Raymond Ayala became reggaeton star Daddy Yankee the day he was shot in the leg with an AK-47.
Ayala was growing up in the Villa Kennedy housing projects in San Juan, Puerto Rico, dreaming of becoming a professional baseball player. But at age 17, the switch-hitting third baseman was ambushed.
“The shooters had mistaken me for someone else,” Daddy Yankee said during an interview in a Manhattan hotel room. “I entered a total rebellious phase. It completely changed me.”
Left with one shortened leg and a permanent limp, he decided to focus on music. Now he’s one of reggaeton’s top stars — his album “Barrio Fino” has sold more than 1.5 million copies, a first for reggaeton, behind the hit single “Gasolina.”
He recently headlined at Madison Square Garden to kick off a 16-date tour spanning the United States, Ecuador and Colombia. The crowd roared its approval as he delivered his hits during the 90-minute show accompanied by dancers and a DJ. A brief equipment malfunction even prompted him to go freestyle, gracefully saluting fans from all Latin countries while giving props to New York City. “The technology is in our energy,” he shouted, flashing his improvisational skills.
Although he’s played in packed soccer stadiums in Puerto Rico, Madison Square Garden was different — “the stage of the world, and New York is the capital of the planet,” Yankee said.
That’s a long way from the clubs and studios where Yankee started freestyling his Spanish raps more than a decade ago in Puerto Rico. “When we saw the reactions to the music, we knew we were more than a passing style,” he said. “We were initiating a movement.”
The movement is reggaeton, which blends Jamaican dancehall reggae, salsa, Dominican merengue, Puerto Rican bomba and rap music.
Yankee raps about life in the barrios and the hard realities young people face today, with plenty of social themes mixed in with the sex and drugs.
“Reggaeton is my life. If it was not for reggaeton, I’d be in a pretty bad place today, buried or maybe in jail,” said the boyish, soft-spoken rapper.
'Doing it our way'At least nine radio stations around the country have switched to a bilingual format mixing American hip-hop with reggaeton and Latin pop. Atlantic has teamed up with Tego Calderon and earlier this year, Universal Music Group launched a full service label dedicated to Hispanic urban music, which they called Hurban.
The boom has put the spotlight on other longtime genre stars, such as Hector el Bambino, Don Omar and Tego Calderon.
“It was a very hard time,” says El Bambino, reggaeton’s equivalent to rap production mastermind Dr. Dre, says of the lean years. “But today, all of the reggaeton singers must still work together to push forward the genre. It is our music and what represents us as Latinos.”
Daddy Yankee is doing his part. He performed at MTV’s Video Music Awards, where he was nominated for his video “Gasolina.” In October he will release a live version of the album “Barrio Fino” with some new songs. He’s starring in a movie due out next year called “Straight from the Barrio.” He has his own record label, El Cartel, and is planning a clothing line and sneaker collection.
“I’m all about breaking stereotypes,” Yankee said. Except one: he has no plans to make an all-English album.
“We’ve been doing it our way, with our flow,” he said. “It’s called reggaeton and it’s in Spanish.”