The mambo king wanted to release a song that will rule the summer, and he says, “I think we have found one.”
“Twenty years is nothing,” says Lou Bega. “Like a shadow, a vapor, it’s gone in one second.”
On a call from Germany, Bega tells Billboard that, thus far this year, he has not spent much time reflecting on the 20th anniversary of “Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of…),” which became an international smash in 1999 and turned the Munich-born singer into a pop sensation. Yet he expects to spend more time looking back on his comet-like ascent in the coming weeks — now that he’s released his first new single in six years. “The song,” he insists, “is the reflection.”
That song is called “Scatman & Hatman”: part mash-up of two unlikely ‘90s pop personalities, part loving tribute to an artist Bega admired, the single interpolates Eurodance eccentric Scatman John’s 1995 hit “Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)” and injects Bega’s goofball charm in between the time-honored scat-rapping. The result is a righteously wacky duet between the fedora-clad mambo king and John, who passed away at the age of 57 in December 1999, months after Bega became a star.
Bega says that the shared 20-year anniversary of John’s death and “Mambo No. 5” ultimately led to the idea of the “Scatman & Hatman” track. “We found out how much [John and I] had in common,” says Bega. “The guy died of a brain tumor in 1999 — my own father died of a similar brain tumor in 1999 as well, just four weeks before the mambo came out. And then of course, there’s the suits, and the mustaches, and the retro style.”
John’s novelty dance hit, which topped charts across Europe and reached the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S., was also recorded after he moved from America to Bega’s native Germany in the early ‘90s. And the more Bega researched John’s life and career, the more he was struck by how “the Scatman” used his speech impediment to create one of the most surprising hit singles of the decade.
“I didn’t know that he is a hero to millions of people,” says Bega, “because he took something in his life that was portrayed as weak — he was a stutterer — and to millions of stutterers around the world, he is their hero, because he showed them how you can turn something [negative] in your life into an asset, in his case a main asset.”
Bega’s last album, the covers-heavy A Little Bit of 80s, was released in 2013, and he has spent most of the 2010s performing across Europe. He has never released a song that has rivaled the success of “Mambo No. 5,” which has sold 1.1 million downloads since its release and been streamed 127 million times in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music. The song, which peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100 and topped the Pop Songs chart for five weeks, helped Bega’s album A Little Bit of Mambo sell a staggering 3.3 million copies, since, pre-iTunes, “Mambo” fans had to buy the full album to hear Bega call out the names of women with whom he wished to mambo.
The 44-year-old says that, when he entered 2019, he had no plans to commemorate the anniversary of his signature hit. “I haven’t put out much in the last few years,” he says, “and we decided to do something, but only if a good idea would come up — only if we could bring a big challenger to the song of the summer, which is a big thing in Europe every year. And I think we have found one.”
Is there more music coming from the mambo maestro besides “Scatman & Hatman”? Bega says that earlier this year, “we had something going on with Daddy Yankee’s people — they wanted to mix one of his big songs with ‘Mambo,’ in a reggaeton version, but at the last minute, after the mix was done, they jumped off the wagon.” Daddy Yankee currently has a top 40 hit with “Con Calma,” which interpolates Snow’s 1992 hit “Informer.” Bega laments, “I think it had to do with that, probably — I guess they didn’t want to [put out] two '90s songs in one year.”
Still, Bega hopes that “Scatman & Hatman” will lead to new opportunities. He’s already booked a few shows in Europe for next month, and says that he could potentially add more, including a return to the U.S., based on how well the new single performs.
“The last time in the States was two years ago,” he says. “I haven’t been coming to the States lately. But this could be a reason to come around.”