The Billboard Cover Story: Pitbull

Pitbull, the Billboard Cover Story

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Pitbull has learned valuable lessons from a number of artists. 

First there was Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew, who initially pushed Pitbull to flex his gruff-voiced freestyle skills on Miami rap radio. 

Then there was Lil Jon, the crunk king who gave Pitbull his first major feature, on the 2002 "Kings of Crunk" album, and produced his debut solo single, 2004\'s "Culo." And one mustn\'t forget Italian beatmakers Nicola Fasano and Pat Rich, whose song "75, Brazil Street" served as the basis for Pitbull\'s 2009 global smash "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)," which in addition to selling 2.6 million copies in the United States (according to Nielsen SoundScan) has racked up nearly 200 million plays on YouTube.

 Still, ask this MC -- born 30 years ago as Armando Christian Perez in Florida to Cuban-immigrant parents -- whom he\'s looking to for inspiration these days, and it\'s not a chart-topping producer or an arena-packing rapper. It\'s Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

"You have to be constantly outdoing yourself," Pitbull says via the phone from Paris, where he\'s knee-deep in a round of promotion for his new album, "Planet Pit," due June 21 from Mr. 305/Polo Grounds/J. Following the City of Light, he was off to Germany and the Netherlands. "That\'s what [Jobs] knew: He had the Mac, but then he did the iPod, then the iPhone and then the iPad. There\'s always room for improvement."

A self -described entrepreneur who says he envisions music paving the way toward his own marketing firm, Pitbull measures success the way multinational corporations do -- which comes as no surprise, given the wide-ranging business he does with blue chip brands like Kodak, Bud Light and Dr Pepper. "I make music with no boundaries," he says. "There\'s no specific class or people or culture I\'m trying to target. And every time I reach a new audience, that means I\'m doing something right."

Two years after "I Know You Want Me" sparked a pop crossover that ultimately drove the song to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, outdoing himself is precisely what Pitbull hopes to accomplish with "Planet Pit," his sixth studio outing and the follow-up to last year\'s Spanish-language "Armando." Pitbull\'s most recent English album, "Rebelution," came out in 2009 and has sold 222,000 copies, according to SoundScan. The fresh 12-track set finds the rapper teaming with an assassins\' row of A-list writer/producers, including Dr. Luke and RedOne, as well as guest stars like Enrique Iglesias, Chris Brown, and Marc Anthony. Ne-Yo sings the arena-disco hook on the album\'s current single, "Give Me Everything," which this week stands at No. 2 on the Hot 100; elsewhere, Pitbull recruits Kelly Rowland to endow "Castle Made of Sand" with a glimmer of electro-emo melancholy.

No one who\'s heard Pitbull\'s string of increasingly high-profile cameos during the last few years -- think Iglesias\' "I Like It," Usher’s "DJ Got Us Fallin\' in Love" and Jennifer Lopez "On the Floor" -- will be shocked by the album\'s embrace of sleek top 40 sounds --  -- but "Planet Pit" makes it clear to just what degree this performer has smoothed out his attack.

 "Pit\'s like, \'I wanna win, man -- what do we have to do?\' " says Dr. Luke, who co-produced the pounding "Come N Go" with Benny Blanco. "He knows what he likes and what he doesn\'t like, and he\'s not going to do something he\'s not into. But he definitely strikes me as a winner. You can tell he\'s got it."

 "Pit was onstage at Wango Tango a few weeks ago and people were on their feet the entire time," adds KIIS-FM Los Angeles PD John Ivey, who calls Pitbull one of his top-rated station\'s defining artists. "I was almost thinking, \'This guy is printing money.\' "

 The musical goal for "Planet Pit," Pitbull says, was "to create an album where every record on it could be a single -- where every record you go to, you\'re just like, \'Wow.\' " His test for the "wow" factor is simple: "I just ask myself, \'If I were in a club or an arena or a stadium, would this make me go crazy?\'" Pitbull credits a childhood spent listening to all kinds of music -- "merengue, freestyle, cha-cha, [Miami] bass, hip-hop, dancehall" -- with giving him the ability to "watch from a bird\'s-eye view. And that\'s what allows me to create music that crosses all genres," he says.

Although the considerable heavy-hitter quotient suggests a strategic A&R approach, Pitbull insists that the various collaborations on "Planet Pit" grew out of personal connections. "They all fell into place on their own," he says. "We\'d hang out for a couple of nights, then it\'d be like, \'Fuck it -- let\'s make a record together.\' "

 "This was never about calling up RedOne and scheduling an appointment to hook into the RedOne sound," says Pitbull\'s manager, Charles Chavez of Latium Entertainment. "His relationships are what made the records happen."

 Leach, who\'s worked with Pitbull since originally signing him to TVT in 2003, says the rapper "moved cautiously with the producers. He wanted to make sure they were marrying what he does and what they do." The exec remembers J A&R president Peter Edge playing him Soulshock & Biker\'s track for "International Love." "Peter said, \'This sounds like a smash,\' and I agreed," Leach says. "I sent it to Pit and he didn\'t even respond, which meant to me he didn\'t like it. I knew he had a stop coming up in New Jersey, so when he got there, me, him and Charles went out to lunch. Somewhere in there I said, \'What do you think about \'International Love\'? He said, \'It sounds a little too pop for me.\' He\'s like, \'I know this is what\'s happening, but I still wanna stay in my pocket.\' I said, \'Pit, if you think the record\'s too clean, when you get on it, dirty it up.\' Two days later he called from Miami: \'You were right -- wait till you hear these verses.\'

The result of all that hands-on action, RCA Music Group GM Tom Corson says, is a vehicle designed to transform Pitbull from Mr. 305, a nickname that refers to Miami\'s area code, into Mr. Worldwide, as he calls himself on "Planet Pit." "Pit and the team here have created an album of state-of-the-art pop music for a global audience," Corson says, adding that he hears "five or six" singles on the set. "We\'re dedicated to building Pitbull into a superstar on the level of the Black Eyed Peas or Enrique Iglesias."

Leach puts it another way: "By the time we\'re maxed out on this album, people will know Pitbull the artist just as much as they know his songs," he says. "I see him having one of the top-selling albums of the year and becoming the kind of artist that starts and ends awards shows."

 According to RCA senior VP of marketing Aaron Borns, the label\'s plan to hit that mark "is really predicated on two things: reinforcing the quality of the phenomenal pop record Pit made and driving home how great of a live performer he is." In regards to the former, Borns points to Pitbull\'s participation in an iTunes Countdown promotion, through which five album tracks will have been offered for a la carte purchase by release date. "We wanted people to get a sense of what this record is about, so we made sure we had music out ahead of time," Borns says.

 Radio, of course, plays an enormous role here, as well. RCA VP of top 40 promotion David Dyer thinks Pitbull "has been at the forefront of ushering radio into the new [club-friendly] sound" epitomized by "I Know You Want Me" and songs from "Planet Pit." "When he first started coming with these records and with the couple he put out before signing with us, he\'d get Miami and maybe New York," Dyer says. "Then all of a sudden it was the big cities, and now it\'s everywhere. The week we impacted \'Give Me Everything\' we got [WKTU], [WHTZ] and [WXRK] in New York and two stations in L.A. At our label that\'s unheard of."

Dyer acknowledges that Pitbull\'s long line of features "definitely added to his sizzle" but says the rapper\'s success at top 40 "really comes down to the sound: This song has everything the format is looking for right now." KIIS-FM\'s Ivey agrees. "Ten years ago some of this stuff would\'ve been a little scary, but now it\'s so mainstream," he says. "And it\'s not that the music has gotten softer. The audience has changed."

 As for showcasing Pitbull the performer, Borns lays out what he calls an "aggressive" TV schedule. "A lot of people haven\'t had the opportunity to see what Pitbull is like live, so they might\'ve made certain assumptions," Borns says. "But you go to a Pitbull concert and you see that it\'s a real show with a fully realized band that\'s kicking ass when they play. TV is obviously a big part of every pop launch these days, but for Pitbull it\'s a chance for people to see that this guy is the real deal." In addition to his TV gigs, Pitbull recently taped a Walmart "Soundcheck" performance that Borns says is due to go online the weekend before July 4. He\'s also scheduled to take part in a live Clear Channel webcast on June 30 from New York\'s P.C. Richard & Son Theater.

Pitbull\'s booking agent, Michel Vega at William Morris Endeavor, says the rapper\'s full-band presentation "allows him to carry a show confidently as a headliner and to play in places he might not be able to otherwise. It brings a level of energy that\'s much more impactful than a DJ set." Later this year Pitbull will tour Australia and North America with Iglesias, a pairing that Vega says "just feels good all the way around. These are two artists who have a lot in common in terms of having crossed over to different worlds. And with everything that\'s happening with the demographics of this country and with the influence of Latin music in the mainstream, it\'s very timely."

Pitbull\'s corporate partnerships underscore Vega\'s point: As a spokesman he\'s becoming increasingly attractive to companies seeking to connect with young consumers both inside and outside the Latin community. "We wanted someone to embody our brand who\'s one of a kind -- who\'s a real pioneer," Dr Pepper director of multicultural marketing Olivia Vela says. "Pitbull encompasses everything we were looking for in an artist to partner with over the next couple of years." Vela characterizes the soft drink\'s relationship with Pitbull as being "a lot deeper than a simple endorsement. We make sure he\'s at the center of everything we do on TV, in print and online."

 Chavez says that although his client "isn\'t going to dance around with a bottle," he regularly "goes above and beyond what the contracts say." The manager cites as an example Pitbull\'s introduction to "Give Me Everything," in which he raps, "Me not working hard?/Yeah, right -- picture that with a Kodak/Or better yet, go to Times Square/Take a picture of me with a Kodak." "They didn\'t pay us to put that in there," Chavez says. "Pit had just been in Times Square and saw a billboard with him on it right before he went into the studio. He was like, \'I\'m just a poor Cuban kid -- that\'s the best thing of my life.\' "

--Mikael Wood