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Fame came early for Reggaeton star Nicky Jam, and he admits he wasn't ready for it

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Reggaeton has now been around for more than 20 years, and one of its first stars was Nicky Jam.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN LA CAMA")

NICKY JAM: (Singing in Spanish).

KELLY: Fame came early for Nicky Jam, and he admits he wasn't ready for it. But in recent years, he has made a return to music, among other creative ventures. NPR's Enrique Rivera reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YO NO SO TU MARIDO")

JAM: Yo, yo. Nicky Jam, yo.

ENRIQUE RIVERA, BYLINE: It's a hot afternoon in Medellin, Colombia, and one of the founding fathers of reggaeton music has just been dealt a harsh bit of news.

JAM: The doctor told me, bro, you take drugs, you die.

RIVERA: The night before was the 30th birthday of one-time reggaeton superstar Nicky Jam. His career had long been over, but he was now on the verge of losing his life, too. He had hit bottom.

JAM: I did a lot of cocaine.

RIVERA: Nicky Jam said he woke up partially paralyzed the next morning. A doctor performed a brain scan, and it didn't look good. Things seemed grim at the time, but this moment proved to be the catalyst that shot Nicky Jam back to the top of the music charts and even to the A-list of big-budget Hollywood productions. Nicky Jam's story begins in Massachusetts. Like an increasing number of kids in 1980s Lawrence, his parents were migrants from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. According to the study, "The Latinization Of Lawrence," immigration was encouraged by mechanization in Puerto Rico's U.S.-dominated sugar industry and fallout from the bloody reign of the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo, the U.S.-backed dictator. Migrants found work in small manufacturing towns in southern New England, but those low-paying jobs brought high social costs to the area.

JAM: Crack cocaine was taking over and literally killed a lot of people and messed up a lot of families.

RIVERA: One of those families was his own. Nicky Jam says that, after his father was busted for drug possession, he went on the lam.

JAM: In his mind, he was like, OK, well, Nicky's mom - she's not in her best moment, you know? She was dealing with drug addiction and all that. He took us to Puerto Rico, and he went to raise us over there as a fugitive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON")

N W A: You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.

RIVERA: Always a lover of hip-hop and someone who rapped for fun in Lawrence, 10-year-old Nicky Jam continued freestyling and rapping after moving. He learned Spanish and started gaining fans in Puerto Rico's emerging hip-hop and dancehall scenes. He was discovered by a local music producer and released an unheralded album at the age of 14. Soon after, the amalgamation of hip-hop and reggae was complete. Reggaeton was born, and Nicky Jam became one of the genre's biggest stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DONDE ESTAN LAS GATAS")

JAM: (Singing in Spanish).

RIVERA: In 2000, he teamed up with another reggaeton legend, Daddy Yankee, forming a duo known as Los Cangris.

JAM: We saw a lot of things in the hood, man - people getting shot, people getting killed, singers that turned into some crackheads, and some of them went to jail. It was just crazy. But, you know, the movement kept growing.

RIVERA: Nicky Jam released a second EP, "Haciendo Escante," in 2001. The over-the-top raunchiness of songs like "En La Cama," In Bed, marked a new epoch in the young history of reggaeton music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN LA CAMA")

JAM: (Singing in Spanish).

RIVERA: Although hits like this one made Nicky Jam and Daddy Yankee the kings of Puerto Rico, wherever Nicky Jam went, drugs followed.

JAM: I was making money just to, you know, maintain the drug addiction.

RIVERA: He stopped making music and struggled to hang onto odd jobs in San Juan's tourism industry. In 2007, he was offered a gig in Colombia - one that went so well, he decided to stay. While, back home, people made fun of him for being washed up, in Colombia, he was celebrated. Things were going well - that is, until the day after his 30th birthday in 2011.

JAM: I called my dad and I just - I told him, yo, bro. I got to stop these Percs, bro, 'cause I'm going to die.

JUAN DIEGO MEDINA: (Through interpreter) And that's where I come in.

RIVERA: That's Juan Diego Medina, Nicky Jam's manager.

MEDINA: (Through interpreter) I saw potential in him. I said, this is Nicky Jam, and he's not where he needs to be.

RIVERA: Medina says it took a while to earn Nicky Jam's trust, but things moved fast once he did. In 2014, after seven years of living in Colombia and without having released a single song, Nicky Jam came out with a hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIENSAS EN MI")

JAM: (Singing in Spanish).

RIVERA: "Piensas En Mi" was both a throwback and a step forward. In it, Nicky Jam engages in his standard bravado - singing to his lover about how she thinks of him when she's in bed with her partner. But he also introduces a new side to his music, with the use of melodic singing that was a breakaway from cruder cadences that typified his earlier songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOY A BEBER")

JAM: (Singing in Spanish).

RIVERA: Later that year, Nicky Jam hit it big with "Voy A Beber," which continued his renovated style and broke him into U.S. and Puerto Rican markets. Nicky Jam was officially back. His return album, "Fenix," was released in 2017, 10 years after his previous one. The album didn't just cement Nicky Jam's comeback. It carried his stardom to new heights. His collaborations, like Shakira's 2017 song "Perro Fiel," became some of the biggest hits in Latin music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERRO FIEL")

SHAKIRA: (Singing in Spanish).

JAM: (Singing in Spanish).

SHAKIRA: (Singing in Spanish).

JAM: (Singing in Spanish).

RIVERA: The phone wouldn't stop ringing. And among those calling was Hollywood. Nicky Jam landed cameos in action films like "XXX" and "Bad Boys For Life." He released an autobiographical series called "El Ganador," The Winner, on Netflix and Telemundo, and Universal Pictures announced that he'll be performing in his first starring role, an action comedy called "Regulators." But the music keeps coming, as do the accolades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We love you, Nicky.

(APPLAUSE)

JAM: (Speaking Spanish).

RIVERA: "Help me with this, Dad." At his emotional 2022 induction into Billboard's Hall of Fame, Nicky Jam's father, Jose Manuel Rivera, the former fugitive who got him clean so many years ago, handed him his award. Nicky Jam is also giving back.

JAM: Music saved my life, so I wanted to give something to the young kids that I never had when I was young.

RIVERA: Through a partnership with the Latin Grammys, he's provided full rides to Boston's prestigious Berklee School of Music. The award was given to four students who performed with him at the 2022 awards, including 19-year-old Valentina Garcia.

VALENTINA GARCIA: We were very nervous, obviously. It was this very big arena and this opportunity of a lifetime. And he just told us to relax, to enjoy the show and to, you know, play with our hearts.

RIVERA: Nicky Jam has a new life, and it's a good one.

JAM: You could say it's a beautiful story. It's like every story. We got bad things, too, even in the good moments. You know what I'm saying? Like, I can't say it ended up good. We still have a lot to go through. Well, we never know what happens, but we know we living one day at a time.

RIVERA: Enrique Rivera, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PERDON")

JAM: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Enrique Rivera