Last week, Beyoncé hopped onto the remix of J Balvin’s ubiquitous banger “Mi Gente,” no doubt breaking the internet in the process. Even better than her admirable accent was the fact that the collaboration is a benefit for disaster relief organizations in Mexico and the Caribbean.
Truth be told, this was far from Beyoncé’s first en español moment. It’s clear that Queen B understands the value of the Spanish-language market — but that doesn’t mean she can roll her r’s perfectly just yet. Enter Jean Rodríguez, the Puerto Rican vocal producer who worked with Bey on the “Mi Gente” redux.
Rodríguez is a pro at coaching stars who want to try their hand at bilingual tracks. The Puerto Rican vocal producer (who’s also part of the duo COASTCITY and just so happens to be Luis Fonsi’s brother) battled with Trey Songz about working harder on his accent for the Spanish version of “Can’t Help But Wait,” an insistence that Rodríguez says led to “friction” in the studio. (You be the judge on how Songz’s linguistic experimentation wound up.) He’s aided Juanes, Alejandro Sanz, and Prince Royce on English-language tracks, and is no stranger to hip-hop, reggaeton, and other urbano genres. When Wisin & Yandel wanted an English hook for their EDM flex “Algo Que Me Gusta De Ti” with T-Pain and Chris Brown, Rodríguez was there.
His studio time with B took place in The Hamptons, where she and Jay-Z have recently been making some real estate moves. Rodríguez had little time to prepare for his royal appointment; he didn’t know which star he’d be coaching on the “Mi Gente” remix until the day of the session.
Their timing was chilling. The two recorded in the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s devastating run through Bey’s hometown of Houston and by the time the song was released, it was a benefit for the victims of María on Rodríguez’s home island, as well as smaller Caribbean islands affected by the disaster. We got to chat with Jean about his Bey moment and his tactics for making monolingual English-speaking pop stars ready for Latino fans.
How is Beyoncé’s Spanish?
When I got there, she was a little nervous because she hadn’t sung in Spanish in a long time. She had told me she did a few songs in Spanish – one of them was one she recorded for a telenovela with Alejandro Fernández [“Amor Gitano” for El Zorro.] Another one was her hit “Irreplaceable;” she recorded a version in Spanish. But that was a while ago, and she’s never done anything in the Latin urban world, especially in the reggaeton world. So for her it was something challenging, rhythmically. I’m sure she knows just a few words in Spanish that we all know; she’s not a fluent Spanish speaker by any means.
So how did you handle the vocal sessions? What was your strategy for her verses?
We started the session off a cappella, going through line by line, lyric by lyric. Vocal producing – you’ve got to find the easiest avenue, so these artists who you work with don’t get stressed out because they have to do something over and over and over. I’m sure somebody like Beyoncé can do almost anything in one take; she’s that good. But in this case, she has to do it over and over and over and over. Her pitch and her timing are so perfect, but we’re really making sure that it sounds authentic.
“Her pitch and her timing are so perfect, but we’re really making sure that it sounds authentic.”
She was totally cool. There were even times where I would say, “Yo, I think we got it.” And then she would listen back to it and be like, “No, let me do it again.” That was really cool to see an artist acting that way, especially one of her caliber.
Can you think of any phrases or sounds that were particularly difficult for her as a monolingual English speaker to perfect in Spanish?
There was probably one or two words that we spent more time on; I don’t remember specifically. She phonetically wrote down what she thought the lyrics sounded like – that helped a lot. I recorded the Spanish parts for her first, so she’s listening, she’s sitting next to me, she’s really listening to the color and the accent — I was nervous as well!
There were other times or phrases where she would have me literally come up close to her so she could look at the way my lips and my mouth moved to help with the accent. There was a lot of pressure, because I knew that if anything sounded off, it was going to be fingers pointed at me. None of [J Balvin]’s team were there, so I had to present this to them after. Obviously they loved it all around.
It’s wild that you recorded this remix before Hurricane María, given that she worked with a Puerto Rican vocal producer on the song. When you hear the track now, can you hear Puerto Rico in her Spanish accent?
Yes! You know, when we recorded this song, it was right after Harvey. You know how Balvin shouts out Colombia and Willy William shouts out France? Everybody thought it was appropriate for her to shout out her hometown, especially after this whole tragedy with Harvey. So that’s what she added, “Houston are you with me?” The song was supposed to come out at the end of the week, and then Irma happened and then María happened, so they kept pushing it back. They felt the timing wasn’t right.
At that point, I didn’t even going to know when it was going to drop. It wasn’t until I saw her post that it said that everything from the song is going to all these victims from Puerto Rico and Mexico. It just turned into something way bigger. I loved that, because I was already proud of what we did from an artist’s point of view, but now it’s touching the heart. I’ve been so involved with Puerto Rico — I actually just came back from Puerto Rico yesterday, I went over there on a mission to drop off goods. I’m incredibly proud now — prouder — to be a part of it because of the funds that it’s going to raise.
Can I get your professional opinion on Bieber’s verse on the “Despacito” remix?
[laughs] Bieber did his thing; he sounds good. Obviously, the song did what it did. There are some really tricky Spanish words in that chorus that are not easy, not even for Spanish speakers. Now me as a professional, I think — this is just Jean the vocal producer talking — there’s some words that I would have loved to help with, to perfect a little more. From what Fonsi told me, and what he has even told the press, they had a whole verse for him in English. He wasn’t even supposed to sing in Spanish. So I do take my hat off to him for taking that initiative, for being like, “No, you know what, I want to do this in Spanish.” I don’t know if he’s ever going to sing it live. But that’s a whole other thing.
What do you think the chances are that Beyoncé will learn her verses so well that she’ll be able to perform the “Mi Gente” remix live?
That would be really cool. I’m thinking about the artist side. To give you a prime example, tonight I have a show and I have to sing a song that’s not one of my songs and I’m trying to learn it. I’ve listened to it already today like 80 times and it’s in my language. In the studio, it’s a different thing; you’re just kind of singing one word over and over and over.
But I’d like to think, just because of the two days that I got to work with Beyoncé, that the little bit that I did get to know her and saw not only how humble but how professional she is, I’d like to think that if there was an opportunity to perform this song, especially to raise funds, she looks like the type of person that she’d definitely learn it. She’s Beyoncé. Everything she touches is gold.