Born Nick Rivera Caminero, the 39-year-old has since added several credits to his burgeoning acting career, which officially began in 2017 with a cameo opposite Vin Diesel in “XXX: Return of Xander Cage.” His latest role, in Warner Bros.' “Tom and Jerry,” finds the singer lending his voice (in both English and Spanish) to Butch, the street-smart alley cat who often plays nemesis to Tom.
Like many ’80s kids, Nicky Jam — a Massachusetts native who later moved to Puerto Rico with his family — says he grew up watching the classic cartoon. “I never in my life would imagine I would be part of a project that had anything to do with ‘Tom and Jerry,’" he said. “Anything that has to do with the children is a blessing from God, because they are the future.”
The movie’s target demographic is also, he says, a sign that “you made it.” And that’s especially fitting for Nicky Jam, who found success as a teen crooner and collaborator of Daddy Yankee before addiction threatened to derail his career. It was a move to Colombia in 2008 that set him on the path to his triumphant comeback, including his aptly named 2017 album “Fénix,” which topped Billboard’s Latin Albums chart and marked the singer’s first appearance on the Billboard 200.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Nicky Jam talked about his future in Hollywood, the genre he helped popularize and his collaborations with many of reggaeton’s rising stars.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: “Tom and Jerry” marks your first voice-acting role. What was that experience like?
A: [The voice-over] was not easy to do in Spanish because the cartoons were already made and I had to look at the movement of the [character’s] mouth so I could be exact when I did it in Spanish.
In English, it was easier because the cartoon wasn’t done yet. So, I just gave it my vibe and the way I would say it. I am a New Yorker. I am from the streets. I have those street slang accents. So it’s really easy to make a black alley cat turn into Nicky Jam — it’s not a big deal.
Q: You spent your early childhood in Lawrence, Mass. I know you mentioned New York, but did you lend any New England flair to Butch’s voice?
A: My accent is a little bit more New York because I lived in New York when I was a teenager. So my slang and the way I talk is more New York, even though I represent Lawrence and I’m from Massachusetts and everybody knows it.
But in a way, when I listen to somebody from Lawrence, we sound like we’re from New York, too. They have a New York vibe — any Dominican, Puerto Rican raised in Lawrence. New York has a little bit stronger accent, like New Yawk. But it’s similar.
Q: What’s next for your career in Hollywood, which has included acting and an executive producer credit on “El Ganador”? Do you want to direct?
A: Of course, 100 percent. I’m really focused. … I just I want to show the world all the magic and talent that I have, and I think it’s happening little by little, step by step. People have seen what I do in music. But I think people need to see everything I can do in the acting world as well.
I’m just enjoying it and enjoying the process. And the challenge — because it’s a new challenge.
Q: You’re a pioneer of reggaeton and urbano. And you were doing reggaeton when it was underground and now it’s grown into this global phenomenon. What’s it like to have that longevity and to have your career on both sides of that?
A: It’s like a proud father — reggaeton, it’s my baby. I love it. I’m one of the architects of this music for more than 25 years. I knocked on doors and I tried to make people listen to our music, and people rejected and threw my CDs out the window and ignored us for a long time. To see what’s going on today and to see how these young kids are making it, and they’re flying private planes and they’re doing a lot of collaborations with big companies like Calvin Klein and Jordan — all these things are things that I dreamed about — me, Daddy Yankee and a lot of singers that are from that era. And to see that it’s happening today is just beautiful.
Q: You’ve collaborated with several artists that are sort of the second generation of reggaeton stars. Is there anyone you’re particularly excited about or that you feel has helped move the genre’s sound forward?
A: I mean, all of them. I respect Bad Bunny. I think that Bad Bunny is a genius. Since the first day I heard him — years ago, before he was big — I knew he was going to be a legend in what he does. He set the tone for the new vibe and new music. Ozuna has done so much, as well.
J Balvin — oh, my God, he’s like the like the Spanish Pharrell. He brings so much energy. His music is so good, and he knows how to maintain himself. He has that Drake vibe where years go by but, you know, he don’t stop. I’m proud of everybody. I can’t say one in particular. All of them are just doing great jobs. I’m just happy that I’ve been a part of all their journeys.
A: Just watching somebody represent our music … somebody that comes from the same country that I come from, the same background. It makes me happy because I know I’m next.
I was one of the first ones to go to the Jimmy Fallon show. And then [Bad Bunny] was there. He’s the first one on “Saturday Night Live,” and then I’ll be there. They need more [reggaeton artists]. They can’t take the same one!
Q: You’ve done a lot of collaborations that show how vast the urbano industry landscape has gotten. You did “Billetes,” a come-up anthem, with Natanael Cano. Did you ever think you would be working with a young Mexican man who is incorporating traditional Mexican music into hip-hop?
A: I did it because I like doing different things. And I know how important he is right now. He has Mexico, and Mexico is a very important crowd.
I just like combining magic. I like singing with other people. I enjoy it so much. So that’s what I’ve been doing, just making sure that nobody gets ahead of me. If I see talent and I see magic, I’ll go run and do a collaboration.
Q: You’ve also been interviewing some of your industry colleagues, including Dominican rapper El Alfa and Colombian breakout Karol G, on “The Rockstar Show,” the series that debuted on your YouTube channel.
A: It’s awesome. I think sometimes when [reporters] interview a lot of singers, the singers don’t have a chance to really talk about all of their accomplishments. Their journey is left out in a way, and I think that’s where I come in. I take my time to make people understand why these singers are so huge … and the sacrifice for them to get there. And at the same time, how are they feeling about this process?
Those are questions that they’ve never been asked before. Normally it’s just like, “Did you know that you were going to be this huge?” Or, you know, the typical questions. For me, it’s more like, “How do you feel? You’re a millionaire now. Do you miss being poor?” I mean, nobody misses being poor, but probably you do! Probably you had a happier life, you had a more simple life, you know, there was no expectations. How do you deal with depression? How do you deal with people just talking about you on [Instagram]? How do you deal with the fame?
Q: You and Karol G talked about being lonely at the height of your fame, which was interesting. Do you feel like part of what you’ve brought to the industry is your willingness to discuss things like addiction and mental health, that haven’t traditionally been talked about in hip-hop?
A: Yeah, 100 percent. I think it’s good to be open about stuff like that. So people understand at the end of the day it’s not a robot or a megastar. It’s a human being, just like you.
Q: “El Ganador” deals with addiction, as well: both your own, and your mother’s struggle with drug use. Do you get the sense that people who either weren’t familiar with your music — or maybe knew your music but didn’t know that you had this incredible story — do you feel like people are discovering the series on Netflix?
A: Of course. And that’s the whole plan. I wanted people to understand my story, so I don’t get misunderstood. Tomorrow, if I mess up, they understand why I did.
I mean, that’s just me being funny. But the reality is, it’s the truth: You’ve got to understand where I came from before you judge me. It’s like a lot of people, they judged my mom in the story because of all the things she’s done, but they don’t know her story. They don’t know what happened to her for her to get there. All the suffering she went through — she was raped when she was young. She was adopted and she was abandoned.
My intentions were for people to understand where I come from because I think it’s a beautiful story. At the end of everything, you know, I’m still alive. I’m still here. So obviously, there will be more of my story. It’s a comeback story. Everybody loves comebacks.