By Sowmya Krishnamurthy
"My owner is life and that's what I fight for," says Pitbull. The story behind the "Give Me Everything" rapper's music was revealed tonight in Vh1's Behind the Music. Born Armando Christian Pérez, the 30-year-old traces his story back to Cuban immigrant parents in Miami. After a tumultuous family life in which his father succumbed to drug and alcohol addiction, Pitbull was raised by a single mother.
"We were always looking for our promised land," he muses about the hardships he and his mother faced. He found solace in hip-hop (as well as hustling) at an early age. At the age of 14, his mother found his acid supply and by the time he was 17, Pit was selling pot, coke and other drugs. "A lot of bad s--t happened," he says now, without revealing the extent of what hustling did to him.
He channeled the pain from his absentee father and life struggles into battle rapping. It was here, where his friend gave him the moniker "Pitbull" because of his fearless disposition. Pit's high school teacher saw the teen's impressive skills and garnered him an extra position in a DMX music video. Ruff Ryders member Drag-On and Pitbull ended up getting into a battle, which Pit won. Then-Def Jam executive Irv Gotti saw this and advised Pit to start making songs versus simply battling. This fueled Pit's first track, "F U Pay Me," a demo which fell into Luke Campbell's hands. Uncle Luke loved what he heard and signed Pitbull in 2001 for a deal consisting of just a $1500 advance. Luke and Pitbull traveled throughout the South and challenged local rappers to battle which helped the budding performer build up his performance abilities.
Unfortunately, the tour didn't pay off (at $210/week) but Pitbull stayed the course. Following his contract with Luke, Pitbull returned back to dealing drugs and during one transaction, he saw his estranged father. Father and son had a candid conversation about the perils of street life which proved life-changing and convinced Pit to give up the streets for good.
Pitbull remixed Jermaine Dupri's "Welcome To Atlanta" to "Welcome To Miami," which took off on Miami radio and led to "Oye," a Spanish/English track which caught the ear of Lil' Jon. The two went into the studio and Pitbull banged out "Cuban Ride Out," which appeared on Lil' Jon's 2002 Kings of Crunk album. Jon advised Pit to speak more Spanish in his rhymes which turned into the crossover smash "Culo." This led to a record deal with TVT and Pit's debut M.I.A.M.I. in 2004.
Pitbull and his father then began reconciling their relationship which was cut short in 2005, when Pit's father was diagnosed with cancer. In May 2006, Pit's father passed away. Pitbull channeled his grief into his next album, El Mariel, in 2006. From then, his father's memory and his Cuban pride fueled Pit's career. That year, Pitbull and a host of artists recorded a Spanish version of the U.S. national anthem which even caught the radar of President George W. Bush and allowed Pit to speak out on behalf of Latino immigrants.
The next phase of Pitbull's career would be his brightest. Inspired by his penchant for the club, Pitbull released "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)" in 2008, which turned into an international smash and one of his biggest hits to date. Mr. 305 even got the key to the city of Miami following the song's success. Over the next two years, he embarked on what he calls "The Invasion," releasing a slew of successful pop numbers and partnering with superstars like Shakira, Marc Anthony, J. Lo and Usher.
2011's Planet Pit was his most successful album to date and the single "Give Me Everything" became the most popular song of the year. Lucrative endorsement deals thereafter with brands like Kodak, including a huge billboard in Times Square, NYC, only solidified his cultural influence.
Through it all, Pitbull attributes much of his success to his mother and makes it a point to give back to his hometown by mentoring underprivileged kids in Miami. He's living his own American Dream but always remembers the path that got him here. Says Pitbull, "It's the journey. That to me is something to celebrate."