CNCO Prep For Pop Crossover, With Help From Ricky Martin and Simon Cowell

Rose Marie Cromwell

From left: CNCO’s Joel Pimentel, Christopher Vélez, Richard Camacho, Erick Brian Colón and Zabdiel De Jesús photographed March 16 at The Little Farm House in Miami. 

CNCO’s Richard Camacho was juggling four jobs in New Hampshire, his bank account “not really popping,” when he won a spot in Latin quintet CNCO on Univision reality show La Banda in December 2015. Within a year, the 21-year-old and his bandmates -- Joel Pimentel, 21, Christopher Vélez, 22, Zabdiel De Jesús, 20, and Erick Brian Colón, 17 -- were opening for Ricky Martin on his international One World Tour, and landed at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart with their debut, Primera Cita.

“I couldn't believe it,” says Camacho, his hair bleached white-blond and his open jean shirt revealing a tattoo of twin wings, seated with the other members of CNCO at Sony Music Latin’s headquarters in Miami. “I’d never seen that much money in my account, ever. As soon as I got the first deposit, I sent it to my family and told them to move [to Miami].”

In the three decades since Menudo broke ground as the first culturally ubiquitous Latin boy band, few groups have filled the same space until CNCO, which is managed by former Menudo member Martin and signed to Musica, a venture between Simon Cowell’s SYCO, Sony and Haim Saban. While Generation Z boy bands like PrettyMuch (another Cowell effort) and Why Don’t We gain momentum mostly stateside, the act (whose name is a pun on “cinco,” or “five”), has scaled worldwide heights since forming just under two years ago, dodging the TV-show winner trap thanks to its bilingual, multicultural appeal and reggaetón-rooted sound.

“What they have accomplished, in what seems a relatively short period of time, is a direct result of their daily commitment to their growth as artists,” says Martin, whom CNCO looks to as a mentor. “They are smart, listen to others and learn from their mistakes, and that’s key in this industry.”

After the five beat out 36 other contestants on La Banda, the collective, which is fluent in English but sings in Spanish, has charted five tracks on the Hot Latin Songs tally -- two of which cracked the top 10 -- and flirted with crossover success in 2017 after enlisting Little Mix for a bilingual remix to their hit “Reggaetón Lento (Bailemos),” which reached No. 5 in the United Kingdom. They haven’t crossed over from the Latin charts in the United States -- yet. They plan to do exactly that with an increasingly popular formula: tapping English-language artists to hop on remixes. (“If we could do a whole album of features, it would be amazing,” says Camacho.)

Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images For Univison Communications
Martin (left) with CNCO, accepting an award at Univision’s Premio Lo Nuestro in 2017.

CNCO will release its eponymous sophomore album on April 6, a collection of melodic, mostly romantic tracks set to reggaetón beats with rich, R&B-infused vocal harmonies. Lead single “Mamita,” which spawned a video with over 100 million YouTube views and frames the group as a Latin, urban spin on One Direction, is already putting that formula to the test with a remix treatment from Brazilian star Luan Santana, and a reworked song with Swedish pop singer Zara Larsson is in the works.

Initially, says Alex Gallardo, Sony Music senior vp A&R for Latin/Iberia, “when we suggested that this become a reggaetón boy band, we had our detractors. It’s a street genre, and a boy band is ostensibly removed from that. We’ve been careful with the lyrics, the message. It has connected really well with a young audience.”

“What’s working now is urban pop,” says Vélez. “We’re being guided by what’s trending. But we do like baladas, we do pop-rock, merengue. We don’t want to get cornered into just one genre. We want to be versatile.” Camacho chimes in: “We have a say. Back in the day, boy bands were really structured.”

That pliability helps explain why audiences have flocked to the group. The fact that each -member has different roots -- Dominican American, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican American, Ecuadorian -- and a varying style, even accent, expands their appeal beyond Latin America. Each has millions of Instagram followers and his own aesthetic, from Vélez’s laid-back flannel vibe to De Jesús’ suave savoir-faire to Pimentel and Colón’s more hipster-inspired look.

For five guys enjoying their third year as CNCO, they’re still surprised by the reaction to the group. “I did not picture myself in a boy band ever in my life,” admits Camacho. “My brother was the one who mostly followed One Direction, but I was more of a Chris Brown, Usher kind of guy. I didn't know how this was going to work, so I was just confused the whole time until I started catching on to everything, and I noticed there’s a lot of work behind this, a lot of dedication, a lot of hours of not sleeping.”

“I like it,” says Colón, looking at his bandmates. “It’s cool to share this dream with four brothers.” 

The Other Latin Boy Bands
Menudo aside, these three groups stand among the most successful collectives in the genre.

Son By Four

Now a trio, the group sold 568,000 album units in the United States (according to Nielsen Music) and spent 20 weeks atop Hot Latin Songs with “A Puro Dolor” in 2000.

Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Son By Four


The Mexican answer to Menudo had more modest success stateside, but the quintet still had four entries on Hot Latin Songs, including two top 10s in 1992.

El Universal/ZUMA Press


Romeo Santos (below left) got his start in this quartet with bachata roots, selling 1.9 million albums in the United States and earning two No. 1s on Hot Latin Songs.

Taylor Hill/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in the March 31 issue of Billboard.