Eighteen months ago, Noah Assad, who manages the Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny, was driving in L.A. when he heard his client’s music blasting from a car in the next lane. “I look to the right, and it’s a lady not understanding what Bunny’s saying, but she’s rapping, murmuring the words,” Assad recalls. “That’s when I found out: People who don’t even know Spanish are very interested in what we’re doing.”
Assad and Bad Bunny, a maverick manager-artist duo, have accomplished something unprecedented: conquering America’s pop mainstream — netting more than a billion streams in 2019 so far — without ever assimilating to it. And unlike Bad Bunny’s peers, who are all signed to major labels, Conejo Malo has achieved everything without that corporate backing, thanks in part to his manager’s savvy stewardship.
Assad acquired his gift for navigating the music business early. At age 14, he was throwing parties in his native Carolina, Puerto Rico, bringing in 700 people at $15 a head; by 19, he was booking local reggaeton acts to perform in Colombia. Assad started releasing free reggaeton compilations to stir up demand for the acts he worked with. After that, it wasn’t much of a stretch to launch his own label, Rimas Entertainment, in 2014.
Through Assad’s work in the live scene, he met Mauricio Ojeda, who was then Strategic Partnerships Manager for YouTube in charge of leading the service’s expansion in places like Puerto Rico and Colombia. “I was able to introduce him to all of these artists that he was fans of, and before you know it, he came back and said, ‘I’m going to try to bring you a huge opportunity,'” Assad recalls. Ojeda gave Rimas YouTube’s first direct monetization deal in Puerto Rico — still the only such deal on the island to this day.
Since Assad was deeply involved in the Puerto Rican music scene, he was also able to sniff out the best of the bunch and bring them to Rimas. “He has a great sense for discovering artists,” Ojeda says. “He knows the island, the local market, really well. He speaks the artists’ language.”
Assad came across Bad Bunny’s music through a friend in 2016. (“I’d never heard a name like that in our industry,” he recalls. ) At the time, Bad Bunny was making drilling trap records at odds with the reggaeton sound that had long dominated radio and popular playlists across Puerto Rico. Most record executives ignored or dismissed trap, but Assad had the foresight to embrace it, helping to spark an outlaw movement in Latin music. From the beginning, the plan was to release music at a fierce clip, just as Assad had done to help build appetite for his shows. “Even the smallest opportunities we said yes to,” Assad says. “Every time we release something new it helps.”
Thanks to the rapid adoption of streaming services in Spanish-speaking countries, Bad Bunny had no need for the approval of the Latin mainstream. In late 2017, he was barely on the radio, but he was earning hundreds of millions of YouTube views and hanging out with Drake. Major labels came calling, but Assad rebuffed them. “What can they bring to the table that I’m not doing already?” he asks.
Assad says there are still goals he hopes to accomplish — breaking more Rimas artists, like Cazzu, whom Ojeda describes as an “Argentinean trap sensation,” and Eladio Carrion, who earned his breakout moment this year with “Kemba Walker.”
Meanwhile, Bad Bunny remains as ambitious in 2019 as he was three years ago. In August, the star remixed a SoundCloud track from Shootter Ledo, a relatively unknown artist who still works as a security guard to pay his bills — how many acts with a billion streams have done the same? “[Bad Bunny] can say, ‘let’s go to the moon,'” Assad says proudly. “I’ll just find out how to get there.”