Lou Bega on 20 Years of ‘Mambo No. 5,’ His New Single with the Late Scatman John
The German-bred singer-songwriter takes us down memory lane with anecdotes about Jennifer Lopez, his maiden India tour and his first television performance
If you were a Nineties kid growing up in India, the latter part of the decade and the early noughties saw one dance hit after another in heavy rotation on Channel [V] and MTV. From Latin pop duo Los del Rio’s “Macarena” and Eurodance band Passion Fruit’s “Rigga Ding Dong Song” to the unforgettable and saccharine “Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of…)” by German-bred singer-songwriter Lou Bega.
It’s been 20 years since we first heard Bega count us in singing, “One, two, three, four, five,” to introduce us to “Mambo No. 5.” Since then, the song has taken a life of its own and turned Bega into a household name all over the world as well as the names of Monica, Erica, Rita, Tina, Sandra, Mary and Jessica.
Bega – who performed a five-city tour across India in 2000 – released his latest single “Scatman & Hatman” via Indian label 9122 Records. It’s a collaboration with none other than the late American artist Scatman John. The new song is a souped-up version of John’s 1994 track “Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)” featuring his original parts as well as Bega’s added flavor. In this interview with Rolling Stone India the “I Got a Girl” hit maker gets nostalgic about the Nineties, his bump in with Jennifer Lopez, India and more over the phone from Antwerp. Excerpts:
Firstly I have to talk about “Mambo No. 5,” it’s been two decades since the song came out. How important is it having that one hit that is so massive that it serves you even 20 years on? What has the global reaction to the song been like?
In the music industry, it was my first big shot. Even though I brought my first record out at 15, this was the first big shot. I remember I was in India for a five-city tour with MTV way back and that was a blast for me because I got to see this monumental country and young people there and how they danced to the tune. It was just awesome, it blew me away.
What’s one funny anecdote over the years you’ve read or heard about or has happened to you because of “Mambo No. 5”?
Jennifer Lopez — up until this point I only saw her on TV — she was a big, big star celebrity already at that time. So ‘Mambo’ received a Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance (in 2000) and that was out of the blue and a surprise. So I traveled to Los Angeles, I sat in the audience and there I saw behind me Jennifer Lopez. She wore her famous green dress that is still famous today. She turned around and said, ‘Hi Lou, nice to meet you’ and kissed my cheek and you know what at that time I can’t describe what happened to me [laughs]. A week before I was watching her on television and here I am receiving a kiss on the cheek from her. It was quite monumental.
Your new song “Scatman & Hatman” features the late Scatman John. Did you ever have a chance to meet him?
He died in December of 1999. Myself, I came out in April of 1999 and my father died in March of 1999 from the same brain tumor that Scatman John had. 1999 is a knockout year for me in the positive and in the negative, so I had no chance to ever meet him. But of course I knew his work and I loved the way that he was so different from all the other pop stars. He was a stutterer so he had problems communicating himself to the people linguistically. But he turned it around and he made a weakness into his greatest strength.
“Scatman & Hatman” plays on a very modern sound that would work great around dance floors around the world. How did it come together?
A couple of months ago, we got the idea — and even the people of Scatman John’s, his record company, his family — loved the idea of having a tribute song to him mixed up with Lou. What I’ve heard [people saying] is Nineties guys team up together to give a knockout punch from the Nineties into the future. We started with Scatman John’s ski-ba, we had to bring it into 2019 and make it modern. That’s what we tried to do. We knew that [we had] the nostalgia which is me and Scatman, but since we’re in 2019 we came up with the synthesizer sound, the percussion beat and the trumpets are a Vega trademark but they sound different and are modernized as well.
You’ve not put out an album since your fifth record A Little Bit of 80s which came out in 2013. Can we expect a new record from you anytime soon?
Absolutely! This one is just a hello again but there is definitely going to be more and even a tour in India would be great.
I was just about to ask you if you had plans to tour India again?
That would be fantastic. It was one of the most adored tours that I’ve done within the last 20 years that I still remember and look at pictures of the India tour because so many things happened. It was just such a monumental extraordinary great tour that we had there. We still remember that.
You’ve been performing live across the world for over 20 years. Tell us about one moment or performance that stands out for you?
The one that I remember most was the first TV performance which was my make-or-break moment. It’s a TV show that doesn’t exist anymore, but it used to be the largest evening family show in Europe or the world. I was so nervous. If I nailed it, doors would open [and] if I failed, I would go back to living under the bridge. I nailed it, so the doors opened. I still remember that, my first TV show.