Los Producers

The emperor's clothes are wearing thin, as both his top songwriter and the Latin Grammys leave the Estefan court

Late one Sunday night at the restaurant Azul in the Mandarin Oriental hotel on Brickell Key, rumors circulate faster than the jerk scallops and sugar cane passed on silver trays. The invitation-only party is in honor of multiplatinum Mexican balladeer Cristian Castro, who has just kicked off a tour for his latest release, also named Azul (Blue). Already the title track had been sitting at the top of Billboard's Hot Latin Tracks chart for six weeks and holding. (By press time, after sixteen weeks, it had slipped to number two.) But the hot topic of conversation in the cool blue dining room is not the superstar singer with perfect pitch; instead industry types are whispering in the booths about Cristian's producer, the dashing six-foot-four Colombian Kike Santander, who the month before filed suit alleging breach of contract, withholding of royalties, and theft of songwriting and production credit against one of the most influential figures in Latin music: Emilio Estefan, Jr.

"Emilio had Kike's studio shut down," the gossips gasp, recycling the latest dish.

"You'll have to live in a gated community for the rest of your life," one exec warns upon learning that a reporter is covering the case.

Estefan nurtures his writers and producers; Richard Wolfe (above) will tell the judge it's not such a happy family
Estefan nurtures his writers and producers; Richard Wolfe (above) will tell the judge it's not such a happy family

"Don't laugh," he insists. "They will kill you."

When Cristian arrives, label honchos and Mexican financiers are hustled together for dinner at a long table overlooking the bay. The diminutive singer is depleted after his performance. His face scrubbed clean and hair slightly wet, he smiles wanly when addressed. Beside him, in a cream-colored suit, the 41-year-old Santander looks larger than life and full of energy. Well-wishers maneuver around the table to the corner where the producer sits. Over and over again he rises from his seat to return an embrace. The party may be in Cristian's name, but the night belongs to the man who challenged Estefan Enterprises.

Two days later the empire strikes back, accusing Santander of diverting income from his employers and waging unfair competition.

Such has been Estefan's impact on the industry that admirers and detractors alike ascribe him almost supernatural power. His music publishing company owns the rights to more than 2000 compositions, while his production company has recorded stars such as Gloria Estefan, Madonna, Cher, Shakira, Ricky Martin, Alejandro Fernandez, Jennifer Lopez, Thalia, Carlos Vives, Lenny Kravitz, Jon Secada, and Mandy Moore. The Estefan empire also encompasses print media, television, and film as well as hotels, restaurants, and real estate. Although the worth of these privately held corporations is not public, estimates run as high as $200 million.

In 2001, along with his wife, Gloria, Estefan was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2000 he was honored as both Producer and Person of the Year at the inaugural Latin Grammys in Los Angeles, out of a total of six nominations. So strong was his imprint on the first awards ceremony that the Mexican-owned record label Fonovisa called for artists to boycott the event some derided as the Gramilios or the Emilio Estefan Show.

But lately times have been tough for the Miami magnate. Earlier this year it looked as though Estefan would have even more influence, having lured the Latin Grammys to his home turf -- until disputes over the right of Cuban exiles to protest the event sent the ceremony scurrying back to L.A. Now, Estefan has announced, neither he nor Gloria will be in attendance. And, as if Estefan had not already suffered enough public embarrassment, a second suit threatens over Estefan Enterprises' treatment of the daughters of salsa singer Willy Chirino.

For almost as long as Estefan has been in the music business, competitors and disgruntled associates have grumbled that the mogul does not fight fair. Yet over the years disputes have been settled out of court and out of sight. Few associated with the empire have ever criticized Estefan publicly; in the media, statements from his artists border on cultish. Even sources not directly connected with the Estefans routinely request their negative comments be kept off the record. The media has responded with almost universally positive coverage.

Now, for the first time, the Enterprises' dirty laundry is out in the open air. Supported by accounts from producers, writers, and artists currently and formerly associated with Estefan Enterprises as well as interviews with the company's president, legal counsel, and Estefan himself, the Santander and Chirino legal wrangles paint a portrait of Emilio Estefan, Jr., as a man who runs his empire like a stern father. He nurtures his creative staff and shares liberally in the credit for their work: They owe him because he made them. Challenges to his authority are met with swift discipline. By standing up to Estefan, Santander and the Chirino Sisters throw a mighty wrench in the works of Latin pop's most successful sound machine.

Asked what he loses by no longer working with Estefan Enterprises, one prodigal producer quips, "The opportunity to appear in photos with Emilio." The value of such photo ops is no joke: Estefan has crafted an image for himself as a star maker; standing in the picture frame beside the affable 48-year-old with a trim salt-and-pepper beard heightens the prestige of any artist, writer, or producer.

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