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From Cutting Fades To Cutting Records, Roc Nation’s Yandel Is Razor Sharp Focused

Before Llandel Veguilla Malave—reggaeton superstar and ex-member of world-renowned duo Wisin y Yandel—takes a seat at the table he insists we capture the moment. “Let’s take a picture,” he says to the photographer in his native tongue, Spanish. “That way you can send it to him, so he’ll have it.” Tucked away in a dimly-lit shabby chic dining room, adorned with multicolored cobblestone walls dotted with Middle Eastern-esque paintings, we hold court at one of the foundation rooms in Boston’s House of Blues. A row of antique chandeliers dangles above us, and a vintage-patterned rug blankets the floor we’ve set foot in. After a quick pose and a warm exchange of hellos, Yandel finally removes his shades.

On this crisp spring day, he’s sporting a striped sweater and a black hooded jacket with a pair of smoky jeans. The streets outside are bustling with Red Sox fans and commuters. Just up the block on Yawkey Way, Fenway Park is gearing up to host its home team in a match against the Tampa Bay Rays (in case you’re wondering, the Red Soxs won 7-3). Yandel, on the other hand, is here to take over a game of his own as the MVP of tonight’s main event, featuring New York’s own DJ Lobo and fellow reggaetoñeros Alexis y Fido and De La Ghetto. They’ve gathered here for the first-ever TIDAL X: Latinos concert happening in a few hours, which will stream live exclusively on the music app for subscribers. It’s a major feat for artists who helped usher in a genre of music once confined to the underground streets of Puerto Rico’s ghettos. On March 10, 2016, Yandel sent shock waves throughout the Internet when he announced his new management deal with Jay Z’s Roc Nation, making him the second Latino artist next to Shakira to sign with the company, and the first Boricua to do it.

Cover Story: Roc Nation's Newest Soldier Yandel Is Razor Sharp Focused
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Cover Story: Roc Nation's Newest Soldier Yandel Is Razor Sharp Focused
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He credits his longtime friend Puerto Rican boxer Miguel Cotto—signed to Roc Nation Sports—for coaxing him to join the prestigious label and management company. “Cotto and I have always been friends. I’ve always been a fan of his boxing and his discipline,” he says. “And I thank him for being the person who connected me with Roc Nation. This is just the beginning.”

TIDAL is opening up doors and letting us be a part of that platform… —DJ Lobo

Prior to making the announcement, Yandel had already made major strides over the last few months of 2015.  On November 21, he became the first Latino artist to perform live at an HBO Pay Per View boxing match—Canelo vs Cotto at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Events Center— thanks to the business partnership Cotto has with Jay Z’s Roc Nations Sports and TIDAL. On December 12, Yandel presided over the stage at the Convention Center in San Juan, becoming the first Latino ever of any genre to perform in an event being streamed live on TIDAL, which was produced by Cotto and Roc Nation in an effort to promote more concert events on the island.

Such coups coupled with a burgeoning solo career begs the question: can Yandel successfully crossover and drip mass appeal, essentially putting reggaeton music on a global scale? Yes, he has his slew of collaborations with mainstream artists like Chris Brown, Lil Jon, 50 Cent, Aventura, Akon and R.Kelly. He even joined forces with Future and Spiff TV on the newly released video of “Mi Combo.” Yet, only time will tell if Yandel possesses the kind of influence that can swim in the mainstream and reach international audiences.

Cover Story: Roc Nation's Newest Soldier Yandel Is Razor Sharp Focused
Carlos Perez

Still, there’s no denying the 39-year-old’s fervor to experiment and venture out into unfamiliar territory all in the name of victory. He’s not scared of the unknown, either. Instead, he makes sense of change, plunges into it, and joins the tide. In a perfect world, Yandel’s efforts culminate in a full-length studio LP featuring a slew of Roc Nation artists, including Mr. Shawn Carter himself and pop empress Rihanna. But his crossover appeal goals don’t end there. Yandel also plans to learn more English, and maybe create an entire English-language album in the future. “Now I understand it,” he says of the language. “Before I didn’t understand a word.” He then erupts into a fit of laughter, as if he’s just encountered a funny memory. “Long conversations are most difficult, but at least now I can get by.”

His team, on the other hand, has all the faith in the world when it comes to longevity. “Yandel knows very well his fanbase,” says his publicist. “And he has the characteristic to get to a mainstream market. Doing what he knows how to do with the appropriate twists.”

They would break my cassettes and say ‘that music is garbage.’ —Yandel

“Twists” that has helped reggaeton rhythms infiltrate a lot more heads since its inception. And now with Yandel’s new management and impressive record-breaking performances, he opens a new door for the genre and its musicians. Renowned New York radio personality DJ Lobo echoes these sentiments. “Wisin y Yandel were touring together and now they went their separate ways. But even with all that look at what Yandel is doing right now,” he says perched in burgundy leather and dressed comfortably in a gray sweatsuit. “It’s amazing how reggaeton has changed the urban world for us Latinos. Because back in the days it was bachata, salsa, and the merengue, but now we have reggaeton and Latin hip-hop. This is just the beginning of many great things that are happening with the music industry. TIDAL is opening up doors and letting us be a part of that platform that they have. And us Latinos, we move the people around us. Tonight is going to be a hit.”

Cover Story: Roc Nation's Newest Soldier Yandel Is Razor Sharp Focused
Oscar Mena

Whether or not reggaeton music and its artist will one day surpass a big crossover market is still in the air. But the genre has come along way from only being played in small underground clubs and local neighborhood parties in Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries. Much like hip-hop in its early days, reggaeton was shunned upon and seen as street music that promoted violence and misogyny. It was a fight to get airplay from radio and TV stations. “At first because this genre of music was so urban, sometimes we would sing songs that were so aggressive,” Yandel remembers. “And my parents didn’t like it. They would break my cassettes and say ‘that music is garbage.’”

Reggaeton first originated in Panama by an artist called El General around the ’70s before it made its way into La Isla del Encanto. Many pioneers of the movement on the island like Baby Rasta y Gringo and Ivy Queen would perform at a club in San Juan called The Noise – a rite of passage for every successful reggaeton artist to date. Later, the whole movement culminated in an album titled The Noise La Biografia, which features popular duo Zion y Lennox, among others.

I had to be in the barbershop at eight in the morning. —Yandel

The Noise first started in 1990 by a man named DJ Negro in efforts to give young underground artists a platform to showcase their talent. This according to a 2003 documentary titled The Noise-El Documental. Of course, Yandel along with Wisin played at The Noise and many venues like it. Yandel remembers those early days as hard but pivotal to his career. “I had to wait till the end to get paid, and wait till the club was emptied out so the person can count up the money that was made that night,” he recalls. “At the beginning of your career it’s essential to visit all those places. Everybody starts from there.”

Yandel was born on January 14, 1977, in the small town of Cayey, Puerto Rico, and was raised in the neighborhood of San Cristobal. He moved a total of 13 times while living there, and attended his last year of high school at the Escuela Superior Miguel Meléndez Muñoz. Before he started his career in reggaeton, Yandel was a barber, an occupation he credits for developing his great work ethic.

Cover Story: Roc Nation's Newest Soldier Yandel Is Razor Sharp Focused
Oscar Mena

“I had that hunger to work and keep growing. So I started to cut hair. When I started getting better I got my own barbershop. I had a lot of clients in my hometown, so I wouldn’t stop cutting hair. That’s why I think I have such discipline in my job because I’ve always been very responsible. I had to be in the barbershop at eight in the morning, and never had an exact time to leave because there was always so many clients,” he says.

All the while, Yandel was actively pursuing a music career. Soon, he’d meet DJ Dicky, a prominent spinner in the reggaeton scene he met through a fellow barber named Falo. Upon learning that DJ Dicky was putting out an album titled No Fear, Yandel curiously asked if he could be a part of it. At first, Dicky was reluctant to add him considering the album had already been finished. After he heard Yandel sing, however, Dicky almost immediately changed his mind. Yandel even got him to wait till then partner-in-crime Wisin could make it to the studio the next day. Dicky went on to feature the duo on the record, and the rest is history.

In 2000, Wisin y Yandel released their debut album, Los Reyes Del Nuevo Milenio, then followed with De Nuevos a Viejos (2001); Mi Vida … My Life (2003); Quien Contra Mi (2004); De Otra Manera (2004); Mi Vida La Pelicula (2005); Pa’l Mundo (2005); Los Vaqueros (2006); Los Extraterrestres (2007); La Revolución: Evolution (2009); Los Vaqueros: El Regreso (2011); La Historia De El Duo, Volumen 1 (2013); En Vivo (2014).  Among these, there were also many deluxe versions. Wisin y Yandel enjoyed tons of recognition their first few years in their native Puerto Rico playing up to six shows a week.

Cover Story: Roc Nation's Newest Soldier Yandel Is Razor Sharp Focused
Carlos Perez

Yandel’s manager Andres “Andy” Martinez had been with the duo since 2001, and has been managing Yandel’s solo career since 2013. He recalls a time in 2003, when they were flown to New York for the first time by a company called New life Entertainment. They appeared on stage in the annual Puerto Rican festival in East Harlem on 116th street, for a local radio station. They were staying in a hotel in New Jersey sharing one room with Martinez and their DJ when suddenly the crew get a call from Telemundo, requesting the duo partake in their float in the grand Puerto Rican Parade the next day.  It was then that Martinez realized they were going to do big things in the world of music.

Without sacrifice there is no blessing. —Yandel

In 2005, Wisin y Yandel released a single called “Rakata,” which landed on an album titled Mas Flow 2 produced by famed reggaeton producer Luny Tunes. This is when reggaeton‘s sonic boom started to worm itself stateside.  That same year, the biggest Spanish-language broadcaster in America, Univision, decided to launch La Kalle 105.9/92.7 FM, a radio station designed for a more contemporary urban Latin audience, ages 18-34. It was being hosted at the time by Hot 97’s Laura Stylez and DJ Casanova. “We are excited to launch La Kalle to meet the needs of the younger Hispanics in the New York area,” stated Gary Stone, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer in a Univision press release. “Our research demonstrated that there was a strong desire for a Reggaeton-formatted radio station and we have delivered.”

Since then, years went by and the duo took their music to newer and newer heights. But a little thing called originality was beckoning, and the duo felt the need to split in 2013 to follow their respective creative pursuits. “With the duo, we had 14 years together. And it was special, but we needed to do something different,” Yandel notes. “Wisin is my brother. He always will be my brother. We are very happy as solo artists. We had a great musical trajectory together, which will be there forever. And for the future we won’t discard reuniting and making something new. But for now, I’m very focused on my career as a solo artist.”

Martinez couldn’t be more proud of where Yandel has gone, especially considering the risk he took going solo. “Yandel is very disciplined. He has something that no one has that I’ve met in the industry,” he says fixing his navy blue snapback with the words “Roc Nation” emblazoned on it. “He doesn’t wait for anyone to invest or sponsor. He does it himself. If we have to make a show, he will provide the funds because he is confident in his talent, which is hard because after you have a successful 14-year career – for you to take your savings and spend them on yourself, you’re essentially betting on yourself.

Now I have an army of people behind what I’m doing. —Yandel

“There were a lot of sacrifices and tears because it was something that was going against the odds,” he continues. “Three years later, I am very proud of Yandel. It’s like he always says: “Without sacrifice there is no blessing. With all his recent accomplishments, Yandel is far from feeling like he’s arrived. He pushes everyday to perfect his craft and create better music. And that in turn pushes all the staff around him, because it makes us feel like we have to work hard, so that he does well.”

The sacrifices are paying off. Yandel’s 2013 solo debut De Lider A Leyenda landed at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Album chart, and spent 13 weeks at No. 1 on the Latin Rhythms Albums chart. His 2015 LP Dangerous, also debuted at No. 1 on the Top Latin Album chart. And with his new deal established, Yandel could not see the future any brighter.

Cover Story: Roc Nation's Newest Soldier Yandel Is Razor Sharp Focused
Oscar Mena

“I feel very happy and proud of what’s happening,” he says. “I want to give thanks to the people of Roc Nation for also giving me that opportunity. I was alone on this, doing everything I could by myself. Now I have an army of people behind what I’m doing. I’m so happy, I feel like I’m at my peak moment.”

Martinez describes Yandel has a humble, hard working family man, who at times, won’t say much but always has an agenda for success at hand. “He is very quiet, he doesn’t talk much and he doesn’t like to fight. If there is a problem, he rather have peace than let his ego get in the way,” Martinez adds. “He likes to make jokes, ride skateboard, play basketball, and Playstation. He is fixated with being in the studio, he loves to write and record music. That’s why it works, because if you make 100 songs, [at least] one works. But if you make five songs, there is a chance that none work.”

Talking to Yandel feels more like reuniting with an old cousin at a family barbecue than anything else. You can tell he is genuinely a nice person, who doesn’t take himself too seriously so as to be entirely transparent. He laughs frequently throughout our dialogue, and seems happy to just be here.

When he talks about his kids — two boys, ages 11 and 13, named Derek and Adrian — his eyes light up.  “The small one is very quiet he observes a lot,” he describes. “I don’t know what he will be because he is very mysterious. He likes to read a lot. The older one is more explosive. He already has that attitude that he wants to be an artist. He does crazy hairstyles, and likes to invent songs on the phone. My kids are very special, they can bring a lot of surprise.” He gushes, flashing a wide grin: “Maybe in the future they will be supporting me.”

It’s now showtime, and DJ Lobo is running a few minutes late for his set, which then gets dismissed as a bearded TIDAL crew member says they are pushing the live stream of the concert back seven minutes to make time for social media promotion. The long dim corridor backstage is swarming with production crews, managers, publicists, and dancers scurrying till the concert goes live. Now clad in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey and black and white No. 12 Jordan kicks, DJ Lobo emerges onto the scene.

Yo soy Boricua pa’ que lo sepas! —Yandel

As Lobo makes his way over, Yandel’s publicist is heard in earshot negotiating his schedule. They decide now is the right time to record a video. Yandel appears right by Lobo, as one of TIDAL’s reps starts to film. “El capitan papi estamos aqui ya de camino super contento Dj Lobo, Roc Nation,” says Yandel with visible excitement.  Lobo then pulls out a bottle of D’Usse, and both take a swig of the French cognac. “Tidal Baby! Shout Out To D’Usee and Roc Nation,” shouts Lobo into the iPad screen. “Aqui super contento espero que lo disfruten voy a cantar un poco de los viejos y de los nuevos,” continues Yandel.

Cover Story: Roc Nation's Newest Soldier Yandel Is Razor Sharp Focused
Oscar Mena

Lobo is then ushered away to the stage for his set. By the time he gets there, the video they just shot has gained 25,000 live views on TIDAL. Backstage, Yandel is whisked away by members of his team to another location of the venue.  After Alexis y Fido take the stage with hits like “5 Letras,” De La Ghetto takes over.  By the time opening acts are finished, Yandel returns to the scene and goes inside his dressing room. Minutes later, he exits draped in white from head to toe. He gives me a firm handshake and then makes his way to the stage as the crowd erupts in screams upon his arrival. Fan-favorites like “Sexy Movimiento,” “Encantadora” and “Calentura” echo throughout his dressing room hallway.

After an impressive set featuring a bodacious bevy of young ladies cutting up a rug in black leotards, Yandel concludes by saluting the island that raised him. “Yo soy Boricua pa’ que lo sepas!” He screams while jumping up and down. He then makes his exit, leaving the crowd yearning for more. “Otra! Otra! Otra!” The sea of fans shout as the stage is being cleared. Not too shabby for the kid who started out as a barber on a tiny island in the Caribbean, who had dreams of becoming a musical phenom while cutting hair to make ends meet. At the peak of his success, he took the greatest risk of all and went solo. But for Yandel, impossible really is nothing. “Querer es poder,” says Yandel, who maintains that you can accomplish any dream with a little work and a whole lotta faith in yourself. “Will is power.”