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A full decade ago, before most artists of any stripe fully understood the power of branding and do-it-yourself promotion, Raymond Ayala, better known as Daddy Yankee, took the helm of his career as a reggaetón artist. Ayala created his own label -- El Cartel -- and started to release singles and albums on his own, including 2004's groundbreaking "Barrio Fino," which went on to sell 1.1 million copies in the U.S. through a distribution deal with Universal, and yielded the worldwide hit "Gasolina." Yankee would continue to release albums on El Cartel with major distribution, always keeping control of his masters, always doing his own marketing and promotion. Now, he's readying the Sept. 11 release of "Prestige," under a licensing deal with Capitol Latin, which will distribute the album worldwide.
Yankee's set will be released at the same time he launches El Cartel tequila, his newest venture in addition to a line of luxury watches, high end headphones, a deal with Verizon and a partnership with exercise company Zumba. With nearly 13 million likes on Facebook and over 2 million Twitter followers, Yankee spoke with Billboard about his successful business model and the increasing importance of the Internet to its success.
"Prestige" is a very up-tempo, party album, isn't it?
Yes. I think it's similar to "Barrio Fino." I took that blueprint and brought it to 2012. Rhythmically it's very strong.
You've had several major hits from this album already, including "Lovumba," which reached No. 1 on the Hot Latin Songs chart. When your creative process began, were you thinking album or singles?
Honestly, I simply was creating music and putting it out there. When I saw the singles were doing well, I said, 'Lets finish this.' People who follow me know I've been releasing singles nonstop since 2009. But also, there's content of mine online that's impossible to contain. And I've seen the results. I go to South America, Central America, Europe and everything [singles] I've released on the Internet are huge.
Can you give me an example?
"Llegamos a la Disco (We're at the Disco)" for example, is an anthem for the urban movement but it was never on the radio. We have many other records like that. Our new street is called the Internet; that's where everybody finds music. That's where they find real information on what is happening with our genre. Our genre does not depend on radio anymore. It depends on a good video and putting music online, and things happen.
But you're very strong on radio. In fact, from Prestige, "Lovumba" reached No. 1 on the Hot Latin songs chart, and "Pasarela" reached No. 5…
Yes, because I have a big following, even though I'm an urban act. But, "Lovumba" and "Llegamos a la Disco" had the same repercussion. Urban music has two audiences: The audience that listens to popular music, and the street. And if you separate yourself from that street, which is the root of the genre, you're dead.
Your last album was released on El Cartel via a distribution deal with Sony. "Prestige" is coming out on Capitol Latin. Why another major label deal?
They made me a very tempting offer, economically speaking. And although I do everything independently, distribution is a whole other thing. It's impossible for us to distribute around the world. We needed a partnership. With Capitol, I'm reaching more countries and they'll work many more territories where my music is heard -- in different parts of Europe, for example -- but where I'm still not a brand. I'm giving them a percentage of the booking in some of those places in return.
Your biggest revenue comes from touring. But I've seen you tour both arenas and clubs. Why?
Both are equally important to me. Any club is important. All Latin music movements are born in clubs. There is no better research than going to a club. If your music works, it will bounce up. We're doing a club tour with El Cartel tequila this winter, for example. We will hit the clubs via the music, and we'll introduce the drink. It's a very strategic and productive move.
Among the tracks on the album, which best represents it as a whole?
Wow. They're so different and each a winner in its style. "Ven Conmigo" was a winner. "Lovumba," amazing. "Pasarela" [used in a Verizon campaign] is now gaining strength. I have a record I love, "Limbo," which is very catchy. It was one of the tricks up my sleeve, which I saved for last. That one and "La Noche de los Dos" with [Spanish pop singer] Natalia Jimenez. It's a very mass-appeal track but it's 100% urban. I didn't want to do pop with her. And I give her credit for having seen the vision I had of the urban genre. I told her, 'I'm going to make you look good without losing your essence.'
"Limbo" is being promoted as a Zumba track and you performed at their annual convention. How is that association working for you?
They loved the track because I use a very Puerto Rican word in there, which is "zumba," which means trick, or joke. And they said they wanted to use the track for a Zumba campaign. I said, go for it. There are 12 million people taking Zumba classes every week around the world. If you can get that exposure to millions of people, and continue growing, it's worth it. It's promotion you didn't have before.
You still decide everything that happens with your career?
100% I am the owner of the masters. Everything we license is under El Cartel. Everything.
You continue to be hugely popular, 10 years later, in a very young-leaning genre. How do you stay young and hip?
First, you have to understand that music is the root of everything. But when art ends, the business starts. When I talk about the Internet, it's because young people are there. TV and radio are still what moves the masses and you can't ignore that. But you also have to feed that monster that grows daily, which is the Internet. That's where urban subcultures live. I tell you, you release a record, and you get 1.5 million downloads. You're giving it away, yes, but millions of people are listening and your music will reach them. And it means business in terms of shows and activities.
And second, I surround myself with young producers with new ideas. I've never been into the classics. All my singles have their style and vibe and they've all been winners. And, what's important in the urban world is everyone is requesting music that is 100% urban and 100% Latin. I made "Prestige" based on those comments. I always say, I like new cars, but I stay in my lane. That's how I stay current.
You have your own line of Azad luxury watches and Section 8 Headphones and a major sponsorship deal with Verizon, among other deals. Now, you are a partner in the new El Cartel Tequila.
Without a doubt it will be the biggest deal of all and the numbers should be huge. Our aim is to establish El Cartel as not just another tequila but part of the club and party lifestyle. There are several songs where I mention the brand name and a lot of these party songs go hand in hand with the concept of Cartel Tequila. I have a track called "Lose Control," for example. It's the only song 100% in English and it's an exclusive iTunes track. But the physical album is entirely in Spanish because that's what the fans were requesting: A 100% urban album, 100% in Spanish.