Hosted by Highsnobiety Editor-at-Large Christopher Morency, "On the Record" is a podcast series of intimate, off the cuff conversations with icons and cultural engineers that have shaped the worlds of fashion, music, tech, art, business, sports and youth culture at large. For this premiere episode, Morency flew to an undisclosed villa location in Italy to chop it up with Colombian Reggaeton sensation J Balvin.
At age 17, J Balvin moved to the United States where he was influenced by the music he heard. When he returned to his native Medellín, he gained popularity performing at local clubs. Fast forward to today, and Balvin is now the first Latino artist to headline Coachella and Lollapalooza. He’s worked with everyone from Cardi B to Pharrell and Major Lazer.
Carrying the torch lit by Puerto Rican Reggaeton sensation Daddy Yankee in the early 2000s, J Balvin and his contemporaries Bad Bunny, Nicky Jam and Maluma, are leading the genre's charge into the global mainstream. In doing so, Balvin himself aims to change perceptions around the Latino community, and tell stories that too often go untold. And so far it’s working, last year he beat Drake to become the most streamed artist in the world on Spotify.
Meanwhile he's become a unique style icon in the context of old school Reggaeton bro culture, sitting front row at Dior, Louis Vuitton and 1017ALYX9SM.
Taking a respite in an Italian villa, Balvin opened up about his musical ambitions, his love for Kim Jones and Virgil Abloh, and his ambition to follow in the footsteps of Pharrell and Kanye.
The below interview is a written version of ‘On the Record’ Episode 1. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christopher Morency: First of all, congratulations on the new signing with Scooter Braun.
J Balvin: Thank you, man. I'm so grateful and happy. Me and Scooter have been friends for five or six years, and we never talk about work together [but] it was always my dream to work with him. Scooter, right now is the best manager in the world. He's updated and current being Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande’s manager. But you know what, right now he's J Balvin manager. And I speak it in a humble way, this is a beautiful moment for the Latino culture, for Spanish music that is really taking off. It's bigger than it used to be, you can really feel it. You go into a nightclub anywhere in the world, you want to listen to Reggaeton.
What do you attribute that rise to? It isn’t me. This has been years of Latinos working hard for this moment to happen. I'm talking about Salsa before, I'm talking about Ricky Martin, Shakira and before that Celia Cruz, how they opened doors, step by step. And I’m just being me.
Who is J Balvin? I'm a regular guy with big dreams. I was born in Medellín, Colombia. It’s a beautiful city full of love. At the time we were going through one of the hardest moments of Colombian history ever where there wasn’t a way to go down. We were living in hell. So the only way was up. And we earned that. What I’m doing now is living the dream that I dreamed when I was a kid.
How do you continue to evolve? Pharrell Williams who is a close friend one day he told me that he's a student. He’s always been teaching me a lot and is like a mentor to me. [But] he told me one day that he’ll always be a student so I took that and I feel like every day we need to learn something and get better. There’s no limit and he told me one day that he's a student, that he was, he is, and he will always be a student.
I want to go back to the early days. I know that you were heavily influenced by Nirvana and Metallica early on. What attracted you to them? Their sound and look. I even have the Nirvana Smiley tattoo on my face. Kurt Cobain was a fashion icon and he was so ahead because he was unique. He inspired me a lot. He made a change with his music and that’s basically what we’re doing right now. People might not know what we’re saying [in Spanish] but they vibe with it, catch the melody and it’s beautiful man. I was just speaking to Kim Jones two minutes ago and asked him why he’s so nice to me. He said I’m not trying to be anyone else but me. I feel blessed. I always wanted to make a statement and next to music be in the fashion world as well, not feeling like I need to behave or dress a certain way. Being myself has opened all the doors.
Your dress sense is very distinct. A lot of guys coming from the Reggaeton scene approach fashion in a different way, where does that love come from? Since I was a kid my mom loved aesthetics, fashion, furniture, architecture etc. So she always was giving me fresh looks and I just loved it. Even though people were like "what the fuck he's wearing?”
There’s a dangerous uncomfortability about dressing in an extravagant way like you do. Yeah, you don’t see a guy with rainbow hair like me every day. I sketch and plan it all out. It’s way different when someone tells you, you should do this or that. When it comes from you and you feel comfortable, others do too. You feel that love, it’s the same with music. When I’m on stage I know that people come to see me, so they give me that security so I give them all the love back. It’s cause and effect.
But back to your trajectory. When was the first time you realized you were on the right track with your music. I think it’s just started like two days ago, because it took me 12 years to be where I’m at right now. I’m just starting to work with Scooter, which means we’re just getting started.
When you moved to the US from Colombia at a young age, what was that shift like? I always wanted to be an artist but, you know, it was tough in the beginning. I believe we’re all a result of our past, so if it wasn't for the moments I've been through, I wouldn't be here sitting down with you talking about these blessings. We’re currently sitting in this beautiful Italian villa but these things that I’m living don’t make me. You know? If one day all of this is gone I’m still going to be the same guy. Sometimes we forget about the simple things. I wake up at five in the morning, look at the sunrise, drink coffee and smell the flowers. It get the same joy from that than being on my own plane.
It seems like you have a good crew around you. Everyone is very optimistic and genuine. People might think I have the rock star life with all the craziness of drugs and alcohol. And I know you just go here but you see me drinking coffee and just getting back from the gym. I want to prove to the world that you can really make it in different ways. You can be healthy and focus on spirituality. I’m just looking to be a better person. In this game you see a lot of people thinking they’re gods and they’re not. Other’s are humble as fuck and those are the people I fuck with. The real guys.
Who are some of those people you look up to? Pharrell Williams. He was really a pioneer to make all these moves in music, fashion and art. Doing collabs with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Louis Vuitton. That’s my dream, that’s what I want to do. That’s why I’m friends with all these big guys that inspire me like Kaws, Takashi Murakami, Kim Jones and Matthew Williams. We’re all on the same frequency. The world is too big [to be competitive]. If I win, y’all win, so I love the way we’re all working together.
Do you see yourself venturing into fashion like Kanye and Pharrell did? Yeah, 100 percent. But it has to be organic and real, and that’s what I’m doing. I want to do collabs. I’m not a designer but I got a lot of ideas. I really like the new designers too. I support guys like Ev Bravado, Kid Super. There are a lot of guys out there that are going ot be the next Virgil. And we got to support each other. I’ll be with those kids and we’ll be up there.
How will music get you there? Music is the key. It’s the super power that will help us achieve other things. Without music there would be no Yeezys or Pharrell working with Louis Vuitton and Adidas and Murakami and Kaws etc. We just take our power to another level with the different things we do. That’s the power of music.
I want to go to reflect on a pivotal moment in Reggaeton. I think, I'm not sure on the exact date, but I think it was 2004 when Daddy Yankee came out with ‘Gasolina.’ Do you remember that moment. Of course, man. He's my dad in this business. He can call me son anytime because he is the one who inspired me to be in this Reggaeton world. He was the one who opened up the doors for all of us to do what we're doing now. And I’ll always give him props. He’s the king. He's the reason why I'm still working even harder because he's still hot. It's not like I'm talking about uncle Daddy Yankee, like oh yeah, I remember uncle Yankee. He’s still working, he’s still dropping fire hits. He makes me feel like I can still kill it in 10 years.
We now see Reggaeton going global. Why now? The second wave has really come up in the past couple of years and they’ve made it global. Think of ‘Despacito’ and my song ‘I Like It’ with Cardi B and Bad Bunny. In the past the world just wasn’t ready. The internet has helped a lot with that. Now you’re just one click away of getting to know a new artist, there are so many ways we can now connect with people. Maybe you don’t like my music, but you like my style. And if you don’t connect with that, maybe you follow me because you like the way I see life or you love the same art, you feel me?
What do you hope Reggaeton becomes in the next couple of years? It’s just going to keep growing. There will be new artists. But overall we just want to keep elevating the culture, make people dance and make them feel happy.
It’s a stark departure from OG Reggaeton that has often been labelled misogynistic and violent. That’s never been my thing but that’s the way it started. It’s like hip-hop. You know, hip-hop doesn’t have the best lyrics but people love it. It’s reality. It’s are and you have to respect art. Maybe you don’t love it because it’s not connected to you but there are lyrics you do connect to. There’s always going to be an evil part that makes us feel like gangsters.
The comparison to hip-hop is interesting. When rap came up in the 1980s and 1990s, it was really about telling the stories of the black community, whereas the Latino community has experienced some overlap more recently. Right now in the US it’s a harsh situation with Trump and the whole immigration thing. And that just gives me more power to show the world that [the Latino community] is great. That’s why Scooter and I want to make people feel that we’re doing great [because] it’s a personal thing too. This is the moment we’re going to make the world proud of being Latino and show them that Latino’s aren’t just immigrants. We are the voice. I want everybody in the world who is from a different place and is an immigrant to feel they can kill it too, because we need that. We need people like DJ Khaled and others that have the power to embrace their culture and tell people they can do it too. I’m 34 years old now and I understand that my mission in this world is to inspire people and music is my tool.
Who do you look out for the next gen of artists? Who should we be keeping our eye on? Jhay Cortez from Puerto Rico. There's a guy from, Mr. Eazi who's from Nigeria. Jeon, a record producer from Aruba, I love him.
If you would have to collaborate with a designer who would it be. Kim Jones would be the first, like a capsule or be the face of Dior. Do crazy stuff and change the world. There are a lot of designers out there that I love like Guillermo Andrade from 424 who is fire. They don’t have to be the most famous. It’s just like music, you gotta vibe with it. Then of course there’s Virgil Abloh and Matthew Williams. When I saw Virgil after his show I told him, “My G, you got me working for you. I’m buying all your stuff.”
What’s next for J Balvin? This is just the beginning of worldwide domination. I really feel it. We had two sold out stadiums around the world. Overall I just want to keep spreading love and make the world a better place.
Thank you J Balvin. Latino Gang!