The other side of Miamy lurks right behind the sandy shores and sweaty nightclubs of South Beach. From the proud Cuban communities like Little Havana to the mean streets of Liberty City, the city has another side that isn’t all sunshine and martinis. Like his hometown, there’s another side to Pitbull.
Somewhere behind the bling and club bangers, the Cuban-American MC wants to be more than a party-starter known for the hypnotic beats and infectious hooks of club anthems like “Culo” and “Toma.” And like any artist, the line between art and commerce has left him conflicted.
“What I do is make hit records,” Pitbull says flatly. “As an independent artist, I can’t gamble what I would love to give the public with the fact that I don’t have that major [record label] push. I have to be in the clubs and on the radio in order to survive in the game.”
Pitbull’s struggle to survive started before he was even born. He crossed the ocean from Cuba in a 1980 boatlift while still in the womb of his pregnant mother and arrived on the shores of South Florida where he was born Armando Pérez. His first-generation immigrant parents insisted that their son learn the ways of his Cuban culture, but by the time Pitbull was a teenager he was embracing another culture—hip-hop.
He renamed himself Pitbull and began popping up on mix-tapes. He also got his fi rst “hood” tattoo at the age of 15. “I just felt like if I was gonna be serious about my career and naming myself Pitbull then I might as well get it tatted on me and make it that stamp,” he says of the piece which reads “Pitbull spits flames.”
“[Tattoos were] definitely looked down upon,” says Pitbull about the role of ink in the Cuban community. “[If you had a tattoo] either you were in jail or you were some type of hoodlum, at least that’s what they thought.”
Although he has several tattoos, few of them are visible when Pitbull wears a long-sleeved shirt. “It’s like I can be a gentleman and a goon at the same time,” he says with a laugh.
The newly tatted MC caught his first big break when he teamed with Luther Campbell, the 2 Live Crew founder and Godfather of Miami hip-hop, on the single “Lollipop.” The track caught the attention of producers and led to an introduction to Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz. The two became fast friends, with Pitbull appearing on Lil Jon’s Kings of Crunk and later joining Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz as an artist on TVT Records. His timing couldn’t have been better. Pitbull’s 2004 debut M.I.A.M.I. (Money Is A Major Issue) dropped alongside Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz and the Ying Yang Twins just as crunk exploded. Pitbull-featured remixes of Lil Jon’s “Get Low” and Ying Yang’s “Salt Shaker” dominated the airwaves and nightclubs.
“I love to make club records that are endless,” Pit says. “You can easily go into any club and run into a 10-15 minute Pitbull set. My inspiration comes from the clubs. I am in the clubs and I’m feeling what people are moving to.” And underneath the party beats, Pitbull’s other inspiration continues to creep into his music, whether club-goers on the dance floor know it or not. In 2006, he released his sophomore album, El Mariel, deceptively named after the boat that brought his family from Cuba. His recently released third studio album, The Boatlift, is even more directly named and included a DVD about his family’s journey to the United States. Pitbull also recently branched out beyond music and into television. He’s currently working on an adult-themed cartoon called Rock, Pepe, Scissors and last year, popular Spanish cable channel mun2 debuted Pitbull Presents La Esquina.
“La Esquina was done to show people my upbringing and the people I have grown up around—to show them how multicultural Miami is and, at the same time, how surprising it can be,” he says. “When you can see black boy down here full of dreads and gold teeth speaking Spanish, you’re like, ‘Oh shit! What the fuck?’ So, I just wanted to show people a different perspective of Pitbull.” That doesn’t mean Pitbull is ready to open up just yet.
“The day I cut a classic I will let niggas know, ‘Ah, look dawg! I have given you so many albums but this one right here … This is the one that I put my heart, my soul and everything into,’” he says of his dream project. “I am going to be talking on so many different points of view that in time I think it will only win a lot of respect from a lot of people out there who may look at Pitbull from a different perspective.”
There are already a few topics on the list, including Pitbull’s anti-Castro and anti-Bush feelings. While El Mariel and The Boatlift spoke to his Cuban roots and the struggles of his people, the MC has been hesitant to truly lay down his feelings in music. In 2006, when Cuba announced that an ailing Castro had transferred his power to his brother Raúl, Pitbull recorded “Ya Se Acabó (It’s Over).” The song spun heavily on Miami radio and on Pitbull’s MySpace page but the MC neglected to include it on El Mariel.“I have those records in the can but I don’t feel like its time for that,” he says. “I am waiting for them to confi rm Castro’s death. I am waiting for a new [U.S.] president. I am waiting for different things that socially I can speak about and people can be like, ‘Wow, he makes the type of records that I shake my ass to but he’s got a head on his shoulders and he can put it on a track.’” Until then, Pitbull will smuggle his message into the club, buried within his party records.
“Even the music that I put out now has a message behind it. It may not be in the music, but it shows you that music is the universal language. It brings people together no matter what culture they from,” he explains of his love for party records. “I love making them because I know the impact that they have. They become global records that are heard in Latin America, Central America, Europe, Australia, Korea, Japan … That shows you the power of good music. I want to be able to put together good music with a powerful message—whether that message is hidden or not.”