Five years ago this Friday (May 27), “Despacito” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and made global history. The instant-classic single (Universal Music Latino), already a runaway smash in its original Spanish-language version by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, got a boost from its Justin Bieber bilingual remix, released in late April. From that point on, it proved unstoppable, ultimately reaching No. 1.
That alone was historic. “Despacito” is only the third track predominantly in Spanish to ever top the Hot 100; the other two were “La Bamba” (as covered by Los Lobos in 1987), and the Bayside Boys remix of “Macarena” by Los del Río in 1996.
But “Despacito” didn’t just reach the top spot on the all-genre chart. It stayed there. And stayed. And stayed. Week after we week, we waited for the charts with bated breath, and watched the song pass Los Del Rio’s record for the longest-running, primarily non-English single in the chart’s history: 14 weeks. When “Despacito” reached its 16th week at the top, it even tied the all-time record for any song in any language, set by Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” from 1995-96.
Yes, “Despacito” was dethroned before it could pass “One Sweet Day” with a 17th week — displaced by Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” — but its mark was indelibly set. With its music video becoming what was then the most-viewed of all time on YouTube (with nearly 8 billion views today and counting), “Despacito” unleashed a cultural revolution, breaking down boundaries of genre, language and nationality to become the great equalizer in an era of global antagonism.
On the eve of its anniversary, we revisit our conversations with writers Fonsi, Yankee and Erika Ender; producers Mauricio Torres and Andrés Rengifo; executives Jesús López, Monte Lipman and Scooter Braun; and Bieber’s Spanish-language coach, Juan Felipe Samper.
The day I wrote it, I woke up with ‘Des-Pa-Ci-To’ in my head.”
Luis Fonsi, artist/songwriter: [The day I wrote it] I woke up with ‘Des-Pa-Ci-to’ in my head. It was so loud and clear that I had to research if this was already a song I might’ve heard before. I then ran to my home studio, powered it up, picked up my guitar and started recording. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to forget, because I felt there was something interesting in the simplicity of it. I had the main blueprint of the chorus all before my morning coffee. That afternoon I had a writing session scheduled with my dear friend Erika Ender. As soon as she walked in, I sang the chorus idea and she got it right away.
Erika Ender, songwriter: I went to his home in Miami around 2:00 p.m., we had a cafecito, and then we went into his studio and he said: “Since this morning, I’ve been mulling writing a song called ‘Despacito.’” He sang the first line for me, and the second: “Vamos a hacerlo en una playa en Puerto Rico.” And I said, “Hasta que las olas griten, Ay bendito.” [Laughs.]
From that point on we began to build the song, moving the Puerto Rico line to the end so it wouldn’t sound so regional, and creating a story. I’ve always felt that a song has to have a story that’s easy to understand and will hook the listener. We were really excited as we wrote. So much that I posted a Facebook Live and said, “We have a hit!”
Mauricio Rengifo, Co-producer: When Fonsi first played the demo for us, it didn’t have reggaetón, which is a big part of what made the song so easy to listen to. But it did have “Despacito,” which is a golazo and a fantastic idea. We were working on Fonsi’s album and would periodically get together and work on the song. It took a long time to get it done, not because it took a long time to write, but because of the bureaucracy involved: Who would be featured, when would they record — there was a lot of trial and error. But that’s one of the song’s virtues. We had time to work on it.
Erika Ender: We looked for a story that would put the woman in her rightful place. As a woman lyricist, I was trying to state how I would like to be treated. We like to be wooed, despacito — because we live at a time of immediacy, where sex comes first and women are treated like objects. This was in a way an invitation for people to live life more slowly and give a touch of class to the genre.
Fonsi: We felt that if a strong urban voice came in on that second verse, the song could grow even more.
Rengifo: Initially, Fonsi had asked Nicky Jam to record, and he did. But there was a conflict with the release of his own album, so Nicky suggested Fonsi call Daddy Yankee.
Daddy Yankee, featured artist/songwriter: Fonsi sent me an email and said, “Yo I have this crazy song.” Obviously he’s the creator and main author. But there was something missing in the song. I came to the studio and I did my thing: the verse and the pre-hook, “Pasito a pasito,” that was my creation. The ending of the song was also very different. I told Fonsi we needed to repeat “Pasito a Pasito” after the bridge. He gave me a lot of liberty.
Ender: I also loved what Yankee added. The song went through several arrangements, and I have to give Fonsi credit, because he went into the studio with the producers until he got exactly the arrangement he wanted. All the planets aligned.
Jesús López, Chairman/CEO, Universal Music Latin American & Iberian Peninsula: I wanted it to be the [label’s] first video and single released in 2017, and I pressured the team to have everything ready before the Christmas holidays. No one could predict what happened. Radio really wasn’t waiting for a Luis Fonsi track. Yankee’s contribution was crucial for the song to expand artistically — and later, both the video and social media were key elements in delivering an amazing kick-off that revved up traditional media, radio, TV and press. By the end of January, we were seeing numbers we just hadn’t seen before.
Fonsi: Probably about a month after its release I realized that this was going to be a game-changer for me. The response was instant. I was now doing promo in markets where my music had never been played before, places where Latin music in general rarely gets played.
Based on the immediate reaction in the marketplace anything less than a No. 1 record was unacceptable.
López: We always had a remix in mind, but failed in our initial efforts to find an Anglo artist, until Justin Bieber heard the song at a club in Bogotá [Colombia]. At that point, I knew the last and most difficult barrier was going to fall. We at last had the chance to be No. 1 in the U.S. and the U.K., and I knew that would unleash a global domino effect.
Monte Lipman, Chairman/CEO Republic Records: We have a very close, longstanding relationship with Jesús and his team. When “Despacito” broke, we knew there was an opportunity to cross the record [to American pop audiences], and we knew a remix was necessary to go to the English-language stations. Scooter Braun called me on a Tuesday and said, “This record you spoke to me about, Bieber loves it — but the caveat is, he wants it out in 48 hours.”
You’re talking recording the record, mixing the record, mastering. We had to fly someone down to South America that day to record vocals. 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 No. 1 record was unacceptable.
Juan Felipe Samper, Bieber’s Spanish-language vocal coach: Bieber was performing a show in Bogotá, and I got a call asking to meet with his team because they needed a translator. They didn’t say what they wanted me to translate. They told me to go to a recording studio the following day, and that only two people would be there: me and the sound engineer. They were flying in Justin’s engineer from New York. Justin arrived with two friends and said: “Have you heard a song called ‘Despacito?’ Here’s what we’re going to do. Pooh Bear is going to send me the lyrics to the song in Spanish and I need you to be my vocal coach and make sure my Spanish is correct.”
It was both exciting and stressful. We worked on the diction for around half an hour and then we started to record. When he finished he walked out of the recording booth, he gave me a hug and told me he loved how we had worked. It was an amazing experience. As if Michael Jackson had invited me to record “Thriller.”
Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber’s manager: When I sent the record to radio, I had American programmers call me and say: “It’s too much Spanish.” I said, “Hell no.” Mike Chester was my head of radio at the time. I said, “Mike, tell them to play it for two weeks. If it doesn’t work in two weeks, we’ll go back and do more English.” Obviously, we went for two weeks and it went to No. 1 for sixteen straight weeks. I didn’t expect that to happen.
Interviews have been culled from prior Billboard reports, as well as reporting done for Cobo’s book, Decoding Despacito: An Oral History of Latin Music (Vintage).