In 2017, the year of “Despacito,” Billboard interviewed Fonsi multiple times: When his and collaborator Daddy Yankee's song climbed to No. 1 on the Hot Latin Songs chart; when Justin Bieber jumped on the remix; when it climbed to No. 1 on the Hot 100; when it stayed there week after week after week, something no other Latin song had ever done. And finally, when it did the seemingly impossible: tying Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” for the all-time record of most weeks at No. 1 on the chart, with 16.
Ironically, “Despacito” started almost as an afterthought. Fonsi wrote the song with his friend and regular writing partner Erika Ender. He recorded a demo with his guitar, and continued working on other material for the album, “with this experiment called ‘Despacito’ in my back pocket.”
The song evolved in what Fonsi calls a series of “little steps” that led to its final iteration. Initially, it was a typical uptempo pop track for the artist, with romantic lyrics and soaring melody lines. Key in the process was the intervention of production duo Mauricio Rengifo and Andrés Torres. “I played them the demo, and they both said, ‘Dude, that’s reggaeton,’” Fonsi explains. “They started to edit, and that was that. I’d say 90% of the track you hear today was done in my house in under two hours.”
The next step was finding something authentically Puerto Rican to incorporate into the song. The answer came with the use of the traditional cuatro (Puerto RIco’s national instrument, a kind of guitar that looks like a violin) in the introduction. After that, it was just a matter of finding an urban voice that could contrast with Fonsi’s R&B balladeer croon.
“Yankee gave it that energy,” says Fonsi. “I don’t have that in my voice. He’s a hype man. He has that ability to get you out of your seat.”
Universal Music Latin America chairman/CEO Jesus Lopez readily admits he could have never predicted the degree of “Despacito’s” success. But he knew he had something special in his hands when he heard he finished song late in 2016.