Fifteen years ago, Raymond Ayala sat listening to the sounds of the streets in the tiny apartment he shared with his wife and three children in Villa Kennedy, a housing project in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“Cómo le gusta la gasolina!” shouted the voices beneath his window, taunting the pretty girls who accepted rides from the guys with the flashiest cars. She really likes gasoline!
“A mi me gusta la gasolina,” Ayala began chanting rhythmically, “dame más gasolina.” I like gasoline, give me more gasoline. The refrain got stuck in his head.
“I had the phrase, I had the chorus,” says Ayala, a.k.a. Daddy Yankee, the Puerto Rican reggaetón star who at the time was little-known outside the island. “I sat in my studio there in Villa Kennedy and started to harmonize the flow.”
With help from producer friends Luny — of production duo Luny Tunes — and Eddie Dee, they finished the track, adding rapid-fire verses, a thumping, aggressive beat under the almost childish chorus and the sound of gunning motors in the introduction.
It was an eminently commercial take on what was then an underground, subversive genre shunned by major labels. “The verse was so simple and easy to remember,” says Yankee. “The word gasolina — everyone in the world knew what it meant. And I think part of the success of the track was people looking for some hidden meaning: Was I talking about alcohol, about drugs?”
Yankee laughs. “That track is completely literal,” he insists. “It’s one of the most innocent songs I’ve ever written.”
“Gasolina” exploded 15 years ago this month, irrevocably altering the business, sound and aesthetic of Latin music. It was the first single off Barrio Fino, the hits-packed Yankee album that blended reggaetón with other tropical beats from the likes of Wisin & Yandel and salsa star Andy Montañez.
The set debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart July 31, 2004, the first reggaetón album to hit that spot. It eventually became the top-selling Latin album of 2005 and the entire decade. Because so few Spanish-language stations played urban music at the time, “Gasolina” never rose past No. 17 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart. It did, however, get played on mainstream stations –peaking at No. 32 on the Hot 100 — and its unique dembow beat allowed it to catch on not only in Latin America but throughout Europe and the Far East.
As a result, Daddy Yankee was suddenly the Messiah of reggaetón. The genre would revive sales of Latin music, usher in a new radio format in the U.S. (Latin Rhythm) and establish the urban base responsible for many Latin radio hits today.
Collaborations in Latin music were a rarity when “Gasolina” first came out, until reggaetoners began routinely teaming up with their peers. Today, the Latin musical landscape is dominated by urban collaborations; in fact, this week, 14 out of the 15 top songs on the Hot Latin Songs chart are urban collaborations.
The fact that this music has evolved while meshing with other genres — such as tropical, pop and bachata — only underscores its uniqueness, not to mention its danceability. Once thought to be a passing fad, reggaetón is here to stay.
And it harks back to a large degree to Daddy Yankee.
“Daddy Yankee and ‘Gasolina’ triggered the explosion of urban Latin music worldwide,” Nestor Casonú, president for Kobalt Music Latin America, told Billboard five years ago, when “Gasolina” turned 10. Fifteen years ago, as MD for EMI Music Publishing Latin America, he signed Daddy Yankee’s publishing.
“Puerto Rico was living a tremendously creative moment,” he recalls. “It was a cauldron of activity with many, many people developing their own musical culture. When ‘Gasolina’ exploded, it made us all look to them for talent.”
Yankee was at the tip of the iceberg. With him came the likes of Don Omar, Wisin & Yandel and Tito El Bambino, and the genre’s clout online and in social media remains indisputable.
Most important, what was once an eminently Puerto Rican genre has bled into other countries and bred autonomous, urban movements, ensuring its longevity. Farruko, one of the genre’s biggest stars, spoke with Billboard 10 years ago about Yankee’s legacy. “I’m seeing a generational change,” he said. “And that’s because the acts on top — like Yankee — gave us the opportunity to collaborate with them]. “In other genres, like pop, it’s still the same old names, because the big guys never helped the little ones come up the ranks.”
Reggaetón, instead, emulated the mainstream rap movement in its mentoring of new acts.
Through it all, Yankee has remained a constant force. This week, his hit “Con Calma,” featuring Snow, sits at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart. In fact, he is on three of the top five tracks on the chart (the other two are Anuel’s “China” and “Soltera” with Lunay and Bad Bunny.
For Yankee, even back then, it was never just about the music but also his image, branding and cultural impact. Even in the “Gasolina” days, “I had a really different vision,” he told Billboard in 2014. “I could feel the impact reggaetón was having in the streets in South America and the United States. I knew we were close to exploding. So I said, ‘Ok, I’m going to be the one to do it.’ And all the money I had, I invested in Barrio Fino.”
Yankee was one of the first Latin acts to actually shell out money both to record (to this day he retains ownership of all his masters) and market. For Barrio Fino, he worked with video director and designer Carlos Pérez — founder of design house Elastic People — whose client list today includes Romeo Santos, Wisin and Ricardo Arjona.
“We wanted to position him as one of the founders of the movement and portray him on a sophisticated note,” says Pérez. He suggested a black and white cover, taking his cues from historic Muhammad Ali shots, to strike a sophisticated but “monumental” note. “The main challenge was, regardless of whether anyone knew him outside Puerto Rico, to make his marketing materials as good as those of any Anglo artist. And I think he accomplished that.”
Yankee paid $30,000 for the “Gasolina” video, a fortune at the time. To date, he still invests on his videos.
“I knew it was a homerun,” he says now, of his “Gasolina” gamble. “It wasn’t just the song, it was a movement. Barrio Fino brought glamour to the barrio. And it gave kids the possibility to say, man, if Yankee can, I can.”
And they did.
This story is an update of the original that ran in Billboard on July, 2014.