Critics slam him for being too commercial, but after growing up in a poor immigrant family, Pitbull is all about the hustle
While it’s pretty easy to put most pop stars in a box, Pitbull’s triumph is that he has achieved stellar success all over the world despite being far from easy to classify. Serving up a particularly party-ready blend of Latin music, hip hop, contemporary house and pop, he has sold more than five million albums and 60 million singles since the release of his debut album M.I.A.M.I. in 2004, and more than lived up to his other sobriquet, Mr Worldwide, with number one hits in more than 15 countries.
Despite all that, along with eight albums and several world tours, the artist born Armando Christian Perez has never made it to Hong Kong — an anomaly that will be remedied when he appears at AsiaWorld-Arena on March 21. “I’m excited to play Hong Kong for the first time,” he tells 48 Hours. “I have had the honour of playing China, Japan and other countries in Asia over my career. I enjoy learning about different cultures, fashion and music around the world.”
For such a star, Pitbull’s career has been a fairly slow-burner. Signed in 2001 to hip-hop label Luke Records, owned by former 2 Live Crew leader Luther Campbell, he got his big break when he featured prominently on Atlanta rapper Lil Jon’s 2002 album Kings of Crunk. A string of solid hits and well-received albums followed, but his career levelled off for a while before taking off with a bang in 2009, thanks to the insanely catchy I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho), based on a sample from 1995 smash The Bomb! (These Sounds Fall into My Mind) by The Bucketheads, aka house legend Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez.
The start of phase two of his career more or less coincided with the start of the global financial crisis, and it’s perhaps no surprise that appetite for his uncomplicated, escapist party music spiked so spectacularly just as the world was being plunged into economic depression.
His first international number one came two years later with Give Me Everything, featuring singers Ne-Yo and Nayer and producer Afrojack, but his career really went supernova in 2013 thanks to the country-flecked party anthem Timber, which topped charts globally and became pretty much inescapable for a while. The same was true last year of We Are One (Ole Ola), the official song of football’s 2014 World Cup, with American and Brazilian stars Jennifer Lopez and Claudia Leitte, which he performed at the tournament’s opening ceremony in São Paulo, Brazil.
The album on which the song appears, Globalization, also features contributions from fellow stars including Jason Derulo, Sean Paul and Chris Brown, continuing Pitbull’s habit of working with collaborators from a broad palette of musical backgrounds. Over the years he has also made music with the likes of Carlos Santana, Enrique Iglesias, Usher, Marc Anthony and T-Pain.
Pitbull’s life hasn’t always been so star-studded, though. He was born in Miami in 1981 to Cuban parents who, like many of their generation, fled to the US after the communist takeover on the island. As an American, Pitbull himself hasn’t been able to travel to Cuba himself, but he has become enormously popular in his ancestral homeland, and has said his dream is to perform there one day.
He had a tough early upbringing on the mean streets in some of the less privileged areas of Miami. He took his stage name, he says, because he had to fight like the eponymous breed of dog. “The pitbull is too stupid to lose,” he has said.
But he was also influenced by Miami’s vibrant, cosmopolitan culture, which expresses itself in his music, giving its name to his debut album and receiving constant name-checks in his lyrics. His rapping career could be said to have got its start as a youngster in Miami’s bars, where his father took him to recite classical Cuban poetry. Pitbull has said that he had a troubled relationship with his father, who was a drug dealer, and for a while the young rapper was one himself, until the realities of the cocaine trade and its human suffering became too much to handle. The skills he learned from that lifestyle, however, have honed his business sense.
In addition to sponsorship deals with brands including Kodak, Bud Light, Dr Pepper and Dodge — brands he has a tendency to plug as often as possible on stage and in interviews — he owns a share in premium vodka brand Voli, is the head of A&R of Latin hip-hop label Bad Boy Latino, and even markets his own brand of perfumes.
Pitbull has copped a certain amount of flak for this unabashed commercialism, as well as the unashamedly commercial music he makes, but it’s a natural part of his persona — this is not someone who ever aspired to be a starving, tortured artist. Similarly, he quickly ditched the casual gear he favoured during his early career for a particularly neat line in sharp suits and leather shoes that has become his trademark.
Famously unattached and a bit of a shameless ladies’ man — he describes himself as “bilingual, single and ready to mingle” — Pitbull is known to have six children, but the identity and even number of their mothers remains unclear. The next generation is clearly on his mind, though, for example, through his work with the Sports Leadership and Management school (Slam), which opened in 2013 in Miami’s Little Havana, and uses sports to teach kids from tough areas about the virtues discipline and teamwork.
“Education is important to me, because when I was in high school, a teacher by the name of Hope Martinez saw my talent and introduced me to the music industry,” he says.
“My mother always told me, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’, so it’s my way of giving back. When I see the students of Slam, I see myself. I can look at their faces and understand what they are going through. It’s an honour to help educate our future generations.”
–Courtesy of South China Morning Post