Chartbreaker: Rising Reggaetonero Jay Wheeler Is Just Getting Started

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Jay Wheeler’s career kicked off with what was almost an unfulfilled promise.

Last year, while attending Myke Towers’ album release party at LIV nightclub in Miami, the rising Puerto Rican reggaetonero hit it off with the more established hitmaker, and the pair made a non-committal agreement to work together in the near future

A self-professed fan of Towers, Wheeler (born José Ángel López Martínez) was too taken aback to ask for Towers’ phone number, but he took the comment to heart. After the party, he hustled back to the studio in Orlando, where he now lives, and wrote an intro and chorus that “left a wide-open space” for Towers to sing or rap to. He sent the demo to Towers via his producer. “I swear, 30 minutes hadn’t gone by and he sent the finished track back,” recalls Wheeler.

That demo became “La curiosidad” (Curiosity), a medium tempo reggaeton track that vacillates between subtly sexy and outright explicit, with the two Puerto Rican singers trading verses that highlight Wheeler’s burnished tenor and Towers’ deeper bass.

While Wheeler, 27, had previously landed on the Billboard charts in 2020, “La curiosidad” helped him explode internationally as it climbed to No. 40 on the Billboard Global 200 and No. 25 on the Excl. U.S. chart — and he’s been on a winning streak ever since. The breakthrough hit became the first of Wheeler’s six total entries on the Hot Latin Songs chart, all of them this year. It also peaked at No. 16 on Billboard’s Latin Airplay chart — and by early August, Wheeler scored his first No. 1 hit on the chart with “Viendo el Techo,” another romantically inclined track, this time without any features.

It made the feat even sweeter for Wheeler, who hustled alone for years working as a farmhand and a Marshalls cashier to make ends meet before venturing into music. “I started college but then dropped out after a semester when I realized my real dream was to sing,” he says, explaining that he was deeply moved by a tragedy in his personal life. “A close friend of mine was killed by a stray bullet,” he continues. “The fact that she died before fulfilling her dreams forced me to fight for mine.”

He soon started to upload songs, ranging from reggaeton-influenced productions to ballads, to SoundCloud without much strategy. Eventually, Luis “Siru” Suárez, a producer and entrepreneur who regularly combs SoundCloud in search of new talent, stumbled upon his page. He wrote to Wheeler on Facebook, impressed by the timbre of his voice, but Wheeler was initially leery. “I’d been through bad experiences, unkept promises, stolen money,” he says. But Suárez persisted, and proposed to bring Wheeler into his company, Dynamic Records, as a partner instead of a signed artist. It was an offer Wheeler couldn’t refuse.

By 2018, looking to accelerate Wheeler’s development, he and Suárez contacted DJ Nelson, a veteran reggaeton producer who owns indie label Flow Music. By then, Nelson had already caught wind of Wheeler, thanks to a video of him performing at street college parties (or justas), his eyes swelling with emotion as he surveyed the crowds around him.

“He was so humble, and he had all that talent,” says Nelson. “I would get goosebumps every time I heard him sing.” Nelson adds he was looking for an artist who already had a team in place, saying “I wanted to join the dots.” Nelson partnered with Dynamic under a new imprint called Linked Music, and also brought in Pablo Casals of Elite Management Media (EMM) to help with management and bookings. Casals then negotiated a distribution deal with indie Empire (which most recently partnered with Blackground to make its catalog — notably most of Aaliyah’s recordings — available to stream for the first time).

With two albums under Wheeler’s belt (Platónico in 2019 and Platónicos in 2020), the artist is now preparing an English-language project, Good Music For Bad Days, due out by the end of year, with a roster of producers that will include Poo Bear, Hitmaka and, of course, Nelson. The first single, “Take My Life,” featuring Tyla Yaweh, is a pop/R&B track with no traces of reggaeton, where Wheeler sings effortlessly in his second language.

“It was always my dream to sing in English,” he says, adding he grew up listening to his mom’s favorite acts like ’90s vocal groups Boyz II Men and Backstreet Boys. “It gives me liberty to jump onto any beat or genre — there are no rules.”

The new album will mark the end of Wheeler’s distribution contract with Empire, and conversations are underway with other companies, including majors. “What brought me to this point, aside from my team, is my discipline,” he says. “I work every single day as if I had just started yesterday.”

A version of this story will appear in the September 18, 2020 issue of Billboard.

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