'Short Steps, Long Vision': An Interview With Pitbull

May 5, 2019
Originally published on May 5, 2019 12:14 pm

The Miami rapper Pitbull, aka Mr. Worldwide or Mr. 305, can often be heard shouting his mantra 'Dale!' in the middle of a song, wearing a pair of aviator-style sunglasses on stage and generally having a good time.

It's even true of his newest digital avatar.

Pitbull, whose given name is Armando Christian Pérez, voices Uglydog in the new animated movie UglyDolls. It's about a group of, well, ugly dolls — voiced by other musicians and actors — who learn how to love their imperfections in hopes of finding a child who will love them back.

"So what I love about it is they gave me a chance, and a lot of room, to be able to play with the character, which clearly you guys see is pretty much me ... a little blue dog with one eye," Pitbull says.

It's the latest in Pitbull's long list of projects. After releasing 10 studio albums and selling more than 65 million records worldwide, Pitbull has gone from making hits to leveraging his fame: a clothing line, a film and television production company, endorsement deals, a Miami Beach restaurant, multiple charter schools.

In an interview which he conducted just up the dock from his boat — which was being serviced after a trip to the Bahamas — he spoke about UglyDolls, his Miami upbringing and his ambitions going forward.


Interview Highlights

On his life story

I never looked at my life like it was rough, because it to me was just my normality. I thought everybody else was going through the same things at the same time. And growing up in a city like Miami in the '80s, anybody that understands what it looked like at that time, it was basically the cocaine capital. So it being the cocaine capital, I got a chance to see entrepreneurism at its finest at a very young age — just with a different product.

So what I learned how to do was basically what I told everybody through my records. I took a negative and made it a positive. It's the same hustle, same mentality, same grind, same struggle, same fight — just a different product, and my product is music. So to be able to come from nothing to something, and go from being maybe the delinquent from Miami to ... the son of Miami, like you were saying, it just goes to show you, man: You never know what you could do with life. And that's why I tell everybody out there: Why dream when you can live it?

On Miami

L-R: Wang Leehom stars as Lucky Bat, Wanda Sykes stars as Wage, Pitbull stars as Uglydog, Gabriel Iglesias stars as Babo and Kelly Clarkson stars as Moxy in UglyDolls.
Courtesy of STXfilms

I always give thanks to Miami, 305, Dade County, The Bottom, Magic City, because there's no way I would be who I am and be able to deal with the world the way that I do if it wasn't for this beautiful city. ...

It's a melting pot. You get a chance to grow up around so many different — you know, I've grown up in good neighborhoods, bad neighborhoods, worse neighborhoods. But growing up around so many cultures, it's always allowed me to think out [of] the box and try new sounds and try new things. You learn something new from every culture — just like I learn something new from every record.

On his mother's arrival in the U.S. in Operation Peter Pan, and never having performed in Cuba

Well for one, my mother did come in Peter Pan. My grandmother was a part of the revolution with Castro in Sierra Maestra [mountains] until she figured out that wasn't the way to go, and that's exactly why my mother was a part of Operation Peter Pan. So she went from Cuba to Indiana and didn't see abuela, my grandmother — some people say it was four years, some people say it was seven years, so let's just call it five years. Either/or, it's a long time to be away from your mother and also from your culture. My aunt (tía) was a political prisoner.

And as far as going back to Cuba ... my first time in Cuba was 2001, but I did that strategically, before the name Pitbull blew up. And I wanted to at least see what is it that that made our culture so special. So I got a chance to go down there. Why I don't go now, and do the concert, and do what everybody else does? Because then it's just a splash with no ripple effect. I want to make sure that when we go down there, not only do we give the people what they want musically, but we have a plan in place, with a strategy, on finding a way to open schools down there, to help our hospitals down there, to help our neighborhoods down there, to build parks down there, to really have a ripple effect. The same way that we've done in our city is the same when we want to do in Cuba. And that's the reason that I've kind of stayed back. ...

I mean, you're talking to a kid that didn't graduate from high school, but yet is building high schools across the nation. Now there's certain things — you know, there's obstacles like anything in life. We'll see how that works out, pero, paso corto, vista larga; that means short steps, long vision. One way or another, it's going to happen. Mark my words.

On the boom moment in Latin music

It's embedded in culture. At this point right now, the reason that it's going to be a bigger movement — or I would even call it a revolution — is because now music is tapped into worldwide, literally. So you can hear records from different countries on your phone; before, you didn't have that access. So that's why me making music, me making global music — and when I say me I mean we, I mean us, because I don't do this by myself ... it's global music.

And the Latin movement is a major part of it, because there's a lot of sounds in a lot of different countries. Whether it be — whether it's Colombia, whether it's in Brazil, whether it's Dominican Republic, whether it's Cuba, whether it's Puerto Rico, Venezuela, whatever it may be, Mexico, we are grabbing these sounds, and we are basically — and this is the story of my life, by the way — just remixing them and making them something new. They say that good artists borrow, great artists steal, right? I think Picasso said that one.

On President Trump and the Latino community

Well, I can tell you this much. Being Cuban-American, I was already born politically incorrect. So, Trump ...

No, I mean, there's a lot of people [that] like him, a lot of people that dislike him. And that's the beautiful thing about the United States of America — you can have an opinion, and you have the right to voice it. But he needs to understand that this country's been built by immigrants. If we're going to talk about Americans, let's talk about Native Americans. And like I always say, you know, they keep talking about the border and the border and the border and the border. Well, the funny thing is, is that if you do your history, Mexico really didn't cross the border — the border crossed Mexico. Crazy enough.

And people like Trump, all we gotta do is sit back and learn from. But don't let history repeat itself, 'cause that's the only thing we always learn from history — is that we don't learn from history. So como dicen los cubanos, ponte las pilas. Ponte las pilas means, basically, get on your game.

On if he aspires to be a role model

I'm not here to be a role model, to be honest with you. I'm just here to lead by example. I'm far from perfect and I'm far from an angel, but I'm here to teach people that failure is the mother of all success — that I slip, I fall, I lose. But I'm openly, I'm open to admit ...

I constantly lose and fail. Constantly. I just put out two albums didn't sell — not too many records like the other two before that did. That would be an L or a fail for a lot of people. For me, it's not. Because for me, like I say, you are going to fall, you are going to fail, you are going to slip. And when you do, embrace it; learn from it. Don't think that that was actually something that's going to hinder you from becoming whoever you want to become. That's actually the fun part of it. That's the fun part of the journey. That's what I always look forward to and that's why I wake up every day telling the world: Come on baby, let's ride. What you got for me?

Sophia Alvarez Boyd and Caitlyn Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Pitbull, the Cuban American Miami rapper also known as Mr. Worldwide, or my favorite, Mr. 305, can often be heard shouting his mantra dale in the middle of a song, wearing a pair of aviator-style sunglasses onstage and having a real good time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW YOU WANT ME (CALLE OCHO)")

PITBULL: (Rapping) Dale. One, two, three, four. Uno, dos, tres, cuatro. I know you want me. You know I want you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIMBER")

PITBULL: (Rapping) Swing your partner round and round. End of the night, it's going down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE ME EVERYTHING")

PITBULL: (Rapping) Put it on my life, baby. I make you feel right, baby. Can't promise tomorrow, but I promise tonight. Dale.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Pitbull, whose real name is Armando Christian Perez, has sold more than 65 million records worldwide. But in the past few years, he's gone from making hits to leveraging his fame - from clothing lines to charter schools, and even taking it to the big screen in a new animated film "UglyDolls," where he plays the character Uglydog. It's about a group of - you guessed it - ugly dolls that realize how to love their imperfections in hopes of finding a child who will love them back.

I caught up with him last week in between all his projects at a marina in Miami, where his boat was docked. And we had a wide-ranging conversation.

PITBULL: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter). All right. Let's talk about the movie. Your character, Uglydog, is a one-eyed, loyal, flirtatious dog. And it seems that you inspired this role. Was that by design?

PITBULL: You know, I thought that they really thought this through. And they were real genius about it when they said, hey, Pitbull, we want you to play a dog in this...

(LAUGHTER)

PITBULL: ...Animation. And I said, OK. So when they told me about Uglydog, I gave them an idea. I say, hey, look; why don't we do Uglydog, and then we do a slick dog, also.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UGLYDOLLS")

PITBULL: (As Uglydog) It's all right, guys. Slick dog's got this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BON BON (WE NO SPEAK AMERICANO)")

PITBULL: (Rapping) Papar americano. Bon, bon, bon, bon. Yo quiero estar contigo.

NICK JONAS: (As Lou) What are you doing?

PITBULL: (As Uglydog) Having fun. Getting crazy. Getting loose.

So what I love about it is they gave me a chance and a lot of room to be able to play with the character, which clearly, you guys see is pretty much me - just a little blue guy with - a little blue dog with one eye (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I want to ask you about your own childhood. You know, you've been open about the fact that it was rough at times. And you are now one of Miami's most famous sons.

PITBULL: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that weird - the complete change that your life has undertaken? Here you are, like, sitting out in front of the water, looking at your boat that just came back from the Bahamas. I mean, it's a long way from where you grew up.

PITBULL: You know, I never looked at my life like it was rough because, to me, it was just my normality. I thought everybody else was going through the same things at the same time.

And growing up in a city like Miami in the '80s, it was basically the cocaine capital. So it being the cocaine capital, I got a chance to see entrepreneurism at its finest at a very young age, just with a different product. So what I learned how to do was basically what I tell everybody through my records. I took a negative and made it a positive.

It's the same hustle, same mentality, same grind, same struggle, same fight, just a different product. And my product is music. And I always give thanks to Miami, 305, Dade County, The Bottom, Magic City because there's no way I would be who I am and be able to deal with the world the way that I do if it wasn't for this beautiful city.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is it about Miami that you like?

PITBULL: It's a melting pot. You know, it's a melting pot. You get a chance to grow up around so many different - you know, I've grown up in good neighborhoods, bad neighborhoods, worse neighborhoods. But growing up around so many cultures, it's always allowed me to think out of the box and try new sounds and try new things. You learn something new from every culture, just like I learn something new from every record.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, I read that your mom came to the U.S. in the Peter Pan program...

PITBULL: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...You know, where children were sent to the United States alone after the revolution.

PITBULL: Correct.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's an extraordinary journey. And I'm wondering - you've never performed in Cuba. And, you know, right now, it's a difficult time on the island. Why not? What needs to happen for you to do that?

PITBULL: Well, for one, my mother did come in Peter Pan. My grandmother was a part of the revolution with Castro and Sierra Maestra until she figured out that wasn't the way to go. And that's exactly why my mother was a part of Operation Peter Pan.

So she went from Cuba to Indiana and didn't see, you know, abuela, my grandmother. Some people say it was four years. Some people say it was seven years. So let's just call it five years (laughter). Either-or, it's a long time to be away from your mother and also from your culture.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course.

PITBULL: And as far as going back to Cuba, my first time in Cuba was 2001. But I did that strategically before the name Pitbull blew up. And I wanted to at least see what is it that made our culture so special? So I got a chance to go down there.

Why I don't go now and do the concert and do what everybody else does? Because then it's just a splash with no ripple effect. I want to make sure that when we go down there, not only do we give the people what they want musically, but we have a plan in place with a strategy on finding a way to open schools down there, to help out with hospitals down there, to help out with neighborhoods down there, to build parks down there, to really have a ripple effect. The same way that we've done in our city is the same what we want to do in Cuba.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you have those ambitions - to go back to Cuba and open schools, like you have in Miami, and really help transform the island?

PITBULL: Absolutely. A hundred and fifty thousand percent. I mean, you're talking to a kid that didn't graduate from high school but yet is building high schools across the nation. Now, there's certain things - you know, there's obstacles, like anything in life. And we'll see how that works out. Pero paso corto, vista larga (ph). That means short steps, long vision. One way or another, it's going to happen. Mark my words.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Billboard Latin Music Awards took place a week and a half ago in Las Vegas.

PITBULL: Yup.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And your music in particular has brought a lot of Spanish culture and language into the mainstream. Latin music is having a moment. I want to get your thoughts.

PITBULL: At this point right now, it's embedded in culture. At this point right now, the reason that it's going to be a bigger movement - I would even call it a revolution - is because now, music is tapped into worldwide, literally.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL TAXI")

PITBULL: (Rapping in Spanish).

So you can hear records from different countries on your phone. Before, you didn't have that access. The Latin movement is a major part of it because there's a lot of sounds in a lot of different countries - whether it be Colombia, whether it's in Brazil, whether it's Dominican Republic, whether it's Cuba - whatever it may be - Mexico.

So with that said is - it's an honor to be a part of the movement. But more than anything, I think that there needs to be a responsibility behind the movement where we make sure that we represent the culture the right way, and we make sure that we open doors for those that are coming up. And that, to me, is the most important part.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This brings me to something else. Obviously, this is a particular moment for the Latino community in the United States.

PITBULL: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You met with Trump in 2016. And you've been outspoken. What's your reaction to what's happening right now?

PITBULL: Well, I can tell you this much. Being Cuban American, I was already born politically incorrect.

(LAUGHTER)

PITBULL: So Trump...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because many Cubans like him, you know?

PITBULL: No, I mean, there's a lot of people that like him, a lot of people that dislike him. That's a beautiful thing about the United States of America. You can have an opinion, and you have the right to voice it.

But he needs to understand that this country's been built by immigrants. If we're going to talk about Americans, let's talk about Native Americans. And like I always say - you know, they keep talking about the border and the border and the border and the border. Well, the funny thing is that if you do your history, Mexico really didn't cross the border. The border crossed Mexico (laughter).

And people like Trump - all we got to do is sit back and learn from. But don't let history repeat itself. So (speaking Spanish), ponte la pila (ph). Ponte la pila (ph) means, basically, get on your game (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Put your batteries in. I want to just - and by asking you - just listening to talk, you know, it seems that you are very interested in making sure that other people can look at you and say, hey, there is a path forward.

PITBULL: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, that you want to be a role model for a lot of people out there. Is that something that really kind of drives you and what you do right now?

PITBULL: I mean, as far as a role model, I'm not here to be a role model, to be honest with you. I'm just here to lead by example. I'm far from perfect, and I'm far from an angel. But I'm here to teach people that failure is the mother of all success. Because for me, like I say, no losing, only learning; no failure, only opportunities; and no problems, only solutions. That's what I always look forward to. And that's why I wake up every day, telling the world, come on, baby. Let's ride. What you got for me?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Pitbull. His new movie is "UglyDolls." Thank you very much.

PITBULL: Thank you, Lulu. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO LO TRATES")

PITBULL: (Rapping in Spanish). (Rapping) I just want a really, really, really good time. (Rapping in Spanish). (Rapping) I tell the truth even when I lie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.