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From 'La Bamba' To 'Despacito': What Comes After A Huge Spanish-Language Hit

Louie Perez of Los Lobos
Estevan Oriol
Courtesy of the Artist
Louie Perez of Los Lobos

"¡De...spa ... cito!"

The song of the summer actually became the Song of the Year at the 18th annual Latin Grammy's held in Las Vegas on Thursday evening.

"Despacito" by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee also picked up Record of the Year, Best Urban Fusion Performance and Best Short Term Video.

There has been no escaping the song since it was released last January as it broke the counting machines at Youtube and online music streaming services.

And it made history as only the third Spanish-language song to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

So what happens after No. 1? How do these artists successfully ride this wave of popularity? Will Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee have to perform that song at their shows for the rest of their careers? Will their next records be "Despacito 2.0"?

For a clue, it's instructive to look back at the other two bands that have been there and done that. Most people won't remember the name of the act that gave us the 1996 chart-topper "Macarena." (The Spanish pop band was called Los Del Rio.) Much more familiar is Los Lobos, the band that gave us the very first song in Spanish to hit the No. 1 spot, 1987's "La Bamba" — from the Richie Valens biopic of the same name.

For some insight from someone who has been there and done that, I called Louie Perez, one of the principal songwriters of Los Lobos, to ask him about their experiences dealing with the pressure to follow up their No. 1 song. They must have done something right: The members of Los Lobos recently celebrated their 44th anniversary.

Perez spoke to me from his home in Los Angeles in between stops on Los Lobos' seemingly endless tour.

With "La Bamba" came worldwide fame. What was that wave like, and how did it affect the band?

There was a little bit of pressure about how we exposed the world to Latin music. We did it because we believed in it, to promote Richie Valens' legacy as the very first Mexican-American rock star. The record was nine or 10 weeks at No. 1, and we had people all over the world singing along to a 150 year-old Mexican traditional song performed by four Mexican-Americans from East L.A.

After "La Bamba" you turned around and put out something completely different, a more traditional Mexican sounding album,La Pistola y El Corazón. How did you pull that off with the record company back then?

We wanted to focus all of that success on exposing Mexican music to the world ... the possibility of having people listen to a huasteco in Kyoto, Japan and listen to a ranchera in Helsinki, Finland, not just in Boise, Idaho. At that time, Warner Brothers was just one of the record companies that nurtured artists, rather than looking at the marketability of it. And so, we were very fortunate to be able to walk into the office of the president of the company [and say] this is what we want to be our follow-up record. And we played him some old recordings, of Los Lobos playing folkloric music in the '70s and he said, "Wow — I had no clue." And so we said, "Well, we want this to be our next record."

And he looked at us and said, "Oh boy, um ...," and the wheels — you could almost hear the wheels kind of grinding in his head, looking for some way of lubricating them. It was absolutely unheard of, if you fast forward to today. And he said, "If this is the record you need to make, go make the record and let me deal with the rest of it." He had to go down and talk to everybody else, talk to the A&R people, talk to all the marketing people and say, "Los Lobos wants to follow-up a quadruple platinum hit record with a Mexican folkloric album." But he said, "Don't worry about that — that's my job." And he did it.

A lot of people wrote that we committed commercial suicide, so maybe we did. Or maybe we could've been the Mexican Keebler Elves and produced something that was just a confection. We could've hit real hard, made a lot of dough and then disappeared. But we didn't. It was a good move for us artistically. And we won a Grammy, so, great!

Did you even have a clue that "La Bamba" would become so big?

No idea! No! I don't think anybody did! No, I don't think they thought people would latch onto that movie the way they did. Of course, there was a lot of money behind promoting the movie. And boy, how many bands back then could say they had a 90-minute rock video to promote their record? We had been touring since 1983 and it was 1987. And it kind of eclipsed everything we had done before. We had three critically acclaimed records at that point, and for some reason everybody remembered us for that one.

30 years after "La Bamba," what factors do you think contribute to the global success of"Despacito?"Its numbers are off-the-charts crazy.

The way music is being accessed now is overriding everything else. Because of the Internet, bands no longer have to worry about or tailor the music per the record companies' notions of what is marketable. There isn't that historic A&R guy that's looming over the bands and prodding them, [asking], "Where's the hit, where's the single?" And they don't need or don't want seven year contracts with [labels] anymore. They can be a huge success just by the way they market themselves rather than depend on the record company.

Another factor is that [there is] a world culture that is open to music from everywhere.

Historically, Europe has always been very open to a lot of different music from different places. Here in the United States, if you go back into music history — jazz, blues and that sort of thing, a lot of artists actually left to go to Europe and become big stars. Whereas here they were still working as postal workers. Elsewhere, it's always been more about the quality than the quantity, unlike it is here. In the U.S., it's monetized, you know, like how can we make this more palatable? Good for American taste?

And now cross-cultural music is bigger than ever. Justin Beiber even added his voice to a"Despacito"remix.

There's been a lot of artists who get to a point where they create a signature sound and that signature sound somehow breaks through and becomes commercially successful and then that sound is what's to be expected and it becomes something that's popularized because everybody likes it and then it's great.

There's really incredible stuff that's been happening and people are getting excited about it, and a lot of people in different cultures are listening to this, but also I think that the motivation for this Justin Bieber Latino remix thing is because they see an audience for it. They see how can we take something that's predominantly listened to by mainstream white audience and how can we tap into the Latin culture which as everybody knows is a huge market in the United States.

What do you say to these younger artists?

If you do it because you want to be a rock star you'll be disappointed. Do it because you love it. Do it because you love it and then everything will just fall into place. There'll be opposition. To do what you believe in, there'll always be opposition, there'll always be the resistance and even internally — you'll always question yourself, you'll always have doubts and you'll always wonder if it's worth the sacrifice. And I'm here to say it IS worth it. It's worth all the fighting and resistance. And maintaining the dream. No matter what — just keep doing it.... You sure will be satisfied making the art that you wanted to make.

So it's been 44 years, and then it'll be 45 years 15 minutes later the way time goes. So time will see if we make it to 50. It's starting to hurt a little bit because we're not kids ... but I'll tell you, the two hours onstage — that's the reason why we're put on this earth, as far as I'm concerned. And as long as we still have the upper body strength to hold it up, we're gonna keep doing it. And in the meantime, we're just glad people show up and still listen to the music and we'll still keep making it as long as people are willing to show up and listen.

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