Nicky Jam was discovered at a supermarket in Puerto Rico when he was 11 years old, bagging groceries and rapping about tomatoes and whatever else was in the checkout line His later lyrics weren’t much better, he admitted Wednesday at a Billboard Latin Music Conference chat with Leila Cobo, Billboard Latin’s director of programming.
“I wrote about strange things, like ‘I am better than your boyfriend.’ The record was not very good, but the style I sang in caught the attention of the DJs in Puerto Rico.” It wasn’t until I was 20 that I started to write music that was more sexual, more reggaeton hardcore. I didn’t know I sang. I rapped.”
Nicky Jam’s now well-documented fall into hard times is also what ultimately led him to write the kind of songs that have taken reggaeton to new heights around the world. Wednesday, he was honored with the Sony Icon Songwriter Award.
“We’re very, very proud of you,” said Nir Seroussi, president of Sony Music US, Latin. “You are a role model for any other artist out there striving to reach their dreams. It’s about hard work and doing the good music you’ve done. We are very humbled to be part of this journey and wish you continued success brother. Esto solo va pa’lante.”
Jorge Mejia, president of Sony ATV music publishing Latin America and US Latin, had already rattled off Nicky’s numbers, including 30 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Latin charts for “El Perdon,” eight weeks No. 1 (and counting) for Hasta El Amanecer and 3.36 billion YouTube views.
“There are people who compose from very young. That is not my case. I went discovering myself,” said Nick Rivera Caminero (Nicky Jam was a name he was given by a homeless man).
“I was ignorant. I had no father. I had no mother after I was 8. I lived a rebel life and Yankee tried,” Nicky Jam said of his friend and colleague, Daddy Yankee, with whom he had been performing. “He tried hard for me to get back on track. He said ‘Discipline. Discipline.’ But I was so lost that I said ‘No, I have to go my own way.’ And then I fell further.
“When you are borrowing money for gas because you spent it all on your vices, your alcohol, and then you see your colleague doing so well,” he said about Daddy Yanquee, who he had once performed with, “that is when I felt I could only give up. I said ‘I think music is just not for me anymore.’ I got really fat. I looked like a hamburger.”
Then he got a call to do a concert in Colombia in 2007. “All the artists who were there had a lot of current music. The only one who wasn’t pegando at the moment was me. I thought I would look like a fool,” he said. “But when I got on stage, people went crazy. They cried. They lifted my spirits.”
That concert changed his life and his songwriting, he told the audience. “I realized that Colombians listened more to the words than the rhythms. They liked the romantic reggaetones. I started listening to Bayonato,” he said. “In Colombia is where I discovered myself as a writer.”
He went back to Puerto Rico to get clean, locking himself up in a bedroom for three days, which he called “the longest days of my life. I sweat a lot. My bones ached. I was cold one moment. I was hot the next. I suffered so much to get out of it.” He lived in poor neighborhoods and took the bus to get around. He opened for J Balvin and other Colombian artists. “They saw me taking the bus, going into neighborhoods that nobody dared go, working at bars. I realized that if I did well in Colombia, I could do well in the world.”
When it came time to do the video for “El Perdon,” his collaboration with Enrique Iglesias, Nicky Jam insisted on the poor neighborhood he had lived in as a backdrop. “People didn’t want to do it there. They said there were so many beautiful places in Colombia, why do a video en una comuna. But that was the point. That even the poor neighborhoods are beautiful, too,” he said. “And I didn’t want to lose the essence of urban. I wanted to be the same kid in the barrio.”
Now he is taking that barrio kid to the big screen in an upcoming xXx franchise film with Vin Diesel as well as a possible English-language television series.
One of his new dreams, he said, is to work with young and upcoming artists and to develop the Nicky Jam of the future. “I have one in my eye right ow. I think it’s going to be something big,” he said. “The key to that is what Akon did with Lady Gaga, what Usher did with Justin Bieber — you have to make them bigger than you. If I get the right artist, my goal is to make him way bigger than me because I’m going to feel accomplished.”