Joe’s Jukebox: Decoding “Despacito”

One of my favorite forms of storytelling is the “oral history,” where quotes from the people involved in those histories are cut & pasted together into a kind of narrative collage. And I recently read & enjoyed an excellent oral history called Decoding “Despacito,” which recounts the stories behind many of the famous Latin music songs from the past 50 years, as told by the musicians, songwriters, producers, and executives who brought those songs to the world. 

It starts with the story behind one of my personal favorite Christmas songs, “Feliz Navidad,” in which I learned that Jose Feliciano almost didn’t record it because he felt it was too simple. Along the way, there are also chapters on songs like Miami Sound Machine’s “Conga,” Selena’s “Amor Prohibido,” Santana’s “Smooth,” Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever”… and of course, as it says in the book’s title, you can read about what went into the creation of “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber, and how it became one of the biggest hit songs in any genre or any language in the history of recorded music.

Yet not only did I learn a whole lot about songs I’d already heard many times before, I also learned about a number of songs and artists I was totally unfamiliar with. Like “Contrabando y traicion,” a 1974 song by Los Tigres del Norte, considered one of the most influential “narcocorridos,” or drug ballads, in the history of Mexican music. Or Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente,” which paved the way for the crossover of Latin music to the U.S. pop charts in the late 1990s.

The author of Decoding “Despacito” is Leila Cobo, who is not only an accomplished author of several other books about Latin music, she is also the Vice President and Latin industry lead at Billboard, along with heading Billboard’s Latin Music Conference. In addition to writing very informative introductions to each chapter, she conducted many of the interviews for the book, and edited them all together, so you know that Decoding “Despacito” has been constructed by one of the top experts in Latin music today.

If you’d like to check out more titles about the artists in this book, we also have Julio Iglesias: The Unsung Story by Daphne Lockyer. And we’ve got Music to My Years: A Mixtape Memoir of Growing Up and Standing Up by Cristela Alonzo, in which she tells her story of growing up as a first-generation Mexican American, including chapters inspired by songs from Ricky Martin and Selena. 

Speaking of Selena, we have a few biographies about her for the young readers out there: there’s Selena: Queen of Tejano Music, and from the popular “Who Was” series we have Who Was Selena?. We even have a bilingual board book called The Life of Selena or La Vida de Selena. We also have a couple of wonderfully illustrated picture book biographies of Carlos Santana: When Angels Sing: The Story of Rock Legend Carlos Santana, and Carlos Santana: Sound of the Heart, Song of the World.

If you’re in the mood for other great oral histories about music, we got you covered there, too. A recent addition to our print collection is Nothin’ But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ‘80s Hard Rock Explosion. There’s also Woodstock: The Oral History and On the Record: Music Journalists on Their Lives, Craft, and Careers. Finally we have Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six. Unlike all these other books, this one’s actually a novel in the form of an oral history about a fictional Fleetwood Mac-esque rock band. Plus, there’s an excellent audiobook version of this one narrated by a cast that includes Jennifer Beals, Pablo Schreiber, and Judy Greer.

And of course, you can check out music by all the artists featured in Decoding “Despacito” either on Hoopla, or from select libraries in the BCCLS consortium, thanks to your Livingston Library card.

That’s all for this edition of Joe’s Jukebox, but til next time, remember: Don’t you worry if you can’t dance; just let the music move your feet…

Joe’s Jukebox: Jay-Z, Beastie Boys, & Other Hip Hop Icons

It’s hard to believe hip hop has been around for close to 50 years now, having been invented all the way back in 1973 by DJ Kool Herc. And arguably the biggest, most iconic star in the history of the genre is Jay-Z. He made his debut in 1996 with the album Reasonable Doubt, and has since put out a number of other classic albums like Hard Knock Life, The Blueprint, and The Black Album, among others.

Jay-Z is also the subject of an excellent book titled JAY-Z: Made in America, written by Michael Eric Dyson and published in 2019. Dyson is an accomplished author, as well as an ordained Baptist minister, and an esteemed professor currently teaching at Vanderbilt University. Dyson’s book is not only a scholarly examination of Jay-Z’s life and career, it’s also an argument for the rapper’s status as a great American poet on the level of Walt Whitman or Robert Frost, and one of the most influential shapers of American culture over the past 30 years.

I started reading this book on a plane ride a little over a year ago in pre-pandemic times, and I got so engrossed I basically kept reading in the cab ride to my hotel, then in the lobby of the hotel waiting for the room to be cleaned, then finally on the bed in my hotel room, where I finally finished it. Whether you’ve been listening to Jay-Z since the mid-’90s, or if you just want to start getting into his music now, I think you’ll also find this book not just fascinating, but enlightening too. The book is available in print in our collection, as well as from many other BCCLS libraries, and there’s also an audiobook version read by the author which is available on Hoopla Digital. Plus, you can find a number of other great books on race & American culture by Michael Eric Dyson in print in our collection, or as ebooks and audiobooks on both Hoopla and Overdrive

Personally, I’ve been a fan of Jay-Z’s music since the ‘90s, but I’ve enjoyed hip hop music in general ever since the mid-’80s. And when you’re a young kid living in the American suburbs in the mid-’80s like I was, there were basically two groups responsible for introducing you to hip hop music. One would be Run-DMC, and the other would be the Beastie Boys. In fact, the first album I ever bought for myself was a cassette of the Beastie Boys’ full-length debut Licensed to Ill. Granted, not every track on that 1986 album has aged super-well, but most of it still holds up pretty solidly. The Beasties also went on to release a number of other hall-of-fame hip hop records, like Paul’s Boutique, Ill Communication, and Hello Nasty

Sadly, the band stopped making music together after member Adam “MCA” Yauch passed away in 2012. But back in 2018, surviving members Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Michael Diamond, aka Mike D, published The Beastie Boys Book, in which they, along with an all-star cast of guest contributors, chronicle the band’s marvelous and influential music career. As big a part of my life as the Beastie Boys’ music has been, somehow this book managed to fly under my radar when it first came out. Fortunately, I was told about it by my co-worker Janea from the Tech department here at the Livingston Library (so thanks very much for that, Janea!). The print version of The Beastie Boys Book, which of course we have in our collection, is a must-read for any fan of the band. On top of all the memoir-style chapters written by the band members themselves, and pieces by famous fans like Luc Sante, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Lethem, and Amy Poehler, there’s also hundreds of photographs of the band members, from their days in New York City’s early-’80s punk and hip hop scenes, all the way through the 21st Century.

Now if audiobooks are more your thing, you’re in luck, because the audio version of the Beastie Boys Book is one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. Narrators of the book include not just Ad Rock and Mike D, but also Spike Jonze, Rosie Perez, Jon Stewart, Chuck D, Roy Choi, Will Ferrell, Snoop Dogg, Rachel Maddow, Bette Midler, Wanda Sykes, Ben Stiller, John C. Reilly, and Maya Rudolph…just to name a few. This audiobook is available to borrow using your Livingston Library card on Overdrive, where you can check out an ebook edition as well.

If you’re looking for more books about hip hop icons, we also have in our collection books like Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib; God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop by Kathy Iandoli; The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America by Marcus J. Moore; The Gucci Mane Guide to Greatness by Gucci Mane with Soren Baker; Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story by Talib Kweli; and a book about another one of my all-time personal favorite groups, the Wu-Tang Clan, a book called Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America [In 36 Pieces] by Will Ashon.

For any kids out there who want to read about hip hop, we have books like What is Hip-Hop? By Eric Morse with art by Anny Yi; The Roots of Rap by Carole Boston Weatherford with art by Frank Morrison; Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat, edited by Nikki Giovanni and featuring work by poets and rappers like Langston Hughes, Lauryn Hill, Gil Scott-Heron, Kanye West, Queen Latifah, Jacqueline Woodson, Mos Def, and 2Pac; the book also comes with a CD containing recordings of many of the works in the book; and for Young Adult readers, we have Chuck D Presents This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History, perfect for all the trivia buffs / music nerds out there, such as myself.

Don’t forget, you can also listen to all kinds of great hip hop albums, including the catalogs of Jay-Z and the Beastie Boys, by streaming or temporarily downloading them at using your Livingston Library card, or on CD through various BCCLS libraries. ‘Til next time, remember: No matter where you go, you are what you are, player…