Lorenzo Cherubini, better known as Jovanotti, was Italy's first rap artist. Since his debut in 1987, the 43-year-old has sold more than 10 million albums. No small feat in a country whose population is only about five times that big. He's performed with Pavarotti and Bono, opened the European MTV music awards, and now for the first time in his career is doing a series of concerts in the United States and Canada. Details caught up with the wordsmith and asked him to weigh in on today's rap, Italian style, and the best place to get an espresso outside the bel paese.
Details: Why did you finally decide to perform in the states?
Jovanotti: I always thought that doing rap here was a bit like selling ice to Eskimos. But last year I spent about two months in New York City and started doing improv performances in small clubs, like NuBlu in Alphabet City and Santos Party House in Nolita. We had a really good response, and I was asked to put on an official tour. Now that my music is more than just rap, it felt fun to come here. There's no pressure. I'm not trying to be a big star.
Details: You started off as a DJ. Now you do a mix of rap, pop, jazz, even some bossa nova. How do you describe your music?
Jovanotti: In Jamaica they have a name for what I do: selector. Even if I play instruments, write lyrics, and have a band behind me, I'm still essentially a DJ. I'm always thinking like a guy who has a console in front of him and is doing everything he can to make sure everyone in the room is having a good time.
Details: Unfortunately, most Americans don't understand the words to your songs, but your lyrics are probably what made you so popular.
Jovanotti: Making music is a kind of fun—basta. Writing lyrics is my true work. I put a lot of time in it. In a way I'm self-taught because in school the only subject I had to take over was Italian grammar. Maybe because of that, I fell in love with words.
Details: What kind of music inspires you?
Jovanotti: Rap, new wave, jazz, Brazilian. Everything from the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Sugar Hill Gang to Talking Heads, Joy Division, James Brown and Bob Marley. And of course, classic Italian singers like Adriano Celetano and opera. It's more difficult to say what kind of music I don't like.
Details: What's your least favorite thing about rap right now?
Jovanotti: The only thing I don't like is when R&B creeps in. It's a genre I find hard to get into. It's a little too bling.
Details: "Bling" is an American word, but Italians kind of own the word "style."
Jovanotti: We're masters of it—even when it comes to something as simple as the way a dish is placed on a table. I'm not part of the fashion system, but when I saw the Valentino documentary, The Last Emperor, I thought it should be mandatory viewing in all Italian schools. The new generation should see what Italy is and the beauty it's capable of producing.
Details: You say you're not part of fashion, but you're wearing a Junya Watanabe cropped jacket. What other designers do you like?
Jovanotti: Mostly I dress in the labels of my friends, like Costume National. Its designer, Ennio Capasa, makes a blazer like nobody else. For jeans, no one's better than Renzo Rosso at Diesel. But I also really like to mix things. I'll pair something really classic, like a Charvet shirt or a Battistoni suit, with jeans and a pair of Vans. I'm 43 years old, so I can't wear the same things I used to wear. Just the other day, I saw a cool sweatshirt by Supreme, but it just didn't look right on me.
Details: Italians are usually pretty demanding when it comes to their espresso. Where you do get the best shot in New York?
Jovanotti: Joe's in the West Village makes a really good cup of coffee. I don't like espresso. In fact, I usually drink tea.