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Music Journalist Leila Cobo Dives Deep Into Groundbreaking Latin Music Songs On "Decoding 'Despacito'"
Colombian author, music journalist and VP/Latin Industry Lead at Billboard Leila Cobo is a true resource and gem in the music industry. In her enthralling and informative new book, "Decoding 'Despacito:' An Oral History Of Latin Music," she unpacks 19 of the biggest Latin music songs that shook the U.S. pop world over the last 50 years. Her mission led her to speak with the people who made those major moments in music happen, including artists, songwriters, composers, producers, music execs, and managers.
The book, released on March 2 (with English and Spanish editions), is an enthralling read uncovering new truths and inspirations behind some of the songs we'll never forget, from José Feliciano's Christmas classic "Feliz Navidad" to Los Del Río's '90s anthem "Macarena" to Daddy Yankee's '00s reggaeton banger "Gasolina," up to Rosalía's groundbreaking Latin GRAMMY-winning nu-flamenco jam "Malamente."
After devouring the bop-filled page-turner, GRAMMY.com chatted with Cobo to learn more about the book and the songs and artists that went into it, the biggest thing she learned from working on it, and her advice she'd give to her younger journalist self.
What was your inspiration for writing the book?
Well, I confess that the book came to me. In other words, the publisher was thinking of doing a book on the history of Latin music, and someone contacted me and said, "Would you be interested in doing something like this?" And I said, "I would because that's my subject matter, I know it intimately. But I don't want to just do a history."
I have a lot of histories in my bookshelves of Latin music, of Latin rock and corridos. I wanted to do something that was different and that was really readable and that didn't sound like a history. After much back and forth, we came up with the idea of doing an oral history of songs, which I love.
I love to ask artists, "How did you write this song? What inspired you?" I love to hear the stories behind the songs. And when they get really generic, saying things like, "Oh yeah, we went to the studio and I wrote it with my friend." I always say, "No, but why? What were you thinking about this day? What kind of song did you want to write? Who wrote this? Who wrote that?" I really like to get super detailed when I tell those stories, and I replicated that in the book. And I love hearing from the different players. That's how the story of the book came along.
Once I started doing the reporting on the songs— 90 percent of it is fresh reporting—you start to see that there's really a connection between all of them. They're not just standalone songs, one thing that leads to another, and I found that fascinating. I love that. The fact that you can tell one story and say, oh wow, that's really similar to this other story and I never thought there would be.
You can talk about José Feliciano saying, "I decided to put a line in English so they would have to put me on the radio," and then you have J Balvin 45 years later saying, "You know what, I'm not going to sing in English. I'm going to do it all in Spanish and they're going to have to put me on the radio." There are all these intertwined threads, and I thought that was fascinating.
It's a really fun read, to feel like you're sitting in the room with the producer, the songwriters and the artists. For "Smooth" and "Livin' La Vida Loca" [both released in 1999], the songwriter of "Smooth," Itaal Shur, said it was one of the last popular songs where they recorded all of the instruments live. And with "Livin' La Vida Loca," producer/songwriter Desmond Child was talking about how it was one of the first songs created all in Pro Tools. That's something that I would have never known.
Me either, and it's one of those things that makes you go back to the song and hear it with new ears, doesn't it? I went back to "Smooth" after he told me that—I had interviewed Carlos [Santana] and Rob Thomas years ago—and then I re-interviewed Carlos and I interviewed Itaal for the first time. When Itaal told me that I was like, "Wow really? Is this how this happened?"
And when Desmond talks about how he did it "in the box" and how all the Latin artists back then had all this reverb, but he wanted it to sound really dry. It's all these engineering terms, but it's really fascinating. And when you realize all the thought that goes into a song—people think they're sitting here, putting them out as if they were bread, and they're not. They're really thinking a lot about how they want things to sound.
Thankfully in the past couple of years we've been talking more about diversity and inclusion, and what that really looks like. And when we have more women, more people of color in positions of power in the music industry, it allows for more diverse artists to come through the pipeline.
And it gives listeners the choice. If they don't like the music, they don't have to listen to it. I always try to tell people by including you're not taking away, you're simply adding. I'm not taking away something from the buffet, so to speak. I'm simply putting different things in the buffet. And If no one likes them, then we'll retire them from the buffet. We do that every day with everything we do. We choose, okay, this doesn't happen. We don't like this and things go out of business because people are not responding to it. But this notion that somehow I'm taking away from you by adding something else is just not right.
The reason I think I see it differently than many people in my position is because I grew up in Latin America. Hearing music in English was so inspirational, and you got so excited when this music played. I loved Queen, that was my favorite band of all time. Oh my God, every time a new album came out and if it wasn't available in Colombia it was like, "Oh, can somebody bring it to me from the States?" And people, whole populations that didn't speak English, learn phonetically how to sing these songs, and it's beautiful. So when the reverse happens, I'm like, why isn't this a good thing? This is a great thing. It's a cultural exchange.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, Shakira and J.Lo. Looking back at the millennium, a "crossover" required them singing in English, that's what the music industry thought. Now in this new generation—J Balvin, Rosalía and Bad Bunny—they all sing primarily in Spanish. Do you feel like that's important and significant, that now artists can be who they are and speak their native language and be popular?
I think it's huge. I have to tell you, I didn't think it was going to happen, just because language is really important. I always thought that. And you have these one-off [hits] with a song in Spanish or in German—remember "99 Red Balloons?" After, people always say, "Oh, language doesn't matter." I didn't believe that, I always thought it did matter, a lot. So when J Balvin in an interview five years ago told me, "We're going to end up with a No. 1 in Spanish on your Hot 100 chart." I honestly did not see that, I have to admit. I've been very surprised at this turning of the tide.
And I think in part it's because of streaming, because now everyone that is Spanish speaking can stream the music, and they can contribute to that volume that you couldn't see before. And also much to my surprise, I think people are just more open to it. But I think it all builds on itself, it's a snowball rolling downhill. I think people are more open because they're streaming, and because they're streaming, they can hear music in other languages and they start to get used to it.
Also, I say this a lot and I don't think I said it in the book and I wish I had; Zumba was very key. You have people all over the world in all these different countries, in Russia, in India, dancing Zumba with music primarily in Spanish. So I think people got used to the language. I've had people tell me, "Oh, maybe the next wave is going to be from India," and I always say it could be. Never say never. I think with Spanish, we're very lucky because it's spoken in so many countries. I don't see any other language like that besides English.
I feel like in 2017 when "Despacito" happened, a lot of the conversation felt reductive or removed from this larger context of Latin music. The timeline, which you very elegantly lay out in your book, is all these other pieces that led to "Despacito" and this current moment we're in. Why do you think the U.S. mainstream media and the pop music machine so often sidelines Latin artists and Spanish language music?
It's so frustrating to me and I think language was a big factor. I think the fact that it was in Spanish and that you couldn't understand what they were saying was a big, big barrier. That's my personal opinion. It's the fear of the unknown. I don't think that it was deliberately, "Let's not include them," but it's, "Oh, that's music in another language. That's for Latins, it's in Spanish, they speak Spanish, we don't have to worry about it."
I think, too, the fact that you didn't have Latin representation in those rooms has a lot to do with it. It took me a lot of time to settle into this one. I watched the documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg the other day. She was at Harvard [Law School] and walks in, and she looks around and there are three women. I turned to my husband and I said, "That's how I felt through the years!" I'll be in a newsroom and I'm the only one. And it's great because you're the only one and so you get some leeway and on the other hand, it's not great because you have to constantly explain why this is important.
The thing that I think is very different now, is that before you had to explain why this is important and you had nothing to substantiate it. It was just "Trust me." "Trust me, this is important. Trust me, I saw their tour and they're playing 20 sold out arena dates in the United States." You saw them on the Latin charts, but you didn't see them in the big charts, but now you do have those numbers. So that's also a factor.
When Bad Bunny was the most streamed artist for Spotify around the world in 2020, and you're a media company and you ignore that, you're an idiot. Where are you living? You can't pretend it's not happening anymore. So the numbers are key, but the streaming made the numbers possible. I hate to say that, but it did. It really did, because otherwise they had to sing in English to make those charts and those numbers, or they had to do so phenomenally well in Spanish. Even "Despacito."
When [the original version of] "Despacito" was happening, I remember that every week we would watch it climb the [Hot 100] chart. I remember it hit a point where I thought, "Oh my God, this song is going to become No. 1!" All this time I'm saying, "This song is really big, we should be writing about it. "It's No. 1 everywhere [else]." People really weren't paying that much attention [here] until Justin Bieber got on the song. And I think that was in a way, a little bit of the last barrier. Now we don't wait for a Justin Bieber to jump on a song. Maybe Taylor Swift tomorrow decides to do a song with Maluma, we're going to be all over it. But we don't need her to do that for us to pay attention.
It does feel like things are so different now, with streaming and just the internet as it is, where you can find articles about everything, and so many translations, and music from everywhere. I know YouTube is popular in Latin America, and it's finally showing on the charts. Because before, the only way you could get on the charts was through radio and album sales, correct?
Yes, and it was so difficult. There were a lot of handicaps. It was radio. It was the fact that Latin music was not sold everywhere because not every store catered to a Latin audience. It was also that Latin music was disproportionately pirated when we had CDs. It was all these things.
On the other hand, to be perfectly fair, when you compete in what we call the "mainstream" world, the competition is fierce. You're competing with everything: country, rock, hip-hop and R&B. You really need to have something special to rise to the top. While I do love about what's happening now, I don't think the music is necessarily better. There's an opportunity for some of it to rise and I think that the responsibility that we have in the Latin music industry is to continue making music that's really good.
That's the flip side of our modern era, that technically anyone can put music on SoundCloud. It has created a lot of careers, including Bad Bunny's, but there's also a lot of noise. Thinking about some of the songs in the book, even just back to "Despacito," which felt like the song of 2017, you heard it everywhere. Now it feels like songs cycle more quickly because there's so much music out there and our attention is getting even shorter.
I still have "Despacito" on my workout playlist. And I have to say, I tried to pick the songs in the book like that. I thought, okay, which songs are really emblematic of the time? Not just that they were humongous hits, but that they were songs that to this day I still listen to them, and I still marvel at them. And "Livin' La Vida Loca," you couldn't not have that song.
And I always feel that there's so many anthologies of great American hits, the great American song book, and great British rock hits, and we all know those songs and they're great songs. And why can't we have an anthology of great Latin hits? I think every song in this book can go toe-to-toe with a great American song.
What was your selection criteria? I'm sure there were so many songs that you wanted to include or thought about including, so how did you narrow it down?
Well, I wanted people who were alive so they could tell me the story, that was super important to me. And I really wanted Selena, who's clearly not alive. When I spoke about it with my editor, I said, "I'll put Selena on if I can get either her dad or her brother to speak. Otherwise, I can't do it." Celia Cruz is not in the book. I would have loved to include her, but the story wouldn't work because the people that brought it alive aren't there. That was a criteria, and that's why I finally settled on 1970 as a starting point.
The process was a group effort. I would send emails and say, "What do you think of this song?" We wanted songs that really had cut through, all those big "crossover songs," they were in the running. "Livin' La Vida Loca" was very key. "Feliz Navidad" was so very key. "Macarena," even though it could even be a silly song, but it connected to such a degree that it had to be there. I wanted to include these big, epic, global hits to draw the reader in. I wanted to have the players, I wanted songs that I felt had made a difference, culturally, that somehow had moved the needle forward for the music and for the culture.
It doesn't mean that every song that should be here is here because there were some songs that I should have brought in but I couldn't because I ran out of time, I ran out of space. Or I couldn't find the right people at the right time so I had to say, I'm letting it go, and I hope we do a part two, and then I can bring them all back here.
How long did it take to compile and write it?
It took a while. But once I got into it, I would say about a year. And it was a lot of doing the interviews. Then it was [editing] those interviews because I didn't want the book to repeat itself. I didn't want Shakira saying something and then Tim Mitchell and Tommy Mottola or Emilio [Estefan] saying the same thing, so it was important that each narrator brought something different to the table. That's also why I don't have more than one producer, or more than one arranger, I wanted the different points of view in the chapter as much as possible.
And if you notice too, some of the later chapters have more players. And this has to do with people dying. Los Tigres Del Norte were around, but the composer and the producer [of their 1974 breakout song "Contrabando y Traición"] weren't around, they had died.
Why did you start with "Feliz Navidad?"
I thought it was such a great beginning because it was a bilingual song. I just think it's amazing how [José Feliciano] had the presence of mind in 1970 [to do that], being as young as he was then, at a time when no one [in the U.S. pop market] was doing anything in Spanish. First of all, his arranger, Rick Jarrard was the one who said, "Let's do something in Spanish." And José kind of did it as a joke, but then he did have the presence of mind to say, "Rick, if we're going to do it in Spanish, let me put a couple lines in English so that they don't have an excuse not to play it."
I think maybe I started to make the list in December and "Feliz Navidad" was playing. To me, it was the first big crossover song in my mind that was bilingual. I just thought everything about it was kind of perfect. It was bilingual and it was all those years ago, José Feliciano is still active. And then it just so happened that the song had its [50th] anniversary, which I wasn't planning; the book got delayed because of the election and the pandemic. I just thought it was the perfect bookend to begin with that song.
And I was going to end with J Balvin's "Mi Gente" in 2017. After I turned it all in, Rosalía kind of exploded and I felt I needed more women to end the book. And everybody started asking me, "Why don't you include a Rosalía song?" And I said, "Okay, that's a great idea." And I think "Malamente" was been absolutely groundbreaking. I didn't have time to interview the video producers, which I would've loved to do, but [that final chapter] was done very quickly.
What's one of the biggest things you learned from your research for the book?
Well, I learned A: I don't know everything.
But I'm saying that with the utmost respect because a lot of the songs and the people in this book, I have interviewed a lot. Some I hadn't, but most of them, I had interviewed at least once, but there are some artists here that I've interviewed quite a bit. And I would say the only song that I really knew the story to was "Despacito." It did inspire the book. When the book proposal came, I had just done an oral history of "Despacito" for Billboard. So that format and that song were in my head.
For each chapter, I learned the real story behind each song, and each is beautiful. So overall, what I learned that I didn't know before, A: that every song had so many influences from so many places, even the most apparently regional song fed off many different things. And that surprised me. It surprised me to speak with somebody like Juan Luis Guerra, who I know loves The Beatles because he says this a lot, but it surprised me to have him kind of explain in detail how the Beatles guitar influenced "Burbujas de Amor."
I had no idea, for example, the guy who discovered Los Tigres del Norte was a Brit. [He's] telling me this story and I'm thinking, "How did I not know this?" I googled it and found they spoke about it 35 years ago. I never heard that story before. That really surprised me. I loved that.
I'm sure all the conversations are just so illuminating.
They were, and you know what else I really loved? When you sit down to interview artists on a normal day-to-day, it's because they're doing something, promoting something. But in this case I said, "I just want to talk how you make this one song. I want to know everything about the song." Once they sat down and realized what the interview was, they were, "Oh, let me tell you this. And did you know this?"
I think that it also made me realize how much artists love their art. I mean, it sounds like a stupid thing to say, but they're very proud of what they do. Well, I think anybody who'd had a song like this would be really proud as well. It's something to be incredibly proud of. I felt very happy to give those bragging rights, so to speak.
And in the current digital media cycle, it's onto the next song. Anniversary pieces for bigger albums or bigger songs are popular, but there's so much music that probably means a lot to an artist that they never get to talk about again, you know? So it's always cool to have deep dives.
I want to think that they loved telling the stories. I hope they did. And also, you realize how important this is to them. I think as writers, as music journalists, we're moving fast, too. So it's easy to sometimes forget that you're covering intimate manifestations of self, if you will. And they do mean a lot to the people that make them, whether we like them or not. If you have a song in this book, these are meaningful songs. These are songs that had a lot of reach. So to understand that they were made thinking they were important makes it all the more meaningful. That's important because it also kind of gives value to what we do.
If you could go back and give your younger self, when you were like starting out in the industry, any piece of advice, what would it be?
Oh my God, I have so many pieces of advice. I would tell myself first and foremost, you have to always thank people that help you. And you have to thank people that give you an opportunity because they don't have to. Being thankful is very important.
I would tell myself you have to be more diplomatic with everyone that you work with. I think this is something you learn with time. This is a small industry, you're going to run into everybody again at some point. You have to remember to be diplomatic, kind and thankful.
And if you're going to have side projects, you have to have a lawyer read your contracts. And even though I was always very measured in it, I tell people you have to be careful with your social media. I have a lot of opinions I keep to myself because they can be misrepresented, misheard, mis-whatever. And while I always tell people that, listen, it's your social media. You feel completely sure of what you're saying if you don't care what anyone is going to say in return, dalé. But if you are even remotely concerned what people are going to say, then you have to think how you're going to say things before you post them.