It's an unusually breezy Thursday afternoon on Hollywood Boulevard. The vintage shops and restaurants that line the old district are mostly empty, and Latin music sensation Sito Oner Rock — or just Sito to his fans and friends — is doggedly trying to choose a restaurant for an interview. The 29-year-old wears his long black hair in tightly knit cornrows, sports an old shirt purchased from a thrift shop (his favorite place to buy clothes), and rocks his jeans in a baggy, loose-fitting form. Like his music and fashion sense, it's not easy to pigeonhole Sito to one particular style.
If the name sounds familiar, Sito Oner Rock, born Benhur Barrero, has been making a name for himself on the Latin music scene for years, first as a dancer, then as a DJ, and currently as an artist within both the hip-hop and reggaeton worlds. He's smashing it all together and perfecting his own style, Latin crunk, and aside from crafting a sound that seems tailor-made for South Florida, Sito refuses to be lumped into any one category.
"I'm really not a reggaeton or a Latin hip-hop artist," Sito says. "With me, you get a little taste of everything, but it always has to have some tropical flavor. After all, we are in South Florida."
His 2005 mixtape, The Sito Oner Rock True HollyHood Story, was a sizable hit on the underground Latin urban scene, featuring an eclectic urban mix of crunk, reggaeton, and R&B, mixed with English and Spanish rhymes. At last count, he'd sold more than 25,000 copies of the mixtape, mainly in Florida, Texas, and California, which isn't bad for an independent release. He's also gotten gigs opening for Latin superstars like Don Omar and Tego Calderón.
Even more impressive, Sito has secured the backing of the internationally acclaimed production duo the Diaz Brothers, who craft beats for Daddy Yankee, Trick Daddy, and Pitbull. Currently, the Diaz Brothers are in the middle of producing half of Sito's upcoming solo debut, which is tentatively titled A Lo Crunkiao, due out in early 2008.
"Sito is the kind of young artist that's just one step away from becoming a star," says Luis Diaz, one of the Diaz boys. "We are really excited to be working with him. Sito has that special magic that you see when you look at other successful pop stars, and that's why we are behind him."
Nowadays, everything seems to be going Sito's way; his Spanglish remix of Lil' John's "Snap Yo Fingaz" (called "Snapéalo") is on steady rotation on Miami's La Mega 94.8 FM, and his Latin R&B remake of Akon's "I Want to Love You," featuring Tego Calderón, is picking up steam as well. If that's not impressive enough, he just came back from a successful one-week club tour in Medellín, Colombia.
But things haven't always been so easy for the Hallandale High graduate. His current success is the result of years of hard grinding.
To hear Sito tell it, he was always into music; his Cuban-born grandfather used to play the congas at family gatherings, and for his adolescence during the '90s, old-school hip-hop was the Sito soundtrack. His first venture into the local hip-hop scene came when he rapped on some Miami bass tracks for DJ Laz, one of Miami's most influential radio personalities and a top purveyor of the fast-popping urban genre known as booty music.
It was during this period that he came up with his current stage name. Sito was simply his childhood family moniker, meaning the small one. He says Oner Rock came from his background as a street performer, "As a tagger, I didn't want to be affiliated with a [graffiti] crew," Sito explains. "So I tagged, as Sito Oner, meaning that I was doing it solo. Rock came from my breakdancing in the early '80s." The term rock was used to describe a dancer who was rocking a beat with his moves.
While rapping on some of DJ Laz's mixtapes, Sito began including Spanish in his rhymes. "At first, I used to rap just in English," Sito says. "Then I thought that it would be a lot better if I threw in some Spanish and Spanglish phrases; you know, that's the way we really talk down here, so why not use it?"
Making the occasional mixtape was exciting, but as the '90s wore on, Sito — like many South Florida artists — put his music on the side and concentrated on more practical matters, like getting an education.
His skills as a photographer and graphic designer landed him a cushy job as web director for the preppy clothing company Perry Ellis, and for a while, Sito seemed in harmony with his life — until, that is, he decided to leave his secure 9-to-5 gig. "That was the scariest decision that I have ever made," Sito says. "I was making $80,000 a year, but I decided to go for the music instead."
Fortunately, he had quit at the perfect time. In New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, the syncopating beats and Spanish rhyming of reggaeton were taking hold of a new generation of Latinos. By 2004, reggaeton artists like Don Omar and Daddy Yankee were topping the Latin Billboard charts. At that moment, the demand for Latin rappers was at a premium, and the labels began looking for fresh new talent.
Sito's big break came in late 2005, when he temporarily worked for the ultrapopular Spanish TV show Sabado Gigante — which broadcasts in more than 40 countries around the world. His short segment titled "Nuevas Estrellas del Reggaeton" (New Reggaeton Stars) featured Sito performing some reggaeton dance moves and stirred interest in venues outside of Florida, especially the red-hot Latino demographics of California and Texas.
As a lifelong Broward resident, Sito understood the importance of branching out to states more receptive to live performances. "For an artist in this city, it's important to book shows outside of the state," Sito says, in reference to South Florida's thriving but still smallish live music culture. "You have to listen to the market. South Florida is a great home base, but in different states, you get more love from the public." Case in point: Sito played to more than 25,000 fans when he opened for Don Omar last year in San Francisco.
With his debut album almost done — the Diaz Brothers have already produced the tracks "Como se menea" ("How It Moves") and "Dále candela" ("Set It on Fire") — Sito and his managers now hope for some kind of record deal with a major label. Still, Sito is aware that in today's music business, artists needs to work much harder than before. That means getting involved in all aspects of production. "I design my own logo and anything that has to do with graphics on my end," notes Sito, who's a graduate of Miami's International Fine Arts College.
"For my [recent] Colombian tour, I went a few days before the concert so I could see for myself how my single was being promoted," Sito says. "Then I hit the streets and promoted my show the same way that I do when I'm here." For now, Sito is looking at more live shows. He hopes he'll snatch a record deal.
There are upsides and downsides to that. "Depending on what happens with record labels, I may have to move to L.A.," Sito says. "But the truth is that South Florida is my home, I feel at peace when I'm here, and this is where my music comes from."