By Jacob Katel
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By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
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If Grammys were awarded for hard work and hustle, Dainamite would win at least one every year. He'll play anywhere for anyone anytime whatsoever. If he's not performing, he's either producing other artists or hustling up new beats. And he does it all from his little home studio in Silver Bluff, that working-class stretch of bungalows and townhomes between Coral Gables and the Roads.
That's where I met the man — Dainamite lives in a cottage right behind my own bungalow. I see the traffic that goes in and out of his studio, and I see the hours he keeps. Mostly, though, I get to hear all about it every time we happen upon each other in the back yard. "I'm playing up in Pompano later today," he'll say. That's if he doesn't say he's playing up in Jupiter or Fort Lauderdale or out in West Dade.
A week or so ago it was Jupiter, where Dainamite performed at yet another regional Hispanic festival. In recent months, he seems to have played almost all of them — Hollywood Fest, Pompano's Fiestas Patronales, the Colombian Independence Day Festival in West Dade's Tamiami Park, and, of course, Calle Ocho. There have been countless others, and the crowds have often numbered in the tens of thousands.
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Dainamite was born Julio Santiago in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the birthplace of salsa sensation Héctor Lavoe. He was raised in the port town of Yauco, where 19th-century Corsicans cultivated a bumper coffee crop that still has people buzzing. And at age 13, he earned his nickname.
That story is the stuff of personal legend. Dainamite's middle school girlfriend had written him a note in which she misspelled the word dynamite. He thought it was cute, so he used it as a hook in a song. The day after Dainamite performed said song at a house party, the kids in his class christened him — in unison.
By age 16, Dainamite was active all over the island, performing here, producing there, and often doing both. But, he says, "Puerto Rican politics kept me from realizing my dreams as an artist. Once I was a producer, I was supposed to stay a producer."
The pay-to-play aspect with which Puerto Rican radio reportedly still operates didn't help much either. "It's really expensive to get a song on the radio," he says. "Like $6,000. And that's just for the one station."
So Dainamite ditched his native land and hit Miami. Here, though, the problem is not payola, he says — it's being lumped in with every other Spanish-speaking artist. "I think it's a little hypocritical to put everyone under one label, and it doesn't do justice to the places where people come from," he says. "I'm proud to be from Puerto Rico. And I want everybody to know it."
Still, of all contemporary Latin music, it's understandable that reggaeton, the genre in which Dainamite works, is not too concerned with an artist's origins. You might even say the genre is above the whole notion of country.
After all, it's not simply an offspring of Panama's reggae en español, or an inherently Puerto Rican phenomenon. It's a mixture of influences from all over the hemisphere. Think about it: In reggaeton, you might find plena and bomba (Puerto Rico), bachata and merengue (Dominican Republic), cumbia (Colombia), salsa (Cuba), hip-hop, and electronica (United States) all together. And beyond that, in its short life span, reggaeton has spawned a number of subgenres.
As a producer, Dainamite has worked within and incorporated all of those subgenres: bachateo and salsaton, malianteo and Cubaton, romantikeo and cumbiaton. But as an artist, he has a sound that perhaps most closely aligns with either salsaton or malianteo, two strains that, respectively, fall mostly on the sides of salsa and hip-hop.
And of all his predecessors, Dainamite is most inspired by Vico C, a Nuyorican MC known as "El Filósofo del Rap." "Like him, my lyrics have more of a message," Dainamite says. "A lot of artists out there are only concerned with sex and drugs and clubs. I try to go deeper and explore the more sociopolitical aspects of our world."
The message comes through loud and clear in the song "Que Viva el Reggaeton," one of the standout tracks on Dainamite's recently released eponymous LP. The track is a fight song, of sorts, in defense of his music. And it is as mad as a blister. "Whoever is against reggaeton, I'm their enemy," he says. "People are saying it's not gonna last, that eventually it's gonna die. But for all the thousands who are saying that, there are millions more, like me, who want reggaeton to succeed."
Hence the work ethic. Not only did Dainamite write and produce every track on that LP, but also he released it on his own label, YC Entertainment. And though he has a couple of operatives helping him push some of the songs to radio and book a few of his many shows, he is totally hands-on, 24/7. The efforts are working: One single, "Kiss Me," is already hot with the L.A. underground, and another, "Dulce Caramelo," is all over Honduran radio.