The August solar is aware of no bounds one sweltering afternoon in Las Vegas because it beats down over the slick, steaming asphalt roads of the Strip. At 6 p.m., it’s nonetheless a cruel 102 levels exterior, and there’s little hope that dusk will quiet down the neon-lit metropolis. Yet exterior of T-Mobile Arena, followers of reggaeton legend Daddy Yankee have began to line as much as see him three hours earlier than he’s due onstage. They wait patiently, braving airless temperatures and blistering dryness, their enthusiasm stronger than the warmth.
The individuals who arrive early span a number of generations, standing in for each period of Daddy Yankee’s three-decade profession. Middle-aged dads in baseball caps stroll towards the live performance gates, maybe nostalgic for his or her faculty years, when “Gasolina” caught hearth in every single place, adopted by reggaeton classics equivalent to “Rompe,” “Lo Que Pasó, Pasó,” and extra. Younger millennials are additionally within the crowd, and plenty of of them in all probability bear in mind Daddy Yankee’s ubiquity after “Despacito” took over the airwaves in 2017. There are glammed-up women, flipping by the identical telephones they could have used to put up his near-constant TikTok dance challenges for latest songs like “Bombón.” The enviornment fills up with youngsters, tias with dyed hair, teams of buddies who’ve flown in from different nations. No matter the place they traveled from or after they grew to become followers, they’re counting right down to see the Puerto Rican veteran, who introduced his retirement in March, carry out at his final tour ever.
A hidden gate tucked close to one nook of the 20,000-person venue leads backstage, the place there’s a way of nervy contained chaos within the air. Daddy Yankee has been touring on a tour bus behind a caravan of 14 vans stocked with the stage tools required for a manufacturing as large because the one he has deliberate. Earlier within the day, all of the automobiles snaked down packed Nevada highways to the world, which has remodeled right into a mini village devoted to showtime. In one room, two seamstresses are bent over twin stitching machines, adjusting the handfuls of outfits that dancers will change out of all through the night time. In one other space, Daddy Yankee’s private cameramen are fidgeting with lenses and rigs, whereas elsewhere, two bodily therapists and a health care provider, all from Puerto Rico, are prepared to take a look at anybody whose muscle mass could be cramping earlier than the curtain rises. I cross paths with a groomer, a barber, a highway supervisor, and a wardrobe assistant earlier than lastly arriving at a large doorway.
On the opposite facet is Daddy Yankee, whose actual title is Raymond Ayala — the only real drive driving this second, and the particular person so usually credited with taking reggaeton world. Given that he’s a larger-than-life determine, admired throughout the music business for his razor-sharp enterprise acumen and a number of the world’s greatest Spanish-language hits, it’s straightforward to think about a pre-show ritual with a large posse and glimmering bottles of Cristal. But there he’s, standing utterly alone in Zen-like silence, carrying sweatpants and a grey tour hoodie with the title of his most up-to-date album: Legendaddy. “Raymond,” he introduces himself, pulling out a hand from his sweatshirt to shake mine.
People have devoted a universe of tweets and memes to how younger Ayala appears at 45, and in particular person, he’s much more boyish, with gigantic brown eyes that absorb each query thrown at him. Friends near him say that he’s disciplined and self-possessed, although proper now, he admits there’s a flood of feelings welling up in him. “This is a curler coaster,” he says, sitting down on a close-by black sofa. “So many emotions come up.” He’s about to play a present that captures a long time of hits, that hopefully nails all of the favorites folks got here for. “I would like each single era on the market to really feel like that is devoted to them,” he says.
His profession could be measured by all of the followers ready for him, and the scatterplot of ages and demographics they characterize. You may additionally hint it by the impression he’s had on his friends and on youthful artists throughout Latin music, who discuss concerning the path he’s charted with a way of awe. “Time has by no means been the enemy for him — he’s stored adapting to what’s occurring as each era goes by,” the rapper Anuel AA says. “Daddy Yankee’s profession represents the previous, current, and way forward for reggaeton.” The singer Natti Natasha calls him an in depth good friend and mentor: “I’d describe him as a household particular person, humble, down-to-earth,” she says. “I imply, he’s a residing legend.” “Yankee is Yankee,” Rauw Alejandro provides. “There’s by no means going to be anybody else like him.”
Ayala himself has been desirous about what he’s achieved since selecting up a mic as a teen in Puerto Rico. He was among the many pioneers who formed the style, and he has remained a perennial star till the top. “Everyone ultimately does a comeback tour, however not Daddy Yankee,” he says, slipping into third particular person as he warms to his theme. “Since I began in reggaeton, I’ve been related. It’s like if Benny Moré or Celia Cruz had been making salsa at this very second and other people go, ‘Papi, these folks have the Number One album proper now.’ Or if Chuck Berry had been right here and other people ask, ‘Who’s the Number One artist making rock?’ and he’s the one nonetheless making all of the hits.” Ayala is thought for his modest demeanor, however he’s not prepared to downplay this level: “There’s no artist who’s carried out this,” he says calmly. “It’s Daddy Yankee.”
An hour later, he begins transferring towards the stage. The viewers screams as a large blue clock begins counting down the seconds till the present begins. When it lastly hits zero, the climactic beat of “Campeón,” from his new album, begins. Ayala steps out carrying sun shades, his actions steely and stuffed with swagger. He roars out the start of the music, his voice charged and full of energy — completely totally different from his reserved composure backstage. The crowd roars again, conscious they’re watching a victory lap in actual time.
AYALA STARTS LAUGHING after I ask him later about no matter alchemy results in his onstage transformation. “I’m nonetheless looking for an evidence for that,” he says gently. “I’m a contemplative particular person, I don’t discuss so much, I’m at all times calm. But when I’ve to go onstage or hit the studio, that facet of me comes out. It’s like a lion — I believe everybody has a lion hiding inside them.” He says he’s been that approach since he was a child, when he beloved baseball and boxing. “When it was time to execute one thing, that chip would get activated.”
Ayala grew up in public housing in Villa Kennedy, a barrio in San Juan. He was centered on baseball for many of his adolescence — he performed third base, and got here near signing with the Seattle Mariners — however he was additionally surrounded by music. His dad was a percussionist for salsa bands on the island, and his mother got here from a household of musicians. Ayala sang as a child, and realized he had a knack for improvisation throughout Christmas celebrations in Puerto Rico. “Whenever my household would go to a member of the family or good friend’s home for parrandas, they’d convey me out and I’d begin making up rhymes,” he says, referring to a practice of going door-to-door to sing for family members in the course of the holidays. As he acquired older, he’d write lyrics in his pocket book and freestyle with buddies.
Reggaeton didn’t have a reputation when Ayala began pursuing music extra critically within the early Nineties, however Puerto Rico’s underground scene was already flourishing. DJs on the island had began fusing every kind of sounds — dancehall riddims from Jamaica, reggae en español that had thrived in Panama, New York hip-hop, and digital music blossoming in nocturnal areas throughout the U.S. — and morphing them right into a distinctly Puerto Rican type. “It was all of those influences, like in case you put dancehall, reggae, reggae en español, rap, home music, salsa, bachata, and vallenato in a blender,” Ayala says. Before lengthy, he was gaining recognition within the neighborhood, showing on home made tracks by pioneers like DJ Playero and DJ Nelson — and it acquired him observed as a teen prodigy with impeccable stream. (Though it’s laborious to say who precisely coined the phrase, DJ Playero has mentioned he thinks it might need been Daddy Yankee who baptized the style.) “I by no means compelled something,” Ayala says. “From the minute I opened my mouth, it went viral.”
Ayala stayed dedicated to sports activities till a number of tragedies modified his course. When he was about six years outdated, he watched as his coach Juan Cintron was gunned down on a baseball subject, simply behind house plate. Ten years later, when he was 16, Ayala had been recording with DJ Playero in Villa Kennedy, and he stepped out briefly to take a break. All of a sudden, a gunfight broke out, and Ayala was hit with a stray bullet. It’s lodged in his hip to today. Though the incident successfully ended his baseball profession, it in the end pushed him to dedicate his life to music. “I thank God for that bullet,” he has mentioned earlier than.
Ayala launched two albums earlier than beginning his personal label, El Cartel Records, in 1997, when he was simply 21. By then, he had a spouse and youngsters — he married his highschool sweetheart, Mireddys Gonzalez, at 17, they usually’ve been collectively ever since. He was blowing up throughout the island, and artists and producers alike had been searching for him out to collaborate. One one that reached out was Francisco Saldaña, a youthful musician who was shortly turning into referred to as Luny, from the seminal manufacturing duo Luny Tunes
Luckily, they stored working into one another, and Saldaña felt they had been fated to collaborate. They ultimately agreed to make a number of tracks collectively, amongst them the rattling, no-holds-barred hit “Cójela Que Va Sin Jockey,” from Luny Tunes’ iconic 2003 compilation album Mas Flow. The music took off in golf equipment throughout New York and created a blueprint for the style’s speedy growth. “That’s the place that type got here from — after that, everybody tried to make tracks like ‘Cójela Que Va Sin Jockey,’” Saldaña recollects. “It was a music that opened doorways for reggaeton.”
The timing was excellent for Ayala, who was wanting to make even larger strikes in his profession. He began plotting a game-changing album, referred to as Barrio Fino, which might seize the sound he’d been refining for himself, and he knew it wanted a centerpiece. Saldaña had been tinkering with the unique manufacturing for “Cójela Que Va Sin Jockey,” creating a brand new monitor that preserved the music’s uptempo verses however added placing, hydraulic-inspired particulars. “I added [those sounds of] vehicles and motors and brakes,” Saldaña says. “The concept was that it was quick and had lots of pace.”
Ayala, in the meantime, was in search of lyrical inspiration in every single place, and a wave of it got here at some point in essentially the most quotidian approach: He was at house in his Villa Kennedy house when he heard somebody on the road shouting, “Como le gusta la gasolina!” That phrase, he says, was a typical one which described women who had been at all times in search of a experience to the subsequent social gathering. He labored out the remainder of the music, tapping the Puerto Rican artist Eddie Dee as a co-writer. The sounds and the lyrics aligned in a uncommon second of sonic perfection, they usually had a megahit on their palms.
That snippet of Puerto Rican colloquialism — a tiny snapshot of on a regular basis life on the streets of San Juan — traveled in every single place. “Gasolina” charted in Italy, Greece, and Denmark, simply to call a number of locations, and helped make approach for different reggaeton artists worldwide. It grew to become the cornerstone of Barrio Fino, an album that’s nonetheless held up as a business breakthrough not only for Ayala, however for the style usually. Saldaña notes that Ayala already had main hits and that these, together with albums equivalent to Tego Calderón’s legendary El Abayarde and Don Omar’s sensible debut The Last Don, constructed the muse for the music within the years instantly previous Barrio Fino‘s 2004 launch. “Yankee was selling [Barrio Fino], the style was exploding, and issues had been working — Tego, Hector Y Tito, Don Omar, Wisin & Yandel,” Saldaña says, naming different pioneers of the period. “All of it was working, and this one was going to work, too.”
Ayala felt it, too. “I believe you possibly can want and plan [making an album like that], however to have or not it’s a hit — there’s at all times uncertainty in music,” he says. “With Barrio Fino, I knew I had one thing particular, as a result of I understood the tradition it was coming from.”
Despite how large “Gasolina” was, reggaeton nonetheless struggled initially to get the respect it deserved. Jesús Triviño, now senior director of world Latin tradition and content material at Tidal, was a journalist protecting the hip-hop and Latin-music business on the time, and one of many first folks stateside who ever interviewed Ayala. “I bear in mind on the Spanish-language facet, Univision, Telemundo, these forms of retailers, they weren’t actually touching it as a result of they noticed it as [coming] from the streets: ‘It’s not pop, it’s not squeaky-clean. This isn’t marketable, we are able to’t promote adverts to this,’” he recollects. “Then, on the English facet, I bear in mind personally pitching lots of reggaeton tales to those hip-hop magazines, and only a few had been accepted. A lot of them had been like, ‘That’s not hip-hop.’”
“They didn’t get it,” Saldaña provides. “They didn’t get what was occurring. They supported it generally with the large acts, however not the entire style.”
But Ayala was an envoy who the business started to rally round. Triviño factors out that he had each lyrical dexterity and a narrative folks rooted for. He additionally had a picture that was marketable by the Latin leisure business’s slim requirements, which regularly prioritize light-skinned celebrities. He was shrewd about his enterprise strikes, and he had a repute for working nonstop. “I can not sustain with him,” Saldaña says. “If he must look forward to three days with out sleeping to complete a music, he does it. If he must go shoot a video after that, he does it. If he wants to leap on a airplane to do a present after that, he does it. We’ll end a music and I’ll be like, ‘No, I must go sleep.’”
There had been, in fact, lulls in Ayala’s music and the reggaeton ecosystem at massive within the years to come back. Saldaña remembers how after one such dip, the 2012 viral hit “Limbo” helped revitalize Ayala’s sound and remind folks of the power of the style. Even so, folks had doubts. “I’d do interviews and other people would say, ‘What’s occurred to reggaeton?’” Ayala recollects.
We’re rising day-after-day. If tomorrow a brand new style comes alongside and it’s Latino, it’s going to achieve success, as a result of our cultural expressions and our artwork are going to maintain rising.
But he at all times believed within the music, and noticed firsthand how common it remained, regardless of what the media mentioned. “I’d be like, ‘With all due respect, however you guys don’t know. You guys don’t exit, you’re not going to the golf equipment,’” Ayala says. “They’d freeze up. I’d say, ‘What folks take heed to on the streets and out in every single place is reggaeton.’”
HE PROVED HE was proper a number of years later. For an artist to have one “Gasolina” in his or her profession is sufficient to make historical past. But in 2016, greater than a decade after the music’s success, the Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi reached out to Ayala a few monitor he had been writing with songwriter Erika Ender. The melody was pushed by a Puerto Rican cuatro, and he was calling it “Despacito.” Ayala met him at a studio in Miami and added a verse, whereas additionally suggesting a number of modifications, proposing they repeat “pasito a pasito” after the bridge. The music grew to become one other behemoth that modified Latin music for a second time.
Ayala credit a lot of his success by the years to his resolution to run his enterprise by El Cartel Records. “People from Latin rock, pop, salsa, and merengue worlds would name: ‘Yankee, how did you do it? We’ve been attempting, however we’ve been unable to make that form of cash.’ And I’d at all times say, ‘It’s as a result of I’m my very own boss.’” He’s struck distribution offers with Sony and Interscope to offer his music extra world attain, however he’s at all times been the one in command of his catalog.
Take what occurred after Justin Bieber noticed how enormous “Despacito” was and joined the remix in 2017. Ayala has said that he was then requested to take a smaller share of the royalties as a songwriter, although he’s fast to clarify it had nothing to do together with his collaborators. “That occurred, nevertheless it was concerning the labels,” he says. “I’ve nothing however marvelous issues to say about Luis Fonsi and Justin Bieber.… But you are taking the artists out and also you’re speaking to labels, it’s a distinct sport.” The enterprise savvy Ayala is thought for got here into play: He stood agency, and he says one motive he was capable of negotiate was as a result of he remained impartial by El Cartel Records. “When you’re impartial, you’re free,” he says.
Following his success with “Despacito,” Ayala appeared to land hit after hit. There was 2018’s “Dura,” which at present has 1.8 billion views on YouTube. In 2019 got here “Con Calma,” an sudden smash that has 2.5 billion views proper now. The music was a reimagining of the Canadian reggae artist Snow’s 1993 hit “Informer,” exhibiting off Ayala’s eager ear and artistic pondering: He took what had develop into one thing of a Nineties novelty music and introduced it charging again to life. Other artists had been continually reaching out to him to collaborate, and he had unbeatable momentum.
Then the pandemic hit. As the world slowed down, so did Ayala. “I believe the pandemic was like somebody forcing the brakes on the world,” he says. He had been going for nearly 30 years straight by then, and he had develop into intimately accustomed to the grind of the business. Though he’d at all times spent lots of time in Puerto Rico, the place he nonetheless lives, he needed to spend much more time together with his household, which incorporates his youngsters, now of their twenties, and Gonzalez, who’s CEO of El Cartel Records. He felt that he was in a spot the place he may stroll away and be happy with the work he’d carried out. “I used to be like, ‘It’s my flip to stay as a substitute of working, working, and dealing,” he says. “When I acquired into that reflective state, I mentioned, ‘I must stay, too. I want a chance to truly get pleasure from all the things I’ve achieved. I’m wholesome, I’m good, I’m younger.’”
Plus, he felt — maybe greater than ever in his profession — reassured by the wild new heights that reggaeton had reached. Many folks level out that Ayala has been capable of hold his momentum going for therefore lengthy as a result of he’s stored an eye fixed on youthful artists, usually inviting them to collaborate. Now, lots of the rising stars he’d gotten to know had develop into full-blown sensations. “It was at all times my objective to hold the banner and lead, after which produce other folks hold going,” he says. “Everything that’s occurring with Bad Bunny, unimaginable. What’s occurring with Karol G, unimaginable, with Sech, with Rauw Alejandro, with Myke Towers. There’s the brand new youngsters and in addition the brand new veterans, like Balvin, Maluma, Ozuna, Anuel AA. They’ve carried out a exceptional job.” The music was in place. He began planning for his final album.
There had been business whispers about Daddy Yankee saying his retirement, however Ayala’s frequent collaborator Juan Salinas, referred to as a part of the manufacturing duo Play-N-Skillz, didn’t completely imagine it till he acquired a private name from the person himself. “I used to be devastated, to be trustworthy with you,” he says. “But after speaking to him and listening to his perspective, how he needed to exit on a really revered and excessive observe and put out a final physique of labor that was going to imply one thing after so a few years of touring and media, it made sense.” Ayala advised Salinas that he needed his assist placing collectively the final album, they usually went to work.
Ayala labored with a number of producers in Puerto Rico, together with Nekxum and Tainy, the superproducer who acquired his begin within the 2000s as Luny Tunes’ 15-year-old protégé. Once Ayala met up with Salinas in Miami, they went to work day-after-day at 3 p.m. “We didn’t exit, we didn’t fuck round,” Salinas says. “I wish to drink and social gathering whereas I make music … however there’s a restrict [with Daddy Yankee] as a result of he likes to be on level.” In between songs, they blew off steam by taking part in basketball or video video games — all of which introduced out Ayala’s intensely aggressive facet. “We misplaced hours as a result of if he misplaced a sport of horse or he misplaced a capturing sport, he’d wish to play once more,” Salinas says.
Usually, Ayala gained in the long run. “He’s simply fucking naturally good at all the things,” Salinas continues with fun. “I used to be like, ‘God, you shoot a basketball, play Street Fighter. What do you suck at, bro?’”
But Ayala’s actual area is the studio. “Yankee is greater than only a rapper and a singer,” Salinas says. “The man is aware of music. He sits down, he hits the keyboard generally with us. He’s like, ‘These are the chords, change the drums.’ His musical genius is approach past only a rapper rapping 16 bars, or a singer belting a music.” “Play” and his brother Oscar “Skillz” Salinas ended up co-producing six tracks on the album, which went platinum within the U.S.
Salinas continues to be reeling over the position he acquired to play in Ayala’s profession, and he loves how Legendaddy turned out. “It’s going to be actually powerful for anybody to say they’re going to have a retirement album after Legendaddy, as a result of he deliberate it proper,” he says. “He had the tour, he had the merch, he had the right title. The man’s a chess participant.” Salinas had a number of phrases for Ayala afterward: “I mentioned, ‘This is Floyd Mayweather shit, man. Floyd Mayweather retired, undefeated, 50-0 and by no means misplaced — a champion. That’s you, bro.’”
SINCE HIS VEGAS present, Ayala has continued crisscrossing the nation on his tour bus. Before a present in Boston, his physician suggested him to protect his voice as a lot doable, so he spends virtually day-after-day in full silence. Instead of speaking, he catches up on studying and watching reveals on Netflix — he binges Ozark and Stranger Things, which he noticed folks speaking about on-line. He avoids listening to music to guard his listening to. At night time, he cooks elaborate meals on a tiny single-plate grill. He’s particularly happy with his pork chuletas, which make it onto his TikTok.
Outside his window, the terrain retains altering. His bus rolls by Colorado and Oregon and Utah. He performs a string of reveals in California, seeing elements of the state which can be utterly new to him. One factor, he says later, strikes him repeatedly: Back when “Gasolina” was exploding, he remembers seeing knowledge that mentioned Latinos had been the fastest-growing phase of the U.S. inhabitants and that by 2050 the demographic would now not be a minority group. He’s at all times understood the facility of the Latino neighborhood, however he’s witnessing it every day as he travels: “We’re rising day-after-day,” he says. “If tomorrow a brand new style comes alongside and it’s Latino, it’s going to achieve success, as a result of our cultural expressions and our artwork are going to maintain rising.”
We discuss once more over Zoom early in September, simply as he’s settling right into a resort in Montreal. At about 8 p.m., his Zoom username pops on my display — Sikiri, the moniker he gave the bobble-headed Animoji character from his “Con Calma” video. Ayala seems inside seconds, carrying sun shades and a black skullcap. He’s simply completed figuring out, and he’s nonetheless preserving his voice. “You’re the primary particular person I’ve talked to in 15 hours!” he says with a barely raspy snigger.
He’s performed greater than 30 reveals to this point, at all times taking the stage earlier than screaming crowds. Their pleasure is clear by their cheers and chants, nevertheless it’s laborious to not marvel what goes by Ayala’s head when he’s up there performing. His voice will get quiet, and it’s not simply because he’s frightened about overexerting his vocal cords. “It’s hit me actually laborious,” he says. “A lot. I’ve been about to break down from emotion onstage, however I can’t — the present has to go on. I take into consideration the applause, all of the folks sitting there, at first, the issues I went by, the sacrifices. It’s so many recollections.”
Fans — maybe harboring a glimmer of hope that he’ll hold making music — have questioned if his retirement is actual. Ayala is adamant that he’s carried out. “I don’t have any plans to return,” he says.
The future is a big, clean abyss that he’s diving into with the identical resolve that’s powered his whole profession. “I believe that’s the good half. There’s a thriller there that I want to find, and it’s what makes me essentially the most excited,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going to occur.”
Produced by Joe Rodriguez. Photography route by Emma Reeves & Joe Rodriguez. Fashion route by Alex Badia. Styling by Marcus j. Correa. Set design by Audrey Taylor For This Represents. Set design help by Brendan Haegarty. Location WKND studios. Photography help by SAUL BARRERA, EVERETT FITZPATRICK, and DAVID BUNGE. Production help by James Thornton III.