In 2018, Luis Fonsi will celebrate 20 years of charting on Billboard‘s rankings.
After six No. 1 hits on the Hot Latin Songs chart, dating to his 1998 debut album Comenzaré, Fonsi attained his greatest success yet with “Despacito.” As previously reported, the smash (his seventh No. 1 on the list), with Daddy Yankee and featuring Justin Bieber, leads the list for a record-breaking 42nd week (on the Feb. 17-dated tally). It passes the 41-week reign of Enrique Iglesias‘ “Bailando,” featuring Descemer Bueno and Gente de Zona.
Before a performance at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, amid his Love + Dance World Tour, Fonsi took a breather to chat with Billboard about his “monster” hit “Despacito,” his 10 Billboard Latin Awards nominations, and what it means to break an all-time Latin chart record.
Let’s talk about the dynamic among you, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber.
The song was originally just me, on my own. That’s how it was originally written. Then, I felt it needed just an extra shock of energy, a vocal that would take the song and lift it up and make it explode.
That’s when I reached out to Daddy Yankee. He took the song to a different level and brought in that urban-rhythmic vibe to my more melodic voice. That contrast really complemented the song and made it such a huge hit. That was step one.
When the song was released, the instant feedback from the world was incredible and, four months in, Justin Bieber calls and expresses his interest. What he brought was just a different layer, a different angle, his smooth vocals. I sing it coming from my Latin background and he sings it more coming from his Canadian-American style. It’s really nice to have that different point of view and it was great to have him and his special sauce.
He added a new verse, but, at the end of the day, the song is pretty much the same. Having him sing half of the chorus in Spanish really opened up a lot of doors, because here is this household name singing in Spanish for that [English-speaking] audience that normally doesn’t really speak the language. I think they really appreciated that. It was like telling them, “Hey, if he is singing in Spanish, you can sing in Spanish, as well, even though you don’t know the language.”
It’s ok now to listen to songs that are in a different language, and that, to me, is a different picture. That, to me, is the biggest thing that Justin Bieber brought to the table: [exposing] Latin music to an audience that normally wouldn’t listen to a song in Spanish, or even to Latin music in general. Besides the fact that he is an incredible and talented performer and vocalist, him being there opened up a lot of doors for us and for Latin music.
After the “Despacito” connection, have you and Bieber kept in contact? Has a friendship developed?
We don’t have a specific [next] project together, but we are still in contact. Every time something happens with the song, we get in contact, just like I’ve been in contact with Daddy Yankee, even if it’s via text, WhatsApp or by phone to congratulate each other.
This has been a huge song for [Bieber’s] career, one of the biggest, and it’s ironic that it’s in Spanish. It is important for him, for us, and there is definitely a friendship.
I hope one day we can work together again, maybe even perform “Despacito” together [live]. Who knows?
At what point did you know that the song was becoming something bigger than you ever imagined?
I’ll answer this question in two parts. There were really two different moments when I realized that it was like no other song.
One was before we released it, when we were putting the video together, when I was talking to my director, Carlos Perez. I said, “Carlos, I really have this special song.” Carlos is really different, and he knows. We’ve done videos together, I’ve played him demos, we talk a lot about music. So, I said, “Look, we have this really special song, we need to do something special, Daddy Yankee is involved.” He listened to the song and called me back and said, “Wow.”
I then called [Miss Universe 2006] Zuleyka Rivera and said, “You normally don’t do music videos, but just hear the song. Listen and imagine us doing something really historic in the streets of Puerto Rico, with Daddy Yankee, myself and you representing the Latina powerful woman, and please listen and tell me if you want to be a part of this.” Ten minutes later she calls me and says she had already listened to the song two, three times and that it was the best song she’d ever heard.
That initial reaction from people normally you don’t get. It was way beyond a normal, “Yes, I like it, it’s cool.” It was a different excitement, and everything started falling into place.
The day we shot the video, and I don’t know how many videos I’ve done, you could see the crew and the dancers and everybody enjoying the song. It was like no other video. People were dancing on the streets when nobody was filming. Normally you would get somebody saying, “Can you please shut it off until we go back to filming again?” But here, people were asking to leave it on. That was the first sign, right there.
The second sign probably came around week two, after the release of the song, when people who normally don’t call started calling. People who only call when something different is going on. I got calls from Ricky Martin, Juan Luis Guerra, Marc Anthony and other artists telling me it was a home run.
That is something that you sense, that doesn’t happen with other singles you release, and you look at the charts and start seeing streams and spins in countries where my music normally doesn’t get played. Two weeks in without the label formally launching the song, in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, it was already in the top five.
So, those were sort of the two times, and it was very early in the game that we felt we had something different.
As you know, “Despacito” breaks the record for the most weeks at No. 1 (42) on Billboard‘s Hot Latin Songs chart. When you recorded the song, did you think it would achieve such a grand result?
Absolutely not. I would be completely and utterly lying to you if I said I saw this coming. I felt very strongly about the song from the beginning when it was a guitar demo and it sounded like a cumbia song. I knew that it was 100 percent going on my [next] album [expected later this year]. When I do an album, I write around 200 hundred songs, and I knew that “Despacito” was definitely going on, but I didn’t even know [if] it was going to be the first single or that it would become what it became.
To this day, hoy día, as I’m talking to you, I’m still surprised that this is the biggest Latin song ever. No, my body, my soul, my heart, my brain are still digesting and processing everything that’s been going on so quickly.
It has been such a fun, beautiful ride, which I’m trying to enjoy every second of, so I’m still surprised, and I hope this doesn’t go away. And, I hope I don’t get too used to it, because it is very special, and it doesn’t happen too often. I’m proud to be a part of it.
You have seven No. 1 hits on the Hot Latin Songs chart. Before “Despacito,” your “No Me Doy Por Vencido” led for 19 weeks in 2008-09. What does it mean to have songs that reign for such extended periods? Do you see it as a responsibility to break another record, or even come close to the success that you have achieved with “Despacito”?
I don’t feel a responsibility to break records. I feel a responsibility to make music, that’s all I’m concerned about.
If I put pressure on myself, it’s to make good music, not to break a record or to outdo myself or to outdo another artist. The moment you start thinking about that, it goes to you-know-where: s–t. It always has to be about the music and not about the numbers.
When it happens, or now that is happening, of course, it is a blessing, of course I’m loving it; it doesn’t mean that I don’t celebrate it, and I know how hard it is to get here, and I’m grateful for it. I thank God and my fans every day, but I don’t put pressure on myself or feel that every time a song comes out to go out there and fight with history or week-by-week study the numbers and say, “Oh, I’m going to beat this other record.”
I cannot compete with “Despacito.” I’m blessed that “Echame La Culpa” [with Demi Lovato] reached No. 1 in the Latin Airplay chart [dated Jan. 20], and I know it’s doing great. That, to me, is already a win, to be able to follow up such a monster with a successful song. It’s all about good music.
You have been nominated for 10 Billboard Latin Awards, including artist of the year and hot Latin song of the year. What does it mean to receive so many nominations?
It’s a huge deal. Ten nominations without even putting out an album… it’s incredible. It’s the power of one song, and I hope that I can celebrate that evening.
I’m nominated with people who I really love, on a personal and professional level, who I really look up to. We all know each other, we have worked with each other, and it really is about coming together as a fraternity of amazing musicians. We all win, nobody loses.
Finally, what is the most bizarre moment you have experienced during the life of “Despacito” so far? Any anecdote you would like to share?
There have been a bunch. But I would say when I met my hero and hearing him say that he loves the song. I mean, Stevie Wonder comes up to you and says, “Man, that ‘Despacito’ song… that’s a good song.” I was, “Uh, uh, dah, uh… thank-you-sir…” [Laughs]
It does not get any better than that. Definitely puts things in perspective.