It's not easy keeping up with Lil' Jon. On a warm spring evening inside Jonathan Smith's mansion on the exclusive South Beach community Sunset Island Number One, a temporary residence his label TVT Records has rented for him while he cranks out a new album and sundry remixes for everyone from Kanye West to Korn, the platinum star is grimacing and gritting his teeth, showing off his famous metal-crusted grille. Lil' John is so charismatic that the photographer happily documenting the antics almost ignores the promising young Miami rapper standing next to him. Luckily Lil' Jon doesn't forget about Pitbull; he soon stops posing to defer to his protégé. "I'm just here to help out Pitbull," says the veteran producer and star. He then pulls over a Victorian chair and motions for Pitbull to sit down. "Have a seat, youngster," he says, smiling.
If Pitbull is upset at having his photo session temporarily hijacked by the more seasoned Lil' Jon, he doesn't show it. The 23-year-old rapper is too busy taking business meetings with his management team and finishing up his debut album for TVT, M.I.A.M.I. : Money Is A Major Issue, tentatively scheduled for an August 3 release. When asked if he's had a chance to relax lately, he barks, "No! Working hard!"
There's evidence of Pitbull and Lil' Jon's labors everywhere. Rap magazines are strewn around the reception area; inside the rec room lies a massive case of Lil' Jon's new energy drink, Crunk!!! Meanwhile the den is crammed with all sorts of recording equipment -- MIDI keyboards, turntables, vinyl, and banks of amplifiers.
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Lil' Jon is unapologetic about the mess. Since "Get Low" from his second album with the Eastside Boyz, Kings of Crunk, blew up last year, the Atlanta producer has been on a tear. "I'm in such hot demand and I got so much to do," he says. "Some artists, when they get hot, they sit back and relax. I'm not trying to relax right now." On Memorial Day weekend, two of his productions will be in the Billboard top ten singles chart: Petey Pablo's "Freek-A-Leek" and Usher's "Yeah!" -- the latter a former number-one hit.
Then there's Pitbull's "Culo!" Like everything else Lil' Jon touches these days, the song is rapidly shooting up the charts, making its way onto urban radio playlists as far away as Sacramento, California. Here in Miami, the Spanish word for "ass" has become a popular catch phrase, a Magic City summer anthem on par with TVT labelmate Jacki-O's 2003 hit single, "Nookie."
Can Pitbull become the first Cuban rapper to have an impact in the mainstream hip-hop world? Wary of a subject he has had to discuss countless times before, Pitbull tries to downplay the issue. "There's nothing for me to prove," he says when asked if his Cuban heritage will be a factor in his rap career.
Lil' Jon, for his part, is confident that rap fans will accept Pitbull. "I think he's going to blow up," says Jon. "I don't think there is any other Cuban rapper out right now that's representing. Plus, he's good. He's got talent."
Far away from the hothouse that is Lil' Jon's mansion/studio, Pitbull lounges in front of one of his "spots," the Fade Masters barbershop. He's in his element here in the middle of Little Havana; unlike the photo session that found him polite but reserved, he's flossing like the town mayor, politicking with fans and spitting game. "I've done built my name out here," he brags, then extends his domain to "really any Spanish-speaking neighborhood."
Just then a black Nissan Altima pulls up to the curb blasting "Pitbull's Cuban Rideout" from Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boyz' Kings of Crunk. "See that? It feels good when niggas roll up playing your shit," he says. "Feel me? That's what we work hard for." Then he calls out to the car, "Turn that up!"
What is this, Pitbull Day? As outrageous as it sounds, the rapper is that official in Miami, with a sizable grassroots following that belies his newcomer status in the hip-hop nation. Well before "Culo!" urban radio stations were playing his "Welcome 2 Miami," a civic pride rap set to the beat from Jermaine Dupri's "Welcome to Atlanta."
"Welcome to Miami where they hustle, hey," he raps, "And they ride deuce trays like everyday/Palm trees, blue skies, gangstas and goons/And the party don't stop until next afternoon." It was then in the winter of 2003 that Armando Christian Perez, who had previously been known for his brief association with Luke Campbell, became a local star. Another cut, "Oye," caught Lil' Jon's attention, leading him to invite Pitbull to his recording sessions for Kings of Crunk.
UB Mederos, one of the Webmasters for www.305www.305hiphop.com, says that Pitbull's rise coincided with the emergence of a "new breed" of Miami rappers who were promoting themselves with tactics -- putting out their own mix CDs, dropping freestyles for radio DJs, handing out T-shirts and flyers -- adopted from the New York rap scene. "Pitbull was at the forefront" of this scene, says Mederos, along with rappers PM, Dirtbag, Crazy Hood Productions, and many others. "He wasn't the chosen one," adds Mederos, "but his grind stood out over everyone else."
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Pitbull will be everywhere this Memorial Day weekend, rocking shows, selling copies of his new mix CD Unleashed Vol. 3, rolling around in a wraparound van bearing his face with manager Big Teach, and slowly burrowing his way into the hip-hop consciousness. It will be a neverending media onslaught that has nothing to do with artistry. Indeed he's more concerned with entertaining people, earning respect for his talent as a rapper, and building a successful recording career than pleasing music critics (pejoratively referred to as "haters"). It's something like a nine-to-five job, except that he's self-employed and enjoys what he's doing. Groupies and money are major issues, but they're the products of his grind, his single-minded focus toward locking down the rap market.
As a result of his hard work, though, Pitbull has the expectations of a city patiently waiting to blow on his shoulders. Thanks to Lil' Jon, who is executive-producing Pitbull's album along with the Diaz Bros., it looks like M.I.A.M.I. might drop before Jacki-O's debut for TVT and Dirtbag's debut for Jive, making him the first new Miami hip-hopper with a nationally distributed album since the Iconz put out "Get Crunked Up" three years ago.
Mederos says that Pitbull is different from those artists. Unlike Trick Daddy, 2 Live Crew, or Trina, he's not a flamboyant thug or a scandalous sex merchant; his primary appeal is pure lyrical talent. That's why the record industry is closely watching him. It wants to see if this MC from the rapidly maturing Miami hip-hop scene can make it in the rap game with no gimmicks and no pop hooks. "My gimmick is my grind, my hustle," says Pitbull. But will the Cuban upstart, who is about to shop his "Culo!" video (filmed during a raucous celebration at the Calle Ocho street festival last March) to cable channels across the country, prove too grimy for MTV?
"I think Miami is expecting a lot from Pit because he's the first artist to represent Miami," says Mederos. "If Pit does good, there might be a lot more [record] deals for artists down here."