Just over a decade ago, Daddy Yankee sat listening to the sounds of the streets in the tiny apartment he shared with his wife and three children in Villa Kennedy, a housing project in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“Cómo le gusta la gasolina!” shouted the voices beneath his window, taunting the pretty girls who accepted rides from the guys with the flashiest cars. “She really likes gasoline!”
“A mi me gusta la gasolina,” Yankee began chanting rhythmically, “dame más gasolina.” “I like gasoline, give me more gasoline.” The refrain got stuck in his head.
“I had the phrase, I had the chorus,” says Yankee, the Puerto Rican reggaeton star who at the time was little-known outside the island. “I sat in my studio in Villa Kennedy and started to harmonize the flow.”
With help from producer friends Lunny and Eddie Dee, they finished the track, adding rapid-fire verses, a thumping, aggressive beat under the almost childish chorus and the sound of gunning motors in the introduction.
It was an eminently commercial take on what was then an underground, subversive genre shunned by major labels.
“The verse was so simple and easy to remember,” Yankee says. “The word gasolina — everyone in the world knew what it meant. And I think part of the success of the track was people looking for some hidden meaning: Was I talking about alcohol, about drugs?”
Yankee laughs. “That track is completely literal,” he insists. “It’s one of the most innocent songs I’ve ever written.”
“Gasolina” exploded 10 years ago this August, irrevocably altering the business, sound and aesthetic of Latin music. It was the first single off Barrio Fino, the hits-packed Yankee album that blended reggaeton with other tropical beats.
The set debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart July 31, 2004, the first reggaeton album to hit that spot. It eventually became the top-selling Latin album of 2005 and the entire decade.
Because so few Spanish-language stations played urban music at the time, “Gasolina” never rose past No. 17 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart. But it got heavy airplay on mainstream stations — peaking at No. 32 on the Hot 100 — and its dembow beat carried over to Latin America, Europe and the Far East.
As a result, Daddy Yankee was suddenly the messiah of reggaeton. The genre would revive sales of Latin music, usher in a new radio format in the U.S. (Latin Rhythm) and establish the urban base responsible for many Latin radio hits today, including Enrique Iglesias’ “Bailando” and Wisin’s “Adrenalina” (feat. Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin).
The fact that the music has evolved inviting collaboration and meshing with other genres only underscores its uniqueness, not to mention its dance appeal. Once thought to be a passing fad, reggaeton is here to stay.
“Daddy Yankee and ‘Gasolina’ triggered the explosion of urban Latin music worldwide,” says Nestor Casonu, president/CEO of Casonu Strategic Management, whose clients include Kobalt and Rhapsody. Ten years ago, he signed Daddy Yankee’s publishing as MD for EMI Music Publishing Latin America.
“Puerto Rico was living a tremendously creative moment,” Casonu recalls. “It was a cauldron of activity with many, many people developing their own musical culture. When ‘Gasolina’ took off, it made us all look to them for talent.”
Yankee led the way, along with compatriots Don Omar, Wisin & Yandel and Tito El Bambino, among others. All are still major stars.
Most important, what was once an eminently Puerto Rican sound has migrated around the world and bred autonomous, urban movements in each country.
“I’m seeing a generational change,” says Farruko, a rising reggaeton star from Puerto Rico. “And that’s because the acts on top — like Yankee — gave us the opportunity [to collaborate with them].”
“In other genres, like pop, it’s still the same old names,” he adds. “The big guys never help the little ones come up the ranks.”
At 38 years old, Yankee hasn’t lost his swagger. He looks far younger than his years, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with a cassette tape and the words “Playero 37,” a nod to the DJ Playero mixtape that first featured Daddy Yankee back in 1992. His bling includes two gigantic diamond stud earrings, twin diamond-encrusted dog tags and a Cartier watch.
In the 10 years since Yankee was thrust into the spotlight, he’s had six No. 1’s on Billboard’s Latin Albums chart. Earlier this year, his single “Limbo” ended a 15-week run at No. 1 on the Hot Latin Songs chart. He just finished a 24-date trek through Europe and last month released the decidedly introspective single “Ora Por Mi.”
“Yes, there’s been an evolution in urban Latin music and I’ll always experiment with other genres,” Yankee says. “But people love classic reggaeton. They love that dembow beat.”
For Yankee, however, success was never just about the music. Even in the “Gasolina” days, he was focused on his image, branding and cultural clout.
”I had a really different vision,” he says. “I could feel the impact reggaeton was having in the streets in South America and the United States. I knew we were close to exploding. And all the money I had, I invested in Barrio Fino.”
Yankee was one of the first Latin artists to actually shell out his own money to record and market an album. (To this day he retains ownership of all his masters.) For Barrio Fino, he hired video director and designer Carlos Perez, whose client list today includes Romeo Santos, Wisin and Ricardo Arjona.
“We wanted to position him as one of the founders of the movement and portray him on a sophisticated note,” Perez says. Taking a cue from historic Muhammad Ali photos, he suggested a “monumental” black-and-white cover. “The main challenge was to make his marketing materials as good as those of any Anglo artist.”
Looking back, Yankee claims he was confident his “Gasolina” gamble would pay off. “I knew it was a home run,” he says. “It wasn’t just the song, it was a movement. Barrio Fino brought glamour to the barrio. And it gave kids the possibility to say, ‘Man, if Yankee can, I can.’”
And they do.