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: