Daddy Yankee has no formal music training, but he's become by far the most popular and critically acclaimed star in reggaeton, the upbeat urban hybrid of rap, salsa and Jamaican dancehall that has become the hottest Latin music trend since the so-called Latin explosion six years ago.
He has no business degree, but he runs his own label, El Cartel, and manages his real estate investments. He has no high-powered management firm to represent him, but he has embarked on the first major U.S. arena tour in the history of the genre. It includes a stop Friday at Staples Center.
His only training ground has been the hardscrabble San Juan barrios in Puerto Rico, which served as crucible both for the music and his disciplined personality. Though he confessed to feeling nervous on the eve of the tour's kickoff last month at New York's Madison Square Garden, the handsome rapper says he feels ready for the big time. "There's not a big difference between the music industry and the street world I come from," says Yankee, who still limps slightly from gunshots he took in the right leg as a teenager.
"You have the same characters; they just dress more elegantly and use a different language. On the street, they use a pistol to take your life. Here, a bad contract can take your life just the same.... So since I already know all these characters, I'm well prepared."
Now the question is: Is the rest of America ready for Daddy Yankee?
There's a lot riding on this tour, appropriately dubbed the "Who's Your Daddy?" tour, both for the artist and for reggaeton, a musical style mostly relegated to Puerto Rican ghettoes for most of the last 15 years.
If Yankee succeeds as a solo headline attraction, he will establish the commercial appeal of the genre. Observers say Yankee's success could open doors for other artists and encourage continued collaborations with mainstream English-language hip-hop stars, a linkage seen as crucial to reggaeton's future.
The recognition is long overdue, says Raquel Z. Rivera, author of the book "New York Ricans From the Hip-Hop Zone," a look at the historical nexus between Latinos and the hip-hop culture.
"At this point, Latinos are really happy that there is a figure within a genre somehow associated with hip-hop who has made it that big," says Rivera, who teaches sociology at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
"It's been a continual source of frustration that when hip-hop became commercial, then Latinos were written out of the history. It was hard to explain hip-hop as this multiethnic form, until Daddy Yankee made a claim on the music."
Daddy Yankee's solo career exploded last year with the success of "Gasolina," a bawdy dance hit from his critically respected sixth CD, "Barrio Fino" (Refined Ghetto), which has sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide, according to his record label. In the last few weeks, he signed big record and publishing deals with Interscope and EMI, respectively.
Though his life has become hectic, he still finds time to write on the road. During a phone interview, he shared a bilingual line he had just scribbled in his hotel room, his Spanish marked by Puerto Rico's distinctive accent
"You may not know Spanish, but you know Daddy Yankee / El que sin uso de estiroides, jitea mas que Giambi (Who without using steroids, has more hits than Giambi)."
Like hip-hop and salsa, reggaeton has its share of bragging about who's the best. But Yankee says he tries not to take his own rap too seriously.
"The most important thing about all this is not to think you're really something, you follow me?" says Yankee, whose stage name comes from Puerto Rican slang meaning powerful man. "Because, though it may seem ironic, this is all a fantasy, you follow me? You have to give the public the magic of your music, but you can never enter into that magic, because it'll hurt you. You've got to keep your feet on the ground."
His real name is Raymond Ayala, but he refuses to reveal much more about his personal life, even his age. He's married and has three children, that much is known. Most people guess he's in his late 20s.
As a student in a poor San Juan neighborhood, he was always picked to sing during traditional Christmas celebrations (parrandas) because everybody loved his voice. His father, a salsa percussionist, always encouraged his musical career. His strict mother, a manicurist and housewife, urged him to get a college degree. The disagreement led to some family strife, he recalls.
By 16, the young artist started making mix tapes in the underground reggaeton scene, selling $5 cassettes out of apartments in the projects.