Backstage at DJ Khalid's birthday bash over Thanksgiving weekend, rappers from New York City's Terror Squad fill the cramped Club Amnesia dressing room with a steady flow of Hennessy, freestyle verse, and the contraband aroma of hollowed out Cohiba blunts. Senior squad member and Atlantic Records talent Cuban Link pours shots, while female phenomenon Remi Martin debates the playlist with the crew's DJ, and Baby Power, from MTV's Lyricist Lounge, clowns in front of a video camera for the Internet audience. Meanwhile relative newcomer Don Dinero, who debuts his self-titled single tonight, has rolled up the right pant leg of a groupie's blue hip-huggers. Examining the Terror Squad logo tattooed high up on her thigh, he calls to Cuban Link: "Look, this is permanent!"
Don Dinero, born José Guitian, hopes he will soon be able to say the same about his career. The first artist to emerge from the Miami-based label Last Laugh Entertainment, Don Dinero also is the latest Latino rapper to take up the legacy of Big Pun, the Grammy-nominated Puerto Rican star who died of a heart attack this past February. "He is legendary because he was the first Latino solo artist to ever go platinum, let alone triple platinum," explains Baby Power of the man who founded the Terror Squad along with fellow hip-hop heavyweight Fat Joe. "Pun was such an influence in my life," adds Dinero. "He was the one to say, We've been here all along; [hip-hop] is for [Latinos], too.'" The successful rapper's passing inspired the Last Laugh label. "We're forming a movement so that Pun's hard work don't go to waste," continues Baby Power. "As Latinos we have to represent ourselves, so we got together to form this label and keep Pun's dream alive."
A mixed crowd of African Americans, Cuban Americans, Puerto Ricans, and West Indians packs the open-air Miami Beach club, waiting for the Terror Squad until well after 3:00 a.m., despite a light rainfall on the dance floor. Freestylers and hangers-on cram the rappers into a small semicircle at the front of the stage. The audience sways together throughout Cuban Link's tribute to Big Pun, "Flowers for the Dead," the first single off his new CD, 24K, to be released in January. Doubling Cuban Link's rhymes, Don Dinero leads the audience and the rest of the crew in pointing toward the heavens in an homage to his deceased mentor.
The afternoon sun filtering through his straw Panama hat scatters freckles across Don Dinero's face that sparkle like diamonds. A long Cuban link chain hangs from his neck, suspending a piedra de rayo, a smooth black stone engraved with a gold lightning bolt consecrated to the Afro-Cuban deity Shangó, god of virility, music, and pleasure. Lighting up a Newport, Dinero looks around the table with disappointment when the drinks arrive. "I don't want this drink," he says, looking at the Black Russian he ordered. "This isn't a fun drink" he complains to the waitress. Then he points to a tall, frothy piña colada: "That's a fun drink. I want one of those instead -- plenty of rum." With a pout the waitress agrees to change his drink "Only because you're so handsome," she remarks to the tall New York-born Cuban with a sculptured beard.
Taking it Miami-style by the pool at the Fontainebleau Hilton, Don Dinero breaks down his name. "I don't work for my money; my money works for me," he declares. "Therefore I Don the Dinero." The Don is sitting with his brother, Oscar Guitian, CEO of Last Laugh Entertainment. "We named it Last Laugh because we feel we'll get the last laugh," explains the portly young entrepreneur with a quick smile. "So many other labels tried to silence us, said our sound was too Latin. So we got together, fourteen partners, and formed this union." The list of partners includes Cuban Link, who, though not artistically represented by the label, serves as Dinero's manager and consultant. Baby Power is the label's treasurer, president of A&R, and director of marketing and promotions. Currently operating out of his home, Guitian is negotiating distribution deals for Dinero's album nationwide. "We've got several offers, but I have to negotiate the right price for my investment."
Just as his name is the Spanish translation of the word money, his style is a Latin version of today's bling-bling hip-hop ethos. Dinero hit with a single in Europe in the early Nineties. Now he's back in the United States with something to say. Twice. A bilingual rapper, Dinero distinguishes himself with his rhyming skills in both Spanish and English. Promising to bring a "whole new flow" to the rap world, he claims he will do what no other rapper has done before: "go platinum in both Spanish and English." Keeping his eyes on the cash prize, the Don often gets caught in the thug-life rut. In his introductory single, "Don Dinero," he boasts that he is a "Cuban terror/known/down for whatever/who'll/cock that Glock/and/rip your ass like a fuckin' shredder."
Once the ruggish formalities are out of the way, however, a distinct flavor and cultural identity emerges. Guest sonero D Mingo opens "Don Dinero" with a diana, the nonsense vocal run that traditionally introduces Cuban rumba, and then Dinero kicks in with the usual gangsta bravado, striking macho poses such as "That's your wife/and she likes how I'm sticking it." The single is built on a piano vamp borrowed from the Colombian salsero Joe Arroyo's classic, "No Me Pegues la Negra" ("Don't Hit My Black Woman"), kicked up a couple of octaves and looped incessantly. Arroyo's Afrocentric pro-woman anthem seems an odd choice for a gangsta rapper who routinely uses the word "niggaz" and rhymes about fucking and leaving "chickenheads." Still it makes sense that the second-generation Cuban American would bite from a well-known Colombian song in the context of the pan-Latino sensibility of New York City's urban youth culture.
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Dinero feels his roots most strongly in the Spanish language: "I got Spanish curses/leaving you stuck to interpret the verses./I'm the worses/I flow so sick/I gotta travel with nurses." The only typically Cuban touches in the lyrics are the obscenities, with pinga and zingar high on any Cuban-American tough's list of words to remember from the homeland. Things get a little more island specific at the end. The single closes with a traditional Cuban son while D Mingo chants the Yoruban blessing "ache para ti ache para mi.... Mi santos me protejen" ("life force for you, life force for me.... My saints protect me"). "Don Dinero" reconciles his material and spiritual sides by juxtaposing sexual scenarios and spiritual allusions.
"This song is just an introduction to who I am," the rapper points out. "It's the happy Don Dinero. I'm showing you what I love, what I want you to see. It's my flavor -- salsa into hip-hop." Although his upcoming album is light on Latin rhythms, thematically Dinero tries to stay close to his roots. "I'm gonna give you a lot on my album," he says, "not just Latin beats, but I have to give you that in order to be true to myself."
"Life Is a Battle," the B-side to his debut single, tells another side to his story in the rap game. No stranger to mean streets and struggle, Dinero's rapping style shows the undiluted influence of Rakim, KRS-One, Biggie Smalls, and LL Cool J. A repeated classical Spanish guitar phrase backed by lush synthesizers puts "Life Is a Battle" in the ranks of ghetto opera. "It's what I live and see," he says of his violent subject matter. It's also a way to connect with listeners. "My sacrifices, my experiences," he argues, "I want people to say, I been through that too.'"
The politics dropped into Dinero's lyrics take in both the urban warfare wrought on nonwhites in the United States and the more specific concerns of Cuban exile. At some moments in "Life Is a Battle," Dinero questions the American dream through the voice of someone who will never live it: "I'm the reason crime is high and you lock your door." At others he looks away from the U.S. urban scene to the island he has never known: "And to my niggaz/Cuban and Korleon/I know it's hard being Cuban in this game all alone/I got yo back/us togetha/yo/we're takin' the throne/let's keep reppin' the island/till they let us go home." Until Cuban-American rappers can retake Havana, Don Dinero has his sights set on the Magic City. "I want to lock Miami down," he exclaims. "I mean, if any city in the world should be feelin' us, it should be Miami."