Late last week I came across an entertaining collection of Mexican pro-w33d songs. Among them was a narcocorrido by El Tigrilla Palma entitled El Rey de la Kush (take that, Dre!). Enjoying the juxtaposition between traditional musical style and utterly contemporary slanguage / thematics, I couldn’t help tweeting that it seemed “so gangsta” in its way. (Actually, the tuba-playing alone might deserve the “gangsta” tag — listen to those runs!):
Shortly after that tweet, however, Mexican music maestro Toy Selectah let me know in no uncertain terms (via DM, tellingly) that there’s gangsta, and then there’s gangsta. He messaged me a couple YouTube links that made the Tigrillo track seem quaint. Exhibits A & B:
Suffice to say: these are amazing to mis ojos Americanos, especially how they re-imagine gangsterhood in a post-hip-hop, post-Hollywood world. Cowboy hats and blinged-out kevlar, Scarface scenes and gunhands, and a glut of straight-up gun pr0n. These guys are ballers, luxury branded blin-blineo on full display in every way. See, e.g., how El Komander styles himself “El Sr de las Hummers” –
The production values are high glossy, the music uncompromising and hard. While the instrumentation and arrangements seem to hew fairly closely to traditional models, the vocalists are spitting some hardcore lyrics. (“The most gangsta shit in Spanish I ever heard!” said Toy via DM.) Even if you don’t understand Spanish — and I confess I can hardly follow this very closely — you get the gist.
The “Carteles Unidos” of Movimiento Alterado kinda make gangsta rap look like pure theater. (More vids along these lines here.) And while these are plenty theatrical in their way — spectacular, sin duda — they also seem fairly serious. Less like Vybz Kartel, more like cartel vibes.
They also seem serious about their music industry game, and here again we see some borrowing from rap — in particular, horizontal branding and vending. They’re working all the angles of contemporary music industry, to be sure. See their slick website, including an in-house/site store, where they’ve embraced the diversified portfolio of products that hip-hop entrepreneurs first put together: direct marketed DVDs, clothing, etc. The site features a “lifestyle” tab, as well as a “fashion” tab (leading to a curious slideshow). And their YouTube game is tight: vivid videos accompanied by links to mediafire DLs as well as Amazon/iTunes stores for buyables. And in 2011, they’re coming to a House of Blues near you! If I were in direct competition with these guys, I’d be more than a little worried by their drive to “take over” —
The blurring between reality and theater here is, of course, at least as disturbing as in gangsta rap, and I suspect that many Mexican viewers/listeners are ambivalent about this stuff, repelling as it tantalizes. For my part, knowing that US drug users are, essentially, paying Mexicans to kill other Mexicans in order to feed our dirty, insatiable habits, I look at these videos with my own mix of horror and fascination. What a sensational mediation of the terrible, terrorized world we’ve made.
Since we’re back to the topic of the wide and contested world of reggaeton, it felt fortuitous to find in my inbox this morning a link to a new interview with Renato, Panamanian pioneer of reggae en español. With the effective prodding of Peter Szok, a history professor from Texas, Renato helps to further flesh out the picture of how reggae has been translated and transformed in Panama. Go read the whole thing, but allow me to highlight some illuminating excerpts below.
If you didn’t, you should know that Renato, of Bajan and Jamaican parentage, grew up in the Canal Zone alongside other English-speaking labor migrants from the Caribbean (and their children), and that he strongly identified with US pop culture before moving to Panama City as a teen, where he learned Spanish and participated in a number of crucial ways in the emergent reggae scene: MCing parties, recording songs for drivers of diablos rojos or mini-buses (which Renato describes as “like radio stations”), and, among other things, assisting the rise of Edgardo Franco, aka El General, who got his start as one of Renato’s 4 Estrellas.
Renato’s tale of making the transition from Canal Zone to Panama, from americano to panameño, deserves a little quotation at length:
What I knew was “Buenos días,” “Hola,” and “¿Cómo estás?” So I had a lot of problems. Since I came from the Canal Zone, the kids jumped on me and called me the americano. Once I took an apple to the teacher. That was something they taught us in the Zone, and they went after me for being a brown-nose. So you know, from those experiences, I had a lot of fights. They didn’t like me, because I came from the Canal Zone. The whole experience was a bit confusing. When we moved to Panama, my grandmother told me, “Son, I have to tell you something important. You’re Panamanian. We never told you before, because we thought that you knew.” I initially had a hard time believing. But she explained that we were Panamanians, but grew up American-style, because we lived in the Canal Zone. That’s why we knew the National Anthem of the United States and not the Panamanian song. And that was another problem. When I was at school, I had to sing the Panamanian anthem, and I didn’t know it. This also created a lot of problems. Because you’re Panamanian, and people think that you don’t love your country. But it’s not that. I grew up in a country that was in another country.
And here’s Renato describing how he and Wassanga, a local DJ, made their foray into production — for the buses/busdrivers, before music on buses was banned — using reggae instrumentals:
I’m learning now how to speak in Spanish and sing in Spanish, and so we start doing tapes with the reggae instrumental versions. The guys from the diablos rojos were a big deal for us. The bus drivers would tell us, “Hey I want you to do a song, saying that I’m the number one driver in this sector. I’m the best conductor. I’ve got the girls.” So I’d do something like, “Yeah, this is the number one conductor. Yeah, he’s got the number one structure. Girls like him, so get on the bus.” And we would do it in Spanish and put it on a tape, and he would play it on his bus. Remember that Panamanians had music on their buses. Panamanian buses were like radio stations. What you heard on the buses, was what was hitting. So after we started getting this popularity in Spanish, we began to write our own songs.
Here’s Renato on rap and the Canal Zone’s relationship to the US/NYC:
Rap started in Panama with “Rapper’s Delight.” It was a big hit, The Sugar Hill Gang was really popular. Then came Run-DMC. They brought in the breakdancing. I used to breakdance. Remember that I came from the Canal Zone, and so everything from the United States was my style. And so while I was in Panama and trying to do Panamanian stuff, it was still my style. I used to try to go every day to Balboa, because I was so accustomed to my style of living that I couldn’t stand being here in Panama. I used to go every day and spend all my money on bus fairs and taxis, just to be in Balboa, just to be in Pedro Miguel with my people, my friends. You know it was hard for me to leave my friends and to live in a place where I didn’t know anyone. Then everyone started to leave for New York. Almost everyone who grew up with me now lives in the States.
Finally, Renato gets to parsing the difference between Panamanian reggae (or plena / bultron) and Puerto Rican reggaeton:
But if you hear…the way we sing, then you’ll understand that it’s different from the Puerto Ricans. It’s a little more suave, and you can understand the Spanish more. Puerto Ricans like to invent a lot of words that most people don’t understand. In Panama, we have a different type of reggae. We have the most romantic reggae, because we are a romantic country. We don’t have so much gangster music. I can tell you how many gangster rappers we have. It’s like six or seven. But we have so many romantic singers, almost six or seven hundred singers who don’t sing about gangster stuff. Because we are not a violent country.
And when it comes to explaining reggae vis-a-vis “black identity,” Renato draws the lines pretty starkly, in blood red:
Yes, because we took it from Jamaica, and it has a black culture. And remember something. The majority of Panamanian reggae singers are black. In Puerto Rico, they’re white. The Puerto Rican reggae singers are white. Over here, they’re black. Why? To them, it was like something new, these new moves that they wanted to do. But for us, it was something from our families, something we loved.
He paints in some broad strokes here, and perhaps fans a few flames, especially with such sweeping generalizations about national difference, but I appreciate the greater sense of context he gives us for hearing how reggae resonates in Panama.
If I were writing my mega-essay on reggaeton today, I’d want to make a lot more space for the Dominican Republic’s local take on the genre. Generally referred to as dembow (rather than reggaeton) — or dembow dominicano, to signal a certain national(istic) distinction — the Dominican artists and producers working in the style essentially proceed as if the reggaeton boom never happened, as if Luny Tunes’ once hegemonic synth-romps never held sway.
Instead, the same building-blocks that were in place in Puerto Rico in the 90s, back when Puerto Ricans were themselves often calling the genre dembow, remain the basic resources for new performances and recordings. And whereas Playero and the Noise had to wrest their cut-and-paste collages out of clunky if cherished hardware, today’s digital domain means its easier than ever for some kid to grab a snare here, a hi-hat there, a beloved synth-stab, etc. Consequently, dembow dominicano is catching grassroots fire, on the internet, on the island, and in the diaspora.
I’ve blogged a little about the offshoot style known as jerkbow and about the mini-mixes of DJ Scuff, one of the premier producers and party-rockers of the scene — in particular, in order to show that “reggaeton” (or whatever we want to call it) is, despite pronouncement after pronouncement, far from “dead” — but I think it’s time to take a deeper dive into some Dominican dembow rabbitholes, since I’ve just returned from a little virtual spelunking. (And in case you missed it in a recent post, here’s a link to DJ Effresh’s dembow roundup from last spring, and here’s a link to a followup from later in the year.)
My co-editor/compi Raquel Rivera is to blame for this most recent jaunt. Yesterday morning she brought to my attention a seriesofarticles published in El Caribe this week. Mostly penned by local music journo José Nova, the series mixes reportage with a certain romanticism in order to offer an informative, supportive view of the formerly marginal but now ubiquitous sound.
An article on dembow’s origins nods to Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Panama before rehearsing the genre’s local history, including nods to Dominican contemporaries of Playero’s such as DJ Boyo, who notes that they were listening to the same sources that inspired their PR brethren:
En el 1993 comencé a escuchar a Shabba Ranks y a otras grandes estrellas del reggae, y dije: esa música me gusta… tomé la pista de la canción “Wake the Man”, de Cutty Ranks, y le hice este sencillo que tuvo una buena acogida.
But before long the localized mashup emanating from San Juan clearly made its mark in DR, and productions there have more closely resembled PR’s dancehall bricolage than, say, Panama’s direct emulation. While a small, steady dembow scene appears to have persevered in the intervening years, Nova points to the “viral” success of Boyo’s “La Gorda Budusca” (w/ PR vocalists Maicol y Manuel) and, later, Doble T & El Crow’s “Pepe” as initiating a new turn for the genre — an era of unprecedented popularity and widespread participation.
One of the hallmarks of dembow dominicano in its resurgent form — certainly as typified by “Pepe” — is how much it marks itself as homegrown, especially in the videos made to promote the songs, artists, producers, and associated brands. The internet, especially YouTube, has been central to this development, though Nova is careful to connect the easy distro of web2.0 to previous alternative distribution and promotion methods, namely hand-to-hand “piracy” (which is how Playero’s early tapes circulated as well).
Indeed, according to Nova, dembow’s remarkable popularity in DR today is especially striking because it has managed to dominate the soundscape without traversing the traditional media route. Another article, focusing on the role of the internet in the dembow scene, begins thusly:
Se escucha por todas partes. Es el ritmo de moda. Ha dejado sin efecto la teoría de que para sonar en la radio o en las discotecas los cantantes deben pagar “payola” o ser una figura consagrada de la música. No es así.
[You hear it everywhere. It's the rhythm of the day. It has invalidated the theory that to be heard on the radio or in clubs artists must pay "payola" or be a consecrated figure of music. Not so.]
And it ends by noting that the grassroots popularity of the music, as evidenced by millions of YouTube views as well as the sheer ubiquity of the beat in meatspace, has, in turn, forced established media outlets, especially radio and TV, to embrace the genre. Nova quotes radio disc-jock Sandy Vásquez (aka Sandy Sandy), who says that radio has to keep up with what’s hot on the streets and in the clubs, lest the kids just switch the station:
Si notamos, los temas primero se han pegado en las calles (lamentablemente para la industria, pero gracias a los discos pirateados), en las discotecas e indudablemente en el Internet, y luego la radio se ha visto obligada a sonarlos para entrar a la competencia, porque sino la juventud te cambia de dial.
One overriding point in the series is that dembow has emerged as a national style, a national music. It would seem that dembow has been nationalized — and is felt as deeply Dominican, at least by its legion devotees — in the same way as, say, the Congolese made “rumba” their own. The occasional use of the term “dembow criollo” (which I mainly find as a recurring cut-and-paste reference around the net) — as in calling DJ Boyo (or Bollo?), “el padre del Dembow criollo” — would seem to suggest a certain sense of local hybridization. Perhaps the clearest statement of this outright identification is a recent posse cut that brings together upwards of 15 of the scene’s biggest stars. It is titled, simply, “Yo Soy Dembow”:
Eagle-eared, reggae-loving listeners will no doubt pick out snatches of some of the most popular dancehall riddims of the 1990s, including Bam Bam / Murder She Wrote / Fever Pitch, Dem Bow / Pocoman Jam, Drum Song / Hot This Year, Stalag, and others — not to mention a nod or two to some iconic hip-hop beats (the “Mardi Gras” break, the beat from Slick Rick’s “Mona Lisa”). This is par for the course for dembow dominicano, or for PR’s proto-reggaeton — both of which (re)cycle through this set of sonic signposts ad infinitum.
Listeners less versed in the twisted transformations of Shabba’s “Dem Bow” into reggaeton’s dembow might be a little perplexed by this turn. Jamaicans in particular would no doubt be bemused by such a statement. “I am they bow,” it seems to say, at least to Jamaicans. We’ve gone from Nando Boom translating Shabba directly into Spanish and calling on audiences to “put up your hand if you’re not a bow” to artists themselves proclaiming “I am dembow”!
Of course, those questions are extra-local and academic to say the least. At this point, in the Dominican Republic, as in Puerto Rico, “dembow” simply translates as “this awesome music of ours with that great beat.” It’s no surprise that leaders of the new school such as Pablo Piddy have recorded several songs with dembow in the title, among them the self-consciously nationalizing “Quisqueyano Dembow.”
The video for Piddy’s “Si Tu Quiere Dembow” is a fine example of the genre’s largely rough-hewn, real-walk aesthetic, complete with contact numbers for bookings and other opportunities:
But while it’s a fully nationalized style, and pretty “throwback” in sonic profile, dembow artists and audiences simultaneously insert themselves into today’s global flows. The “jerkbow” stuff is, of course, one clear example of this, looking toward LA, but others nod to JA, giving glimpses of how, perhaps unsurprisingly, contemporary dancehall style — especially sartorial taste and dance moves — can comfortably fit pon top of yesteryear’s dancehall riddims:
Of course, for all its distance from reggaeton, Dominican dembow shares a great deal with it — everything except the slick industrial integration and accordant aesthetics, pretty much. Like reggaeton prior to its formal commercialization, dembow is pretty raw stuff, carrying DIY production values, issuing from “the street” (i.e., the underclass), and pushing plenty of bourgeois buttons. So you probably won’t be surprised, if you’re familiar with the arguments around reggaeton (and its forbears, dancehall and hip-hop), that the articles have already invited a couple comments dismissing any value the music might have and, indeed, calling for an outright ban on the genre:
juanito: Esa musica es la musica que insita a la violencia PROHIBANLA y YA!….JOder!
luis: esa musica entre comilla lo unico que trae es reverdia una reverdia pendeja poner los niños mas malcriaos de los que son gran musica no la ponga y ya denle banda a eso
Moreover, as this Chosen Few-produced posse cut shows, lots of DR’s dembow stars are also happy getting down with comtemporary reggaeton style (that is, “con adornos de música electrónica“). I’m sure, despite having a decent and distinctive thing going, that they see no good reason to cut themselves off from new avenues to promote themselves and sustain, or expand, what they’re doing:
As a sort of middle-ground, and perhaps a sign of things to come, Secreto’s “Pa Que Te De” manages to have its cake and eat it too, juxtaposing high-res imagery and production values with dembow’s signature low-fi sonic palette (including samples from “Murder She Wrote” and an awesomely pitched-around synth-stab from “Hot This Year”):
But for my clickthroughs (since g0d knows how one could spend money on this stuff), I’ll take a goofball homemade vid any day: