During an early afternoon in Miami in January, over drinks with two local radio PDs, the conversation turned to Pitbull. "He should come over and join us," said one, and impulsively picked up his cell phone and dialed.
No more than 20 minutes later, there was Armando Christian Perez, aka Pitbull-sans entourage or management-chilling over martinis in a nearly empty restaurant overlooking Biscayne Bay.
Pitbull's "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)" was peaking on the charts, and his face was plastered on billboards that were popping up all around Miami. Still, Pitbull seemed immune to the celebrity. This was his town, his turf, his place to stroll about as he pleased. He was, after all, an artist who had hustled his way to popularity, unabashedly seeking out DJs and artists, distributing mixtapes, endlessly posting online, playing parties and doing charity appearances. There seemed to be nothing too big or too small for Pitbull to do.
Eight months later, that frenzy of activity is set to explode. In the year since the gimmicky "I Know You Want Me" (a remix of the song "75 Street Brazil," by Nicola Fasano featuring Pat Rich) became a worldwide hit, Pitbull has become ubiquitous. Look at the charts and you'll see that his melange of dance beats, borrowed hooks, catchy phrases and entreating, party-flavored raps have become must-haves for an ever-growing list of superstars, from Enrique Iglesias and Shakira to Usher and T-Pain.
"You always have to be relevant," Pitbull says, defending his habit of releasing records seemingly any time, any place. "I've never been a traditional artist. I'm a survivor. And for me it's kind of scary when people try to make plans."
But now there is a plan. On Nov. 2, Pitbull releases his first all-Spanish-language set, "Armando" (so named after his father), followed by the bilingual "Planet Pit," due in early 2011. Intertwined with the albums are two major sponsorship deals featuring Pitbull's image and music. One, for Kodak's Easy Share cameras, includes 15-second TV spots with Pitbull, Drake and Trey Songz and will officially launch in October. Pitbull's spots will feature his single "Hey Baby" from "Planet Pit," featuring T-Pain.
The second deal has Pitbull as the face and voice of Dr Pepper's 2011 Hispanic marketing campaign, "Vida a la 23." Pitbull will be featured in the "Vida" radio and TV spots with an original song, "Good Times (Vida 23)," which he wrote specifically for the campaign. Plans are under way to make the track the second single from "Armando," coinciding with the launch of the campaign in January.
The simultaneous push in two languages may be what finally clinches Pitbull's popularity at all levels. For although his singles are extraordinarily successful-"I Know You Want Me" has sold 2.5 million downloads in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan-his album sales haven't always kept pace.
Pitbull's top-selling set was his 2004 debut, "Miami," which has sold 634,000 copies, according to SoundScan. But his two latest, 2007's "Boatlift" and 2009's "Rebelution," which included "I Know You Want Me," have sold fewer than 200,000 copies each in the United States.
"Any superstar, particularly in rap, appears on 50 million records, but the hits are the ones that shine through," says Bryan Leach, president of Polo Grounds Music, which partnered with Pitbull's own Mr. 305 Records to release his English-language albums through RCA/J Records. In Pitbull's case, Leach adds, "whether it's the current single from the 'Armando' album or 'Hey Baby' from ours, we just need to be very clear and make sure each album has its own identity."
Prior to inking deals with Polo Grounds and, earlier, with Sony Music Latin for his Spanish-language releases, Pitbull had been on indie TVT Records. Toward the end, he became increasingly frustrated by what he viewed as TVT's inability to develop his career, particularly abroad and in the Latin market.
"When I came in, Pitbull would put a bunch of records out and tour as much as he could, and he was in survival mode," says Pitbull's manager Charles Chavez, who joined the rapper's team three years ago. "And I said, 'Dude, we need a strategy.' "
Chavez took a step back from the flurry of activity. Then, when the Orchard acquired TVT's assets and released the single "Krazy" with Lil Jon, Chavez also worked it at pop radio, an area TVT hadn't really explored.
Not long after, Pitbull, who had always dreamt of recording a Spanish-only album, met with Sony Music U.S.
Latin president Ruben Leyva. "It's an interesting, unorthodox story, as things tend to be with Pitbull," Leyva says. "At the time he wasn't sure what he was going to do. I told him, 'Look, a distribution deal will allow you to do anything you want to do.' What I wanted to say was, 'Count on us to be supportive.' "
Pitbull signed a deal with Sony for distribution of Spanish-language material on his Mr. 305 Records in the United States and Puerto Rico (he owns all the masters) and for licensing in Latin America, even though he had yet to record any Spanish songs. He also signed his publishing (Mr. 305 Publishing) to an administration deal with Universal Music Latin America. Shortly after, he signed a partnership with Polo Grounds for his English-language albums. Months later, "I Know You Want Me," released as a single through an earlier deal struck with dance label Ultra, blew up.
The track succeeded for myriad reasons: It was a remix of a previous hit, Ultra properly marketed and promoted it, and it was aggressively licensed worldwide. In June 2009, it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and in August it hit No. 1 on the European Hot 100 singles chart.
Also, as a white, light-eyed Cuban who raps, Pitbull is an anomaly because he can reach urban, Latin and pop audiences. The urban segment initially eluded him, but has now embraced him, thanks in part to the company he keeps.
"He was ahead of his time," Leach says. "If you look at what's popular in rhythm and pop radio, it's stuff that's fun, and Pit's been making those records his entire career. People are a lot more open now to the music he's always made. And he also brings his own twist, making huge pop records in Spanglish."
"I have known Pit for years and have always respected his hustle and talent," T-Pain says. "He's one of the few artists that really understands the music and business sides of this industry."
Currently, Pitbull is featured on two top 10 singles on the Hot 100: Enrique Iglesias' "I Like It" and Usher's "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love." And while the singles "Bon, Bon" from "Armando" and "Hey Baby" from "Planet Pit" are still bubbling under the charts, the setup for Pitbull's two upcoming albums is unprecedented for him.
In fact, Pitbull says, he's never had the full muscle of a major label behind him before, much less in Latin America, where Sony is in charge of the album release. Nor has he ever had sponsorship deals before.
"And the beauty is showing how major corporations want to be involved with people whose last names are Gutierrez, Perez. People whose names end with a 'z,' " Pitbull happily says on a recent afternoon at a recording studio in Davie, Fla., where he played tracks from both of his upcoming albums. The atmosphere is one of controlled chaos, with a steady stream of people-from members of his team to fans to a camera crew-filtering in and out.
Although the finishing touches are still being applied to "Planet Pit," "Armando" is a done deal; it's rich with dance beats, cultural references and sly humor. First single "Bon, Bon," for example, samples "Me No Speak Americano," the Yolanda Be Cool hit that his A&R right hand and head of Mr. 305 Records, DJ Buddha, first heard in Europe. On top of the beat, Pitbull spoofs Lady Gaga, saying, "I'm not Alejandro, Roberto or Fernando. I'm Armando."
The album also turns around the Cuban classic "Guantanamera," "not just modernizing it, but making it also-how should I say-humorous," Pitbull says, referring to lyrics that coax a farm girl to leave shyness behind and catch up with the times. There's also a collaboration with Cuban American heartthrob JenCarlos Canela, borne out of an encounter at the Billboard Latin Music Awards last spring. Canela wrote the song "Tu Cuerpo" and took it to Pitbull, who raps the verses over it.
"Every track has its own way of coming together, but essentially, I just say, 'I like this,' and Buddha says, 'You're crazy,' " Pitbull says with a laugh. "And I say, 'I don't care.' "