Big Daddy, Small World
Daddy Yankee’s rise, together with the rise of the reggaeton movement, was slow-simmering beneath the surface in the Puerto Rican underground. When both exploded into the mainstream at the start of the millennium, Yankee became one of the island’s most influential global ambassadors.
BY CATHERINE FRANKE
“Fame has enabled me to reach the masses,” Yankee explains while on tour in Europe. “It has allowed me to expand my artistic creativity with influences from all over the world.” But before achieving this success, his life was very different.
Born Ramón Ayala, Yankee grew up in the public housing project of Residencial Villa Kennedy in the Río Piedras district of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The crime-ridden barrio toughened Ayala at a young age. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up at three in the morning to the sound of a mother screaming and crying because she’s lost her son,” Yankee told the New York Times in 2006.
Salsa music was a major influence during childhood when his father, a percussionist, played for salsa legend Ismael Rivera. “You can see a little of all the [Caribbean] genres in my music. Dancing is a big part of our culture.”
By the time the first notes of the reggaeton genre drifted over from Panama in the 1990s, his attention was already on the North American soundscape. Old-school hip hop from artists such as Rakim, Public Enemy, Kool G Rap and KRS One were favorites of the young Ayala, who began to blend these sounds with reggaeton rhythms and homegrown dancehall grooves. A new, grittier beat was born, and with the help of reggaeton trailblazers such as DJ Playero, DJ Goldy and DJ Nelson, the teenager honed his chops in musical experimentation and lyrical improv—all before he graduated high school.
In addition to vinyls and turntables, Ayala had an intense love affair with the bat and the ball. A talented baseball player, Yankee had big plans, aspiring to play with the pros. Soon, a scout for a major team was courting him with a contract.
Life, however, had other plans. At the age of 17, Ayala was shot in a random drive-by, leaving him with a permanent limp and destroying his diamond dreams.
“I was crying in the hospital, ‘What am I going to do?’ ” Yankee told The Guardian in 2005. “But destiny put me here. After I got shot, I took [music] seriously.” He got straight to work, starting with his name change.
“In Puerto Rico, ‘Yankee’ is the slang we use for someone tall, who is ‘big’ in what he does. So the name means ‘Big Daddy.’ ”
No Mercy, his first studio album, was released in 1995 to disappointing sales. The two volumes of El Cartel in 1999 and 2000 fared better on the island, but reggaeton was still in its infancy, and the Boricua riddims had yet to make an impact outside of the Caribbean. It wasn’t until 2002’s El Cangri.com that North America got its first taste of Daddy Yankee. The dancehall favorite “Latigazo” enjoyed generous airplay in Latino markets such as Miami and New York City. The album reached number 43 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart—no small feat for a newcomer on an indie label.
The mercury was rising for the reggaeton movement by 2003. With the release of Los Homerun-es, Yankee fulfilled a bucket-list wish, playing before a crowd of more than 12,000 at Puerto Rico’s historic Roberto Clemente stadium. Soon after, Yankee teamed up with VI Music to establish Cartel Records, his own label under Sony Music.
Barrio Fino, his 2004 sixth studio album and first release on the new label, was so highly anticipated that it debuted at number one on the Top Latin Albums chart. Less than a year later, it had earned five gold and platinum albums from the Recording Industry Association of America, making it the reggaeton gateway album to the U.S.
But Barrio Fino also celebrates all the music Yankee grew up with. “Lo Que Paso, Paso” is a melodic fusion of salsa, dancehall and hip hop, with soft pianos and brass, pulsating sensually alongside his precision-sharp raps. On “Sabor a Melao,” Yankee’s duet with Puerto Rican legend Andy Montañez, the salsa rhythms burst with Latin passion and gutsy hip hop as both stars share rapping efforts. And then there’s the wildly successful “Gasolina,” a pop-inflected dance anthem that globalized reggaeton.
The album legitimized the Latin Urban movement’s presence in the music world, and with that success came lucrative endorsement deals from Pepsi and Reebok and a $20 million contract with record label Interscope. Yankee swept the international music awards shows in 2005 and ultimately generated such a craze that Time magazine named him one of the “100 most influential people” in 2006.
His follow-up studio album, El Cartel: The Big Boss, in 2007, is an ambitious melding of American and Latin music, featuring guest appearances by will.i.am, Fergie and Akon and artists from Yankee’s label. The Big Boss also debuted at number one across all Latin music charts and dropped 500,000 copies in the U.S. within the first month of its release.
Rather than taking the endorsement route this time, Daddy Yankee decided to indulge his entrepreneurial side. In 2008 he launched Urban Gel, a hair product. His DY for Men—a signature fragrance that was scent-tested and approved by a panel of 100 women—followed. “I’m sure the girls will like it,” he told CBS News at the time. Then, earlier this year, his “DYamante” perfume line for women was introduced.
How has he kept the trappings of celebrity in check? Yankee credits his 16-year marriage to high-school sweetheart Mireddys Gonzalez for helping him stay grounded. Not only did the two, at age 17, manage to raise a baby together, but their partnership seems to have strengthened while other celebrity relationships routinely fail. Long absences from home are tough for the 33-year-old father of three, but he connects with his family every day by phone. He also stays grounded through his charitable efforts.
Yankee once told talk-show host Cristina, “I didn’t know what the other barrios were like…. There’s a difference between being poor [as I was] and being destitute. If you’re poor, there’s at least a chance of having something to eat. But someone who’s destitute doesn’t have that. And that’s where the concern within you starts. When you get out there in the world and see this, you want to do something about it.”
Fundacion Corazon Guerrero (Fighting Heart Foundation) is Yankee’s private charity, offering educational opportunities and outreach to at-risk youth in Puerto Rico’s troubled neighborhoods and prisons. For his work on this program, he received both the Spirit of Hope Award at the Latin Billboard Music Awards ceremony in 2009 and the Latino of the Year Award from Harvard College in 2008.
A second foundation, Putting Diamonds To School, rehabilitates the deteriorating infrastructure of schools in Puerto Rico, Colombia, Guatemala and Bolivia. Many of his endorsement deals include giving a percentage of his income to both charitable projects.
“I had a rough life in the beginning in Puerto Rico,” he recalls. “When you live a life like that, you learn to be real. And that’s Daddy Yankee, you know? …If you’re not a good human being, it’s impossible [to] be a great artist.”
These days, Yankee’s goal is nothing less than global harmony—at least artistically. His recently released CD, Daddy Yankee Mundial (translation: “Worldwide”), blends international flavors with the usual Caribbean cocktail of reggaeton, merengue and soul calypso.
“I had a vision to make a concept album,” he says. Coming in contact with a variety of cultures and musical styles while on tour, he remembers thinking, “How can I use the influences of the entire world? So we have hip hop on the album. We’ve got electronic music from Europe…and [aspects of] all the music that I have received touring in South America, Mexico, Central America. We just put everything together and fused it with my urban essence.”
“Grito Mundial,” his anthemic tribute to the world of fútbol, was a contender for the 2010 World Cup theme song. “Descontrol,” his second single, is a reggaeton powerhouse with plenty of electro-swagger. Both tracks, as well as the album itself, have been nominated for Latin Grammys this year, making Yankee a 10-time nominee. Not bad for the rebel artist whose music was once relegated to the fringe.