Thursday, November 09, 2006
New York Daily News (MCT)
Twenty-six years ago, the father of Cuban-American rapper Pitbull commandeered three boats to bring more than 500 people from Castro's island to Miami, as part of what became known as the Mariel boatlift.
The dictator, who normally made emigration impossible, either let the disenchanted leave or found an excuse to expel Cuba's least-desirable citizens, depending on your point of view. But the influx of nearly 125,000 people to our shores transformed Miami, and thus a key part of America. "Without Mariel, there is no modern Miami," declares Pitbull, born Armando Christian Perez.
The 25-year-old rapper just released an album he has dubbed "El Mariel" for a nervy reason. "The Marielitos were on a quest for freedom from Castro," he explains, "My music is also on a quest for freedom — from categories."
To compare the plight of desperate immigrants to the aspirations of a talented MC may strike some as a tacky stretch. But where would the world of hip hop be without exaggeration and brio? Anyway, the story of rap — like that of immigration and of America itself — all have in common the goal of self-transformation and upward mobility by any means necessary.
The connection becomes even clearer, and more appealing, once you hear Pitbull's music. "El Mariel" features some of the most clever, dense and rhythmic rhymes of the year, rolled over music that fuses three distinct genres into something wholly its own.
Southern crunk, pulsating Afro-Cuban beats and jittery reggaeton all get mixed up on the rapper's second CD. His first one, 2004's "M.I.A.M.I.: Money Is a Major Issue," leaned closer to crunk (with defining input from leering genre pioneer Lil Jon). That disk went gold, giving the rapper the biggest-selling debut by a bilingual hip-hop act since Cypress Hill's first CD, in 1991.
For "El Mariel," Pitbull has greatly upped his game, becoming more serious, political and mature, without losing the lowdown sex songs that made him a star. This time, Pit features a poem that compares the victims of Hurricane Katrina to the Marielitos, slamming both Bush and Castro in the process. In likening the two leaders, Pit says with a laugh "at least Castro was a genius for all the wrong reasons. I don't know if I can say the same about Bush."
Earlier this year, Pit was involved in two other politically charged pieces. He took part in a recording of the national anthem in Spanish, which the artists intended as an open-hearted statement of Latin inclusion. Angry conservatives saw it instead as anti-Anglo.
Then, when news arrived of Castro's illness, Pit went straight into the studio to cut a new song, "Se Acabo" (It's Over). The cut earned major play all over Miami and became a rallying cry for Cuban exiles. "It's a song of hope," says Pit. "Finally we may be free."
Pit's family has a long history of defying Castro. His grandmother came to this country during the revolution in the 1950s, when she could see her side was losing. Pit's parents met in Miami, but his dad soon took off, leaving his mother to raise him alone by working three jobs.
As a teen, the rapper developed skill at both rhymes and networking. He started winning emcee battles, and through them eventually met key players in the Florida rap scene, like Luke Campbell and Lil Jon. His connection to the latter led to a contract with Jon's label, TVT Records.
In the meantime, Pit's dad came back into his life. The two stayed close until the father died in May last year, at 55, of liver disease. Despite that painful experience, and the seriousness of Pit's political interests, most of "El Mariel" remains a sexy party romp. One of the most fun club cuts samples another Southern classic, the B-52's "Rock Lobster." "I wanted something that sounded like Gnarls Barkley or OutKast — something every college kid could go crazy for," Pit says.
In other words, he wanted a crossover point for rock fans. Clearly, Pit means to bridge every crowd he can, while understanding that few Latin rappers have achieved such mainstream success. The exceptions: Big Pun, Fat Joe and, lately, reggaeton's Daddy Yankee.
For Pit, his heritage has become a nuanced issue. On the one hand, he has often said he doesn't consider himself a Latin rapper but a rapper who happens to be Latin. On the other, he intends to put out an all-Spanish CD early next year, for the express purpose of getting nominated for some Latin awards. Also, he says he wants "to climb both the Latin and the American charts at the same time."
Ultimately, Pit says he sees no difference between the two. Similarly, he feels the story of "El Mariel" is every American's story. "The Haitians had their boatlift, there were the slave ships, and now the Mexicans are coming from over the border," Pit explains. "If you think about it, everyone can relate to El Mariel."
(c) 2006, New York Daily News.
Visit the Daily News online at http://www.nydailynews.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.