They were two 22-year-olds from Puerto Rico, scraping by on low-paid club gigs and hoping for their big break. They would play several sets a night, sometimes until seven in the morning. They had no label, no publisher, no major connections. Their music was edgy, but not necessarily in a cool way. Over spare fusions of reggaetón and trap, they sang of gunfights, drug deals and the anguish of wanting a better life — the kind of material the Latin music mainstream dismissed as trashy and balked at playing on the radio.
In 2015, Anuel AA and Ozuna were just getting started at a moment when the charts favored Romeo Santos’ romantic bachata and the smoother beats of J Balvin and Nicky Jam. But the two outsiders impressed each other: Ozuna with his deceptively sweet tenor and knack for hooks, Anuel with his gruff voice and rebellious swagger. After Ozuna reached out about remixing Anuel’s rowdy underground hit “69” in 2015, they formed a fast friendship. “We recorded it and released it in four days,” says Ozuna in early January, over Zoom from Miami. He’s joined by Anuel elsewhere in the city; both speak in Spanish. “We got together almost daily in the neighborhood to make music. We were on fire. That’s how the parties revved up again in Puerto Rico. We revived them.”
They lit up more than just the party scene. Today, the 28-year-olds are the leaders of a new generation of reggaetón artists who have brought the genre to the forefront — prior to the pandemic, Anuel, Ozuna and Bad Bunny were among the few Latin artists filling arenas in North America — with their freewheeling career ethos: highly collaborative, extremely prolific and able to pursue their creative whims thanks to the flexibility of streaming and social media. “I think we’re the first artists who generated income in the digital world in a major way,” says Anuel. “Thank God, we hit precisely when streaming hit.”
This week, they’ll release their first joint album together, Los Dioses — a celebration of not just their close friendship and creative autonomy but also their business savvy. Both artists have their own labels and own their masters but have distribution/marketing deals with The Orchard and Sony Music Latin, giving them the best of both worlds. All expenses and profits, says Ozuna’s manager, Edgar Andino, are split down the middle. “What really separates Ozuna and Anuel from the rest of the pack is that they operate as independent labels with major resources,” says attorney Simran Singh, a managing partner at Singh Singh & Trauben who reps Ozuna and has also worked with Anuel. (The artists have worldwide publishing administration deals with Kobalt as well.)
Such arrangements are rare. Yet retaining ownership was a major priority for Anuel after an early negative experience with an indie, says his longtime manager, Frabian Eli. “I told him I wanted him to have ownership and do a distribution deal,” recalls Eli. “I had been working in the industry since I was a kid, and none of the artists had ownership — they were all signed.” Distributors like The Orchard now also offer artists a suite of services, from radio promotion to synch licensing, as alternatives to traditional label deals, giving entrepreneurial stars like Ozuna and Anuel a more direct hand in how their music reaches fans. “Some artists delegate,” says Alex Gallardo, president of Sony Music U.S. Latin, who has worked with Anuel and Ozuna on previous solo albums in addition to their joint project. “They like to be on top of everything.”
Their hands-on, headstrong approach has paid off: Between them, they have six No. 1 solo albums on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart and six No. 1 singles on Hot Latin Songs. But they haven’t forgotten the time when they were grinding in clubs all night, dreaming of big paydays — and their new album is a tribute to the hustle that still drives them. “We wanted to do what we did before,” says Ozuna. “Take people back to how it was, our beginnings — what we did from the very first day.”
You met back in 2015. What did you think of each other at the time?
Ozuna: I listened to Anuel because everyone was against him. It was like, “That guy’s crazy.” Someone has to sing about the pretty things in life, but someone has to sing about the ugly things, too — what you live when you come from where we came from.
Anuel AA: I did music for the street, and Ozuna was commercial. But because we started working together so much, we evolved. Ozuna began to make music for the street, and the street responded. And I started to do more commercial music, and the people in that world responded. We’ve had ups and downs, but we’ve never turned our backs on each other.
You had been talking about a joint album for a couple of years now. When did you actually start working on it?
Ozuna: We started recording at The Hit Factory in Miami back in October, and we worked very fast. Anuel had been saving songs to show me, and I did the same. “Municiones,” for example — I sent it to Anuel and told him, “This is a song for you.” It was personal. And Anuel said, “It’s got to be on the album.”
Anuel: We’d record three, four tracks in a single night. While Ozuna laid the vocals for the verses, I’d be doing the intros. We recorded some 22 songs and cut it down to 12.
Your vocals are integrated on the album — you’re not just trading verses.
Ozuna: Exactly. It was like, “Damn, let’s do things differently. Let me sing the verse and you do the chorus because people expect the opposite.” We wanted people to feel both of us in every single song. This wasn’t something we recorded separately.
Anuel: Ozuna is the good guy; I’m the bad guy. And I’m telling you, there is no more powerful combination. Even our vocal registers blend. When I sing in a lower register, which is what I do best, the octave above is perfect for Ozuna. When I sing the high notes, Ozuna perfectly fits. Sometimes it sounds like a single singer.
How honest could you be with each other in this process?
Ozuna: Artist to artist, it’s really hard. You can’t say, “Hey, bring it up here,” or “Drop that there.” How in the world can you tell Daddy Yankee, an icon, “Dude, I don’t like that verse”? But between us, it’s different. “Papi, stop experimenting. This is what you should do here.” Same thing in the mix. I lower Anuel’s vocals; he lowers my vocals. That’s something no artist would dare do. But we’re completely comfortable with each other.
Do you ever disagree?
Ozuna: We fight. We really fight.
Anuel: We shout at each other and say stuff, but we don’t cross the line. There’s a respect. It’s like a family.
Ozuna: He’s like, “Don’t talk to me!” And I’m like, “Fine! Let me know when you’re ready to talk again.” That’s how we fight. Right now, we’re making an album together. But our relationship is not about an album. This is a brotherhood, I’d say deeper than most anyone else in the genre has.
What drove you crazy about each other in the studio?
Anuel: Same thing that bothers him about me — we’ll say something now, and in 10 minutes we’ll change our minds. “I want to do this video!” Cool. Ten minutes later, he changes his mind.
Ozuna: He wakes up at 6 p.m.! I call him, call him and call him. It’s 100 missed calls. We lose the day.
You both have talked about how important it is to represent the streets in your music. Why is that a priority?
Anuel: This is not something we do for the culture; we are the culture. Reggaetón came from the streets. It has been marginalized for years. Trap came from the streets. Anyone from the streets, whether they know us personally or not, is proud of our success. We are a symbol of hope. We come from the lowest rung imaginable. Our goal is to never go back to the life we had. We don’t want our children to suffer.
Ozuna: The phrase “from the streets” is misrepresented. It doesn’t mean we come from a drug culture or from a culture of crime. Yes, we know about that, because that’s Puerto Rico. But when I talk about the street, I’m talking about people with dreams from the hood: boxers, basketball players, artists. The street is not having enough to eat — it’s the real poverty we saw with our own eyes. I shined shoes as a boy. That’s the street. We actually come from having nothing.
Both of you own your masters. Why was that important for you at this stage of your career?
Ozuna: We’re the bosses. If it’s our idea, if we’re the ones investing the money and our hearts, how can the master belong to someone else? Yes, we do deals with others. There are many kinds of deals, and that’s the secret to our success. But it doesn’t belong to someone else.
Anuel: We’ve sacrificed a lot, and we’re seeing the fruits of our labor. And with Ozuna and me, even if nothing happens with our music, our finances are stable for the next 30 years because we were smart, we followed good advice, and we own our business, which is the most important thing.
What roles do Sony Latin and The Orchard play in your process?
Ozuna: They’re our partners, and it’s a good relationship. And we always support them. We are willing to go on songs with new artists who are signed to them. Nowadays, live shows are at a standstill, but because we own our masters we can continue to put food on the table and do projects like this one, with Sony’s support and advice. But we decide what to come out with and when. The creative decisions fall on me and Anuel.
Anuel: No matter how big we are, they’re a major label who can go further. If we partner with them, we are limitless. And we’re such a big business that it’s a win-win.
How do you approach songwriting splits?
Ozuna: Anuel and I have [equal share]. And after that, we divide. Every song is different though. If a song has many big names, then your percentage may not be the same. The people we’ve worked with understand that.
Anuel: We’ve never had an issue with percentages. Each song has its story. If everyone is top level, we divide in equal parts. It’s always about fairness, regardless of who it is.
Ozuna: Many songs we write ourselves. We like to do our own verses, but we also have writers we work with, especially with intros and choruses. There are many songwriters who’ve helped us who improve a song. We’re not afraid of saying, “Yes, we work with other people’s songs and make them hits.” That’s part of being an artist. We have to recognize the hit if someone else brings it to us.
Anuel: If we work with other composers, we have no problem giving them credit. This is key. A lot of people don’t like to give songwriting credit to other people. There are huge composers who aren’t getting their names out there. I hope that songwriters feel supported by hearing this.
Who has taught you the most about the business?
Anuel: I’ve learned about the business from Frabian. Thanks to Frabi, no one can swindle me. I come from the streets — I trust no one. But with Frabian, I can close my eyes.
Ozuna: I learned a lot from Sim [Simran Singh], my attorney. He’s like a dictionary. I learn something new every day about entertainment in general, not just music. If you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re just recording music, you won’t have a future because you’ll make bad decisions.
Anuel: We don’t want to be broke 10 years from now. When I got out of jail, Sim sat down with me and Frabian, and he literally gave us lessons on the business. Sim is a legend.
Ozuna: Damn, we’re so hot we made the attorney hot!
Speaking of longevity — Anuel, you’ve made comments on social media about retiring. Are you really going to do that?
Anuel: I wouldn’t mind retiring and enjoying time with my family. But then I see things happening that I don’t like. [The industry] wants to change the culture of trap and reggaetón. They want to make it something it isn’t. It’s not pop. If we retire, the genre is going to become something it isn’t. Don Omar, Yankee, Tego Calderón, Anuel, Ozuna, Arcángel — we worked for this music to go around the world. We’re competitive. And we will continue to compete all the time.
Ozuna: We’re both young. We’re in our 20s. Imagine where we’ll be in our 40s — still in the industry, betting on new genres and new songs.