October 27, 2015 08:40 AM

Long before he sold millions of records, Mr. Worldwide wasn’t welcome at home.

In the latest issue of PEOPLE, Pitbull (né Armando Christian Pérez) details the wake-up call he got as a 17-year-old drug dealer and hustler in Miami.

“My mom goes to me, ‘I don’t want to see you until you figure out what you’re going to do,” says the rapper, 34, of the tough love served by his mother, Alysha Acosta.

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The “Timber” hitmaker, who suited up for the cover of People en Español‘s November issue honoring pop culture’s 50 most influential Latinos, says his mom pointed out how he was following in his father’s footsteps.

Pitbull; inset, Pitbull with his mother, Alysha Acosta
Brad Barket/Getty

“It wasn’t that she scolded me and was punishing me,” says Pitbull. “It was more like giving me freedom to make that choice, and it woke me up.”

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Nowadays, the Cuban-American entertainer says he’s focused on “leading by example” for his six children – and he credits his mom for making it a possibility.

For more on Pitbull’s connection with his family, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.

“That woman made me a man,” he says. “She taught me how to survive, and I want to teach my kids that. Why? Because I don’t want them to feel like they’ve got to live in my shadow.”

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