Long Live El Rey
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."
His bodyguards do. The pure brawn of the security operation is El Cunaguaro — named for "a little cat, like a puma, from the rain forest," José explains. Although the guard appears in videos, he's elusive. These days José's right-hand man is usually El Tigre, who appears suddenly at Mary's, about 45 minutes into the conversation. At first he says nothing, standing by the curb, surveying the scene, and clutching an earpiece to his head. Taller and paler than José, he sports similar shades, an equally creepy but thinner mustache, and closer-cropped hair. His look — neatly tucked gray work shirt over a wifebeater — is a cross between FBI agent and janitor. He speaks with a heavy Miami Cuban accent. And El Tigre never cracks a smile — security is serious business.
They claim to have met at Flagler Dog Track — before José conquered his gambling problem. There was no turning back. "He was always El Tigre," José says.
"Sometimes my love has been compared to the adrenal gland of a tiger," El Tigre mumbles nearly inaudibly.
"He saw a show [of mine] last October, and then for the next one, he sent me a text message saying he was on his way, and that was it," José recalls. "He was ready."
Besides doing his own version of a Miami bump and grind to the beat, El Tigre's main job is standing onstage and pushing back José's admirers. "People have taken his clothes," El Tigre says. "One very big time, many girls at one time try to grab him, and it got to be crazy, and I was choking.... And more choking, and then after that it got to pushing."
Things get especially hairy when, at every show, José hands out refreshments — drinks such as Materva and Ironbeer, or perhaps snacks like bocaditos or pastelitos.
"People get a little crazy when they want a certain type of pastelito and there is only limited availability," El Tigre says.
"Coconut, for example. I was only able to get two last time," José says. "In fact I'm going to get one right now."
Soon he returns with the pastry glistening on a paper napkin, and talks about his future plans. Along with El Tigre, he'll join DJ Papa Dios (formerly known as Cookieheadz) and local breakcore freak Otto Von Schirach for a side project called Miami Bass Warriors. They'll debut their first single at the Calle Ocho festival in March. No joke.
"I might get stabbed," José says, tiny flakes of crust sticking to his stubble. "Or I might become the king of Calle Ocho. I mean, I already am, because of my name."
A José El Rey show is about the things José cherishes most: music, dancing, poetic justice, and the ladies. All will be in full effect Saturday during his appearance at Poplife. Come for good times. And if you get offended by his sex, remember: He is the player, and we are just the game.
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