hector "El Bambino," a reggaeton producer and artist who collaborated with Yankee on the "Machete" track and who is negotiating a joint-venture label with the Def Jam mogul Jay-Z. "Reggaeton isn't only a music genre; it's a cultural movement, a social movement for young people. We're writing the truth, singing lyrics about people who suffer on the streets, people who want to have fun, beautiful, sexy Latino women and the reality for kids who are trying to put a plate of rice and beans on the table. We sing what people are feeling. And now they're hearing us."
Says Yankee: "I'm representing for Latinos all over the world. . . . This ain't a one-hit-wonder thing. It's just the beginning. And it's a special moment for me and my culture."
And possibly an unprecedented one, too.
Isabelle Salazar is the Latin music buyer for retail giant Trans World Entertainment, which operates 850 stores across the country, including the F.Y.E., Wherehouse and Coconuts chains. She has seen, heard, bought and sold every Latin music trend of the last quarter-century. Forget the vis-a-vis, she says; nothing compares to reggaeton.
"I've been in the music industry 23 years, and I haven't seen a Latino movement like this one," Salazar says from her Southern California office. "Not even close. It's music for all Latinos, and it's crossing over to Anglos and other non-Spanish speakers. Think about all the Latino kids who were listening to Eminem and 50 Cent and forgot about Spanish music. They suddenly have something that's their own, in Spanish. The girls are going crazy, the boys are going crazy -- oh my God, like you wouldn't believe."
The Price of Fame
To understand the status reggaeton's stars -- and Daddy Yankee in particular -- have among young Latinos, look no further than the confessions of a group of Central and South American middle-schoolers living in northern Montgomery County.
Earlier this year, Latino students in an after school-program were asked to articulate their dreams. One girl -- something of a class clown with a wicked sense of humor -- wrote earnestly, in Spanish, that her "greatest dreams are to be with all of my family, to see my dad and my brother again, to have a quiet, peaceful life, and to become somebody someday." Oh, she added, in words THREE TIMES THE SIZE OF THE OTHERS: "And to meet Daddy Yankee."
Another student offered this: "I dream of going to college and becoming a professional. I dream that all of my family could come to this country. I dream of living in a house with my mama and my siblings -- nobody else. I dream of meeting Daddy Yankee."
Says Yankee: "I feel a lot of responsibility over my shoulder, because I know a lot of people are inspired by me. This is the first time they seen a real artist from the barrio. They're looking up at me. I love to feel that love. I'm not one of them who rejects anybody. On the contrary -- you a young kid, come to me, man. I love to give autographs and be around my people."
This, though, can prove more than a little bit problematic. The calculus of celebrity suggests that the more popularity you have, the more hysterical your fans are likely to be.
Consider a recent incident in Colombia, where Yankee was leaving a concert venue after a show and a female fan got a little bit too excited because, well, diosmio, diosmio, DIOS MIO! Dah! Dee! Yan! Keeeee! She got ahold of his left earlobe and didn't let go until it had been removed from his head.
Searing pain, a bloody mess and emergency surgery ensued, though the whole thing makes Yankee giggle now, a charming, childlike tee-hee.
"It was incredible," he says, running his hand over the surgically reattached lobe. "But I wasn't mad. I understand the position of the fan, you know what I'm saying?"
Still, he worries about how the hysteria might affect his family, to the point that details of his home life are something of a state secret.
He is said to be quite happily married to his high school sweetheart, who is now one of his business managers (along with his older brother, Nomar). The couple have three children and, uh . . . good luck gleaning any other details.
Yankee -- so affable, loquacious and charming otherwise -- shuts down when pressed for information.
"I'm a private guy, and it's the only private thing I got left," he says, a weary look having washed over his pretty face. "I got my kids and I've got my wife and I don't talk about them. I understand fame. But I don't want to put them out there."
Also something of a mystery is Yankee's actual age. Published reports have said he's 26. Or 27. Or 28 or 29. A trade publication, Pollstar, pushed him all the way up to 33. With his cherubic face, he could easily pass for a teenager. Everybody agrees that he was born Feb. 3. In 1970-something. Mayna Nevarez, Yankee's Miami-based publicist, thinks he's "28 or 29. I don't know for sure -- he never tells me."
Says Yankee himself: "I don't tell." And again with the tee-hee, this time a bit more mocking in tone.
What Yankee does tell you throughout the course of the day spills out through an assured, lightly accented English -- rather impressive given that he didn't learn the language in public school, and only started working with teachers and coaches two years ago.
"I knew a little bit, but I was constantly speaking in Spanish," he says. "Right now, I'm getting better every day. I learn every day. It's not perfect. I commit a lot of mistakes in interviews, and I'll go, 'Oh, my God, what did I just say?' But I had to learn; I know where I'm going. I know that if I want to go to the mainstream, I have to speak English. "
Says the rapper Fat Joe: "I seen Yankee do an interview on MTV the other day, and it was like, 'Wow, this guy's giving fluent interviews in English.' That's the biggest problem I think reggaeton is going to have in general with its growth. You need more bilingual artists who can really talk to the white population if they're going to cross over and get a bigger piece."
Yankee's next solo album, due out sometime next year, will be a mostly bilingual affair, filled with Spanglish songs crafted with mega-crossover in mind. Yankee plans to release an alternate version of the album in Spanish at the same time.
"The Latinos are my family, and I have to keep them happy," he says. "But I've also been thinking about non-Spanish-speaking Latinos and the African American community and the Anglos -- they're showing me love now, too."
Before those albums are finished, though, there's a live version of "Barrio Fino" with a handful of remixes and new songs that still need to be wrapped up, and there's the unfinished soundtrack for "Straight From the Barrio," a movie that stars Yankee as a street thug who becomes a reggaeton star (a sort of Puerto Rican "8 Mile"), and there are meetings with multinational corporations that want a piece of the artist, and there's the upcoming tour, and there's really no time to rest.
It's standard operating procedure for Daddy Yankee, who has ignored his handlers' suggestions to take a vacation, or at the very least slow down.
He is the very definition of a fajon -- Spanish in some places for workaholic.
"No vacation, man; I'm taking advantage of this moment," he says. "I was waiting for this all my life, working the last 13 years. I compare this to a kid that's always on the bench, waiting for his turn at bat. The manager calls him over, and the kid hits a home run. But the game don't stop there. The game keeps going. I got to keep building and keep trying to hit home runs. You never know when it will end."
And so he was making music into the night before hopping on a 2 a.m. flight this morning out of San Juan, on JetBlue (a fact that cries out for a little Us-esque celebrity shoutout: They fly discount airlines just like us!). He was scheduled to land at Kennedy before 6, only his plane was an hour late, and his fame delayed him even more at the baggage carousel (autographs to sign, pictures to take). When he finally checked into the W hotel, it was almost time for the first bilingual news conference of his career, followed by a photo shoot, and then some TV interviews, and then dinner at the Japanese restaurant, where a reporter's tape recorder sat just between the soy sauce and Yankee's unused chopsticks.
But the chat was interrupted when Yankee took a call from Francisco Saldana, one half of the Luny Tunes, the production duo behind about half of reggaeton's biggest hits.
So now Yankee is humming into a BlackBerry, desperately trying to figure out how to fix the bridge on a song that should have been finished yesterday, and pretty much everybody sitting at an adjoining table is looking at him -- including a teenage boy who is pounding on his mother's arm and talking excitedly into her ear while nodding in Yankee's general direction, finally having noticed that he's just a few feet away from reggaeton royalty.
And Daddy Yankee is oblivious, back in his element, secure.
Staff writer Darragh Johnson contributed to this report.