Armando “Pitbull” Perez is leveraging his stardom as hard as he can—from sold-out concerts to a vodka line to charter schools. Prior to the release of his 10th studio album, Climate Change, he talks to Lisa Robinson about going global, being called a sellout, and meeting with Donald Trump.
(Vanity Fair) – The first thing you notice when Pitbull bounces onstage is that he literally bounces. He jumps, he dances, he sidles up to his scantily clad female dancers. The tuxedo he wears (from his own After Dark clothing line) is slightly rumpled, the bow tie undone. The carefully art-directed effect is Frank Sinatra after a long Las Vegas night. Every night onstage is New Year’s Eve with “Mr. 305,” “Mr. Worldwide”—Pitbull’s self-proclaimed nicknames, which refer to the Miami area code and his worldwide travels. This particular night actually is New Year’s Eve, and the nationally televised concert is live from his hometown, Miami. His enthusiasm is as infectious as one of his hits—with their incessant mantras: “Don’t stop the party!” and “Dale!” (Spanish for “Let’s go for it!”). He brings guests onstage—Sean “Puffy” Combs, Busta Rhymes—all of whom pump up the par-tay. There are a lot of problems in the world, but tonight, at this show, everyone’s going to have a blast. And, as Pitbull will tell me later, “my music is global music; it’s music for everybody. And if I can make you escape for three minutes, then I did my job.”
Pitbull has recorded hundreds of songs and has sold more than 70 million singles, with No. 1 hits in more than 15 countries. He’s had more than 67 million digital downloads, more than nine billion YouTube views, and has over 22 million Twitter followers and 59 million followers on Facebook. He’s performed in over 50 countries for millions of people. This summer he releases Climate Change, his 10th studio album, to be accompanied by a U.S. summer tour. Pitbull—born Armando Christian Perez 35 years ago—is the latest in a long list of Latino stars who have made invaluable contributions to American popular music. According to the HBO documentary The Latin Explosion: A New America, by the year 2050 one out of every three Americans will be Latino, and the U.S. Latino community has $1.3 trillion to spend a year. Latinos are prominent in literature, sports, and the arts; their musical influence is equally significant. Bandleaders Pérez Prado, Xavier Cugat, and Tito Puente infiltrated jazz, pop, and rock and roll. Latin dances—the cha-cha, mambo, and merengue—were popular in the 1950s. Desi Arnaz became a star through his 1950s TV show I Love Lucy. Ritchie Valens, whose real name was Richard Valenzuela, became the first Mexican American rock star with his 1950s hit “La Bamba.” In 1965, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ “Wooly Bully” was sung by “Sam,” whose real name was Domingo Samudio. Rudy Martinez was the real name of Question Mark, who led Question Mark and the Mysterians. A blind, poor Puerto Rican named José Feliciano scored with a cover of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” and was the first Latino to win a Grammy for best new artist, in 1968. In the 1970s, the Fania All-Stars record label—with a roster that included Mongo Santamaría, Willie Colón, Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, and others—was the Latin version of Motown. Gloria and Emilio Estefan— whose life story is now a Broadway musical (On Your Feet!)—“crossed over” to pop stardom with the Miami Sound Machine in the 1980s. Los Lobos, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Shakira, Marc Anthony, Enrique Iglesias, and many others followed. And today, there is Armando “Pitbull” Perez, who took the sound of the Miami streets, mixed Latin rhythms with hip-hop, and brought it to America and to the world. “No place on the planet mixes cultures together like Miami does,” says Sean “Puffy” Combs. “And Pitbull is a living, breathing example of that beautiful mix. He has so many talents as an artist and an entertainer. He’s also an ambassador, connecting the hip-hop and the Latin communities and encouraging that important crossover appeal.”
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Three weeks after his New Year’s Eve concert, Pitbull—wearing cream-colored jeans and a white, long-sleeved shirt rolled up to show the tattoos on his forearms—sits in a suite in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. In person, Pitbull is nowhere near as frenetic as he is onstage. He’s focused, charming. For several hours, he talks quietly but intensely about his life, music, success, and ambition. He greets hotel housekeepers and chats with room-service waiters who bring wine and Fiji water. “We can all relate to struggle and to poverty,” he says, talking about his own background and the Latino community. “And when you make it out of that, you appreciate people more—whether it’s the people cleaning rooms in hotels or people cooking in the kitchen. My mother used to do that. My grandmother worked in factories. My father used to make sandwiches, shine shoes. Those are the guys that I love.” Pitbull got his stage name from a friend who said he was like the dog of the same name—a fighter who didn’t understand the word “lose.” He isn’t married, but has six children ranging in age from 3 to 13; he doesn’t talk about his personal life or his children, because, he says, “I signed up for this life; they didn’t,” and he tries to live as privately as he can: “I like to be under the radar, off the grid.”
In his hotel suite, there is a microphone on a stand in a corner of the living room, with a laptop on the table so he can record music anytime. According to his friend the international businessman Pepe Fanjul, “He told me that he records whenever the mood strikes him. He uses mattresses to absorb the sounds when he’s recording at home, and he’s more relaxed recording at home than in a studio. He raps in both English and Spanish, and it reminded me of when I was a kid in Cuba hearing puntos guajiros—a poetic-like lyrical melody—sung by people in the countryside.” Pitbull’s musical collaborators have included Jennifer Lopez, Chris Brown, Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, DJ Khaled, Usher, Timbaland, Ricky Martin, and Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry.
Pitbull says he learned to speak English from watchingSesame Street. He was born in Miami, moved around a lot, and then grew up in the Miami world of Scarfaceand Miami Vice—in neighborhoods that had crack and cocaine everywhere. He’s vague about his own “street” past but admits that his father was involved in what he refers to as “extra-curricular activities.” His mother came to the U.S. in 1962 in an operation called Peter Pan, where they let children out of Cuba; his father came in the late 1970s in a lottery. When Pitbull was five years old, his father took him to bars and had him recite poems by the 19th-century Cuban revolutionary philosopher, journalist, and poet José Martí. “That was the first time I saw how powerful words were,” Pitbull says. “We’re a culture that likes to talk a lot. We have a lot of sayings. Words mean a lot.” When he was in fifth grade, his mother drove him to school and made him listen to Tony Robbins tapes in the car. That, he says, along with martial arts (Tae Kwon Do, jujitsu) and basketball, gave him discipline and got him ready for music. “I fell in love with music when I was around 13,” he says, heavily influenced by such old-school hip-hop icons as Public Enemy, N.W.A, Eric B. & Rakim, and Slick Rick, then, later, Nas and Jay Z. He has great admiration for Jay Z, especially Jay’s business “empire,” and doesn’t protest when told that some people refer to him as “the Latino Jay Z.” He started rapping, wearing the prerequisite baggy jeans and his hair in cornrows. To early fans who now criticize his current, more polished style as a “sellout,” he says, “They’re right. I did sell out. I sell out arenas, I sell out stadiums. I sell out a bunch of things all around the world.” He is fond of such snappy “slogans”; other words of wisdom include “There’s no failures, only opportunities”; “In the word ‘impossible,’ there is the word ‘possible’ ”; and (my favorite) “I’m single, bilingual, and ready to mingle.”
‘We are both from Miami,” says the actress Sofía Vergara, “and in Miami, everyone adores Pitbull. He is such a cool, bright guy, with the best energy. One thousand percent Latino talent and power. He is happily enjoying the ride to success, being proud of his roots, and coming from nowhere to conquer the American Dream.”
It isn’t enough anymore for a musician to just make music, record, make videos, and go on the road to do a concert tour. With the exception of a rare few (Bruce Springsteen, Adele, Radiohead), music stars inevitably bring up the words “my brand.” Their endeavors can—and usually do—include a fragrance, a shoe line, a clothing line, a makeup line, and a variety of commercial endorsements. And, as Pitbull might say himself, he’s in it to win it. “In order to be a marquee brand,” Pitbull tells me, “you’ve got to learn from marquee brands.” He has endorsed products: Bud Light, Kodak, Dr Pepper, Pepsi, Dodge, Fiat, and Norwegian Cruise Lines. He has an eponymous fragrance, a vodka (Voli), and his After Dark clothing line. His television production company, Honey I’m Home, is named after the Desi Arnaz line in I Love Lucy. He has his own SiriusXM radio channel and is a brand ambassador for Playboy Enterprises. He is a workaholic who says he sleeps four hours a night. “For me,” he says, “it’s about people wanting to use the brand, the Latino and Hispanic culture. So let’s navigate and maneuver it to create different businesses and portfolios so, eventually, I can have a family [business] like the Bacardis.”
According to Ronald O. Perelman, chairman and C.E.O. of MacAndrews & Forbes Incorporated, who has a company that makes Pitbull-branded slot machines, “Pitbull is one of the smartest, most hard-working artists in the business world. He sees opportunities, seizes them, and gets behind them brilliantly while supporting the Latino community at the same time. I am an enormous fan of his and have a tremendous respect for what he’s accomplished.” Former Sony Music chairman and C.E.O. Tommy Mottola, who produced HBO’s The Latin Explosion and has worked with Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, and Shakira, says, “Pitbull is by far one of the most talented Latino artists to ever emerge, and has used his branding opportunities more wisely and effectively than any artist in the music industry.”
In addition to his music and business endeavors, Pitbull is determined to help the Latino community in his hometown. Pepe Fanjul says, “I was very impressed with his aspirations to contribute to the community. He’s set up a charter school in Miami for grades 6 to 12, and it engages children who would normally get bored or have little interest in education. He also showed me his plans to build another house in Casa de Campo; his idea is to bring new and young musicians there. He is inspired by young musicians and wants to help them. He is a very accomplished and intelligent young man with an ever more promising career ahead of him.” Sean “Puffy” Combs adds, “I know how important it is to make sure others have the same opportunities to succeed—especially young people. Pitbull has put so much energy and support into creating opportunities for young people—he’s a leader and an inspiration.” Pitbull calls his charter school SLAM!, standing for Sports, Leadership, Arts, and Management. “SLAM! is not about being a professional athlete,” he says. “It’s about the business around it, teaching the kids you can be a physical therapist, an agent, a lawyer, a broadcaster. There’s a whole business around sports. With my partner [philanthropic businessman] Fernando Zulueta, we just broke ground for another SLAM!, in Las Vegas, and we’ve been approved for more in West Palm Beach, Broward County, Osceola, and Tampa.” In addition to the charter schools, Pitbull is involved with the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami and the Imaginate Foundation—which provides resources to low-income families in Miami.
Then there is the 2016 presidential election. Various candidates have sought Pitbull’s support; so far, he has not endorsed anyone. But after Donald Trump’s controversial comments about Mexicans, Pitbull said that he didn’t think Trump understood the power and the unity of Latinos, and that he, personally, would have a hard time staying in one of Trump’s hotels. He also said that both the Republicans and Democrats needed to step up or Donald Trump would take the lead. “I actually met with Trump,” he tells me. “He flew [me] in his helicopter over to his resort in West Palm Beach. I like to sit down with people and see what they’ve got going on, and if there’s anybody that’s fallen down and got back up . . . with all the bankruptcies he’s been through—well, you have to respect certain things about him. But I don’t think he knew what he was talking about [when he said those things about Mexicans], and there’s nothing he won’t say to have the limelight. The more outlandish [it is], the more they put it on television.” Pitbull’s ties to the Latino community and his roots in Cuba are strong, and he says, “There are still a lot of families that are first-generation Latinos in the United States who still have that connection with their countries—whether it’s Mexico or the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia, or Cuba. They still have families there that they’re taking care of and still understand the struggle. I want to go to Cuba, but I don’t want to go down there and just do a concert, and then nothing comes from it. When [we] go down there, we want a deal in place so there’s a ripple effect—like open up schools, open up parks for the communities.”
After several hours of conversation, Pitbull puts on sunglasses and a baseball cap so he can slip out of the hotel incognito—“under the radar.” In parting, he says, “Life is short, and I want to be able to enjoy watching [my] kids come up, watching my grandkids. I want to enjoy the fruits of this labor. So I work hard, work harder, and then you gotta work smarter. I’m very proud to be a first-generation Cuban American and to be able to represent for Latinos all over the world. If you don’t know where you’re from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
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