How ‘Oye Mi Canto’ Crossed Worlds & Revolutionized Reggaetón in America

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This week, Billboard is publishing a series of lists and articles celebrating the music of 20 years ago. Our 2004 Week continues here with an oral history of one of the year’s most impactful hits: “Oye Mi Canto,” from an all-star cast led by New York rapper N.O.R.E., which crossed cultures and genres and brought reggaetón to new stateside heights.

At the beginning of 2004, the reggaetón and hip-hop scenes stood at the precipice of a musical revolution. Reggaetón, a genre now famously recognized for its roots in Puerto Rico, was about to explode into a transnational phenomenon.

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N.O.R.E., the seasoned hip-hop luminary known for his raw lyricism, unapologetic demeanor and turn-of-the-century hits like “Superthug” and “Nothin,” found himself captivated by the infectious dembow-driven rhythm that was commanding the streets of the Island.

Impelled by a yearning to bridge cultures and pay homage to his newfound infatuation, the New York rapper set out on an audacious quest to etch reggaetón into the heart of American hip-hop. Fueling his self-proclaimed obsession with Tego Calderón’s music, N.O.R.E. envisioned a collaboration that would pay homage to his newfound muse, as well as his own Puerto Rican roots.

Within the creative cauldron of The Hoodlab (N.O.R.E.’s studio in midtown Manhattan) — and alongside his Lefrak, Queens comrades, producer SPK and rapper Big Mato, as well as Astoria, Queens duo Nina Sky, made up of twin singers Natalie and Nicole Albino, and rapper Gemstar — he embarked upon a mission to create a track that would shatter conventions and cross musical borders. The result was “Oye Mi Canto,” released on Def Jam.

The impact was nothing short of revolutionary. “Oye Mi Canto” burst onto the American and Latin airwaves, dismantling linguistic and cultural barriers. “It’s the bilingual elements of the song,” explains producer SPK of the song’s groundbreaking nature. “From a legendary platinum hip-hop artist like N.O.R.E., who [risked] his credibility as one of the most hardcore NY hip-hop artists — when no hip-hop artist would dare to take the chance to do anything out of the genre of hip-hop — N.O.R.E. did that. He bridged the gap between American Radio stations and Latin music.”

The song soared on multiple Billboard charts, including the all-genre Billboard Hot 100, where it peaked at No. 12. It made impressive inroads on a wide variety of radio formats, including Pop Airplay (reaching No. 19), Latin Airplay (No. 22), Latin Pop Airplay (No. 25), Tropical Airplay (No. 2) and Rap Airplay (No. 8).

20 years later, the legacy of “Oye Mi Canto” stands as a testament to the unifying power of collaboration, while also having a tremendous impact on promoting bilingualism in hip-hop and American pop music, paving the way for cultural exchange and artistic innovation between different musical worlds. Even J Balvin will occasionally open up his live set with the song.

Below N.O.R.E., Nina Sky, Big Mato, and SPK share with Billboard Español in their own words about how “Oye Mi Canto” evolved into a hit, and how it became the first ever “American commercial reggaetón” crossover smash.

The Origins

N.O.R.E.: I kept having shows in Puerto Rico, and we kept hearing this music. I didn’t know what it was called, but I called it Spanish reggae. I kept seeing people dance to this music. What is this?! I would go back to New York, and I’d be like, “Yo, play that Spanish reggae stuff.” Nobody knew what the hell I was talking about. I would ask every Black DJ in New York to play it, they said no. I asked every white DJ, they said no. Then I asked the Latino DJs, and they said no too! I [approached] Latino DJs last, because I thought it was an easy win, but boy was I wrong.

One of the first records I fell in love with personally, besides, “Tu pum pum mami mami” [El General’s “Tu Pum Pum”] was Tego Calderón’s “Guasa Guasa.” I was just in love with this beat. It was like “tu tururururu” [hums the beat]. I was like “What the F–K?!” I was obsessed with his music. I asked the DJs to play that. “Play this guy right here, play Tego.” I remember them DJs still not playing it! They said, “You don’t want to jump on a little verse somewhere?” The fact that y’all [DJs] don’t want to play the Tegos, the Wisin & Yandels, the Zion & Lenoxs… So I jumped on “Guasa Guasa,” and gave it to a couple of DJs, just so they could play it to the American audiences to adapt to it, because it had an American artist on it.

That didn’t work. Then I said, “You know what, let’s do a full fledged song, a real song. It’s gonna be our version.” Almost like the American version of what’s happening in Puerto Rico. That’s how much I was sacrificing for reggaetón, and to be a part of that culture.

"Oye Mi Canto"
“Oye Mi Canto”

SPK: N.O.R.E. came up with the idea of making the song for the Puerto Rican Day Parade in NYC. Everything started with a verse from Tego Calderón, who recorded a verse for one of DJ Kool Kid’s mixtapes. DJ Kool Kid offered it to N.O.R.E., so that we could use it for the promotional mixtape to be given away for free at the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Once N.O.R.E. got the Tego a cappella, he then gave it to me and told me to take it home and make a reggaetón beat around Tego’s verse, and bring it back to him the next day. Took it home and made the beat that same night at my home studio.

Mind you, I did not consider myself a reggaetón producer at that time, and I also mentioned that to N.O.R.E. His reply to me was, “SP, I know you can do this.” He was so confident that I can pull this off with no problem. N.O.R.E. has that gift, in seeing the potential in people before they can realize it themselves.

Big Mato: I was already making music with SPK. He was doing hip-hop, and I was more into reggaetón. N.O.R.E. came back from Puerto Rico with that fever, and told us, “Listen, I wanna put something together.” We was already recording other [hip-hop] songs with N.O.R.E. in the studio. We first recorded “Toma Reggaetón,” and “Oye Mi Canto” was the continuation of that.

N.O.R.E.: What I was trying to do was mimic [the Puerto Rican] style, but still being us. It’s the reason why I didn’t want Ivy Queen [or La Sista] I wanted to get somebody from America, and then add an artist that’s up there culturally.

When [I thought of the verse] “Boricua, morena” I just knew it had to be Nina Sky. I had no one else in mind. I had to beg Jamal Landlord and Cipha Sounds, who was [Nina Sky’s] manager at the time. They were like, “Yo, they don’t speak Spanish. They know the culture, but they’re not of that culture.” I’m like, “We’re all of that culture. You Latino, you have it in you. Don’t worry, just let them come into the studio.”

Nina Sky (Natalie): We were at a show in Connecticut at the time. We had just gotten off stage. It was past midnight, and we got a call that N.O.R.E. wanted us to come to the studio to record this song. We hadn’t recorded anything in Spanish yet. So it felt like the right thing to do, like it was meant to be. We were really proud to be a part of it, representing for the Puerto Ricans, for the Boricuas in New York City. We’re all from Queens, and it just felt like a really big moment for all of us.

Nina Sky (Nicole): When we heard the song, we thought it was a really cool concept, remaking the Big Pun record [“Still Not a Player,” which has the “Boricua, morena” hook] into this reggaetón record. Also repping the culture and connecting with our roots was really cool. N.O.R.E.’s idea to create a reggaetón record as a hip-hop artist was really cool. it just felt like it was an incredible opportunity to be a part of it from all angles.

"Oye Mi Canto"
“Oye Mi Canto”

The Making of a Hit

Big Mato: That beat wasn’t done the same way as other reggaetón beats. It wasn’t done with Fruity Loops. It was a beat that was done so differently, and it was accepted.

SPK: I used Reason. I believe I was the first one to do a reggaetón beat on that software. I made the entire beat from scratch. Even though I wasn’t a reggaeton producer, I was a big fan of reggaetón, dancehall and reggae music. All that played a big part in inspiring me to fuse those sounds with the knowledge I already had as a hip-hop producer.

Other tools that contributed to my production was the first official reggaetón drums library that was given to me by the legendary DJ Blass, who was the creator of that library. Using Reason with original reggaetón drum kits and Reason stock instrument sounds gave it that unique sound. Very different from what you would hear coming out from the island of Puerto Rico.

N.O.R.E.: That was my instructions to SPK. It was, “We need to sound reggaetón, but from America.” To sound dembow, but we still hip-hop, we still we America. We want to honor [Puerto Rico] because it’s still reggaetón. But at the same token, we want to be who we are. That’s the reason why most of the artists on that record are from America, with the exception of one.

SPK: N.O.R.E. had a studio right on Madison Ave in midtown Manhattan. The name of the studio was The Hoodlab, it’s where most of the vocals for “Oye Mi Canto” were recorded, except for Daddy Yankee’s and Tego’s. I remember when [manager and producer] Cipha Sounds brought Nina Sky to The Hoodlab to record the hook, nothing but good vibes. N.O.R.E. quickly told them he wanted to pay homage to Big Pun and incorporate a line from “Still Not A Player.”

Nina Sky (Nicole): I remember how excited N.O.R.E. was to be recording this reggaetón song and putting this energy into the universe. If you’ve ever been around N.O.R.E., anything he does is dynamic and big. He’s really involved. Passion definitely filled the studio that night, and he knew that this was gonna be a hit song.

When we first got into the studio, Daddy Yankee wasn’t on the record. It was N.O.R.E., Big Mato, and Gemstar. There was a Tego Calderón verse. It was great collaborating with everyone. The original version only had the Big Pun part, “Boricua, morena…

Big Mato: Recording wise, that was one of the greatest moments. When we would get together. Everybody would go in [the studio] and we were like superfriends. One recording, the other one is preparing his part writing, while the other one was probably making the dance to the song. It was like a real life situation. I was late and I almost didn’t come out on that song. I had just come out of work at the Marriott Hotel one block away from the World Trade Center, that’s why I believe I was the last one in the song.

N.O.R.E.: We realized, damn, in the Puerto Rican Day Parade, there are Colombians, Dominican, Mexicans. We can’t just leave it “Boricua, morena.” We went back in and added all the Latino countries [“Boricua, morena, Dominicano, Colombiano/ Boricua, morena, Cubano, Mexicano”].

SPK: Nina Sky laid the hook, and gave the record such a good vibe that when DJ Camilo came by and heard the record at The Hoodlab, his expression was priceless. He quickly told us we had a monster record, and that he couldn’t wait to break it on Hot 97. This was the Tego version DJ Camilo debuted, and the record quickly took off organically and was soon on regular rotation across radio stations in the U.S.

Now Def Jam gets behind the record — they tried to handle business with Tego’s team to clear his verse on the record, but they couldn’t reach an agreement, so we were forced to remove Tego from the record. N.O.R.E. asked us who would be the perfect artist to replace Tego’s spot. Me and Big Mato said Daddy Yankee. We reached out, and Daddy Yankee said yes, and the rest is history.

The Video

Nina Sky (Nicole): The music video was shot in Miami. I remember the energy. This song is all about that pride and that energy, and that existed all the way through. The shoot was fun, you had all the flags on the beach, all the dancers.

N.O.R.E.: That was our first encounter with Daddy Yankee. We had been speaking to each other. The flags, having the visual look tropical. That was all my idea to make it look tropical, beachy, sexy, island vibes. One of the illest moments of that video I can tell you… was Daddy Yankee’s performance. I hadn’t even seen him perform at that time, I had just talked to him, and that [shoot] was our first time seeing him perform. I was like, “Yo, this dude is explosive. He performs like Busta Rhymes, but his lyrics are like Jay Z’s, but his look was like Nas.” It was crazy to me. I was like, “Oh s–t.”

I knew he was a star, but from that moment on, when he just lifted his arm up, I was like, “He has got to be a superstar.” I think I made the right choice by having this guy on the record, and that was one of the most memorable [moments]. [Ed. Note: Daddy Yankee declined to be interviewed for this piece.]

Big Mato: I wish I could repeat the video again. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. If you see that video, you see that it starts at the beach with the flags. But then when my part comes in at the end, it turns into a party. That moment right there, I felt like I was bringing the party to everybody. Fat Joe was there, Pitbull was there; there were many artists there.

N.O.R.E.: It’s the first reggaetón record ever played on MTV and BET, that’s a fact, Google it. It’s the first reggaetón record ever added to our regular rotation on HOT 97 and Power 105.1, it’s a fact, Google it. I’m not talking about La Mega, or other [Spanish] radio. We busted iHeart Radio’s ass with that record… It bursts stars. I’m not saying I invented reggaetón, at all. I’m saying that in commercial American reggaetón, I am the head of that s–t.

The Impact

Big Mato: It impacted a lot. As soon as the song came out, you see Fabolous coming out, [saying] “I’m Dominican,” right away. We knew he was Dominican but he never mentioned it. It kind of opened people’s minds about being Latino and showing it. Even R. Kelly [recruited] Wisin y Yandel for “Burn It Up” [in 2005]. That was inspired by “Oye Mi Canto.” A lot of Americans started doing reggaetón, and we inspired that.

Nina Sky (Nicole): There were a lot of different reasons for us that it felt extra special. One being that we’re from Queens, N.O.R.E. is from Queens, and we grew up listening to Capone-N-Noreaga. So to be in the studio, creating this record about being proud of our heritage was amazing. To be here 20 years later performing that record still feels as amazing. It’s really cool that an artist, who up until that point, was not necessarily known for creating in that genre, was able to have such an impactful record. The reason that I feel like that is it’s because N.O.R.E. is an authentic, passionate, and talented artist, and he really believed in presenting that. That will always transcend time in music. That’s why today, we still hear the song — because it came from that place of authenticity and passion.

Nina Sky (Natalie): In a way, it opened up the doors for others to feel more comfortable collaborating and also experimenting; Drake and Bad Bunny, or “Despacito,” the more obvious one. There are just so many more collaborations in that style now. It opened the door for other people to collaborate. He was definitely an innovator.

SPK: The hook is contagious with the beautiful voices of Nina Sky, us paying homage to Big Pun on the hook, and N.O.R.E. adding different Latin nationalities to it played a big part in its popularity. The melodies made it more appealing to any generation from any nationality. Also, the voices of super legends like N.O.R.E., Daddy Yankee and Tego Calderon helped it go even further. But at the end of the day, none of that would have been possible without the mastermind behind it all N.O.R.E. P. Diddy said we created a never-die anthem.

"Oye Mi Canto"
“Oye Mi Canto”

N.O.R.E.: My close friends Fat Joe and [DJ] EFN both pulled me to the side [in 2004] and told me I shouldn’t be doing reggaetón. They weren’t saying that to try to hurt you. They said it to try to help you. They thought it was a phase. I had to look at my friends in their faces and say, “Nah, man, I believe in this genre of music. I’m gonna go against your advice and blessings.” I had to do this for my heart. And I stuck to what I know. To this day, whenever Fat Joe sees me and we bring up reggaetón, he says, “Look, I was wrong.” Whenever [EFN and I] bring up reggaetón on or off the show [Drink Champs], EFN says he was wrong.

Nina Sky (Natalie): In the song, there’s a line where N.O.R.E. says “No matter your race, because today you Latino.” And I think that line resonates because anyone who hears the song, anyone who sees the video, you feel that sense of pride. You sing along — you don’t have to be Latino, Boricua, Dominican or whatever. You feel that pride and you sing along because it doesn’t matter where you’re from.

N.O.R.E.: When I see young artists coming from Washington Heights, Hialeah, or East Los Angeles [doing American reggaetón], it’s like, damn, okay, we’re sharing this shit. It’s the same way hip-hop had to share with the West Coast, or drill music over there in London. Reggaetón happened to share with America. Then we realized that this is the reggaetón [Americans] needed to hear in order for y’all to get into what the essence of reggaetón is. The birthplace is Panama, the mother of reggaetón lives in Puerto Rico, but its children can now live all over the world, no matter where, and that is a beautiful thing.

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