Immigrant Song

We all know by now that when it comes to Miami, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo doesn't mince words. During a recent trip to South Florida, the Republican House member made national news — and inflamed locals — by portraying the Magic City as "a Third-World country."

Florida's public officials reacted swiftly. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen invited Tancredo to stay at a five-star hotel so he could enjoy our world-famous beaches. Gov. Jeb Bush wrote Tancredo a public letter praising the area's Latin flavor.

The MC known as Pitbull has been less diplomatic in his dealings with Tancredo. "Tell that congressman: 'Que se ponga el deo [dedo] en culo, ya tu sabes,'" he said during a recent phone interview. Roughly translated: "Tancredo can shove his finger up his own ass."

It's only natural for Pitbull (a.k.a. Armando Christian Pérez), South Florida's reigning rap superstar, to defend his hometown. The 25-year-old Cuban-American has come to personify its multicultural spirit. Even his nickname, "Mr. 305," is a shout-out to the city's famed area code.

His resentment toward Tancredo is especially sharp these days, coinciding with the release of the rapper's sophomore effort, El Mariel. The disc — which recently peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard 200 — introduces the world of hip-hop to his own immigrant saga.

Not since the heyday of the late Nuyorican MC Big Pun has a Latin MC enjoyed the level of recognition Pitbull does at the moment. The numbers speak for themselves: His 2004 debut, M.I.A.M.I. , sold 600,000 copies stateside. The singles "Culo" and "Dammit Man" became national booty anthems, spun on both English- and Spanish-language radio. In Cuban Miami, he's renowned for the song "Ya Se Acabó" ("It Is Over"), which he recorded last year on the same day Fidel Castro announced he was temporarily transferring leadership duties to his brother Raúl. Pitbull's local notoriety is such that he even landed a cameo as a henchman in the new videogame version of Miami's all-time favorite flick, Scarface.

"What makes Pitbull distinctive as an MC is his remarkable fluency — both in terms of language and style," notes Wayne Marshall, a Chicago-based ethnomusicologist who specializes in hip-hop. "Not only does he flow in Spanish, English, and Spanglish, but he can ride a crunk beat or a reggae rhythm with equal ease."

El Mariel, which dropped in October, is named for the massive 1980 boatlift that brought Pit (in his mother's womb), his parents, and more than 125,000 Cuban exiles to South Florida. Producing a disc that deals with hot-button issues such as immigration and racism might prove risky for an artist best known for rocking parties, not preconceptions. But Pitbull remains undeterred.

"I did it to tell people my story," he insists. "It educates. It's my quest for freedom. It's my search for music. It makes people ask questions about our [Miami] culture. Some people think that life down here is a bunch of retired gangsters and old people lying around in the sun, but it's not. Everyone has their own version of Mariel. It's not only us [Cuban-Americans]. The Haitians and the Mexicans at the border trying to get in have their own Mariel. We're all the same, and Mariel is where I'm at now."

Rhythmically anyway, El Mariel feels a lot like Pitbull's previous efforts. New songs like the Neptunes-produced "Jealouso," featuring Pharrell Williams, pump up the fiesta atmosphere as much as any of his past singles. The difference is that this time around, Pit peppers his booty music with rhymes that assert his status as an American immigrant.

The album kicks off, for instance, with a riff that compares Cuban exiles to the New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The issues are always the same when people are cast out of their homes, Pitbull says: "I came here on a boat as a kid, and I see no difference between [the Katrina] buses and [the Mariel] boats."

To emphasize the point — and educate those who might not know about the history of Cuban-American immigration — Pitbull took an unprecedented step. He included as an extra with the album a DVD documentary about the historic boatlift. "People can look at it and say, öCoño! Look at what they had to go through just to get here.'"

Like its predecessor, El Mariel displays an abundance of wit. Pitbull particularly relishes shining a light on Miamians and their foibles, such as being fair-weather sport fans. "Miami only supports something until they win," Pitbull snaps. "The rest of the country embraces Miami. But down here people only go to Heat games when they're winning."

The same thing applies to local hip-hop talent. "It's only the Miami media that shits on the Miami artists," Pitbull says. "Everywhere else in the country they love us."

Pitbull began rapping when he was a student at Miami Coral Park Senior High School. He quickly became known for his ability to spit killer rhymes in two languages — a skill he developed as a child by memorizing verses by renowned Cuban poet José Martí.

Former 2 Live Crew frontman Luther Campbell was the first to discover Pit. He invited the teenager to rhyme on the single "Lollipop" and to join the roster at his indie label, Luke Records. Soon thereafter, Pitbull joined forces with the Diaz Brothers, who have produced songs for superstars such as Trick Daddy and Wyclef Jean. It wasn't long before Pitbull grabbed the attention of national labels.

The big break came when Pitbull's independent single "Oye" was featured on 2003's 2 Fast 2 Furious movie soundtrack. By that time, Pitbull was also collaborating on street compilations (a.k.a. mixtapes) with Lil Jon, one of the nation's top hip-hop impresarios. Their partnership produced the song "Culo," Pitbull's first major hit as a solo artist. Defined by its syncopated beats and wild, improvised lyrics, the track was Pit's tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Latin chica's posterior. The song spent 21 weeks on the national Top 40 singles charts and peaked at No. 27. Projects with other hip-hop stars soon followed.

But his most influential collaboration came on the song "Gasolina," by the rising reggaetonero Daddy Yankee. Pitbull's high-octane Spanglish rhymes on that now-famous remix introduced reggaeton to mainstream hip-hop fans who normally wouldn't listen to Spanish-speaking rappers. It also helped catapult Yankee's album, Barrio Fino, to the top of the Billboard charts.

Despite the success of his work with reggaeton and crunk artists, Pitbull remains leery of being pigeonholed into any one genre. In fact his next project, which he hopes to release this year, is an all-Spanish disc, titled Armando, that will feature an Afro-Cuban feel.

"We all gotta help each other," he says of his wide-ranging collaborations. "We are all in it together. But I wouldn't call myself a reggaetonero or crunk artist.... I wouldn't call myself anything; I just want to get to the top."

Along the way, he'd like to earn some props for his hometown. "Miami is already like NYC and Atlanta," Pitbull says. "Everything that comes out here is good." He points to hip-hop luminaries Rick Ross, Trick Daddy, and, of course, Luther Campbell. "We're all diverse in Miami. We're not just about one thing. We're one of the greatest cities in the States, if not the world. And we're gonna take over in five years' time."

And where will Pitbull be in five years? "Shit! In five years? I'll be on an island, with an offshore bank account, living off the interest."

Take that, Señor Tancredo.

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José Dávila