“Despacito”—Luis Fonsi’s chart-topping, record-setting reggaeton hit from 2017—first came together over the course of a single afternoon.
“90% of the track you hear today,” Fonsi told Billboard last year, “was done in my house in under two hours.” But what did those two hours actually look like? We hopped on the phone with celebrated Panamanian singer-songwriter and “Despacito” co-writer Erika Ender to find out the answer to that question and to hear the backstory of one of the most defining songs of the 2010s.
“We wrote the song out of a guitar,” says Ender of the earliest version of the track. “[Fonsi has] been my friend for a long time and we have written songs together on previous albums. He’s a very talented man and a very versatile man as well, and he wanted to change. He wanted to go toward what was going on in Latin music at the moment. He was mostly known as a pop balladist, so he wanted to show that he could sing something more up-tempo.”
Ender remembers spitballing lyrics with Fonsi at his place in Miami. “We sat down at his house one afternoon and he tells me, ‘I have this idea.’ And he sings to me, ‘Despacito / Vamos a hacerlo en una playa en Puerto Rico,’ which means ‘Let’s make love on the Puerto Rican beach,’ or something like that. And then I responded ‘Hasta que las olas griten ‘ay, bendito!’’ which means ‘Until the waves scream ‘ay bendito,’ which is a saying that is popular in Puerto Rico.”
Ender was immediately struck by Fonsi’s delivery of the word “despacito.” “We started laughing at that, then I said, ‘Seriously, it’s so amazing that you’re coming with this idea of splitting the syllables in a word that means ‘slowly,’” she recalls. “I found it genius. Urban music, especially in Spanish, tends to be very aggressive with women and we wanted to be responsible with the message. So it has poetry, it has responsibility, but it’s catchy at the same time.”
Like Fonsi, Ender remembers the song coming together pretty quickly once the chorus was set. “I went to his house at about 2 p.m., in Miami, and then we started chatting, we had a coffee with his wife and his daughter,” she explains. “We hadn’t seen each other in a while because back then I was mostly in LA. Then, at 3 p.m., we went into the studio and—out of that idea that he brought to the table, with the syllables and the Puerto Rico thing—we changed the phrasing a little bit and the melody that he was proposing for the chorus. [We decided] for some notes to go up, and then we started the song from scratch. It was very handcrafted. It was a very special afternoon. We did it in like three hours.”
Though Ender and Fonsi wrote most of the song in that initial session, they leaned on producers Andrés Torres and Mauricio Rengifo to polish the track.
“After we finished it out of a guitar—just me and [Fonsi]—he called the producers,” says Ender. “I think they went through five different arrangements until Fonsi found what he was comfortable with. Then, when he was ready, he called Daddy Yankee who did the rap and the post-chorus, which was genius as well. Universal released it in January, 2017, and the very same day it was number one in fourteen countries, which was a big surprise. We knew we had something very special in hand, but we didn’t know people were going to like it that fast. Then it just started breaking records on and on and on, until what it is today.”
As of today, “Despacito” is tied for the second longest-leading No. 1 song on the Hot 100, at 16 weeks, only topped by “Old Town Road” at 19 (the other 16-weeker is “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men). The “Despacito” music video, meanwhile, is the most viewed YouTube video of all time. And Justin Bieber’s remix of the track became a phenomenon in its own right. “He gave us another ingredient on the song,” Daddy Yankee said in 2017. “I think having two Latinos and Justin, who was born and raised in Canada… It’s now a multicultural song,” explained Yankee, who, like Fonsi, is Puerto Rican. “I think that is one of the reasons why everybody is feeling the song, because there’s a lot of mixed in.”
“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 said in November. “It spearheaded a global Latin movement. I want to stress 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.”