In case you missed it, I recently published a piece in RBMA mag about the history of the Dembow, a history I’ve been working to tease apart and put together for a looooong time now.
If you’re not familiar with RBMA, it stands for Red Bull Music Academy. And I was pretty happy to be invited to do something there. If you’re unfamiliar, you should get familiar. Red Bull may seem like a strange sponsor for music culture (though they’re been well integrated as a beverage for more than a decade), but they’ve been sponsoring great stuff lately, from hosting a dope cross-cultural soundclash between some of NYC’s top sounds to commissioning some of my favorite writers to produce punchy pieces on all manner of musical topics. (And their lecture series has been full of revelations.) See, e.g.: Noz on the history of hip-hop mixtapes, Rishi Bonneville on Caribbean pirate radio in New York, Jeff Weiss on the cultural history of the airhorn, or this rich recent interview with Kode9. Oh, and don’t miss the pieces helpfully & aptly linked from the bottom of my own contribution: a chat with Steely & Clevie and a piece on the one and only Philip Smart by Rob Kenner.
Thanks to Todd Burns for the keen editing, making things nice and concise. Per usual, I’m going to take the opportunity to use my blog to run an author’s cut, or an unabridged version. A couple missing paragraphs below help flesh out the picture, especially regarding the Afro-Jamaican roots — and, hence, pan-Caribbean / Afrodiasporic resonance — of the dancehall riddim that started it all. A phrase like “Steely & Clevie’s post-Poco riddim” might seem like a slightly cryptic reference without this particular passage (i.e., paragraph #4 below); but maybe people thought I was calling it post-colonial, which is also true.
I’m also happy to report that a forthcoming issue of Wax Poetics will feature an article I wrote entirely about the (once mysterious) origins of reggaeton’s bedrock riddim on the unlikely outpost of Long Island, heavily featuring Boom’s manager Pucho Bustamante (who I interviewed a few years ago on MySpace). Will let you know soon as that one’s ready to read!
For now, head over to RBMA for their slick version, see below for the full monty, & check out this video I whipped up (also at the RBMA site & embedded below) to see & hear how the various versions all relate. If you want to get even more dembow in your ears, there’s lots to find around the web, but here are a couple of mixes I’ve made that focus on it: Dembow Legacies, Dembow Dem.
Without further ado, let’s loop —
In the world of sample-based music, few recordings have enjoyed so active an afterlife as the Dembow. A two-bar loop with unmistakably familiar kicks and snares, it underpins the vast majority of reggaeton tracks as an almost required sonic signpost. Thanks to crossover jams like Lorna’s “Papi Chulo” and Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina,” the Dembow has spread its distinctive boom-ch-boom-chick to glossy Latin pop, raw electro-chaabi in Egypt, transnational moombahton, and Indonesian dangdut seksi, to name a few.
With such remarkable resonance and staggering frequency of appearance, the Dembow would seem to deserve a place alongside such well-worn loops as the Amen break, the Triggerman, the Tamborzao. All these brief but inspired moments “on tape”—and all of them rolling drum rhythms—after having been sampled and looped and diced and spliced by hundreds and hundreds of digital-age producers, have proven so crucial to the sound of entire genres that they have taken on names, and lives, all their own.
There are a few things, however, that make the Dembow an unusual member of the sample canon. For one, the recording most often identified as the origin of the sample is not actually the source of reggaeton’s favorite loop, not exactly anyway. It’s true that Shabba Ranks’s anti-gay, anti-imperialist anthem “Dem Bow” may as well be patient zero for the infectious rhythm that still carries the song’s name, but samples of the track accompanying Shabba—the riddim in reggae parlance—rarely actually turn up in reggaeton. Jamaican studio duo Steely and Clevie deserve credit for the bouncy beat they boiled down for Bobby Digital, but not as the creators of a intensely re-used sound recording. Rather, their riddim planted the seed that would grow into what we now call Dembow.
Like other popular riddims the duo produced in the early 90s, especially Poco Man Jam (to which Dembow is audibly indebted), the track accompanying Shabba’s rally-cry draws on the deep rhythms associated with Pocomania, a neo-African Jamaican religion with practices and aesthetics that run parallel to other post-slave cultures across the Caribbean. The driving boom-ch-boom-chick that emerges between the steady kick on each beat and the polyrhythmic play of the snares, can also be threaded through rumba, salsa, soca, bachata. It’s at the heart of what’s been called jazz’s “Spanish tinge,” known variously as the cinquillo or the habenera. This may help explain the broad appeal of these particular Jamaican recordings, why Puerto Rican hip-hop producers moved more or less wholesale into making Spanish dancehall, and how reggaeton so quickly swept across dance scenes across the Americas and beyond. Shabba’s “Dem Bow” was a big chune in the wide world of reggae, and not just because of its bullish stance, colorful lyrics, and catchy chorus.
But rather than samples of Steely & Clevie’s riddim resounding from trunks across the Spanish-speaking world, and rather aptly given reggaeton’s transnational roots, the set of sounds most often identified as the Dembow per se (as opposed to just the generalized rhythm which, confusingly, is also sometimes called Dembow), is a version cooked up by Jamaican and Panamanian collaborators laboring on Long Island, NY in the early 90s to create reggae en español anthems—and succeeding.
By the early 90s, Philip Smart’s HC&F studio was the premier spot for producing dancehall hits, Jamaica notwithstanding. A native Kingstonian who apprenticed under King Tubby, Smart moved to New York in the mid-70s and launched HC&F in 1982 enlisting as house musicians such fellow expatriates as Dennis “The Menace” Thompson, the sole musician credited with “Dub Mix II,” better known today as the Dembow riddim, or in Panama, the Pounda. Initially crafted as an instrumental for Panamanian vocalist Nando Boom’s “Ellos Benia,” a close translation of Shabba’s “Dem Bow,” Thompson captured the rhythmic essence of Steely & Clevie’s post-Poco riddim while adding some digital timbales and other touches for extra sabor at the prompt of Ramon “Pucho” Bustamante, the Panamanian manager of Nando Boom who helped engineer the reggae en español movement. The wordless version that would soon play backing track to hundreds of Puerto Rican rap parties was not actually released until two NYC-based Jamaican deejays, Bobo General and Smiley Wonder, recorded their own single over the riddim, “Pounder,” with the dubbed-out instrumental as a quickly coveted B-side. (“A bad custom of the Jamaicans,” Bustamante once told me.)
When instrumental CDs such as Pistas de Reggaeton Famosas include a “Dem Bow” track—and they always include at least one—the track labeled as such is nearly always based on the drums Dennis the Menace laid down for Nando Boom at HC&F. Likewise, do a search for “dembow loop” on YouTube or 4shared, and you’ll hear the same echoes there too. By this point, the instrumental has been looped, compressed, remastered, and reconstituted dozens of times over. But the lineage is audible, and it makes Dennis and company’s Dembow one of a few recordings, like the Funky Drummer or the Apache break, which has provided the basis for hundreds if not thousands of other tracks.
The story of the Dembow and its legacy gets even more complicated, since beyond a relatively small circle of reggaeton producers and connoisseurs, when most people say Dembow, they refer to its rhythm—the boom-ch-boom-chick pattern—more generally. And in practice, reggaeton producers have been chopping up dancehall riddims and recombining them with a greater interest in split-second allusion than faithful reproduction. While wholesale loops of Dembow do sometimes appear, reggaeton drum tracks tend more often to comprise samples drawn from a small storehouse of treasured timbres: a handful of reggae riddims which have animated Spanish-language dancehall for decades. Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, Drum Song, and yes, Dembow, are all common sources, but the ingredients could come from almost anywhere if they sound right. Reggaetoneros swap sample sets like playing cards, and a willy-nilly archive of reconfigurable samples traverses the North and South American Hulkshare-osphere like a reggaeton robotics kit. For lots of listeners and producers, any of the snares from these well-worn riddims, or any snare with similar properties, could suffice to say Dembow.
A line can be drawn from Steely & Clevie, though Smart and Thompson and Bustamante, to what we call Dembow today, but for all that collective, transnational effort, the foundation for this single recording’s remarkable resonance was most crucially fashioned in mid-90s San Juan by proto-reggaeton pioneers like DJ Playero and The Noise. On their seminal underground mixtapes, these Puerto Rican producers took a hip-hop hatchet to dancehall riddims, chopping up favorite drum loops, baselines, and riffs to create dynamic, reference-laden collages of contemporary club beats for local rappers’ double-time, flip-tongue, street-level lyrics. Over the course of Playero 38 or The Noise 6 one hears a constantly shifting bed of beats composed of signature samples from Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, and the like. Dembow was such a staple source that the entire genre for a time, after being known as underground but before reggaeton, was simply called dembow.
Crucially, around the turn of the millennium, the Dembow—and Puerto Rican reggae en español more generally—was transmuted and extended by DJ Blass. With the rise of Fruity Loops and other software, techno-inspired bleeps, presets, and arpeggios could be sutured to Dembow snares for a killer club-ready concoction. Blass’s mixtapes like Sandunguero and Reggaeton Sex changed the sound of what would soon be crowned reggaeton while maintaining important links to predecessors. Namely, by chopping well-worn loops into discrete kicks and snares, Blass could nod to the riddims that dancers, vocalists, and audiences had come to love while shaping the sounds into his own lean patterns. Blass’s influential techniques carry forward into the productions of the duo who finally took reggaeton to the pop charts and the Anglo mainstream, Luny Tunes.
If you listen to the track Luny Tunes produced for their biggest hit, “Gasolina”—or most of their other pistas—you’ll hear snare samples swap every four measures, embodying in their own subtle but audible manner the loop-switching practices of Playero’s proto-reggaeton. Revising the Dembow as something more general, more flexible, and in its way, less Jamaican than it had been, Luny Tunes honored reggaeton’s rhythmic and timbral heritage while opening it up to a new variety of textural, harmonic, and melodic gestures, especially “pan-Latino” sounds. When Wisin y Yandel reprise Shabba’s chorus for their club-friendly, bachata-steeped, Luny Tunes-produced update of “Dem Bow” in 2003, the phrase has little to do with imperialism or sexual orientation and everything to do with the backbone beat and criss-crossing snares that compel people to perreo, or do the doggystyle dance so synonymous with the genre.
In the decade since reggaeton galloped into the mainstream, the Dembow has been Cubanized, Colombified, Peruvinated, watered-down, dressed-up, and recomposed to fit a thousand new contexts. Recently, the rhythm—and to a lesser extent, the riddim—has even made inroads into the more frequently foursquare world of EDM via Dave Nada’s moombahton, where Dembow comes full circle in a strange and surprising way. Nada famously invented moombahton by slowing down Dutch house tracks to please a house of reggaeton-loving teens, but the reason this worked was precisely because Dutch house had itself absorbed Caribbean rhythms via bubbling, a short-lived but influential local club scene clustered around Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and the Hague. Producing personalized soundtracks for dance battles, first- and second-generation kids from Curacao and Suriname made hyperspeed, bricolage remixes of the same dancehall riddims that had Puerto Rican youngsters going nuts across the Atlantic.
Slowed down once again and rebranded as moombahton, Nada’s wildly successful experiment introduced the Dembow to new listeners across the networked world, especially after producers like Rotterdam’s Munchi heard ways to move beyond screwed house remixes and connect the burgeoning genre to its Puerto Rican cousins. Munchi was initially drawn to the genre because of his love of Dembow and reggaeton and the possibilities moombahton offered to revisit these irresistible rhythms: “The idea was so simple,” Munchi wrote to me, describing moombahton as “THE chance for reggaeton to get out of its hole.” Having nearly abandoned the stagnant genre, Munchi noted that “It felt so good that I could make ‘reggaeton’ again.” And while no one would confuse Munchi’s genre-busting work with reggaeton per se, no one could deny the genre’s presence in his tracks.
For his part, Nada himself has occasionally sampled the actual Dembow riddim for his moombahton productions (though he wouldn’t say which ones), but like many others, Nada more often recreates his own Dembow-indebted patterns using a variety of drum sounds and samples. “I’ve used it in the past to help dirty up a few tracks. I’ll mangle the sample and bury it though.”
Moombahton may have already enjoyed its moment in the social media sun, but there are other corners of the so-called global bass scene where that old boom-ch-boom-chick still resounds. “The post-tropical flight from Caribbean percussion at the end of the mini-Moombathon craze has left a large side of EDM dembowless lately,” says Rizzla, whose soca and reggaeton influences help to keep Caribbean polyrhythms in the metropolitan mix. Rizzla trawls 4shared and Hulkshare for Dembow tracks and samples but reports that, “Most of the time I use sampled individual drums and reconstruct a Dembow with variations I make myself.”
Dubbel Dutch describes a similar process for his own productions: “I personally have never sampled the Dembow riddim but have used various rhythmic cousin ‘Dembow’ loops in my productions. Most of these I’ve found via reggaeton sample packs downloaded from 4shared while searching for Mexican tribal and perreo tracks.” Bearing witness to the sonic priorities of digital bass culture, Dutch confesses that, “Admittedly, my awareness of certain loops has even preceded my knowledge of their origins.” Accordingly, he repurposes cherished dancehall loops without being parochial, which actually places him squarely in the reggaeton tradition: “One of my favorite ‘Dembow’ loops comes from the Fever Pitch riddim. That one keeps popping up at various speeds in a lot of my tracks. It manages to work flawlessly at just about any tempo, whether it’s a Dutch bubbling track or an 80 bpm reggaeton beat, which is sort of a rare quality for any loop to have.”
Not unlike their sample-raiding peers in reggaeton, then, producers such as Rizzla, Dubbel Dutch, and Uproot Andy tend toward an inclusive idea of what constitutes the Dembow riddim, complicating simple narratives of a single sample’s afterlife. “I’d say the Fever Pitch (aka Rich Girl) ‘Dembow’ loop is a better possible candidate,” Dubbel Dutch argued, “for an Amen or Think type breakbeat.”
For Uproot Andy, who recently released Worldwide Ting, which he calls “an hour long celebration of the Dembow in all kinds of contexts, some natural and some forced,” even such tributes are necessarily mongrel in their make-up: “The opening track is a song I just made called the ‘Worldwide Dembow’ and it’s sort of an homage to the Dembow rhythm, it samples Pablo Piddy, a Dominican dembow artist, saying ‘si tu quiere dembow,’ and the tune is basically a reimagining of Drum Song riddim (melodically), and Fever Pitch riddim (rhythmically), although it doesn’t actually sample either of them, but pretty much picks apart the elements and recreates them with more synthetic sounds.”
Uproot Andy’s reference to Dominican dembow bring us full circle for this lively, and living, story of a loved loop. No place today can lay stronger claim to bearing the Dembow flame than the Dominican Republic, where a rejuvenated version of San Juan’s proto-reggaeton, in all its referential richness, manages to move kids on the streets (and YouTube) and, increasingly, to move into the pop sphere as well.
In the mixes of DJ Scuff and countrymen—or, say, just about anything in the Dominican dembow Soundcloud group—the Dembow (as such) is on constant, quicksilver rotation with chops and stabs from Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, Poco Man Jam and the like. But once again, enthralled as Dominican dembow may be with such well-worn samples, its restless producers also emulate the voracious and pliant approach of their mid-90s muses, Playero and the Noise. So a classic hip-hop break like Think, or even funk carioca’s Tamborzao, might make it into the mix. But no matter how wide the circle of references, the name of the genre bears witness, at bottom, to the fact that Dominican dembow is built on a commitment to some relatively old riddims and some far older rhythms.
For Linton Kwesi Johnson, the UK-based dub poet and bass culture theorist, the same dancehall riddims so central to the Dembow variations were popular precisely because they can sound at once modern and traditional. “On one hand, this music is totally technological,” he notes, “on the other the rhythms are far more Jamaican: they’re drawn from Etu, Pocomania, Kumina—African-based religious cults who provide the rhythms used by Shabba Ranks or Buju Banton. So despite the extent of the technology being used, the music is becoming even rootsier, with a resonance even for quite old listeners, because it echoes back to what they first heard in rural Jamaica.”
Uproot Andy offers a similar take: “If reggaeton took the rhythm and ran with it, Dominican dembow brings it strictly back to the roots.”
Here’s what you’re seeing/hearing in the video above:
first, shabba ranks’s “dem bow” produced by steely & clevie (for bobby digital)
then, nando boom’s “ellos benia” produced by dennis the menace (for philip smart & pucho bustamante)
then, the instrumental of the boom track, released as “dub mix II” on b-side of “pounder” by bobo general & sleepy wonder
then, a commonly circulating version of the dembow riddim (“original”), audibly related to the dennis the menace instrumental, if a bit beefed up and boiled down
finally, a return to “dub mix II” to hear how dennis the menace added subtle dub effects to his track — sounds which never turn up in reggaeton productions because of the way the loop circulates as a digital (re)sample rather than a vinyl b-side