Daddy Yankee Interview: Talento de Barrio

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by Alex Shtaerman

As one of the most prominent reggaeton artists in the world, Daddy Yankee has won awards, gone platinum and set attendance records in a recent tour of South America. But if you think he’s just another new kid on the block, you might just need a lesson in music history. Raised in the troubled barrios outside of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Daddy Yankee, born Raymond Ayala, began building his buzz in the early ‘90’s. An aspiring baseball player prior to picking up the mic, Ayala was hit in the leg with a stray bullet at the age of 16. No longer able to pursue athletics, he devoted himself to music. Blending elements of Puerto Rico’s fledgling underground Hip-Hop scene with various incarnations of dancehall and Latin rhythms, he would become one of the first artists to perform what has come to be known as “reggaeton”.

Grinding through a number of independent releases in the ‘90’s, Daddy Yankee would finally turn the corner in 2002 with the release of El The first Yankee album to become available outside of Puerto Rico, El was instrumental in bringing the sound of reggaeton to a market outside of the genre’s more traditional Latin audience. The set’s lead single “Latigazo” received considerable airplay in major U.S. cities such as New York and Miami and opened the door for what would subsequently become a global movement. “Once New York City really embraced the music, that was the bridge for reggaeton to explode all over the world”, explains Yankee, reflecting on the growth of a genre he helped pioneer.

Since El Daddy Yankee has released a string of successful albums, signed endorsement deals with Pepsi and Reebok, and performed at sold out concerts around the globe. In 2006 Time Magazine named Yankee to its annual list of 100 most influential people and his 2007 album El Cartel: The Big Boss would go on to be the year’s biggest selling release among all Latin music genres. Not bad for a kid who’s dreams were seemingly cut short by a bullet all those years ago. And while basking in success, Daddy Yankee is also intent on giving back to his community through a variety of charitible endevours. “I’m always looking for a good situation from both sides, with business as well as giving back to the people. I think then it’s fair that way”, he says, insisting that his rise to prominence has simply been the result of “being an honest person and being the best person that I could be”.

In 2008 the international megastar returns to the barrios of Puerto Rico as the main character in the forthcoming film Talento de Barrio, which Yankee also helped produce. Based on his personal experiences growing up in the Villa Kennedy public housing projects, Daddy Yankee maintains that Talento de Barrio is not autobiographic in nature but rather reflects a far broader struggle. “The scenarios in the barrio and all other ‘hoods is the same”, he asserts, alluding to the film’s universal subject matter. Yankee is also set to release the Talento de Barrio soundtrack. The forthcoming album’s new single “Somos De Calle” [I’m From the Street] has already garnered considerable attention. Recently we caught up with Daddy Yankee to get his perspective on the music he helped bring to the masses, his success as well as his quest to help those in need. If you’re still not up on reggeaton, you will be after reading this interview!

Click here to watch Daddy Yankee’s new video for “Somos De Calle” [I’m From the Street].

RIOTSOUND.COM: A lot of people in the United States have become familiar with reggaeton music but some fans are still ignorant when it comes to the roots and origins of reggaeton. For those that don’t know, can you speak on the fusion of elements that make up reggaeton and the tradition that the music comes from?

DADDY YANKEE: The inspiration for reggaeton comes from the Hip-Hop environment, the dancehall movement and also all of the Caribbean elements that we incorporate. Some of the influences that are present in reggaeton music come from Cuba, salsa music, dancehall from Jamaica and the Hip-Hop and reggae that the Panamanians were making in the ‘90’s. We incorporate all of those elements into one music and that’s reggaeton.

RIOTSOUND.COM: You’ve enjoyed a great deal of success in recent years and perhaps as a result of that some people actually think that you’re a new artist, which is not the case. You’ve been doing this for a long time; can you speak on that?

DADDY YANKEE: Exactly, a lot of people think [I haven’t been around that long], that I’m a new artist. Which is sometimes really good because it’s going to give you more time in your career; but I’ve been doing this for the last fifteen years starting from the underground environment. If you look at reggaeton history I’ve been one of the pioneers since day one. I started rapping in the ‘hood and I’ve been representing reggaeton music [for a long time]. It was originally an underground scene and a lot of people are ignorant about that. They don’t know that story. We were flying to Dominican Republic; we were flying to Central America in the ‘90’s, so the music became popular because of the underground movement that was growing in South America, Central American and the Dominican Republic. Once New York City really embraced the music, that was the bridge for reggaeton to explode all over the world.

“My cousin, she lives in New York, so when she would fly to Puerto Rico for vacation she would bring me all the music from New York; Rakim, Public Enemy, Kool G Rap, King Sun, KRS One, all of them”

RIOTSOUND.COM: Growing up near San Juan, who were some of your early musical influences; what artists were you a fan of prior to when you decided to pursue a career in music?

DADDY YANKEE: Back in the days man, there was a lot of people whose careers I was following. People like Rakim, he was one of my favorites back in the day when I was in Puerto Rico. My cousin, she lives in New York, so when she would fly to Puerto Rico for vacation she would bring me all the music from New York; Rakim, Public Enemy, Kool G Rap, King Sun, KRS One, all of them. We also had another music [in Puerto Rico] that started becoming real popular in the ‘hood in the 90’s, and that was the dancehall movement. At that time the movement was being led by Supercat, Cutty Ranks [as well as other artists], they were real popular on the island in the early ‘90’s.

RIOTSOUND.COM: You are starring in the soon to be released film Talento de Barrio, which is said to somewhat parallel your own personal life. In addition to starring in the movie you will also be releasing the film’s soundtrack. Can you talk about the project and what fans can expect?

DADDY YANKEE: Number one, I want to clear up that the film is not my biography, but still, it is a real story about all the situations and the struggle everybody goes through in the barrio. So once you see it, people who don’t even speak Spanish will identify with it because the scenarios in the barrio and all other ‘hoods is the same. It’s the same struggle that we go through every day. One good thing about the movie is it’s the first time a Spanish movie was actually filmed in the barrio. So people are going to be able to see the real stuff that happens and goes on in the ‘hood and how we handle things.

As far as the soundtrack, it’s the new Daddy Yankee album, we got fifteen new tracks and it’s real hot. I know in the American market a lot of artists have done this before, but for the Latin market [releasing a movie soundtrack] is a completely new thing. So I’m opening the doors for everybody in the Latin market with the vision that people here in the Latin market can go to a movie and also buy a soundtrack and really understand the concept. This is an urban movement; it’s different than boleros and the rest of the music genres. So right now we’re educating the people about our [Latin] urban movement and people are starting to understand it more and more.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Besides being an entertainer you are very active with social work as well as contributing to various charities and working with the youth in Puerto Rico as well as abroad. What kind of community related projects are you currently involved in?

DADDY YANKEE: I am [involved] with several charities and I have my foundation Corazón Guerrero and we work hand to hand with people in jail. Two weeks ago we donated a couple of scholarships for people about to graduate from schools in jail. So when they go back into society they are going to really have an opportunity to change their lives. Also I’m working in the Dominican Republic with an orphanage to help out all the orphaned kids over there. Then I got another project that’s called Putting Diamonds To School that I’m working on in Puerto Rico, Columbia, Bolivia and Guetemala. We take the schools that really need to fix their infrastructure and we go there and fix the school. So right now under my foundation we got a lot of of projects where we are working directly with education.

“The first thing in life is real life, so you have to have a real life and be the best that you can. And that’s the way I’ve been succesful”

RIOTSOUND.COM: Over the last few years you’ve signed endorsement deals with several large corporations, Reebok and Pepsi included. As you are closely involved with your community do you ever question the intent of some of the corporations that may approach you, where you think – well, maybe these guys are just trying to use me to sell their product in the Latin market – have you ever rejected or reconsidered offers when you felt that may have been the case?

DADDY YANKEE: Sometimes it happens, it is a business. But for me it’s beyond just doing business. I’m looking for a way to really have a win win sitation among me as well as the people. With RBK [Reebok], and right now I also have a gel on the market, it’s called Urban Gel, and I will be launching a new fragrance in September – but with all of them, they give a percentage to my foundation [because] I want to really give back to the community. I’m always looking for a good situation from both sides, with business as well as giving back to the people. I think then it’s fair that way.

RIOTSOUND.COM: What do you think has helped you in being so successful in music as well as in inspiring and helping to uplift others? You have fans all over the world and your recent tour broke attendance records in Ecuador and Bolivia. What would you say has been the key to your success?

DADDY YANKEE: I’ve been successful with music and my works by being an honest person and being the best person that I could be, because, first of all, if you’re not a good human being it’s impossible that you can be a great artist. The first thing in life is real life, so you have to have a real life and be the best that you can. And that’s the way I’ve been successful and that’s the way I’m trying to inspire all these millions of people that follow Daddy Yankee. Because I was a rebel kid in my past, you know what I’m saying, I was a troublemaker, I ain’t a saint but I learned thanks to all the things that happened in my life. [I realized] that being the best human beings that you can, you are going to have great fruits in your future. And people have seen that side of me, and I think that’s really the most important thing about people embracing me, because they see sincere words every time that I’m speaking.

RIOTSOUND.COM: With reggaeton growing so much in popularity, where do you feel the music is going?

DADDY YANKEE: The direction that reggaeton is taking right now is real cool ‘cause right now it’s really becoming an urban movement. Right now under the [umbrella] of the urban Latin movement we got reggaeton, we got Spanish Hip-Hop, we got dancehall, we got reggae; so we got a lot of genres. Reggaeton, I think, is the most well known genre that we got under our urban movement but right now Latinos are more excepting of other fusions of music besides reggaeton, which is a really cool development because that gives us a lot of other options where we can make all different kinds of music. So it’s about reggaeton and all of the other genres of music and fusion that we’re making right now. The direction that we’re taking is definitely an interesting one.

RIOTSOUND.COM: For the people who know about Daddy Yankee but aren’t completely aware of who you are as an artist and what you represent, what’s the one thing you would want them to know?

DADDY YANKEE: One thing I would say is, when you listen to Daddy Yankee, just buy the album and you’re going to see the reason why Daddy Yankee is so successful. You’re going to find a lot of music in my album, not just reggaeton. Reggaeton is one of my sides but once you listen to the whole album you’ll see it’s more than that, it’s about music. And that’s the reason that I got plenty of fans all over the world, because I’m feeding all types of music mentalities.

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