The global star talks his house music origins, mentoring the genre's next-in-line superstars and getting respect for Latin culture amid celebrating three decades in the business.
In 1992, Marc Anthony was driving crosstown in Manhattan when Juan Gabriel’s “Hasta Que Te Conocí” began playing on his car radio. “I saw light,” he says.
Captivated by the song, he called his manager, David Maldonado, and insisted on recording it. Maldonado pushed back: Gabriel was arguably Mexico’s biggest music star at the time. What was the point in covering such a big hit? “Maybe in salsa,” he told Anthony.
Anthony got his way. At the time, he was a developing house music artist who was regarded as one of the founders of New York’s dance scene, having worked with and produced Little Louie Vega and such rising pop acts as Menudo and the Latin Rascals. His cover of “Hasta Que Te Conocí” would mark a new direction for him, however.
The song became the foundation of Anthony’s 1993 debut Spanish-language LP, Otra Nota, which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Tropical Albums chart and led to a tour supporting Tito Puente. By the end of the decade, at the age of 30, Anthony had become a global star in the wake of the 1999 release of his self-titled debut English-language album, which has since been certified triple-platinum, according to the RIAA. Within 10 years, the “Nuyorican” kid from the Bronx who had begun his career freestyling in English had evolved into one of the most versatile and commercially successful Latin artists, whether he was singing in English or Spanish, as well as an ambassador of the genre.
At 52, Anthony remains one of the highest-grossing touring acts in the Latin world. In 2019, he sold 233,962 tickets in the United States alone and grossed $25.4 million from just 24 shows, according to figures reported to Billboard Boxscore. With eight No. 1s on both the Hot Latin Songs and Top Latin Albums charts, he is No. 6 on Billboard’s Greatest of All Time Latin Artists ranking, in addition to having the most No. 1s — 33 — on the Tropical Airplay chart.
“He has an unparalleled ear for choosing hits,” says his longtime friend and business/philanthropy partner Henry Cárdenas. “And he sings in English, in Spanish; salsa, urban, ballad. There’s no one like him in the Latin market. This is a 120-pound guy, but when he gets onstage, he’s a 300-pound giant.”
Anthony, who has been signed to Sony Latin for over 20 years, has also emerged as a mentor and savvy businessman. He owns a stake in the Miami Dolphins, and his entertainment/sports venture in partnership with Michel Vega, Magnus Media, includes artist management (Gente de Zona, Fonseca, Cimafunk), music publishing, digital/video content creation, TV production, a music label, a sports division and a talent agency. He has also established himself in Hollywood as an in-demand actor, with roles in El Cantante (2006), a biopic of salsa icon Héctor Lavoe, and In the Heights (2021), the upcoming film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit 2005 Broadway musical.
In a conversation with Billboard, Anthony candidly looks back at his career as he celebrates his 30th year in the music industry.
Henry Cárdenas said that when you were an up-and-coming artist, he paid you something like $25 an hour to work the door at a rodeo in New York.
Twenty-five bucks a day, that cheap f--k. (Laughs.) He was just starting out. And I was just starting out. David Maldonado was my manager. I had a two-bedroom apartment in Parkchester, and I was making ends meet through odd jobs. David said, “I have a friend in from Chicago, and he needs a room. Can you rent it to him?” I said, “Yeah sure.” I think it was $40 a week — it was cheap.
He was doing a rodeo at the Kingsbridge Armory, with horses and shit. I was like, “Bro, that’s not going anywhere.” Turns out the headlining act was Antonio Aguilar, and he packed the place. I would sell tickets at the front door. I worked in an administrative capacity with Henry Cárdenas when he had, like, two dimes.
But obviously, you wanted to be an artist...
Yes. I never thought in a million years that it would be salsa or Spanish in any way, shape or form. David would manage my house career, my pop career, my freestyle career. I was a big producer and a big songwriter but always behind the scenes. Not too many people know about me being one of the founding fathers of house music, and that’s something that I’m really proud of. Me, Todd Terry, Little Louie Vega and Kenny Gonzalez. I think I scatted on 300 records before I started singing salsa.
You speak of your house career with affection. Did you ever want to go back to the genre?
I didn’t have to. I started in the mid-’80s. I had done that. Salsa had opened up a whole new world for me, and I wanted to learn about it. My Spanish was horrible. In some of my early interviews, I couldn’t conjugate a verb. But I plowed through it, and I taught myself. It was like seeing light for the first time. Salsa gave me a voice, and it gave me a platform and it gave me identity. I had found my culture, and I was not letting it go.
You obviously heard a lot of salsa growing up. What drew you to that specific sound?
It was “Hasta Que Te Conocí.” We patched together the first album around it because I didn’t have any other songs. Ralph Mercado signed me to RMM and goes, “Bro, here’s [producer] Sergio George,” who I knew from the neighborhood. Sergio did the A&R for the album, we put it out, and I didn’t expect the reaction. In house and freestyle and hip-hop, there was no traveling or getting out of your neighborhood. It was all New York-based. With salsa, all of a sudden I’m playing clubs in Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, Peru, Colombia. We would do three sets a night, and I only had four hits. What the f--k do you do? I would repeat “Hasta Que Te Conocí” because it was the hit and throw in a lot of covers, a lot of solos. But it found me. Salsa found me.
It must have been crazy to see the reaction to your music, especially in a different country.
It was bizarre. You do these festivals, and there’s 40,000 people singing along. How did my music reach all the way over here? And I never let it go.
We talk so much now about the global dominance of the Latin genre, but it has been global forever, hasn’t it?
There’s a whole continent that consumes Latin music. Think about that. When you see Bad Bunny debut at No. 1 on the world charts, that’s that f--king army we have. And Maluma’s top two on the planet, and [Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s] “Despacito.” Not everybody has that army or those numbers. And they definitely move the needle. They really do. When you add up those numbers, it’s “What are these 500 million extra numbers you’re putting on the board?” Yeah, those are my people. It’s a game-changer.
When you see what’s happening with Latin music right now, how does it compare with when you did your first English-language album?
It’s two totally different eras. If [it were the same], I would have been accepted just for Latin music and I wouldn’t have had to record an English album. J Balvin is accepted in the general market as much as he is in Europe, and he doesn’t have to sing in English. The same with Maluma and Bunny. Now it’s different. These kids became their platform. I didn’t have all these tools when I started. You had to hustle — knock on the doors of Latin radio stations; f--king carry the program director’s f--king suitcases to his car and serve him coffee. Seriously.
You had to kiss ass and hope he’d give you two spins. If he did, you’d f--king feel like you had made it. But now, everybody has their own platform. Everybody’s a business. These kids took it and owned it, and I’m proud of them. Musically, I wouldn’t say that I consume all of it, but they’re doing it their way and I’m proud. Yankee is an industry. Nicky Jam is his own business. Balvin is his own industry. You don’t need the labels anymore to become one of these young titans.
Aside from artists not having to sing in English, I feel this is the first time Latin culture is respected. Do you feel that way?
I don’t think our culture is respected. I think the numbers are starting to be respected. It’s definitely recognized, and people are aghast at the sheer numbers and the power. This is a very unique opportunity to leverage that. Data is data. If you look at who’s in the top 20 globally and 70% are Latino, that’s going to affect brands; that’s going to affect marketing. But [although] they respect our numbers, I wouldn’t say they respect our culture so much. We have a lot of work to do there.
This will come by leading by example, not by preaching to people who don’t get it. We walk around as ambassadors because a lot of people are meeting a Latino for the first time, and they have all these preconceived notions. So we need to be that person that the people you respect, respect regardless of culture.
Going back to the rodeo: At the time you were an artist with a budding career, and yet you were willing to hustle. Why?
When shit needs to get done, you go and do it by any means. It takes a lot of work to make it look easy. And I put in the hours, I put in the hustle, I put in the relationships. You ask anybody in the industry: I have 30-year relationships with everybody who has been around. It gets easier as your credibility comes into play. They don’t question as much. You don’t have to hustle as hard. Labels take your word for it based on your track record.
But yeah, when I first started, I even volunteered to intern at Sony. I was willing to bring coffee to people, to these big A&R guys, because I wanted to learn the ins and outs of the business. That’s why I really have a soft spot for interns and people who want to be in the field.
Many artists call you a mentor. Why is guiding others’ careers so important to you?
I always take a minute for a kid who has the balls to reach out to me to learn the business — whether it’s Pitbull when he first started, Gente de Zona, Maluma, who I think had one single out in Colombia and was just breaking here. He came to my house and I was like, “Who’s this kid?” Somebody vouched for him, and he came for what was supposed to be an hour. He ended up staying for, like, 16 hours. I can only show them what I have learned. [And they make] millions of dollars.
How do those numbers compare with yours in the beginning?
When I first started, trust me, it wasn’t millions of dollars. It was 500 f--king dollars a gig, and you had three sets at two in the morning. And the band had to chip in to pay for my taxi home because after I paid everybody out I would have only 40 bucks left. I’d get home at 7 a.m. — but I loved it. Now, these kids open with $200,000 a night. Good.
When they ask you to teach them about the business, what’s the biggest lesson you teach?
Be independent. Own your masters.
Do you own yours?
No. I’m signed to Sony. When I signed — and I’m still under contract — it was a totally different ballgame. So I ask, “Are you independent? Well, this is what you need. This is the basis of it. It’s very expensive to launch a single, a video. You have to be in it for the long haul.” [And then] simple lessons.
When Maluma came to see me, I think he had one single. I said, “Listen, you’re lucky you have a single that people are responding to. People subscribe to you. So this is an opportunity; it’s an open door. It’s going to take a lot of work to up that subscription. Every contact you have with an audience, it’s an opportunity to expand that base.” People subscribe to what you represent after a while: “If that’s a Maluma record, that shit’s got to be good. That’s a Bad Bunny record; it has to be hot.” But you have to create that. Feed the base. Be consistent and be loyal and be faithful to them.
Would you have liked to have received advice to shorten your journey?
I’m glad I didn’t. But I did get advice on how to build a sustainable career from Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Rubén Blades and Paul Simon. Tito Nieves had a lot to do with it as well. Everything else, I learned from the ground up, such as how much a bad decision hurts and how a great decision is euphoria.
You’re working on a new album but also many other ventures, including several projects with your content studio. You are producing a movie with Sofía Vergara, and Magnus partnered with Beliv, a beverage company. Are you looking toward a future when you might not be touring every night?
There are great voids in Latino-centric businesses. J.Lo was the first one to kick down the door and say, “Why can’t I be an actress and an entertainer and an entrepreneur?” Now it’s almost standard. Opportunities present themselves because they can no longer ignore the numbers. But this does not [replace] what I do. My art is my art, my touring is my touring, and creating is creating. But I’d be stupid to ignore opportunities where you can move the needle outside of what you do artistically and [also] be a Latino-owned company that provides services or consumer products.
Talking about Jennifer Lopez, was it emotional to watch your daughter Emme perform with her at the Super Bowl? She has pipes.
She definitely has the pipes. I was there because I’m one of the owners of the Miami Dolphins. It’s surreal to be sitting in the owner’s box, hosting the Super Bowl, and my ex-wife and daughter are performing. It was a mind f--k, to put it mildly. I was asking myself, “When did my life become this interesting?”
Tributes To El Jefe
Anthony's friends and collaborators reflect on the musician-producer's influence.
Rubén Blades: “Marc helped internationalize the salsa sound, and that is good news for the genre and its practitioners. He helped show a younger Latino generation how to think of music as a business, not just as performers.”
Maluma: “I never thought I would find one of my biggest friends in the industry in music, but history changes with Marc. Thanks for so much advice, so many moments full of magic. I love Marc and have loved sharing the stage with him, but above that, I love sharing his friendship.”
Laura Pausini: “When I think of Marc, I immediately feel captivated by his voice. I’ve had the pleasure of singing with him several times, and rarely have I had a voice as perfect as his, both technically and emotionally. One of a kind — that’s Marc to me.”
Luis Fonsi: “Aside from being one of my dearest friends, Marc embodies voice, passion, charisma and strength. Everything that he has done in this very successful 30-year career is truly inspiring. He is a triple threat that can do whatever he sets his mind to. ¡Orgullo boricua!”
Ricky Martin: “Marc’s presence was larger than life, and his talent and charisma left a significant impression on me from an early age. He has managed to break language barriers and navigate different genres without losing his essence, his culture, and always carrying his Boricua pride wherever he goes. He is a force.”
Prince Royce: “I have learned so much from Marc. He is an inspiration to so many of us in the industry for being an amazing role model, for his innate talent, his musical integrity and creativity.”