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By Ray Rogers
Photography Randall Slavin | October 27, 2014 | People
He’s closing out this year with a new album and ringing in 2015 with a worldwide TV special, yet one thing remains constant among all of Pitbull’s success: the 305.
There’s a lot of love out there for Miami from the galaxy of stars who call Dade County home, but few performers are more vocal about their hometown pride than Pitbull, a.k.a. Armando Christian Pérez, the Cuban-American native son who christened himself “Mr. 305” at the outset of his career (even calling his 2004 debut album MIAMI). While in recent years he’s forgone that nickname in lieu of “Mr. Worldwide,” his heart and his art are firmly entrenched in his birth city.
His greatest export from the 305, he’s quick to say, is “that Miami mentality. Miami is everything to me. It’s what allows me to think out of the box. Living down here with so many different cultures, you get the chance to see that, yeah, we may be different, but we’re a lot more similar than we think we are. And through music, I’ve been able to show that.”
Early hits like the cheeky “Culo” and breakthrough single “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)” showcased his rapping and incorporated reggaeton rhythms, and he’s kept that flavor in the mix as he has steadily reached the heights of pop stardom, crossing over to more clubby-flavored party bangers along the way. His first global number 1, 2011’s “Give Me Everything,” which hit the top spot in six different countries, was just one in a steady stream of pinch-yourself milestones for the performer. The song cemented his reputation for the ultimate party music all around the globe. And here at home, the lyrics also inspired strong reaction, from one Lindsay Lohan at least, who sued over the line “I got it locked up like Lindsay Lohan.” The case was dismissed. “We had no reason to make up, because I never disrespected her,” Pitbull says when asked if they’ve mended fences since then. “Where I’m from, that’s a compliment! We say, ‘We got this locked up,’ like, we got this.”
Globalization, due out imminently, is the next chapter in his quest for world domination. Pitbull’s eighth record comes on the heels of his last massive number 1 hit, “Timber,” a spirited dance-floor mélange of club music with a vocal assist from Kesha and a country line-dance-ready melody cribbed from Swedish dance sensation Avicii. His keen ear for musical trends, and the magic touch for folding them into his own universe of sound, is a skill that parallels his take on growing up in Miami’s melting pot. “My parents used to tell me that Miami is la quinceañera—the young woman—back in the ’80s. And they were right. Look at the way, and the speed, at which it has grown; it has probably outdone every major city in the United States of America within the last 35 years.”
All eyes will be on both the rapper and the city come the stroke of midnight this December 31. He’s more than grateful he won’t be freezing in Times Square; this year, he’s going live from Miami, with his own annual special, Pitbull’s New Year’s Revolution airing on Fox, going head-to-head with ABC’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve starring Ryan Seacrest. “What’s better than being Miami-born and raised, Dade County, 305, and putting together a New Year’s Eve revolution and showing the world what it is to enjoy New Year’s Eve here, bringing in 2015 on a positive note?” says Pitbull. “The ball won’t be going down, the bar will be going up. We’re going to un-mute New Year’s Eve, because when everybody watches New Year’s Eve, what do they do? They wait—10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1—and boom: They mute it again, then they’re off to the party. We want to make sure that when people are watching this, they are enjoying themselves and having the time of their lives bringing in the New Year.”
Beyond bringing a great party vibe, you can expect the master of ceremonies to be outfitted in a tux. He’s long since cast off the oversize street threads and baseball caps of his early days for the polished duds and luxury lifestyle he now flaunts. Even that decision to don those eye-poppingly tight, tailored Italian suits, he says, is rooted in his love and respect for the city’s residents. “The inspiration for the sharp suits comes from the guys I used to look up to,” he says. “Being 5 years old and seeing the guys that would come around, they were always in sharp suits. Gentlemen, but you could tell that they were nothing to mess with, and very dangerous.”
The number-one guy he admired back then was his padre. “My father was always dressed very sharp, always smelled good, always groomed right. That’s something that I always looked up to, whether we were having a good relationship at the time or not. The way that he dressed was something I always idolized about him,” recalls Mr. Worldwide, outfitted today in casual shorts and a polo—it’s a travel day—en route to Miami International Airport for a flight to London. “When I got the chance to be able to afford that kind of lifestyle in about ’08 or ’09, that’s exactly what I did. You know I’m always looking for sales, always looking for deals, I’m not trying to waste money—but it’s an investment in yourself.”
Long before his rise to riches, a 16-year-old Pitbull was living on his own and dealing drugs in some of the roughest neighborhoods in Miami during the heyday of the ’90s coke trade, following in his now-deceased father’s footsteps (Armando Pérez Sr. passed away in 2006, after a bout with cancer). “I don’t like to go into specifics too much, because I don’t want to glamorize it at all,” he says about those years, allowing that he got off that path after one particularly frightening event—seeing in real time the devastating effects that cutting the supply with filler had on customers.
Rapping was his way out, and he knew he had the talent—he could sense the draw his skills had as groups of fellow high school students would amass to watch him throw down at rap battles on school grounds. It was one of his teachers, Hope Martinez, who encouraged him to take it further. Today, at 33, he’s a self-made music icon and shrewd businessman, with a reported fortune to the tune of $50 million and counting. He also credits his mother for his success. “I had a mother that always was teaching me about different companies, what’s going on in the world, things I should be looking out for, always ask that extra question,” he says of his mother, who also gave him tough love, kicking him out of her home when she realized he was dealing. “My mother’s very, very educated, sharp, smart, genius even. To grow up with someone like that—I owe everything to her as far as my vision on life, and the way that I maneuver.”
He’s quickly gained a reputation for the art of the deal—and has no shame in dropping brand names right into his songs on the path to riches. In 2013, Forbes estimated he raked in a cool $11 million from album and tour sales, and endorsement deals with brands ranging from Dr. Pepper to Kodak, which has inevitably led to some pretty snide and sneering profiles. Guess who’s laughing all the way to his private jet? “Haters gonna hate—let them hate,” he says evenhandedly. “It’s when people stop talking about you that you have a problem.” Currently Pitbull is an equity partner in food franchise The New Miami Subs Grill and recently unveiled the restaurant’s new design and menu in Cutler Bay. His business acumen, says Pérez, came straight from the streets of the neighborhoods he grew up on while bouncing from one home to the next with his single mother. “Growing up, I saw a lot of people make something out of nothing; it may have not been in a legal fashion, but it was always interesting to see how people could flip things.”
In a tribute to the positive forces in his early life, today he’s focused on giving back to the people of the community that reared him, investing his time and dedication into the Sports Leadership and Management (SLAM) charter school. “I have a thousand kids in SLAM, and I am so proud of those kids; I see my own life in them. The first love that I had, other than my mother and Miami, was basketball. Sports shows you discipline, it shows you the harder you work, the better you get, and it shows you the value of a team. All of these kids come from interesting neighborhoods of Miami, most of which I lived in: Allapattah, Wynwood, Overtown, Little Havana, Liberty City, Opa-Locka, Carol City. You’ve got these kids [coming] over to SLAM.”
His own high school diploma was given to him just to get him out of the school. An 18-year-old Pérez was shown the door of Miami’s Coral Park Senior High School in 1999, he says, because the principal didn’t want him back for another year. “Being young, you’re just thinking, 'Wow, I beat the system.' But in actuality, the system beat me. But hey, I ran into the university of life, and man, since I was a kid I’ve been living the School of Hard Knocks. Once you put the two together, you can develop someone either very dangerous or someone, I would say, very sharp—and dangerous when he wants to be,” he says with a knowing laugh.
Much like its native son, the city once was more rough and tumble. Pitbull certainly didn’t grow up behind the gates of a Star Island oceanfront manse. “I lived in so many different neighborhoods, from good to bad to the worst. But it was just normal to me to move every three to six months and be in a new area of Miami. My abuela was my one constant, and my tia.”
Today, he says, the world is his Miami. “I travel all over, from good areas to bad areas to the worst areas. But the way I grew up in Miami prepared me for that.” While he’s rarely in the 305 for long stretches, Miami remains home base for him—“until Cuba opens up,” he says with a laugh. He’s loath to give out his hot spots, and for good reason—the man has close to 60 million Facebook fans and 17.6 million Twitter followers. But he will allow this: When in Coral Gables, Francesco’s is the place to hit for great Peruvian food. “You know I’m giving you one of my spots, but I want people to enjoy great food. I love the parihuela, which is a seafood soup.”
His most cherished pastime in Miami, though, is hanging with his own six kids, ages 1 to 11. “My kids mean the world to me; what makes them so special to me is that that’s where I get the genuine love from. To them, I’m not Pitbull, not Armando, not Chris, not Mr. Worldwide or Mr. 305—no, I’m Papi! And one thing I never want them to do is live in my shadow. I want them to be able to do what they want with their life, without having to use me as that connection, and to have that, as we say in Spanish, agalla, which is backbone. Any chance I get to have them all together and enjoy them all is priceless.”
He’s a proud papa, but the notorious ladies’ man is not ready to settle down anytime soon. Questions about his children’s mothers are off limits, for starters. Asked if there is a special lady in his life at the moment, he’s quick to drop one of his favorite lyrics, cracking, “C’mon man, you know my slogan is ‘single, bilingual, and ready to mingle’!” Let the party rage on.
As if Pitbull needed another reason to celebrate, he’ll be receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015—which he takes as a point of pride on behalf of all of his fellow Cuban-Americans living the #dale dream in Miami. “It goes to show you hard work pays off, and patience, passion, and perseverance equal success,” he says. “The best part is that this is just the beginning.” See Pitbull live in concert October 25 at Hard Rock Live; and October 26 at 7:30 pm at AmericanAirlines Arena