‘Despacito’: An Oral History of the Global Hit With Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, Scooter Braun and More (EXCLUSIVE)

Leila Cobo
·23-min read

Apart from its nearly unprecedented success, the most remarkable thing about Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s 2017 global smash hit “Despacito” may be how quickly it came together. Today (Tuesday, March 2), Penguin Random House publishes “Decoding ‘Despacito’: An Oral History of Latin Music,” the latest book by Billboard vice president Leila Cobo, who may be the top Latin music journalist in the U.S. This book reviews the history of Latin music, from the Salsa born and bred in the streets of New York City to Puerto Rican reggaeton. The book features interviews and countless personal anecdotes from some of the biggest pioneers in Latin music, including Shakira, Daddy Yankee, Marc Anthony, and many more.

In an exclusive excerpt below, Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, Justin Bieber manager Scooter Braun and others involved in the creation of the global hit — both its original version and the Bieber-featuring remix — recall how it all came together.

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Movements are never the product of a single action. And yet many of the recent developments in Latin music are labeled pre- or post-“Despacito.”

In the summer of 2017, this juggernaut of a song reigned at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for an astonishing sixteen weeks, tying the record for most weeks at #1 that had been long held by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” (the record was finally broken in 2018 by Lil Nas X with “Old Town Road”).

“Despacito” would become the most listened-to song in the world and the original video (one with Bieber was never filmed) would go on to become the most viewed ever on YouTube. More importantly, it would open the floodgates for a wave of Spanish-language and Latin-themed tracks, which would permeate not just the Billboard charts but global awareness as a whole. Today we no longer talk about the next “Despacito,” but about an ongoing Latin music movement.

Despite the seemingly immediate cause-and-effect proposition of “Despacito,” the song and its impact — after all, this book is partly inspired by it — were the result of a long slow boil that was years in the making, both musically and culturally. By the time “Despacito” came along, the global appeal of Latin music in general, and reggaetón beats in particular, had been proven time and time again. But “Despacito,” which was undeniably a great pop song, also arrived at a time when streaming services truly came of age. For the first time ever, the global consumption of Latin music could be very precisely measured, and the world was able to see the rise of a song, in Spanish, through the ranks of the YouTube and Spotify global charts.

The success of Latin music was no longer anecdotal. It was real. Released on January 13, 2017, “Despacito” was originally recorded by Puerto Rican crooner Luis Fonsi, featured reggaetón star Daddy Yankee, and was produced by Mauricio Rengifo and Andrés Torres, two bilingual Colombian producers. The song debuted at #2 on the Hot Latin Songs chart on February 3 and went to #1 just three weeks after its release. It rose to #3 on Spotify’s global chart, unprecedented for a Spanish-language song, and the video climbed to #1 on YouTube’s Global Music chart, surpassing Ed Sheeran. But come April, the track had risen only as far as #48 on the Hot 100 in the three months since its January release.

Then came the Bieber remix. Within a week, “Despacito” jumped to #9, then #4, #3, and, on the May 24 chart, #1.

Keep in mind it took Bieber for the United States to really take note of “Despacito,” even as the rest of the world devoured the song in its original Spanish-only version. This underscored the difference between non-Latin countries like the United States and England, where playing a song in Spanish was still a fluke, and a global streaming market, where Latin music had become more mainstream. “Despacito” pushed the door of possibilities wide open. If “Livin’ la vida loca” provided the tipping point for the Latin Explosion of 1999, “Despacito” was the catalyst for a new version that didn’t necessarily have to rely on English to cross over.

“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 told me recently. “It spearheaded a global Latin movement. I want to stress that 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.”

Cast:
Andrés Torres: Coproducer
Carlos Pérez: Video producer
Daddy Yankee: Artist, songwriter
Erika Ender: Songwriter
Jesús López: Chairman/CEO of Universal Music Latin America & Iberian Peninsula
Juan Felipe Samper: Justin Bieber’s Spanish-language vocal coach
Luis Fonsi: Artist, songwriter
Mauricio Rengifo: Coproducer
Monte Lipman: Chairman/CEO of Republic Records
Scooter Braun: Justin Bieber’s manager

Luis Fonsi: [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 it, 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: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.’ ” Usually when people cowrite, someone brings the original idea to the table. 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’ [Until the waves shout, ‘Oh Lord’]” [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. We worked with Fonsi on guitar, looking for the right melodies. In fact, I have the original sessions recorded. Whenever you’re in a session, you record as you go; at least that’s my technique. I like to go back to the top to create a story. It was also about getting [Fonsi] out of his comfort zone. Because people know him as a balladeer, but he’s an incredibly versatile artist and he’s totally credible. He sings, he dances, he writes.

Luis Fonsi: It [ended up being] one of the first songs on the album. I did a demo with my guitar. Then Erika came in, we wrote the song, I wrote the choruses, did the demo top to bottom, and kept working on the album with this experiment called “Despacito” that I had in my back pocket. I knew I had a song, but I felt it needed something. I didn’t know whether to leave it as a pop cumbia or add another beat. At the time, the album still didn’t have an identity. In fact, we have a more pop version of the song.

Erika Ender: A song has to be like a marriage of words and music, and it needs an easy-to-understand story that will grab the listener. Something that makes you say, “This song is for me” or “It’s something I can dedicate.” That’s what we did with “Despacito”: Create a story that would put the woman in the place she deserved to be. I was trying, with the lyrics, to say how I like to be treated. We like to be treated despacito, to be wooed despacito. We live in such an immediate time, where sex always comes first and women are treated as objects. So it was a little bit about inviting people to live more slowly, to conquer women in a different way. I don’t have issues with any musical style, but I do have issues with messages that aren’t positive for humanity. We were really excited as we wrote. So much that I posted a Facebook Live and said, “We have a hit!”

Luis Fonsi: I give a lot of credit to Andrés and Mauricio. I met Andrés years ago. I used to hire him to record demos for me in Los Angeles [where Rengifo and López are based] when I wrote with [composer] Claudia Brant. While Claudia and I wrote, [Andrés] would record the tracks. Then we started to write together. And finally I asked him to produce songs for my album. He told me, “I have a partner, Mauricio.” So they came to my house in Miami and stayed with me for ten days. The last day, I said: “Guys, listen to this.” And I put on the demo for them. And telepathically, because those two communicate without speaking, they both said, “Dude, that’s reggaetón.” And they started to edit it there, and that was that. I’d say 90 percent of the track you hear today was done in my house in two hours.

Mauricio Rengifo: 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 [touchdown] 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.

Luis Fonsi: Afterward, we started to fine-tune it. What can we add that really has that Puerto Rican flavor? There’s no more Puerto Rican instrument than the cuatro. So we called Christian Nieves, a very well-known cuatro player on the island. I had met him because Tommy Torres uses him a lot. He knows how to fuse a very traditional instrument into a pop song. I asked him to add cuatro to the song, and about two days later, he sent me a take he recorded in his studio in Puerto Rico. By then, Andrés and Mauricio had gone back to Los Angeles. We took that and put it on the track. When we finished, there’s a cuatro line in the chorus that, to me, was what brought it all together; it’s the star of the show.

There were several turning points in the song. The day I wrote it with Erika. The day I wrote with Andrés and Mauricio, when we realized it was different from anything else. When we added the cuatro. After that, we mixed the song, and that’s when I said, “Uf, it needs a feature.” It needed that moment of explosion in the second verse.

Mauricio 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: 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 [step by step],” 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.

Luis Fonsi: When Yankee came in, we went to record at Criteria [recording studio] in Miami. I was there the whole time when we worked. He wrote his part at that moment. Obviously, I had sent him the song, but he created his part right there and we recorded it. From Criteria, we went to my house to edit Yankee’s vocals and add them to the track, and that was the last turning point. That’s when I said, “Holy shit. Yankee gave it that energy.” I don’t have that in my voice. Yankee’s a hype man. He has that ability to get you out of your seat. Combined with my approach, which is more melodic, it was the winning combination.

Mauricio Rengifo: The song really took shape 100 percent when Yankee recorded. It was 2:00 a.m. when we went to Fonsi’s house and listened to the track for the millionth time, and yes, we felt musically it was where it had to be.

Erika 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. It’s like pieces on a chessboard, placed there by the universe. None of us imagined this would have such impact. We knew we had a hit, but we had no notion of how quickly it would come.

Luis Fonsi: The video is exactly what I wanted to portray the day I picked up my guitar with the original idea. It’s a song with a Latin essence, that makes you want to dance, that represents my memories of Puerto Rico, where I grew up. That, to me, is the video, and that’s how we conceived it. I called Carlos Pérez, who’s a friend, and I said, “This is what I want. I want a video that’s not cliché, no piña coladas. I want a Puerto Rico that’s rawer.” And between the two of us, we started to create.

Carlos Pérez: One day [Luis] calls me and says, “I have this song that is going to be my next single and I want you to do the video. It’s something very Puerto Rican and I want to work with a Puerto Rican director. I want it to be authentic. It’s with Nicky Jam and it has an urban beat. I’m going to send you the demo. Check it out and call me back.” The bigger challenge was how to make a video for Luis Fonsi with an urban track that’s credible. I got writer’s block. I [finally] wrote the first “Despacito” treatment. I knew it was a little bit out there. I think it was like a movie. The girl was a dancer or a bartender, and they’re both trying to romance her, and at the end she leaves with a girl, I think.

Fonsi reads it and calls me and says, “I appreciate it, but, you’re overthinking. I want Puerto Rico, I want bright colors, I want a sensual girl, I want dancing, I want barrio.” Then, while I’m in the process of writing the second treatment, he calls me and says [Nicky couldn’t do it because his own single was coming out]. A week later he sends me the demo with Daddy Yankee. The new version, with the “pasito a pasito” part, puts you at a party, which the original did not. I think that was what creatively Yankee brought to the party. I tell Fonsi, “Well, you had a good song. Now you have a fucking great song.” Universal obviously supported it and Fonsi needed that. He was Universal’s pop star who had been a little passive. Everyone knew the importance of the track.

Luis Fonsi: We went to La Perla [a Puerto Rican seaside barrio in San Juan, known for its colorful houses]. We had the dance element, but we didn’t want a choreography that was “Fonsi and his dancers.” We wanted like a “Dirty Dancing,” Latin style. That dance style isn’t cheesy, but it’s like going into one of these hole-in-the-wall places in Puerto Rico or New York and you begin to dance. Everything was carefully planned. Then the model. I didn’t want just any model. It had to be the model. It’s not a video that has a lot of kissing or passion. There’s a lot of flirting. Again, it was very carefully planned. I called Zuleyka [Rivera, former Miss Puerto Rico and Miss Universe]. She loved the song. Everything fell into place. Even the guy who shouts in the song. I had asked my percussionists to be extras on the set, and we started this party, impromptu. I told Carlos to open the mike and record their shouts and it ended up being part of the video. We made a party, even though it’s not on the song’s recording.

Carlos Pérez: There were two things I felt strongly about from the outset. One was, we needed to shoot in La Perla to convey what Fonsi and Yankee wanted. And when I wrote it, I felt Zuleyka was the person. I was very convinced she was the one who could pull it off, because she’s obviously beautiful, but also, because I knew she had a dancing background. There’s nothing more dangerous than going to a shoot with a model who can’t dance.

The one unique factor in this shoot, compared to any other one, is that the vibe of the song would stick to the talent, the crew, the bystanders. Everyone was engaged. I had never felt that way in a shoot. What you see in the video is exactly what was felt.
It’s not my most artistic video, but it’s the most honest video in terms of the song.

Jesús López: 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. 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 kickoff that revved up traditional media, radio, TV, and press.

Luis Fonsi: Probably about a month after its release I realized that this was going to be a game-changer for me. The response was instantaneous. I was now doing promo in markets where my music had never been played before, places where Latin music in general rarely gets played.

Jesús López: By the end of January, we were seeing numbers we just hadn’t seen before. 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 #1 in the United States and the UK, and I knew that would unleash a global domino effect.

Scooter Braun: When Justin jumped on “Despacito,” it was already a big song in the Latin world. Then it went crazy. I was frustrated hearing on the news the president of the United States talking about Mexicans and Latinos the way he was talking about them. I got offered to do the remix of “Despacito” with one of my clients and the client didn’t want to do it, so I said, “Justin, why don’t you get on it?” He was down in Bogotá and he heard “Despacito” in a nightclub and he said, “Man, the girls went crazy. Should I do this?” And I said, “Yes. But if you do it, you need to do it in Spanish.” And he goes, “But I don’t speak Spanish.” And I said, “Yeah, but you can mimic anything. And I think it’s really important that people hear you sing in Spanish and they’re going to go crazy.” He said he’d do it and I flew an engineer down [to Colombia] to record.

Juan Felipe Samper: 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. I met them at the W Hotel and 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. They just told me to go and wait, and around 2:00 p.m. I got a message saying Justin was on his way. He arrived with two friends and said, “Have you heard a song called ‘Despacito’? Here’s what we’re going to do. [Producer] Poo 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. I’d done vocal coaching in Spanish before, but never in another language. The first thing I thought of doing was something I’d done with [songwriter] Jorge Luis Piloto, who translated songs for Mariah Carey: He wrote the songs phonetically in English, so she could just read in her own language. So, I wrote it out and said, “Read this: des­pah­zee­ toh.” 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 he told me he loved how we had worked. It was an amazing experience — as if Michael Jackson had invited me to record “Thriller.”

Luis Fonsi: It took four days between when he heard it and when it was out. What many people don’t know is there’s a full English version of the song. But he said he wanted to do his own version. He added an extra layer to the song. Sometimes you hear remixes and it’s different or you go to the original. He was very smart in that it started with his voice. Because your regular listener doesn’t know who Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi are. And that was very smart.

Juan Felipe Samper: When we went into detail, the toughest words were pasito a pasito. For us it’s easy, but [non-Spanish speakers] have a hard time hearing the a in between the two words. And “Para que te acuerdes [so you remember]” was the toughest, because he couldn’t hear the a at the beginning of acuerdes.

Monte Lipman: We have a very close, long-standing relationship with Jésus and his team. When “Despacito” broke, we knew there was an opportunity to cross the record 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 #1 record was unacceptable. The way we saw it, the universe spoke. What Fonsi and Yankee did was exceptional. Bieber was the hot sauce. And it eliminated any excuses of anyone who said they couldn’t play the record.

Scooter Braun: When I sent the record to radio, I had American programmers call me and say, “It’s too much Spanish.” It’s supposed to be a crossover record for him. And even Luis Fonsi will tell you, he wanted us to go back in. 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 #1 for sixteen straight weeks. I didn’t expect that to happen. I wanted to be #1 for a week. Then it went to #1 for the entire summer of Trump’s first summer in office.

Mauricio Rengifo: The big success of having Justin, beyond the marketing, of course, is that, as a songwriter and performer, he approached the song from a completely different point of view than that of reggaetón or Latin music. His first verse was totally different from what any Latin act would have done. It was very impressive and very cool for all of us to hear him do what he does. His approach to American music and melodies worked so well on a track that wasn’t conceived for the Latin market.

Andrés Torres: The fact is, Justin Bieber is singing a song in Spanish and it’s #1.

Mauricio Rengifo: The fact that he made an effort to sing in Spanish is a sign of respect toward our culture and our language. If he didn’t care, he wouldn’t have done it in Spanish. Or he would have said, “Despaciro.” But he respects Spanish so much that he recorded in Spanish. That’s vital.

Erika Ender: It was a great song, with a great arrangement, at a time when Latins were making a splash with reggaetón, which is no longer reggaetón. Now it’s pop fusion. People were going back to dancing and feeling the rhythm. But you also need a message. And I think “Despacito” has a message. Despite its sensual or sexy tone, the way it conveys the message makes all the difference. It was the coming together of a moment with a great song with Bieber getting on board and it opened many doors.
We’re at a time when Latin stopped being Latin and began being cool.

Luis Fonsi: It’s a song I’ve performed on every continent on the planet. In places that are very culturally different from us: the Middle East, Asia, Russia. Places far removed from our way of dressing, dancing, feeling, moving. And still the song managed to cut through everything.

Today, a song like “Despacito” is normal. But four years ago, when I mixed this cumbia with guitar, with a Puerto Rican cuatro used for traditional Christmas music; when we brought together a pop act with the king of reggaetón; when a remix with Justin Bieber happened. All of that sounds normal now. But back then it wasn’t.

From “DECODING ‘DESPACITO’: An Oral History of Latin Music” by Leila Cobo Copyright © 2020 by Leila Cobo-Hanlon

Published by arrangement with Vintage Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC

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