Daddy Yankee has no formal music training, but he's become by far the most popular and critically acclaimed star in reggaeton, the upbeat urban hybrid of rap, salsa and Jamaican dancehall that has become the hottest Latin music trend since the so-called Latin explosion six years ago.
He has no business degree, but he runs his own label, El Cartel, and manages his real estate investments. He has no high-powered management firm to represent him, but he has embarked on the first major U.S. arena tour in the history of the genre. It includes a stop Friday at Staples Center.
His only training ground has been the hardscrabble San Juan barrios in Puerto Rico, which served as crucible both for the music and his disciplined personality. Though he confessed to feeling nervous on the eve of the tour's kickoff last month at New York's Madison Square Garden, the handsome rapper says he feels ready for the big time. "There's not a big difference between the music industry and the street world I come from," says Yankee, who still limps slightly from gunshots he took in the right leg as a teenager.
"You have the same characters; they just dress more elegantly and use a different language. On the street, they use a pistol to take your life. Here, a bad contract can take your life just the same.... So since I already know all these characters, I'm well prepared."
Now the question is: Is the rest of America ready for Daddy Yankee?
There's a lot riding on this tour, appropriately dubbed the "Who's Your Daddy?" tour, both for the artist and for reggaeton, a musical style mostly relegated to Puerto Rican ghettoes for most of the last 15 years.
If Yankee succeeds as a solo headline attraction, he will establish the commercial appeal of the genre. Observers say Yankee's success could open doors for other artists and encourage continued collaborations with mainstream English-language hip-hop stars, a linkage seen as crucial to reggaeton's future.
The recognition is long overdue, says Raquel Z. Rivera, author of the book "New York Ricans From the Hip-Hop Zone," a look at the historical nexus between Latinos and the hip-hop culture.
"At this point, Latinos are really happy that there is a figure within a genre somehow associated with hip-hop who has made it that big," says Rivera, who teaches sociology at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
"It's been a continual source of frustration that when hip-hop became commercial, then Latinos were written out of the history. It was hard to explain hip-hop as this multiethnic form, until Daddy Yankee made a claim on the music."
Daddy Yankee's solo career exploded last year with the success of "Gasolina," a bawdy dance hit from his critically respected sixth CD, "Barrio Fino" (Refined Ghetto), which has sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide, according to his record label. In the last few weeks, he signed big record and publishing deals with Interscope and EMI, respectively.
Though his life has become hectic, he still finds time to write on the road. During a phone interview, he shared a bilingual line he had just scribbled in his hotel room, his Spanish marked by Puerto Rico's distinctive accent
"You may not know Spanish, but you know Daddy Yankee / El que sin uso de estiroides, jitea mas que Giambi (Who without using steroids, has more hits than Giambi)."
Like hip-hop and salsa, reggaeton has its share of bragging about who's the best. But Yankee says he tries not to take his own rap too seriously.
"The most important thing about all this is not to think you're really something, you follow me?" says Yankee, whose stage name comes from Puerto Rican slang meaning powerful man. "Because, though it may seem ironic, this is all a fantasy, you follow me? You have to give the public the magic of your music, but you can never enter into that magic, because it'll hurt you. You've got to keep your feet on the ground."
His real name is Raymond Ayala, but he refuses to reveal much more about his personal life, even his age. He's married and has three children, that much is known. Most people guess he's in his late 20s.
As a student in a poor San Juan neighborhood, he was always picked to sing during traditional Christmas celebrations (parrandas) because everybody loved his voice. His father, a salsa percussionist, always encouraged his musical career. His strict mother, a manicurist and housewife, urged him to get a college degree. The disagreement led to some family strife, he recalls.
By 16, the young artist started making mix tapes in the underground reggaeton scene, selling $5 cassettes out of apartments in the projects.
Meeting him on his home turf, as I did earlier this year, reveals much about the man who derives strength from his culture and community. It's surprising to see reggaeton's biggest star casually walking the streets of a modest neighborhood in his old hometown, like just another pedestrian. Clean cut and crisply dressed, Yankee arrived for an interview on foot, disguising the slight limp as a classy swagger. He walked slowly along the sidewalk, past working-class houses with bars on doors and windows. He stopped outside the tiny temporary backyard studio of the hit producing duo Luny Tunes, who were building new facilities nearby with their growing royalties.
Yankee arrived without an entourage or even a bodyguard, and he took a chair in the driveway near the garbage cans.
"For all the city fame you see me having, I go back to the barrio all the time," he told me at the time.
People he meets on the streets give him good advice: "Save your money and don't go crazy." Yankee said his brother, Nomar Ayala, also helps keep him on the right track. He serves as the singer's manager, psychologist, conscience, bouncer and bodyguard
Not to mention being the bearer of bling bling.
In preparation for a photo shoot in the living room of producer Luny's mother's busy home, Nomar handed big rings to his brother, who put them on along with diamond earrings. Around his neck he hung his trademark pendant with his oversized initials in diamonds and gold.
Reggaeton may be raw and rowdy, but Yankee comes off as polished and polite. He says he doesn't drink, smoke or take drugs. He works out and eats healthful food. He has to suppress his boyish smile for the portrait, since no self-respecting reggaeton artist would be seen in public without the tough-guy glare and gangster stance.
Despite his bad-boy poses, Yankee can't help but project a wholesomeness fueled by his spiritual beliefs. That clean quality has helped him become the top star in a field known for its sex and violence. Daddy Yankee draws fans of all kinds, from children to grandmothers, businessmen to street people.
Yankee says his concert at Staples will be a flashy production, with dancers and pyrotechnics. But he doesn't want to give too much away.
"I love to be underestimated," he said during the phone interview before the Madison Square Garden concert. "Because when people underestimate you, they're always surprised by the great things you do."
Where: Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Price: $49.50 to $125
Contact: (213) 742-7340