If Grammys were awarded for hard work and hustle, Dainamite would win at least one every year. He'll play anywhere for anyone at any time. And if he's not performing, he's either producing other artists or hustling up new beats. And he does it all from his little home studio base in Silver Bluff, that working-class stretch of bungalows and town homes near Coral Gables, in Miami-Dade County.
That's where I met the man — Dainamite lives in a cottage right behind my own bungalow. I see the traffic that goes in and out of his studio, and I see the hours he keeps. Mostly, though, I get to hear all about it every time we happen upon each other in the backyard. "I'm playing up in Pompano later today," he'll say. That's if he doesn't say he's playing in Jupiter or Lauderdale or out in West Dade.
A week or so ago, it was Jupiter, where Dainamite performed at yet another regional Hispanic festival. He seems to have played almost all of them in recent months — there was Hollywood Fest, Pompano's Fiestas Patronales, the Colombian Independence Day Festival in Miami's Tamiami Park, and, of course, Calle Ocho. There have been countless others, and the crowds have often numbered in the tens of thousands.
Dainamite was born Julio Santiago in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the birthplace of salsa sensation Hector Lavoe. Dainamite was raised in the port town of Yuaco, where 19th-century Corsicans cultivated a bumper coffee crop that still has people buzzing. And at age 13, he earned his nickname.
That story is the stuff of personal legend. Dainamite's middle-school girlfriend had written him a note in which she misspelled the word dynamite. He thought it was cute, so he used it as a hook in a song. The day after Dainamite performed said song at a house party, the kids in his class christened him — in unison.
By age 16, Dainamite was active all over the island, performing here, producing there, and often doing both. But, he says, "Puerto Rican politics kept me from realizing my dreams as an artist. Once I was a producer, I was supposed to stay a producer."
The pay-to-play aspect with which Puerto Rican radio reportedly still operates didn't help much either. "It's really expensive to get a song on the radio," Dainamite says, "like $6,000. And that's just for the one station."
So Dainamite ditched his native land and hit Miami. Here, though, the problem is not payola, he says — it's being lumped in among every Spanish-speaking artist out there. "I think it's a little hypocritical to put everyone under one label, and it doesn't do justice to the places where people come from," he says. "I'm proud to be from Puerto Rico. And I want everybody to know it."
Of all contemporary Latin music, it's understandable that reggaeton, the genre in which Dainamite works, is not too concerned with an artist's origins. You might even say the genre is above the whole notion of country.
After all, it's not simply an offspring of Panama's reggae en español or an inherently Puerto Rican phenomenon. It's a mixture of influences, from all over the hemisphere. Think about it — in reggaeton, you might find plena and bomba (Puerto Rico), bachata and merengue (Dominican Republic), cumbia (Colombia), salsa (Cuba), and hip-hop and electronica (United States) all together. And beyond that, in its short life span, reggaeton has spawned a number of subgenres.
As a producer, Dainamite has worked within and incorporated all of those subgenres: bachateo and salsaton, malianteo and Cubaton, romantikeo and cumbiaton. But as an artist, his sound perhaps most closely aligns with either salsaton or malianteo, two strains that, respectively, fall mostly on the sides of salsa and hip-hop.
And of all his predecessors, Dainamite is most inspired by Vico C, a Nuyorican MC known as "El Filósofo del Rap." "Like him, my lyrics have more of a message," Dainamite says. "A lot of artists out there are only concerned with sex and drugs and clubs. I try to go deeper and explore the more sociopolitical aspects of our world."
The message come through loud and clear in the song "Que Viva El Reggaeton," one of the standout tracks on Dainamite's just-released eponymous LP. The track is a fight song, of sorts, in defense of his music. And it is as mad as a blister. "Whoever is against reggaeton, I'm their enemy," he says. "People are saying it's not gonna last, that eventually it's gonna die. But for all the thousands who are saying that, there are millions more, like me, who want reggaeton to succeed."
Hence the work ethic. Dainamite not only wrote and produced every track on that LP of his but he also released it on his own label, YC Entertainment. And though he's got a couple of operatives helping him push some of the songs to radio and book a few of his many shows, he's totally hands-on, 24/7. The efforts are working too: One single, "Kiss Me," is already hot with the L.A. underground, and another, "Dulce Caramelo," is all over Honduran radio.
Add to all this his production work — lately it's been for Rodolfo Castero, who sings background on Dainamite's "Dulce." Then there are the side projects: "I'm gonna be working with Tito Puente Jr. again soon. They're thinking of doing a tribute movie to his father," he says. And there is also television work. Last week, it was an appearance on West Palm's Mi Pueblo TV, for the second time in one month.
And on Saturday night, at the James L. Knight Center in Miami, Dainamite's doing one of his oddest gigs to date. It's a seminar called "A Millionaire's Approach," which apparently is based on a book, and he's the only "invited artist." What the program will entail is anybody's guess, but the motivational aspect surely must strike Dainamite as something he can identify with.
It gets even better: He's got an upcoming live slot on Miami's Channel 41, America Tévé. "It's some kind of comedy show. So I guess I'll be joking with the hosts and performing a song." The title? "Explosivos." How's that for continuity?