January 7th, 2011

Dembow Criollo

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 series of articles 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:

19 Comments Add your own

  • 1. bent  |  January 8th, 2011 at 12:58 am

    fantastic, thanks wayne. i started hearing este dembow last year online and in the streets of madrid – todos los chicxs lo tiene en sus celulares, on full blast all the time. walking around madrid’s “lil santo domingo” i heard it tons of course, but the only place is saw cds for sale was a super market with a rack of 2002-03 era looney tunes-ish reggaeton comps. lolz. the best luck i’ve had finding tracks is clicktroughs online and asking random kids on the street — hey, where are you dowloading stuff from? mostly they say “oh my brother/friend/sister/aunt/grandma downloads it and i get it from ellxs”

    i played a bunch of dembow dominicano when i was back in dc for the weekend at our monthly party last month and people loved it, except for the girl who asked me to play some music in english — not a hard request when you can go from tirense to to murder she wrote in one beat. of course, that request goes down as one of the best of all times. i also think it’s interesting how this is happening at the same time as moombahton is blowing up, as well as 3ball, and i think they all fit together really nicely.

  • 2. wayneandwax  |  January 8th, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    fascinating how dembow routes its way through madrid!

    and, yeah, ‘murder she wrote’ is a surprisingly universal anthem. that thing hits everywhere, english-speaking or not. nice to have such a hook back into the spanish stuff, too. (that is, i can imagine working it the other way around.)

    as for the overlap with moombahton, for sure, and i don’t think it’s coincidental that so many street/net-level sounds are percolating now that people have the access they do.

    my ears and hips are grateful.

  • 3. bent  |  January 9th, 2011 at 12:46 am

    truth. i was talking with some dj friends at one of our “dj geekouts” where we play some tunes we are loving and talk about them, and was focusing on dembow, and how(as you note) it’s like turning back time. someone asked me why i thought that was the case. obviously i didn’t/don’t have the answer, but feels like something to do with the over-produced/commercialization of “reggaeton” vs the simplicity and classic yet maleable sounds that they are drawing on. why do you think this particular street/net level sound is popping up now?

    re: “murder she wrote” just saw that eddie stats linked in a “top 10 diwali riddims” post that is was riffing off a bollywood song of the time! maybe that explains something…?!?!

  • 4. Marlon  |  January 9th, 2011 at 1:08 am

    Great post Wayne. I personally love this shit and get super hype every time it comes on the radio here in Nueva Yol, which is pretty sporadically. I started hearing it right when I was doing the Afropop reggaeton doc and delving into the glories of playero et all, I guess that was maybe August 2009? But I’m suffering a serious problem – no idea how to acquire this stuff! I spend some hours searching itunes/rapidshare/etc without chancing upon any actual files, so if you happen to have a secret cache somewhere on your hardrive… hook a dude up?

  • 5. wayneandwax  |  January 9th, 2011 at 10:17 am

    Yeah, I don’t think searching iTunes is gonna prove fruitful, at least until the dembow guys decide to go that route. As for a cache of mp3s, click on that link from “rabbitholes” above. Pero, por supuesto, caveat downloador — can’t speak to the quality. (My man Max vowed to download anything > 3mb — an ok benchmark.)

    And Bent, I do think there’s something special about the sounds of early 90s reggae — though, of course, we shouldn’t pretend that those riddims weren’t initially worked up in a thoroughly commercial context. I do think, though, that as resonant loops, at this point, these sounds present the classic sort of low-barriers-to-participation so common to vibrant, popular culture.

    And there may yet be something to the way that these rhythms bridge such dance musics as bhangra, dancehall, dembow, and many, many others (see “Another Crunk Genealogy”). It’s really just a fundamentally dynamic rhythmic relationship: push-pull, 3s-and-2s, forth-and-back. I’ve always loved that story about the “bangara” inspiration for the Bam Bam / Murder She Wrote riddim, though I’d love to know more about precisely what sort of musical connections Sly and Robbie were hearing or invoking. It also helps to explain, perhaps, why that track is so central to the remarkably similar collage aesthetic of early 90s Bally Sagoo.

  • 6. bent  |  January 10th, 2011 at 10:10 am

    certainly i agree with that, but perhaps its also b/c we are of a certain age? b/c we heard those songs at a certain time and place? and maybe that’s what happening, is the people who kinda grew up on those songs, rather than being in a position then to do anything with them, are doing it now? and then younger folks, who are well familiar with the same rhythms also go in on it? i have no idea. and Another Crunk Genealogy is always a fave of mine.

    another rabbit hole: http://www.flowhot.net

  • 7. wayneandwax  |  January 10th, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Apropos, I just ran across the following comment / item:

    bam bam / murder she wrote
    big in DR

  • 8. althustler  |  January 10th, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    Thanks for an awesome post once again!

  • 9. wayneandwax.com » A&hellip  |  January 11th, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    […] 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, […]

  • 10. Nuria  |  January 11th, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    is there an “underground” revival in Puerto Rico at all? I haven’t personally noticed

    I wish I could turn back time and save all my playero casettes and take notes of that time when we catholic girls danced to that stuff at the school’s auditorium. wish i could go talk to those DJs and pay attention…

  • 11. wayneandwax  |  January 11th, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    I wish you could too!

    And, yes, there is an underground revival in PR, to some extent — and, actually, a lot of the major mixtapes continued to include “old school” medleys well into the FruityLoopy era, so these sounds have stayed in the air.

    Sometimes one hears just a brief allusion, as in the nod to Nando Boom’s “Enfermo de Amor” in “Myspace” that got Don Omar in legal trouble. At other times, the return to a 90s aesthetic entails a more marked positioning vis-a-vis the poppy mainstream of the genre. For an interesting discussion of the latter, see Marisol LeBron’s post about the nostalgic Regreso al Underground of Las Guanabanas.

  • 12. The Incredible Kid  |  January 14th, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    I love how Don Omar does a brief dembow section in the song “Good Looking,” and then promptly returns to the future. Acknowledging the past, but he is going to move forward, thank you very much.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmgRRr1piZE

  • 13. there is no cumbia on Pue&hellip  |  January 19th, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    […] he’s more prominent than Daddy Yankee these days. His CDs were everywhere. Check out his own Dembow homage. […]

  • 14. wayneandwax  |  January 19th, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Thanks for the link, IK. It does seem that these little nods to “old school” style have been appearing pretty frequently lately, and yeah, a nod can be enough.

    Then again, it’s truly impressive how pliable and resilient the basic building blocks (of early 90s dancehall) remain. Check out Gavin’s latest post (generously trackbacking in the comment above) for some other contemporary examples, as well as interesting thoughts (as usual) on global-local music industry, hip-hop and merengue and reggaeton and other stuff — among other gems, I dig the proposed tag “ersatz reggaeton”!

    & take for example, via Gavin, this heavily allusive track, perhaps further evidence of an “underground revival” (or maybe it never really receded too far) —

  • 15. N  |  January 19th, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    They been bumpin the mad nasty shit there for a while now. I dated “a” dominicano when I moved back from PR in late ’05, so I had a lil pipeline feeding me music and recommendations for a few. I had a huge stash on my external hard drive of stuff up to 08,most of it made in the 06-08 range when I had all day to sit on the computer and suck down files by the hundreds. I think I have a mirror of banicrazy.net.Look for the unreleased stuff first.

  • 16. wayneandwax.com » N&hellip  |  February 9th, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    […] of the “Lambada.” Here’s Vakero, one of the DR’s fiercest MCs, jumping on a dembow-influenced reworking of a truly perennial tune, as hashed out here, way back when […]

  • 17. Dembow Dominicano  |  January 25th, 2012 at 2:30 am

    what a great article! I would love to have a link to my page from this well written piece. My project http://www.DembowDominicano.com is entirely focus on Dominican Urban Music and it’s updated daily with all the new hits.

    Thanks

    Hope to hear from you!

    Jpichardo

  • 18. Moises  |  July 18th, 2013 at 1:19 am

    Interesting points. Could you say more on the unique dances for this Dembow? Definitely, different from any country on earth, I would say.

  • 19. Damilola  |  November 25th, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    I only just catching onto this and I am grateful I’ve found where the party has been! Heard snippets on my holiday in DR and was fascinated but I had no idea what I was listening to. Back home and I’ve been learning as much as I can about DR as well as picking up Spanish (I shall be fluent one day lol) accidentally stumbling upon Dewbow. Posts like this are informative and help in my quest, thank you.

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Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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