"It spearheaded a global Latin movement."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Luis Fonsi spent most of summer 2019 touring Europe. The last song he played every night was, indeed, “Despacito.”
“Yeah, people go crazy,” says Fonsi, speaking on the phone from Madrid. “It’s a song I’ve performed in every continent on the planet and in places that are culturally very different. In the Middle East, Asia, Russia, countries very removed from our [Latin] way of dressing, of dancing, of feeling. And yet, that song cut through everything.”
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.
“I wanted it to be the first video and single to be released in 2017, and I pressured the team to have everything ready to go before the Christmas holidays,” Lopez told Billboard in 2017. He released the track Jan. 13 on Universal Music Latin and it exploded, debuting at No. 2 on the Hot Latin Songs chart Feb. 3 and going to No.1 just three weeks after its release, where it held for 35 weeks. “By the end of January, we were seeing numbers we just hadn’t seen before,” he says.
Finally, in a totally unforeseeable turn of events, Bieber heard the song in a nightclub in Colombia, and within four days, his remix was out, propelling the song to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“We had to fly someone down to South America that day to record vocals,” Republic Records Chairman/CEO Monte Lipman told Billboard in 2017. “Had we attempted to cross the original version we still would have achieved a certain level of success. But when you add someone like Justin Bieber to the record, you create an event. Based on the immediate reaction in the marketplace anything less than a number one record was unacceptable.”
Today, “Despacito’s” extraordinary Hot 100 record has been broken by Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” “It’s the way of the music business… records are meant to be broken,” Fonsi says. “It’s the natural evolution of the music. Now, ‘Despacito’ sounds normal. But if you asked me four years ago, when I was mixing this cumbia with a guitar and with a Puerto Rican cuatro; when we mixed a pop artist with the King of reggaetón; when Justin Bieber did a remix…it all sounds normal now. But back then it wasn’t. Just like ‘Old Town’ is an amazing, crazy experiment.
Globally, “Despacito” continued to be a force of nature, shattering viewing records on YouTube; it currently stands as the most-watched music video of all time. It wasn’t only that no other Latin song, in history, had had that level of success. It also outdid everything that came in its wake.
“Two and a half years later, what really hits me is the fact that it opened a huge door for the non Latin world to vibrate to Latin music,” Fonsi says. “It spearheaded a global Latin movement. I want to stress I don’t mean to say it was all me or the song; it was the sum of many songs and many artists. But this song definitely kicked the door open.”