The sultry, exciting music called reggaetón is the pride of Puerto Rico. But don’t get it twisted: The island’s national pastime hasn’t become making club-ready beats and rhymes so melodic and rhythmic that they transcend all language barriers. Puerto Rico’s number-one love is still baseball.
“Oh, definitely,” Daddy Yankee says of the sport’s importance to the island’s culture. “You have to play baseball or box. If you don’t do one of those, you are not Puerto Rican.”
In a few minutes, Yankee is going to receive a high honor: He’ll throw the first pitch at the World Baseball Classic game between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
“The kids right now are watching Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado — those are cats that represent Puerto Rico,” he says. “All those little kids that play baseball here, they’re looking up to them — [they want] to be one of them. I grew up watching the players right here on this baseball field.”
Ironically — and sadly — the first time Daddy Yankee came into contact with gun violence was when he was about 6 years old, trying to enjoy his first love, baseball. Yankee, who had dreams of one day playing for the New York Yankees, was playing a game when suddenly, the fun came to an abrupt halt.
While the game was going on, an unknown gunman came from the stands and shot Yankee’s coach, Juan Cintron, dead — right on the field, as bystanders watched in horror.
“Yeah, he got shot right there,” Yankee says now, pointing to the spot behind home plate. “I got that memory in my head, you know. Since I was a little kid, I was in shock, because he was my manager. Then I went to his burial and seeing my manager right there … I couldn’t sleep back in those days. It was tough because a manager for a kid represents a role model, you feel me? And you don’t understand what really happened until you get to a certain age. When you’re a kid, you’re just shocked: Your role model is being killed, and that is something that you will never forget.”
His mental wounds notwithstanding, even Yankee (whose real name is Raymond Ayala) could not prepare himself for what would happen 10 years later. Yank’s dreams of being a professional baseball player were shattered when he fell victim to a stray bullet from an AK-47.
It was on January 6 — Three Kings Day, a Puerto Rican religious holiday observing the day the three kings brought gifts to the baby Jesus — and he was recording a mixtape with reggaetón icon DJ Playero when he decided to go downstairs and take a break.
|Hit the beach, barrio and baseball field with Sway and reggaetón’s #1 daddy in these video clips.|
“It was in V.K. [a.k.a. Villa Kennedy in Santurce] — the place that I’m from,” he recalls. “I was just vibing with the homies. And all of a sudden: Boom, boom! I saw the crossfire and I got caught in an exchange of bullets. I was running, running, running, running — but I got hit. It broke my bone, like, quick. In an instant: bam! I went under a van when I was stumbling and that was the only reason I survived. It took me more than a year to recuperate from that day. I would spend more than a year in the hospital, in recovery — but little by little [I recovered]. At first a wheelchair, then crutches, and then one crutch …”
Although his injuries were severe, Yankee’s life wasn’t in jeopardy, so he began thinking about his budding baseball career — or what was left of it.
“I’d tried out for the Seattle Mariners,” he says. “And [then] I got shot. So I went to the hospital and I was thinking, ‘How am I going to survive now?’ because I was going to get signed. Officially signed! Everybody [saw] the potential in me. Then all of a sudden: a bullet. Boom. It can turn around your life.”
That bullet is still lodged in Yank’s hip today, but he’s far from bitter about being shot. If it hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t have taken music seriously — and gone on to become the biggest-selling reggaetón artist today.
“I thank God for that bullet,” he says. “At that time, I didn’t understand it. But right now, I give thanks to that bullet. That bullet made me be focused in music, because I didn’t have any [other] options — it was music or music, you know? I was so determined not to fail, and that attitude got me to this point.”
By dropping jams like “Rompe” and “Gasolina,” over the past two years Yankee has helped to drive both himself and reggaetón to the top of the mainstream, while simultenously keeping his street credibility by appearing on N.O.R.E.’s “Oy Mi Canto” remix.
“I never thought ‘Gasolina’ would accomplish that goal,” he says about crossing over from local hero to worldwide icon. “Because you make music just to make music. You put your soul in the music and that’s it. When I saw ‘Gasolina’ tilting to that point, I was really surprised. That song specifically just hit the barriers and languages in the entire world and put reggaeton on the map.”
But of course, defining just what reggaetón represents in Puerto Rico defies explanation. “It’s impossible to define in just one word because reggaetón is so many things in one,” he says. “It’s the voice of the people, it’s the way we dance. We got rebel lyrics: You feel happy, you feel sad sometimes, you feel like you want to rebel and you put it out in the lyrics. There’s so many things that I can [say to] describe reggaetón. It’s life.”
It’s been a long road for Daddy, from the barrio to local hero to his island’s symbol of pride. Indeed, he never thought he’d get this far.
“I remember, it was 1995,” he recalls about releasing his first mixtapes. “I remember we put out those mixtapes, and because of the language, we were banned. The politicians and everyone in the [upper] class, they were looking at us over their shoulders like, ‘They don’t know what they’re saying. They’re promoting violence, they’re criminals.’ Because they didn’t know this — they didn’t know the life we were living. So the minority became a majority, and we were accepted by the people. Once you’re accepted by the people, it’s a wrap, man.
“And right now, the politicians are using the reggaetón music in their campaigns. How funny is that?”