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.
Back in 2016, J Balvin sat down with Billboard and said something that sounded like a pipe dream at the time: “A Spanish-language song would eventually make its way to No. 1 on the Hot 100… I think it’s possible, but we’re still not there yet. It may take many years, but as new generations expand through the world and realize the United States isn’t the only place in the planet and English isn’t the only language of value…”
A mere year later, the “Despacito” remix topped the Hot 100. And while “Mi Gente,” released in the midst of that song’s historic 2017 chart run, didn’t reach No. 1 on the Hot 100 — though it came close after Beyoncé jumped on the remix that September — in its original, all-Spanish version, it became the first Spanish-language song ever to top Spotify’s global chart. The success of the song’s two versions opened the floodgates for cross-cultural and cross-genre collaborations, spurring dozens of remixes by major EDM acts.
It started with a trip to Paris in late 2016, where Balvin’s interest in collaborating with a major French act was piqued. A few months later, recalls co-manager Fabio Acosta, Balvin played for him “Voodoo Song,” a track by French DJ Willy William with an irresistible opening motif; the song had been a hit in France, but was little-known elsewhere. Balvin called William and asked to do a remix together.
When William arrived to record in Miami, Accosta recalls, “he came with the idea of recording in English or French. And Jose said, ‘No, no, no. We’re going to make this a hit in Spanish.’”
Like “Despacito,” “Mi Gente” was relased on UMLE (under a license from William’s label, Scorpio Music) and it benefited from the label’s expertise in breaking a global hit. But the song, and it’s multicultural, good vibes video, struck a universal nerve. “It broke in clubs around the world. All kinds of DJs picked it up,” says Acosta.
The song was so catchy that it became a favorite of Blue Ivy, Beyoncé’s daughter. When word of her preference filtered down to Balvin’s team via mutual acquaintances, they casually suggested a remix. Beyoncé was game. With the help of a Spanish-language coach, Jean Rodriguez (Luis Fonsi’s brother), the pop legend laid down her vocals, in English and Spanish, even giving out a shout-out to Blue Ivy (“Azul are you with me?”). She also donated the proceeds from her participation to hurricane relief charities in Mexico, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands, following the areas being struck by a number of such storms over 2017.
The surprise remix, dropped without any previous indication from Beyoncé, made a splash, propelling “Mi Gente,” which had already topped Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart, to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October 2017. With “Despacito” by then at No. 9 on the Hot 100, it made history, marking the first time ever that two non-English language songs ranked in the top 10 of the chart concurrently. Beyoncé would subsequently invite Balvin to perform in Coachella with her, laying the groundwork for him to perform his own Coachella Stage set this year.
Beyond the U.S., says Acosta, “’Mi Gente’ went to thousands of places where Spanish language music had never played on the radio: Italy, Asia, England. It was the song that truly opened the doors to what’s happening with Latin music today as a global phenomenon.”
“I told you we could reach a No. 1 on the Hot 100 in Spanish,” Balvin gloated to Billboard last year. “We really are redefining the new mainstream. It takes time. But now we have the facts. It’s not like before, when we spoke about ‘some day.’ We’re making history.”