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It's hard at first to pinpoint what makes mustached local musical sensation José El Rey so damn appealing. Perhaps it's his music, a low-fi version of classic Miami bass and freestyle, the soundtrack to the youth of all twenty- and thirtysomethings who grew up in this town. No matter how cheesy and tinny his compositions, they have serious brain-sticking power.
Another part of the draw is his sense of humor — he delivers bawdy, lover-boy lyrics with a thousand-watt grin, as if we were all in on the joke, or as if there simply were no joke. And above all, although he's an unabashed Lothario, José is a consummate gentleman, offering to have a pastelito waiting when I arrive one Sunday afternoon to meet him at a favorite haunt.
Lounging at an outdoor café table, José stands out, even in the quintessentially Miami human zoo that populates Mary's Coin Laundry, a 24-hour laundromat/cafeteria on SW 27th Avenue near Coral Way (pronounced Corre Gway). Nearby is a portly man letting his sunburned belly hang loose from beneath an open Hawaiian shirt as he watches his spin cycle. At another table, a couple of open-faced gringo tourists placidly eat medianoches and consult a map.
The air is ripe with the scents of cheap detergent, cigarettes, baking sidewalk, and, of course, the Chinese-Cuban food that is improbably dished out from an open kitchen in the joint's farthest corner. José is looking so fresh and so clean, resplendent in skin-tight black jeans, white faux-leather loafers, and a shiny, long-sleeve polyester shirt. His thick black mop is carefully oiled and side-parted, his eyes shielded by reflective aviator shades, his trademark dirty-uncle 'stache in the prickly stages, growing back after a recent shave-off.
Yes, José is at home at Mary's. His apartment is only a few blocks away. "A friend of mine lives around here and told me I should come because they have the best pan con bistec. And it's really good," he says, his second-gen Miami Cuban accent growing stronger, his voice pitching up. "We come here so much the night crew is really cool with us. Especially Nancy, she's a sweetheart." The "we" is José's entourage, a slightly shady bunch comprising occasional band members, a "manager," and a security detail. He won't divulge their true identities (although faithful Churchill's attendees might recognize them) and is equally cagey about his own biography.
What he will disclose: His parents arrived separately from Cuba in the early Sixties, and in 1978, little José was born. He was raised in West Kendall but spent a lot of time in Hialeah, where his abuela lived. "I didn't like it too much; the Coke always tasted flat there," he recalls. "To this day, when my sister and I taste flat Coke, we call it Hialeah Coke. It's not a drug reference." He attended Belen Jesuit Prep and then studied journalism and advertising at FIU before heading for art school and obtaining a degree in graphic design.
He first played live in December 2006, at an unofficial Art Basel event called Pimp My Kart, at the now-defunct Faktura Gallery in Little Haiti. The rest of his local appearances can be counted on one's fingers and toes, and are limited mainly to Churchill's and PS 14. He's never released any official material, only a few limited-run homemade efforts. But he has a few years of bedroom-composed ditties, and the Internet.
Much of his local renown has been spurred by the viral popularity of his zero-budget videos posted on YouTube and on his MySpace page (www.myspace.com/aijaialai). In a series of snippets based on his song, "Safety First," José and his bodyguards advise listeners on everything from birth control to bra shopping. In "I Rule, the House of Sex," he cautions ladies and male competitors alike of his skills, dancing in a pink suit under a disco ball hung from a tree in videographer G.I. Holmes's back yard. While dancing and thrusting, José appears in front of a number of local landmarks, from the castlelike Miami Jai-Alai building, to Calle Ocho motels, to strip malls in la saguesera, and, of course, legendary Hialeah discount retailer ¡Ñooo ... Que Barato! A similarly hilarious video, for "Offended by My Sex," features José popping into a Piccadilly Cafeteria and shopping at an amazingly named store — Fancy Shoes — in the same strip mall.
In fact last June the video was picked up by celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, a Miami native and fellow product of local private Catholic education. It spurred a flurry of comments on YouTube, from fawning propositions ("¡Dámelo papi!") to nonsensical, angry threats ("Take a tip from the New Kids on the Block — die....").
Real-life reactions are equally vehement. Audience members of both genders constantly fling themselves at José as if he were Morrissey and they were Mexican. It's not staged. "When I first started playing, it was friends who knew I was going to play, and they got close and involved," he recalls. "But other people I did not know came up. If they look good dancing and they are safe, we let them dance. But I don't make those decisions."