It’s a good time for merengue. Just ask BMI songwriter Elvis Crespo, whose new album Tatuaje is experiencing the kind of chart-topping success most veterans can only hope for. These days, it’s mostly youthful bachata that sells like hot cakes within the realm of música tropical, but thanks to Crespo’s latest (and tenth) studio album, merengue, like salsa, is enjoying a comeback.
The 43-year-old Puerto Rican legend, who rose to fame as part of Grupo Manía in the mid-‘90s and went solo in 1998, knows that reinventing oneself is the key to longevity in the music industry. Which is why on Tatuaje, he ventures into other sounds such as bachata (as on the title track, featuring Bachata Heightz) and salsa (as on the duet “Mi Último Deseo” with Tito Rojas), and teams up with both newcomers and veterans alike, including Maluma and Olga Tañón, among others. Still, he hasn’t abandoned his roots in merengue, a genre he deems “immortal.”
BMI caught up with the man responsible for merengue’s biggest crossover hit of all time to talk about this new chapter in his songbook, the lessons he’s learned, and why he thinks tropical music will never go out of style.
After a stellar career in merengue, on your new album you are branching out into different genres. What inspired you to get out of your comfort zone?
Over the years I’ve realized that you can’t stay comfortable for too long if you want to keep having positive results. I’ve always been a risk-taker. On “Suavemente,” that a capella intro was originally supposed to have a piano under it. And I remember going into the studio and saying, ‘Let’s take the piano out.’ People thought I was crazy. And now it’s the most idiosyncratic part of the song. And I kept experimenting like that on songs like “Pegaíto, Suavecito,” where I came with an urban-merengue sound. Some people questioned it, but I liked that it fused merengue with the urban musical movement. Bachata is a really popular genre now, and it’s like merengue’s cousin. Given the sensual vibe of the lead single “Tatuaje” I thought it fit perfectly. And it has paid off; the song has been a big hit.
You have a diverse list of collaborators on this record. What are some of the things you admire about the way your younger collaborators approach music?
Aside from being talented musicians, these kids know the artists who came before them. They know my songs and my career, so it makes the creative process that much easier. It’s not the same as calling up someone who knows nothing about your contribution to music. So them being students of music in general creates a positive vibe and allows for there to be good chemistry in the studio. What I like about this album is that it has collaborations with not just younger artists, but artists who have profoundly influenced me, like Tito Rojas and Olga Tañón.
Where do you see the state of merengue today – are you as excited about it as you were when you first started?
Always. Merengue is immortal. It’s like a chameleon. If you listen to the newer genres, from reggaeton to bachata, you’ll always hear instruments like the tambora or the guira, which are traditionally associated with merengue. I think that the genre needs a few things: first, it needs young singers, a new generation to keep it sounding fresh, and it also needs for those of us who are established to continue to take risks. It also needs for the legends to support the next generation of talent. You see that with Romeo Santos and Prince Royce in bachata, for instance. Those things make a difference and I think that’s what’s missing in merengue right now. And I think that radio needs to play more merengue, but that has more to do with trends, which always come and go. Salsa is hot again right now. Soon it will be merengue’s time again. But that’s just speaking solely from a radio perspective, because I personally have never stopped working and merengue has never stopped playing — at weddings and clubs all around the world, it continues to be the most danceable music on the planet.
There’s always that courtship aspect in your songs. Who did you listen to growing up that influenced your romantic/sensual style of songwriting?
I come from the tropical world. I grew up listening to Gilberto Santa Rosa, Tony Vega, Willie Rosario, El Gran Combo, Eddie Santiago, Frankie Ruiz (may he rest in peace). I love salsa and the music of Puerto Rico. I also used to listen to José José a lot, even though he was not within the tropical genre, but when his voice and his style of songwriting got to Puerto Rico, they awakened in me a sense of romanticism both as a listener and as a musician.
“Suavemente” was a game-changer in 1998 and continues to get played to this day around the world. What was it about the song that you think connected with so many people and made it a crossover success?
It’s a song that will never die and the numbers prove it. There are some days that it’s still in the Top 10 on iTunes. I think the a capella intro is definitely a key part of it. Roberto Cora, the producer, did an exceptional job with the song. Some people like to cram a ton of intricate musical arrangements into a song and he went with a very simple yet sophisticated, commercial sound. And then I think that songs about kisses are always a hit. Have you ever noticed that? “Bésame Mucho,” “Por un Beso de la Flaca,” “Sólo por un Beso” from Aventura, they’ve worked because a kiss is usually the first expression of love. Then you have my voice — I’ll admit I’m not the world’s best singer, but I do have a very particular voice with a nasal tone that’s instantly recognizable. All of those elements made that song, and others like “Tu Sonrisa” and “Píntame,” special.
What was it like for you to be catapulted into superstardom from your very first solo album in 1998?
I wasn’t prepared for that. I never expected to leave my country or stop playing in clubs, which is where I started. Nobody took my hand and said, ‘Let’s make you a star.’ I did this through trial and error after having had success with Grupo Manía, so I could hardly believe all the success that I had as a solo artist. It’s been amazing.
What lesson did you learn early on in your career that helped you navigate the music industry’s choppy waters?
I remember when I first hit it big, a lot of people in the industry approached me and filled me with praise. It was sort of dizzying. Now, because of my values, I know how to differentiate between someone who is giving me a real compliment or a real piece of advice, and someone who just wants something from me. I have matured a lot and there are many lessons that have made me the artist I am today. Pitbull has a saying that goes, “Music is 90% business and 10% talent.” I have learned to look at it that way, from the point of view of a businessman. Talent is important but it’s still entertainment and it’s still a business.
What style of music would you never try your hand at?
Pop balladry. I wouldn’t try to sing pop ballads not because I don’t enjoy them — because I do — but because my voice is not meant for that. I can sing romantic songs but they have to have rhythm, because my voice is rhythmic. That’s my strength.
You were named after Elvis Presley. What is your definition of a musical genius?
You have to be genuine, unique, and you have to let your instincts guide you. You have to recognize your strengths as well as your weaknesses. At this point in my life, I’m well aware of my weaknesses, so I accept them; I don’t obsess over them. I focus on trying to reinvent those things that make me stronger instead.
Tell us about your relationship with BMI.
BMI has been an important part of my development as a songwriter. As an organization, it helped me realize just how BIG my songs could be in the world and I am very grateful for that.