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Pitbull's Global Hustle Can't Be Stopped

One wild weekend in Brazil with Miami's own international hip-hop superstar

November 14, 2012 4:30 PM ET
Pitbull
Pitbull
A163/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Since 1923, Rio de Janeiro's opulent Copacabana Palace hotel has housed everyone from Eva Perón to the Clintons on their way through the tropics. Tonight, down one of the Palace's perfumed hallways and behind a dark-wood door, sits the latest visiting dignitary: Armando Christian Pérez, better known as the chart-topping rapper Pitbull. Hunched over a coffee table in a white wifebeater and black Armani Exchange track pants, the MC scribbles intently and nurses a caipirinha. His 79th show of the year will be starting soon. But first he has to finish up the last two tracks for his seventh album, Global Warming – with less than 48 hours to go before the disc is due for mastering.

Pitbull nods along with the caffeinated synths blaring from engineer Al Burna's speaker and tries to decide which foreign locales he should incorporate into his ad-libs. "Istanbul, definitely – I had such a fucking good time in Istanbul," he says. "Singapore – the economy is booming." His gregarious manager, Charles Chavez, chimes in, "How about Bangkok?" All three guys crack up knowingly.

The song, featuring an earworm of a hook from Chris Brown, is called "Hope We Meet Again." It might be about a woman, or several. But mostly it's about overseas markets, and how much Pitbull loves conquering new ones with his buoyant Spanglish dance rap. The 31-year-old Miami native offers a sports analogy: Most rappers are like football or basketball pros, their appeal all but ending at the U.S. border. Pitbull wants to play soccer.

After a while, he enters the spacious bedroom, where he has propped pillows and blankets against the walls for makeshift soundproofing. "Rio, Panama, Colombia," he intones gravely into a stand-up microphone. "Dubai, Beirut, Malaysia..." He raises his voice dramatically: "Let's take over the world!"

***

Brazil is still a work in progress for Pitbull. When he joins his six-man backing band onstage at Rio's indoor sports arena around midnight, the stands are far from full. Pitbull takes this as a challenge. He turns up the charm, flashing a million-watt grin as he thrusts his pelvis in ways that threaten the structural integrity of his tailored black trousers. Pretty much everything gets the same Magic Mike moves – his own hits, a quick cover of LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It," the riff from "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Halfway through the set, he drapes a large Brazilian flag around his shoulders, drawing cheers.

"That was a cool little crowd," he remarks the next afternoon as a black SUV speeds us to the airport. "A little too cool."

Climbing aboard his chartered Gulfstream jet, Pitbull sinks into a plush cream-colored seat. "I look at last night and go, 'OK, we got a lot of work to do here.' I'm up there studying, doing my own homework. I love that. Complacency is the cousin of death."

Pitbull learned early on how to spin setbacks into opportunities. He grew up in a succession of dicey neighborhoods all over Miami, where his parents had settled after escaping Fidel Castro's Cuba. His mother held down multiple jobs to support Armando and his half-sisters; his late father, who split when Armando was young, got in on Miami's Reagan-era coke boom. Pitbull whips out his BlackBerry and shows me a faded photo of his dad, a tough-looking guy in a sharp suit. "I really didn't like him at a certain time," he says. "But I am him – he's the one who put the hustle in my blood."

The drug trade proved irresistible. "I thought cocaine was the end-all, be-all," he says. When his mother caught him selling at age 16, she kicked him out. "She goes, 'I can put up with a lot of shit, but you're not going to fucking disrespect me,'" he recalls. "'Grab what you can and get the fuck out of my house.'"

His slate-blue eyes widen as he thinks about where he might have ended up if he hadn't discovered rap around this time. "I could have easily taken another turn. Hip-hop became my therapy."

Pitbull's hungry freestyles caught the ear of 2 Live Crew's Luther "Uncle Luke" Campbell, who took him on tour in 2001. He went on to release three albums on TVT Records between 2004 and 2007, yielding a handful of hits. But he felt stifled at TVT, and after a legal battle with the label, he got out of his contract in 2009. "The head of TVT reminded me of Castro," he says. "As soon as I got free, I started doing business with everybody."

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