Leila Cobo on Decoding ‘Despacito’ and the influence of Latin music

Leila Cobo Omar Cruz

Leila Cobo // photo by Omar Cruz

Leila Cobo, Billboard’s VP of Latin Music, is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities on Latin music, making her the perfect person to write Decoding “Despacito”: An Oral History of Latin Music.

Her new book traces the history of the world of Latin pop in 19 songs, spanning 1970-2018. In it, first-person interviews with everyone from Jose Felicano to Gloria Estefan to Enrique Iglesias to Luis Fonsi demonstrate that while Latin music’s “big moment” has been teased multiple times, the culture’s influence on the global pop scene can’t be ignored.

It’s a fascinating glimpse into the making of classic tracks, and it was equally as fascinating to speak with Cobo about the book, as well.

Decoding DespacitoThe Pitch: When I heard about your book, what really interested me is that you look at how these songs haven’t just influenced Latin music but how they’ve infused and influenced popular music as a whole.

Leila Cobo: That was actually one of the driving forces behind the selection. I’m sure a lot of people are going to be, “But why didn’t you have this song or why didn’t you have that song,” but that had to have happened. The songs needed to have had some impact beyond just Latin music or beyond their sub-genre of Latin music. That was the requisite.

Reading the book, a lot of the artists you interview talk about how excited they were when this song sort of went beyond just the Latin music sub-header–because I would never call Latin music a sub-genre, as it contains all kinds of music, of course.

I think a lot of people at some point or another make the mistake of saying it’s a genre. I think even I’ve at some point said, “Oh, the genre,” then I correct myself but, you know, that’s a really great observation that I hadn’t even thought about but, now that you bring it up, it’s true, right? They’re doing music and I mean, obviously, some are not doing music in Spanish but even Gloria and Emilia [Estefan] with “Conga”: it’s this real excitement of, “Wow, we were able to go big.”

I hadn’t thought about that but that’s true. If they were just talking about their Latin music realm, they wouldn’t be surprised but the fact that the songs went so far, it fills them with like excitement and happiness. Even Enrique Iglesias–when he talks about “Bailando,” he genuinely gets excited about how far that song went.

That was one of the things I was specifically thinking about: his discussion of “Bailando,” and also Daddy Yankee talking about “Gasolina” and how he’s like, “Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you know what ‘gasolina’ is–it’s gasoline.

I think maybe, with the exception of J Balvin–who, by the time he came along, things were happening so quickly–all the other ones knew they had good songs. I mean, it’s not like they thought they had lousy songs and I knew they knew they had hits, but I don’t think they ever thought that these songs were going to be quite so big or quite so important or influential.

I mean the Enrique song: even he talks about it, how he didn’t even know this group and he wasn’t convinced about the song at the beginning. They didn’t know. There are so many factors that go into play, you just don’t know. I think the sense of wonderment is really lovely and it was one of the things when I interviewed them–they were genuinely happy and excited remembering this and I love that about the book. I think that’s one of the things I loved the most when I did the interviews.

You mention both in the prologue for the book, as well as while we’ve been talking, that there are so many songs that could have been included and you mention in the prologue about the hope that this will generate enough interest to spawn a sequel. I hope so, because these are the epoch-making songs that come with the repeated “Latin music’s big moment.” You talk about Perez Prado in the prologue but I’m 41 and so, my first introduction to a song that was completely in Spanish was when Los Lobos had their hit with “La Bamba.”

Oh my god, that was one that I didn’t include. I’m so glad you brought it up because no one has brought it up yet. We went back and forth with “La Bamba” and then, at the end, I said, “You know what? No, because it’s a remake of the Ritchie Valens one and Ritchie Valens was pre our time so let’s just leave that one out.” I should have put that one in.

Did you leave it out because it is specifically a cover?

No. It was one of those songs that I wasn’t sure whether I should leave or not and then, finally, we decided, ”Let’s take it out.” I should have put it in. I’ve spoken a lot about the very Latin– and not to say that Los Lobos aren’t Latin and “La Bamba” not a Latin song because, of course, it is–but I think I was very focused on Latin American artists. That song should have been there. You can quote me saying that song should have been there. We discussed it and then it dropped off the list in part–alright, let me see how I justified that.

In part, because it was a cover of Ritchie Valens and Ritchie Valens wasn’t around to talk about it, unfortunately, so that had a bearing. The only person I wrote about that wasn’t there was Selena and so, I spoke with her dad, who I felt had authority to speak for her, to a degree. Not fully–obviously, he’s not her, but I did not want to really tap songs that were too old because I felt the story would get lost a little bit. But “La Bamba”? Yeah, I think it would have been cool to speak with Los Lobos and include it there and talk about the movie. Yeah, that’s one of my misses.

I think that speaks to the fact that there is so much material to cover. The thing that I found amazing, reading the book, is the fact that there are so many people who pushed back on the business side of things like, “Oh you can’t put a song in that’s all in Spanish: who’s gonna listen to it?” Reading that, I think of every time I was a kid watching the MTV Video Music Awards and they would have showcased all the big winners in all the other countries and that two-minute highlight reel probably introduced me to more bands that I fell in love with than the entire three-hour broadcast. That’s how I found out about Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and others.

I love that that happened to you because that is so vexing, isn’t it–that line of, “It’s in Spanish. No one is gonna understand it”? I remember when I first started working in Billboard, we had a radio conference here in Miami so I went, because it was in Miami. It was my first year and I remember sitting there watching some panel. I forget what it was but it was all these programmers and I raised my hand and I said, “Would you play music in Spanish?” and they’re like, “No! It’s in Spanish. It’s in another language.”

They made it sound like it was music from Mars. I remember thinking, “Huh. I can understand that they’re not going to play mariachi on the rock station. Fine,” but it was the whole notion of language that was just a big deal–that it was really really difficult to transcend that barrier and it’s been for a long time.

I think it’s very appropriate that you bring that up because the big news this past weekend was that when Bad Bunny and Rosalía performed “La Noche de Anoche” on Saturday Night Live, that was the first-ever song performed on that show completely in Spanish, and that show’s been going for almost 50 years now.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? I think Saturday Night Live has been particularly egregious in keeping Latin voices out. I know Shakira performed at some point in her life and Ricky Martin performed–he must have. I don’t know, honestly, but very few artists. Luis Fonsi was on Jimmy Fallon but he hasn’t been on SNL. I have to say that Jimmy Fallon has made a real effort. The late-night shows, the last five years, I think they kind of got with the program, but SNL? Never, and I just have such a hard time with that. It just kills me.

And, the MTV awards, until 2017. I did a whole column on it, I was so annoyed that “Despacito” wasn’t nominated [“VMAs’ ‘Despacito’ Snub Shows Media’s Latin Blind Spot”]. I’m like, “What needs to happen here? What else needs to happen? The bar is so incredibly high, it’s impossible to reach it,” and then they made that bizarre nomination or they gave it this award [“Song of the Summer”] that they made up after everyone complained

That definitely speaks to the whole idea that so many of these business people were repeatedly proven wrong. You’ve got 19 songs that very frequently feature a backstory where there are so many people just being like, “I just don’t know if this is gonna work,” even though it’s a good song. People recognize music without language or borders to it. A good song is a good song: if you can dance to it, you can dance to it.

Yeah, you can, but it’s taken a beat and one thing that I think is a common thread with all these songs is that they were different from anything that was being done at the moment which is why they became so successful. “Gasolina,” even though Luny [Tunes] talks about how he used the same loop or the same rhythm or something, it was really new for the mainstream Latin world. There was no music like that yet on the radio and so, they were all breaking paradigms in some way, shape, or form, so most of them were kind of a risk.

I can understand why they would say, “This is not going to work.” I have to say, I do understand. I think now, that barrier is being erased more and more. It doesn’t mean that everybody is going to want to listen to music in another language because a lot of people don’t. It’s kind of like watching films with subtitles but I think all of that is is becoming more and more mixed. In fact, films with subtitles–now with Netflix and with the streaming services, I sit down and I watch films in French and I read the subtitles and I’m very happy doing it. It doesn’t bother me at all.

I love the arc of your book. It starts out with the first few songs as traditional songs with Latin elements or, in the case of the Los Tigres Del Norte song, one that is, in retrospect, very traditional music at this point.

Yes, and it was traditional music then but they did that narcocorrido and even though it wasn’t the first narcocorrido, I do think it was the first one that kind of caught everybody’s imagination just because it was such a great story, It was a couple and she killed them at the end: it was a great story, really.

As you were saying, these songs were doing something new within Latin music, but given it was new for Latin music, that means for traditional top 40 pop music, it was something else entirely. It was head and shoulders above everything. Hearing “Smooth” or “Macarena” or “Amor Prohibido” or “Conga”? Hearing all of those songs still evokes really strong feelings. As soon as I started reading about “Conga,” I just heard that horn stab from the beginning right and there.

I’ve interviewed [Gloria Estefan] so much over the years and all the things she told me this time were brand new. I knew about the trip to New York and all that, but about how they made the song and how they sampled James Brown? I knew nothing of that and then, you hear it again after reading the chapter and you hear all the horns and you hear how she sings it and you just hear it in a completely different way.

It’s a song I’ve been hearing essentially since I can remember like listening to music because that song came out when I was five, but it was hearing it with new ears. The same thing for “Smooth,” which is a song that is omnipresent. It’s become a meme now but reading about the work that went into it and the idea that “We’re gonna make a song and we’re gonna give Carlos Santana a hit in 1999.” It instantly became a classic. It’s one of those songs you hear and you’re like, “I’m going to be hearing this just as frequently 20 years on as I am.”

That is such a great song but that’s that is a great example of one of those songs that I think is great because of the combination of people. I think if you had had another voice sing it, who knows? If you had had someone else play, it definitely it wouldn’t have worked. The fact that they recorded it live, I think, is what makes it sound so–gosh, you feel like you want to touch it.

I didn’t know that they had recorded it live until Carlos told me but all those things come together and make it a great song. I feel that, if you take away one element, it wouldn’t have been the same.

I think that is something that is completely applicable to every single song about which you write in Decoding “Despacito.” All 19 songs in this book are tracks where it is a special combination of elements. I think that’s true for any hit song, really: where it’s lightning in a bottle. Hearing “Living La Vida Loca”–even though when that song came out in 1999, that was not the style of music I was listening to, when you hear the guitar line in that, you’re like, “This song’s great!”

That was such a great song. I remember hearing it the first time and thinking, “Oh my god, this is amazing,” and the video was amazing. Everything was amazing. That song was going to be a hit. That, to me, was the clearest cut of every song in the book. The first time I heard that song I was like, “Oh wow!” I thought it was mind-blowing, frankly.

The book starts out with “Feliz Navidad” and ends with “Malamente.” It feels like the book is literally bookended with like two songs that take traditional sounds and do something very different with them. Was that the hardest part for you–to figure out what the last song was going to be?

Not so much like what the first one was. I hate to be so unexciting with my answer but the truth was, it was gonna end with “Mi Gente.” It was gonna be 20 songs and then at that eleventh hour, I lost two and then we said, “Ah, let’s leave it with 18. It’s going to be cool that it’s not a round number.” Then, at the very end–when I had already finished everything–we decided to add Rosalía, because Rosalía was beginning to have like this huge impact and everybody was talking about Rosalía and we thought, “Oh my god, the song is gonna blow up.”

And more than the song: everything about her. The whole conversation: what she was doing with the music, how she was blending all these influences, and “Malamente” came in. But, yeah: “Malamente was kind of at the eleventh hour, I have to say. I wish I could tell you that I had a grand plan for the grand finale, but no. The grand finale was going to be 2017 and then “Malamente” came in at the last minute.

Liela Cobo’s Decoding “Despacito”: An Oral History of Latin Music is out now from Vintage.

Categories: Music