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Liz Balmaseda

Posted on Sun, Feb. 09, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
A new breed
Miami rapper Pitbull has all of South Florida barking

Miami, the storied city of vice, welcomed Armando Christian Pérez into the world one morning in 1981 at that electric hour when the marimberos, the cocaine cowboys, were arriving at the clubs in nearby Coconut Grove.

Four months earlier, parked at the edge of Biscayne Bay, his parents had gazed up at one bright star and made a prediction. ''It twinkled, twinkled, twinkled,'' his mother would recall 22 years later. 'And his father said, `That's our son. That's his star.' ''

But the streets of Miami awaited with less pristine expectations. In the amped era of Scarface, little Armando Christian saw a lot of things he wasn't supposed to. Lines of white powder on the coffee table. $100 bills rolled up like straws. Party people high as a kite. Add a few beats of local charanga and, boomp, you're there. Undercover Miami, hustler central, where the poor, the rich, the politicians, the police all maneuver for some piece of the action.

Early on, he figured it out: If you want something bad enough, dig your teeth into it and don't let go.

That's how Armando Christian, the kid who was reciting José Martí rhymes for stoned locals in Little Havana bars by age 3, became Pitbull, Miami's hungriest, most tenacious new rapper, a native-bred remix. A child of Cuban-born parents who doesn't give a hoot about island politics, he doesn't answer to ''Armando,'' no matter how hard his father, José Antonio Armando Pérez Torres, drove the Cuban identity thing.


He'll ''rep'' his brethren in the larger syncopation, throw in a few interjections -- ya tú saaa-bes -- but he's not about to go Cuban retro. Retro is quoting Tony Montana lines from Scarface on his bootleg CD. Old school isn't the vintage Beny Moré of his roots-obsessed elders -- it's a 5-year-old, Miami-made, Willy Chirino song. He's a color-blind kid with a 12-buck fade cut who grew up on Nas rap and Uncle Luke booty music, adores his city, potholes and all, the way he adores his parents, dysfunction and all. Mr. ``3-0-5 till I die.''

So ardent is Pitbull's conviction, that he made this vow: When he ''blows,'' makes the big time, he's bringing the 305 with him. ''Miami, I got you, I promise,'' goes his bark. And he may actually get to keep that promise. The word on Pitbull is that he's about to burst out of the underground and shoot to the top -- quite a prediction for an unsigned artist who peddles his own CDs on street corners in Liberty City.

''A label takes an artist like Pitbull and puts a million dollars behind him and he's gonna blow. He's a hustler. He's taking the street mentality and taking it to rap,'' says Lazaro ''DJ Laz'' Mendez, star DJ at Miami's popular Power 96 (WPOW 96.5 FM), which has kept the rapper on frequent rotation since it first aired him last spring.


It was Miami's godfather of rhyme himself, Luther ''Uncle Luke'' Campbell, who nearly four years ago recognized an uncanny reflection of his hometown in Pitbull's raps. Campbell was so impressed that he signed the rapper, took him on the road, and pitched him to every DJ he knew.

''This kid, he is Miami -- more so than me or anybody else. I had to win the respect of the Latin community. But he's got it. He ain't no fluke,'' says Campbell, who remains close to Pitbull although the two agreed to let their contract lapse so the young rapper could stretch his wings. ``He just wants it now, now, now.''

No, he wants it yesterday.

There he is, the freshly razored one, standing outside his mom's house on a side street in Wynwood, hustling on his 22nd birthday. He's doing a video shoot for his biggest hit to date, Welcome to Miami, an ode to the city only insiders know. He's about to slide into a borrowed ''Vert,'' a vintage Chevy Caprice convertible, and cruise while a video photographer in a Honda shoots him through the window.

As Allapattah melts into Overtown and Overtown melts into downtown and downtown melts into East Little Havana, he'll spit out the now-ubiquitous lines to the song he wrote as a response to ''Welcome to'' anthems for Atlanta, New York and St. Louis. It is Pitbull's third single, but it's that rap that has put him on the map. When the song first aired a few months ago on Power 96, it became one of the station's top-requested songs within hours.

''We were getting calls from people who are too hard to ever call and ask for a song,'' says DJ Laz.


The song spread to other local stations, landing Pitbull the kind of popularity that usually comes with big-money contracts and the accouterments of hip-hop fame. But there's no Cristal on this set. No Dolce. No Versace. There is Pitbull's mom, however, in a comfy T-shirt, rushing over with two bottles of men's cologne.

''Here, see which one you like better,'' says Alysha Acosta, spritzing her son.

He gives her a hug and goes on with his hustle, off to the studio to finish his new CD, Expect the Unexpected, which he hopes to release this month. Mom's a little disappointed they won't be celebrating tonight, but she gets it. She knows this isn't a party. It's a hustle. And it better not be any two-bit hustle.

She kicked her boy out of the house when he was 17 because she heard he was peddling dope. Her admonishment: ''If you're gonna go to jail, go for something big. Don't go for something stupid.'' That's when Pitbull got into rap. And that's when he began to take his mother's lessons to heart. ``DIM it, baby.''

Pitbull had her initials and her birth date tattooed on the inside of his left wrist above the letters D.I.M. Do it for Mom.

Days after the video shoot, he drives through East Little Havana, by the house he once shared with his parents. They had split up by the time he was 4, but were together for a time after his dad's house burned down. By then, teenager Armando Christian had bounced from neighborhood to neighborhood, school to school, mostly without a father.


''My dad's an alcoholic,'' he says. 'He was into all kinds of dope back then. But he put the hustle in me. He used to take me to bars on Eighth Street and put me up on a stool and go, `Recite!' When we reconnected, that's when I figured out where I came from.''

It was in his father that Pitbull recognized a daunting legacy. Drugs, fast money and broken dreams. His father's life mirrored Miami's life. There was no use denying it. Why spend your life covering up other people's crimes and errors? Just let reality be and move on.

''I'm from the Dirty Dirty. . .,'' goes one of Pitbull's most contagious raps, Dirty.

'. . .We're off the chain, man/ The rap game, crack game/ Cut it, cook it, chop it, record it, album-shop it/ It's all the same thing./ Y'all look at these blue skies and think `Paradise.'/ I look at these blue skies and think `What a disguise. . .'

It's a city he can't get enough of. This is evident as he sits in a Flagler Street barber shop called Fademasters, taking in the scene while his barber, Josué Romero, 20, gives him a fresh cut. Pitbull's unfinished CD is bouncing off the spray-painted murals, the photo of Al Pacino in Scarface, the magazine pic of J.Lo naked, the tip of the tattoo needle. Back up: There's a tattoo artist on site. His name is Real 360. (''In life what goes around comes around.'') Pitbull watches the Flagler Street peddlers, the cars swinging around 12th Avenue. He snorts at the trash-talking regulars, like the guy who believes God doesn't approve of tattoos.


Pitbull wears a tattoo that proclaims ''Pitbull Spits Flames'' on his back and one that says ''God's Angel'' on his left arm. Most astonishing for a man not yet in the age of review, he's got one that says ''Hate Me And Suffer.'' He thinks people who hate only hurt themselves.

The thought lingers as he drives along a shady street in Southwest Miami, then pulls into a spot outside his father's home.

''My dad,'' he warns, 'suffers from hustler's withdrawal. You know, `I used to have it all -- the cars, the cash, the women -- then I lost it.' ''

Moments later, José Antonio Armando Pérez Torres sits with his son in the bulb-lit kitchen of his apartment. They share a blunt, joking rapport. Pitbull tells his father, a sickly but disarming man, that he's been talking about life in the '80s.

''Yeah, any idiot had 500 bucks,'' the father says.

Pitbull reminds him how he used to make him recite all those Cuban poems.

''And your name wasn't Pitbull or Chris,'' the father says, ``It was Armando.''

José Antonio starts remembering.

''No me pongan en lo oscuro a morir como un traidor,'' he quotes Martí.

Do not bury me in the dark to die like traitor scum/ I am good, and as a good man. . . . I'll die facing the sun!

The verse floats in from somewhere in the corrupt city and the son picks it up. 'Yeah, `morir de cara al sol.' ''

'Except you used to say, `de cara al TOL!' '' his dad says.

Pitbull gives him a look so sweet it almost twinkles.

``Whatever, you crazy old man.''

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