Once again it’s that time! I’ll be guesting at Boston’s Best Dance Night™, PicĂł Picante, this Friday–
PicĂł is always the ideal occasion to break out treacly dancehall pop covers, classic reggaeton, salsa remixes, and azonto jams, among others, so, yeah, pretty much always ready for that.
And readers of W&W need no intro to headliner DJ Ripley — Riddim Methodist, PhD, & Dutty Artizt extraordinaire. But maybe you haven’t heard her latest?
A preview, perhaps, of what might be in store Friday night, given Picante proclivities and all, but Ripley reliably keeps her sets unpredictable. So it’s bound to be a fun one, twists and turns galore.
I’m very happy to share some new work that involves quite a bit of collaboration: two articles and a truly epic mega-mix devoted to the rich, ruff-and-ready sound of raggamuffin hip-hop — aka, dancehall-derived flows over breakbeat-based beats (ca. 1987-94). It’s a distinctive and special repertory, near & dear to me and my co-curator, Pacey Foster, and as longtime readers of W&W will discern, it’s a sound that emerges directly from the circumstances I examine in my dissertation.
It was my dissertation, in fact, which led to this latest article over at Cluster Mag, a contribution to their new Party issue (launching in full next week). This summer’s spate of reggae-laced hip-hop tracks led Cluster editor Max Pearl to ask if I could bring some context to the phenomenon, and I was more than happy to oblige. You can find it here:
While the Cluster piece includes a theorization and historicization of hip-hop and reggae as quintessential party musics, I was especially happy to delve into raggamuffin hip-hop as a particular, peculiar, and powerful example of the two genre’s longstanding interplay.
Pace and I have been geeking out over these records since we met a decade ago, and we were scheming on a raggamuffin hip-hop megamix well before we even had an outlet for it. Pace’s collection goes deeeeep, especially when it comes to Boston rap rarities and party-break white labels, and of course my “dissertation archive” (as I like to call my CD and MP3 collection) helped to flesh things out.
One other exciting part of this collaboration is that we’ve arranged to simultaneously publish a piece on the mixtape per se (and less on the social history and party theory) over at the blog of IASPM-US, which issued an admirable “call for mixtapes” earlier this year, and cross-posted at Ethnomusicology Review‘s Sounding Board. For that piece, we’ve labored to discuss why we believe so strongly in the DJ mix as a form of sound scholarship. Since Pace and I both wear academic hats as well as DJ caps, we’re eager to share this work with an academic readership in addition to the hip, whipsmart Cluster massive and, not least, to all of you, dear readers of W&W DOT COM:
So, please go read the pieces, spread the links around, tweet and comment up a storm, and, of course, don’t neglect our 94 minute, 48 track mega-mix! And make some time for it — if you don’t get all the way to the end, you’ll miss some jaw-dropping raggamuffin rap c/o Slick Rick the Ruler, who despite his Jamaican heritage seems to have gone-in on the patois-patter but this one precious time. Here it is —
Blue Gardens, the new release on Keysound Recordings, is the brainchild of a new musical talent who goes by the name E.m.m.a. Simply put, it’s some of the best music — and one of the more coherent albums and promising debuts — I’ve heard in years.
My fave tracks are ones like “Shoot the Curl” or “Marina” with their sweetly curdling tunes and clicky soca, where melodies accrue & break & creak & whirr against a solid but shifting Carib-UK backbeat.
Honorable mention to the first single and the album’s one vocal cut, âJahovia.” It’s great to hear Rebel MC riding the rhythm inna a classic reggae-rave fashion while E.m.m.a.’s newfangled textures let you know this is something else. Wicked video too, since somehow, synaesthetically speaking, the music already sounds like washed-out technicolor reels, full of sharp hue-turns —
Plus, you gotta love the array of influences E.m.m.a. pulls into the mix —
âAmerican Nostalgia, Point Break, American high schools, bubble gum, picture houses, Coney Island, Hollywood, proms, Long Island, picket fences, boardwalks, Baroque tonality, Wendy Carlos, Delia Derbyshire, Jeff Wayne, Westerns, sci fi, spaghetti western soundtracks, Encarta â96: genuinely these are in my mind,â she explains. âI just think the idea of the monopoly the Encarta encyclopaedia had on knowledge is ridiculous in the context of the present day. Iâm not ashamed to say itâs my muse.â
And while I really should work to find more words to describe this music I’ve been enjoying so much, I like how it speaks for itself. And how E.m.m.a. does too. Plus, Joe Muggs sorta said it all already —
In essence, E.m.m.a. takes the rugged grooves of UK pirate radio, and adds an extra layer of melody and harmony which connects them back into the much longer history of synthesizer music as well as into a broader, vaguer realm of the imagination. Her synth timbres touch on sci-fi kitsch, Kraftwerk, early video games, the experimental home-listening techno of the 1990s, while the melodies they play have a suspended, dissipating quality, as if caught from a dream just at the point of waking.
Her beats, too, have an uncanny quality, generally touching on several points in UK soundsystem history â garage, rave, grime, the 2008-10 urban house sound of âUK funkyâ, the more undefinable sounds of âpost-dubstepâ â sounding familiar but not quite placeable in time. Despite the oddness of this, and despite its clear scholarliness in its sourcing of underground sounds, it’s a welcoming album, one which should be heard well beyond the usual circle of bass music fans. A haunting dream but one well worth getting caught up in.
I’d like to leave it there, but I want to take the opportunity to let this post stand as a long overdue bigup for Martin Blackdown‘s Keysound label, consistently representing as it reimagines the sound of London. His program with Dusk on RINSE is, rightly, an international fave. I’ve had a few posts about their music & label sitting in my draft folder for literally years; and I’m remiss for not better publicly registering my enthusiasm for projects like Margins Music (which is, IMO, a 21st century London classic).
It may be high time to dust those drafts off. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get the good word about Keysound’s latest & greatest. Martin & Emma both bring big ears to what they do, and mine are grateful for it. Yours will be too.
Old friends Old Money Massive have released the best damn rap album I’ve heard in lightyears.
Obvi, we’ve been fans at W&W since “African Kids” — and I’m happy to have had a little hand in bringing Old Money to Boston a couple times. They’ve been leaking flames in the form of tracks & videos for daze, but I’m beyond thrilled that they finally brought their bracing vision to the world in the shape of a restless but deeply coherent “mixtape” (along with assorted transmedia objects, as I’ll note below).
There’s a lot I could say about the sui generis afropessimystic futurism they’ve encrypted for this zipfile, but just go ahead and listen for yourself, and be sure not to skip the bumboclaat intro —
If you need a little more of a hermeneutical angle, their official bio offers hints —
Ahmad Julian and Andre Oswald are Old Money, a New York based rap, production and DJ duo of Jamaican and Guyanese origins. Their music incorporates the sounds of contemporary Africa such as UK Funky, Dancehall, Kwaito, Kuduro and Hip-Hop while remaining rooted in traditions of pan-African philosophy. In this way, their output remains dynamic and cutting-edge, while also taking on a mystical bend â influenced by fringe spiritual orders like the Nuwaubians, the Moors, NOI, and The 5 Percenters, as well as science fiction novels by author Octavia Butler.
But you can also get the gist from ish like this, the vivid video for “Rumble In Tenochtitlan” —
Very helpful and generous of the duo, their “Certified Space Trade Mix” — with matching Dr.Bronner’s inspired t-shirt! — provides a broader, and at once more specific, sense of the musical and philosophical background underpinning their sound:
Finally, a great interview over at Dazed Digital (including a brief, funny, and much appreciated shoutout to yours truly) offers further angles to consider while you nod along to the beats. Here’s the pulliest of pull quotes, a good glimpse into what shapes Old Money’s aesthetic —
Dazed Digital: You were brought up in the Bronx and Brooklyn. How did growing up in the boroughs of hip hop’s birth influence you?
Ahmad Julian: Tremendously, though I’d say it influenced us more so in the past than it does now, at least musically speaking. Of course, certain things stay with you â a certain awareness, a certain paranoia, how you carry yourself, sartorial choices, vernacular, etc. But at this point I’d say equally important as far as influence goes would be the internet and our travels, which have enabled us to connect dots where we might not have otherwise. All of this, hopefully, comes through in the music.
Fire in the dark, seen. Gwaan catch the spark already. Blackstar Galactica been boarding…
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 & Clevieâs 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 Lornaâs âPapi Chuloâ and Daddy Yankeeâs âGasolina,â 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 âon tapeââand all of them rolling drum rhythmsâafter 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 reggaetonâs favorite loop, not exactly anyway. Itâs true that Shabba Ranksâs anti-gay, anti-imperialist anthem âDem Bowâ may as well be patient zero for the infectious rhythm that still carries the songâs name, but samples of the track accompanying Shabbaâthe riddim in reggae parlanceârarely 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 Shabbaâs 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. Itâs at the heart of whatâs been called jazzâs âSpanish tinge,â 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. Shabbaâs âDem Bowâ 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 & Clevieâs riddim resounding from trunks across the Spanish-speaking world, and rather aptly given reggaetonâs 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 espaĂ±ol anthemsâand succeeding.
By the early 90s, Philip Smartâs 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 âThe Menaceâ Thompson, the sole musician credited with âDub Mix II,â better known today as the Dembow riddim, or in Panama, the Pounda. Initially crafted as an instrumental for Panamanian vocalist Nando Boomâs âEllos Benia,â a close translation of Shabbaâs âDem Bow,â Thompson captured the rhythmic essence of Steely & Clevieâs post-Poco riddim while adding some digital timbales and other touches for extra sabor at the prompt of Ramon âPuchoâ Bustamante, the Panamanian manager of Nando Boom who helped engineer the reggae en espaĂ±ol 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, âPounder,â with the dubbed-out instrumental as a quickly coveted B-side. (âA bad custom of the Jamaicans,â Bustamante once told me.)
When instrumental CDs such as Pistas de Reggaeton Famosas include a âDem Bowâ trackâand they always include at least oneâthe 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 âdembow loopâ on YouTube or 4shared, and youâll 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 companyâs 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 rhythmâthe boom-ch-boom-chick patternâmore 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 recordingâs 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 rappersâ 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 Dembowâand Puerto Rican reggae en espaĂ±ol more generallyâwas 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. Blassâs 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. Blassâs 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, âGasolinaââor most of their other pistasâyouâll hear snare samples swap every four measures, embodying in their own subtle but audible manner the loop-switching practices of Playeroâs proto-reggaeton. Revising the Dembow as something more general, more flexible, and in its way, less Jamaican than it had been, Luny Tunes honored reggaetonâs rhythmic and timbral heritage while opening it up to a new variety of textural, harmonic, and melodic gestures, especially âpan-Latinoâ sounds. When Wisin y Yandel reprise Shabbaâs chorus for their club-friendly, bachata-steeped, Luny Tunes-produced update of âDem Bowâ 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 rhythmâand to a lesser extent, the riddimâhas even made inroads into the more frequently foursquare world of EDM via Dave Nadaâs 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, Nadaâs wildly successful experiment introduced the Dembow to new listeners across the networked world, especially after producers like Rotterdamâs 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: âThe idea was so simple,â Munchi wrote to me, describing moombahton as âTHE chance for reggaeton to get out of its hole.â Having nearly abandoned the stagnant genre, Munchi noted that âIt felt so good that I could make âreggaetonâ again.â And while no one would confuse Munchiâs genre-busting work with reggaeton per se, no one could deny the genreâs presence in his tracks.
For his part, Nada himself has occasionally sampled the actual Dembow riddim for his moombahton productions (though he wouldnât say which ones), but like many others, Nada more often recreates his own Dembow-indebted patterns using a variety of drum sounds and samples. âI’ve used it in the past to help dirty up a few tracks. I’ll mangle the sample and bury it though.â
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. âThe post-tropical flight from Caribbean percussion at the end of the mini-Moombathon craze has left a large side of EDM dembowless lately,â 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, âMost of the time I use sampled individual drums and reconstruct a Dembow with variations I make myself.â
Dubbel Dutch describes a similar process for his own productions: âI 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.â Bearing witness to the sonic priorities of digital bass culture, Dutch confesses that, âAdmittedly, my awareness of certain loops has even preceded my knowledge of their origins.â Accordingly, he repurposes cherished dancehall loops without being parochial, which actually places him squarely in the reggaeton tradition: âOne of my favorite âDembow’ 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.â
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 sampleâs afterlife. âI’d say the Fever Pitch (aka Rich Girl) âDembowâ loop is a better possible candidate,â Dubbel Dutch argued, âfor an Amen or Think type breakbeat.â
For Uproot Andy, who recently released Worldwide Ting, which he calls âan hour long celebration of the Dembow in all kinds of contexts, some natural and some forced,â even such tributes are necessarily mongrel in their make-up: âThe opening track is a song I just made called the âWorldwide Dembowâ and itâs sort of an homage to the Dembow rhythm, it samples Pablo Piddy, a Dominican dembow artist, saying âsi tu quiere dembow,â 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.â
Uproot Andyâs 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 Juanâs 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 countrymenâor, say, just about anything in the Dominican dembow Soundcloud groupâthe 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 cariocaâs 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. âOn one hand, this music is totally technological,â he notes, âon the other the rhythms are far more Jamaican: they’re drawn from Etu, Pocomania, KuminaâAfrican-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.â
Uproot Andy offers a similar take: âIf reggaeton took the rhythm and ran with it, Dominican dembow brings it strictly back to the roots.â
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
Tonight is the 2 year anniversary of PicĂł Picante, one of the shining lights of Boston’s club scene, and something I’ve been grateful to be close to —
The pics of me at PicĂł over the years attest to the special vibes of the place (even when I’m seemingly giving the stankface to someone making a ridiculous request, which is maybe just the face I put on when Nick points his camera at me while I’m DJing) —
But tonight is extra special not only because it’s a celebration of two great years of dancing together, but because it’s also a send-off for 1/2 of Pajaritos, Sara Skolnick, who is embarking on a promising ethno/techno-musicological endeavor in Colombia very soon. Here’s the story c/o Sara herself:
I want to share a note of deep gratitude for your ongoing support and for the sense of family that you’ve helped grow over the past two years. On Sunday I’ll be relocating to BogotĂĄ, Colombia to take on a year-long ethnomusicology grant that focuses on new opportunities for artistic agency and self-representation for marginalized musicians, encouraged by democratized access to digital music production tools and networks. This project was inspired by the experiences I’ve had as a DJ and organizer in Boston, and undoubtedly by the big hearts I’ve connected to through it. Thank you for the gift of an energized belief in music as a force for social change (& in the dancefloor as the most valuable classroom I’ve yet to find) and for creating such a reliably warm, dynamic space to celebrate life. PicĂł continues on with full force & I can’t wait to see what’s in store and to share my experiences from afar. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Thank YOU, Sara. And BUEN VIAJE!ÂĄ! We look forward to hearing all about it.
I just want to reiterate how fortunate I feel to have had PicĂł Picante as a platform for a set or two. Thanks to the efforts of Pajaritos & crew, I’ve had the pleasure to run through my collection of Caribbean and Caribesque dance-pop with abandon, and it’s been a thrill to see people getting down to it all. In tribute and thanks to the night — as an ode, if you will, owed to PicĂł Picante — here’s my set from this May’s special edition, opening up for Toy Selecta, who proceeded to completely demolish the place with an epic 2-hour set. Wish I could share *that* with you, but for my part, here’s this —
As usual, it’s a mix of clubb faves & obscurities that should be, connected dots & forced collisions. Hot summer vibes. Who’s in the mix? Oh, just all these awesome guys —
Ini Kamoze -> Busta Rhymes -> Million Stylez -> Popcaan & Poirier -> Chief Boima -> Shabba Ranks -> Vybz Kartel & Dre Skull -> Dirtsman -> Cutty Ranks -> DJ Deeon -> Johnny P -> Tito DJ -> Hector y Tito -> French Montana -> Chaka Demus & Pliers -> Pliers -> Daddy Woody -> Rodolfo Y Su Tipica -> Murlo -> Super Cat & Heavy D -> Wayne Wonder -> Mavado -> Di Genius -> Chino -> Emynd + Trinidad James -> Blk.Adonis & Rizzla DJ -> Los Rakas -> Willie Colon -> DJ Double F -> Tito El Bambino -> Murlo -> Fuego -> Doctor Dru & Adana Twins -> Ricky Blaze -> Daniel Haaksman -> DJ Joe & Sir Speedy -> Ensemble aux Calebasses & Nemours Jean-Baptiste
Today is the final meeting of my last class at Harvard this year — and possibly my final class as a college-level instructor, but we’ll save that discussion for another day. For now, I’ll leave you with a few playlists I created in order to have some examples a click on during class.
In short, this was the one class this year that I didn’t completely make up myself. Music 97c (“Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective”) is a long-running requirement for Music concentrators here. Essentially an introduction to ethnomusicology — theories, methods, and repertories — it departs from standard “World Music” courses by eschewing the survey/smorgasbord and instead focusing on just a few geographical areas in some depth. I designed my own syllabus from scratch, of course, and perhaps unsurprisingly the emphasis largely fell on the Caribbean, North America, and Afrodiasporic matters. We did, however, also include units on Turkish and Balinese/Indonesian music. You can see the whole syllabus here, if you like.
Or you can just edutain yourself by perusing these playlists–
Allow me to point you over to Norient.com, where I’ve just contributed an article that attempts a brief history of perreo and other “spectacular copulative” dances, including a glance at such recent instantiations as daggering, perreo chacalonero, and of course, choque.
Longtime readers know I’ve been working to develop an analysis of such practices — and their fraught reception in local and extra-local spheres — for sometimenow (often in collaboration with queridas colegas). The invitation from Norient — in conjunction with their 3rd annual music-film festival (ostensibly to help frame the screening of this doc) — was a fine opportunity to provide some historical perspective, as well as to offer a concise primer on the central questions of power and race/gender at the heart of debates around such dances.
It’s a short piece, so it only scrapes the surface really, but here’s hoping it proves a stimulating read and leads to a richer framework for our discussion and dancing alike. Here’s a teaser, but do click on through —
Sexual pantomime runs deep through dance, not surprisingly, and moral panic right alongside. In the New World and trans-colonial Europe, Afrodiasporic rhythms like reggaetonâs dembow (for some, a synonym for perreo) have repeatedly engendered the kind of intimate dance that provokes policing along the lines of race, class, and age, usually under the banners of Christian moral authority or the civilizing imperatives of nation-building.
Among other predecessors of perreo, consider the European reception of the zarabanda, a high-energy dance first recorded in Panama in 1539. In his book on the music of Cuba, Ned Sublette describes the zarabanda as âa mimetic dance that simulated sexual actionâ which âruledâ dance floors in Spain for 30 years around the turn of the 17th century despite clergy attempts to suppress it with threats of whippings for men and exile for women.
Another fascinating forbear appears in new research from historian Lara Putnam who turned up archival evidence of weekly âreggeeâ dances held in the early 1930s by West Indian migrants to Costa Rica. Propelled by jazz, mento, and tango and tarred by reports of coarse language, public drinking, and vulgar dancing, the parties appear in local newspapers as causes for concern, at odds with notions of racial uplift held by local editorialists who recommended that organizers instruct musicians ânot to play any pieces which may be a temptation to those spectacular copulative gyrations.â
I’m headed down to the University of Delaware tomorrow for “The African Americas Project,” a two-day symposium bringing together quite a mix of artists, musicians, and scholars to explore the connections between Latin America, the Caribbean and the US.
For my part, I’ll be talking about “Reggaeton’s Afro-American Address,” by which I mean the ways that reggaeton — despite a certain divisiveness — is best understood as a genre articulating a powerful synthesis of Afrodiasporic style which directly (and indexically, musically/semiotically speaking) addresses an Afro-American listening public (and here I use “Afro-American” — an outdated term in the US — in the broadest sense, as a term encompassing Afro-Jamaican, Afro-Puerto-Rican, Afro-Panamanian, and African-American styles and practices).
I’ll make this argument by revealing the secret of the mystery of the mighty dembow. Here’s a hint: the loop that turns up in the lion’s share of reggaeton productions is not sampled from Shabba’s seminal song, despite what Wikipedia and everyone else says. Nope. What you think was made in Kingston actually hails from Long Island! But you’ll have to catch the talk, or wait for a forthcoming article, to get the full scoop.
It’s an honor to be part of a program featuring so many distinguished speakers, among them keynoter Franklin W. Knight, a towering figure in Caribbean Studies. You can see the full program here (PDF), but let me also note, with some excitement, that another participant is none other than Jamaican filmmaker Storm Saulter, who will be screening Better Mus Come and other works tomorrow afternoon (and, awesomely, offering comment on the music panel I’m a part of on Friday).
If you’re in the area, do drop by. Should be a stimulating session.
Also, how refreshing to be described as a “DJ, technomusicologist, and journalist”! Works for me.
Despite my relative silence here this summer — about which, more soon — big tings a gwaan, especially as the fall semester rolls around.
First up, I’m thrilled to report that I leave today for Rotterdam, my first visit to Holland / the Netherlands! I’m fortunate to have been invited to participate in a conference gathered around an exhibition on Bengali film at De Nieuwe Oogst —
You might be wondering what I have to say about Bengali film, but you’ll have to ask me after the weekend is over for that. Happily, the conference organizers are using the event to stage some broader conversations about media and popular culture, and I’ve decided to take the opportunity to organize my thoughts around a topic that’s been bubbling up on my blog from time to time: Dutch club music — or more specifically, the contrasting media ecologies and aesthetic affinities between 90s bubbling and 00s dirty house / moombahton. In other words, Dutch club music from Moortje to Munchi, with a lil Afrojack along the way. Or in other words:
Look at Me Now: Dutch Club Music from Invisible Local Marginality to Invisible Global Ubiquity
Holland’s bubbling scene of the 1990s was so unremittingly anchored in local sites of realtime production and material circulation that in two decades, with few exceptions, the genre has hardly migrated beyond Rotterdam and the Hague. In marked contrast, contemporary Dutch house producer Afrojack, whose style audibly emerges from a national club music inspired by bubbling’s distinctive take on foreign but familiar forms, could credibly be counted among today’s top-tier producers of global dance-pop (if often overshadowed by US-based partners such as Diplo and Pitbull). Moreover, Afrojack’s remix of “Moombah,” slowed down several clicks by a Washington DC-based DJ named Dave Nada, has served as the basis for an emergent genre, moombahton, that enjoys a similar breadth of engagement and international circulation, but with relatively little attention to questions of Dutch origins — again, offering a striking departure from bubbling’s insistent locality and marginality. Although at a glance, then, the formal aesthetic qualities of mid-90s bubbling and today’s moombahton might have a lot in common — highly referential and resonant drum loops, Afro-diasporic signposts, a strong embrace of denatured synths and samples — a closer attention to their particular contexts and technologies of production and circulation can reveal striking shifts in the cultural politics of urban Holland, and the wider wired world, in an age of digital and so-called “social” media. Tracing the shapes and forms of Holland’s club music from bubbling’s Antillean counterpublics to the multicultural mix of participants addressed by Dutch “dirty” house and moombahton, this paper examines the distinct media ecologies that fostered the rise of such styles while considering the implications for understanding how musical media can facilitate forms of social collectivity and interaction, mobilization and disarticulation, audibility and illegibility.
See here for the full program. I’ll be giving my talk on Friday, Sept 1 at 11:45am as part of a panel addressing questions of “Urban Form.” Even more exciting (for me anyway), I’ll be DJing an afterparty on Friday night alongside Munchi himself! (not to mention State of Bengal and Nafer Loves You) It’s gonna be fun connecting all these dots! Sentello velocity indeed…
The second upcoming event I want to mention here is another DJ gig of sorts. On the evening of September 7, I’ll be performing at openLAB_03, a gathering at Harvard’s cool new experimental research unit, metaLAB, happening in conjunction with the Berkman Center’s iLaw conference.
The directors have been using the openLAB event series to present projects from Boston-area artists and share ongoing metaLAB experiments with the public. The theme of openLAB_03 is remix/curation of media archives (“broadly interpreted,” I’m told). Along these lines, they’ve asked me to reignite the Boston Mashacre/Smashacre stuff I worked up a few years ago, and I’ve decided that the next chapter in this series of sonic explorations of Boston’s sound(scape) will focus on radio transmissions.
Although I haven’t had a chance to write about the subject here yet, I’m deeply interested in how Boston’s radio landscape offers a uniquely audible picture of the city and the people who live here. The vivid, if often muted, presence of low-power and “pirate” radio stations — especially emanating from Caribbean communities — is something I’d like to explore, and accentuate, especially alongside the crushing amount of hi-fi, ClearChannel, middle-of-the-roaditude that saturates the airwaves here. In terms of aesthetic procedures, I plan on toying with degrees of distance and difference, signal and noise. To that end, I’ve been making my own “personal” (and/or public) archive of Boston radio scans, which I plan to cut up and loop and reassemble in the spirit of, e.g., my 2003 Jamaican radio edit.
Not sure yet about the title — think I’ve exhausted the (s)mashacre schtick, so maybe something like “Towers of Power” — but, at any rate, I hope something suggesting these power relations emerges in the performance. Will share in audio form here once I get a chance to bounce it all down, but please do come to openLAB_03 for the live mix if you’re in the area.
Association with the Berkman Center is always a felicitous thing, IMO, and I’m happy to report that, in addition to this latest bit of convergence, I’ve been selected to serve as one of the Berkman Center’s Faculty Associates for the 2011-2012 academic year (alongside a humbling list of luminaries).
Speaking of the academic year, the fall semester is soon to commence, and although I don’t have time (right now) to go into the long story of my academic employment situation, I’m excited to report that although my fellowship at MIT ended this spring, I’ll be continuing to teach here in the Boston area. I’m offering two courses this fall, one at Brandeis and another at UMass-Boston. I’m delighted to be teaching at both institutions, and very much looking forward to meeting the students. If you happen to know anyone at either place, please help spread the word. In brief the deets are:
1) On Monday evenings from 5:30-8:00 at UMass-Boston, I’ll be attempting to fill the very large shoes of Reebee Garofalo, who is retiring, teaching his perennial and popular course on the “Social History of Popular Music.” This is a great opportunity to dig into the question of the “popular” and how it opens into, emerges from, and informs social history. I’ll share the syllabus here as soon as I’ve got it into good enough shape. It’s being offered through the American Studies department (AMST 235).
2) On Tuesday nights from 6:30-9:20 at Brandeis I’ll be returning to the topic of “Reggae, Race, and Nation” for the department of African and African American Studies (AAAS 171a). The syllabus will not look too unlike my Global Reggae course for MIT (now on OpenCourseWare!), though I will be tweaking it a little, of course.
These topics are near and dear to my heart & work, and I feel fortunate (if a little undercompensated — twice the teaching for 20% the pay!) to be able to continue thinking and talking about music, popular culture, and social history & theory for a “living.” Nice work if you can get it. Do help me out by directing good students my way!
Hope to see some of y’all at some of these things. And I promise to fill you in on my Summer of Relative Silence very soon. Also, I’ve got some pieces of writing to share. Soon come, patient readers, soon come.
So, yeah. There’s rearing; and then there’s rearing —
Slightly older kids, well enculturated & irrepressibly motivated, can tend to take things to the next level, bumping body parts with acrobatic abandon and lighting rooftops (and laptops) on fire —
Devotees of dancehall reggae and reggaeton will no doubt recognize elements of perreo and daggering in the “choque” (alt. “choke” or “shoke”) — named after the collisions so central to the dance. (One bump on each beat = 95 bumps per minute!) As one choque song goes, and there are many of them, the dance might be conceived as “perreo con toque.” Musically speaking, all the big choque songs (whether by La Combinacion, Son de AK, Element Black, Los de Tura, etc.) are basically reggaeton productions, if by reggaeton we mean Spanish-language, reggae-inflected rap over beats constructed piecemeal from mid-90s dancehall riddims — a stab of guitar from Murder She Wrote, a Fever Pitch hi-hat, kicks and snares resampled so many times they’ve taken on a new character, thick and crunchy, perfect for soundtracking the crashing of hips. In this way, we might appreciate an aesthetic symmetry between the ways the dance and the music both sample from as they explode well-worn forms.
Notably, however — and clearly departing from perreo and daggering in this way — the choque has a strong and, for many, surprising (or even subversive) “equal opportunity” character. As seen in the video above (and in many others), after doing some “leading” of their own, the men take turns being “led” (i.e., smashed on) by the women. Moreover, as I’ll discuss below, the choque also appears to lend itself to a fair amount of same-sex coupling — a rather rare sight in dancehall or reggaeton (especially male-to-male). But despite (or perhaps because of?) how clearly the choque is indebted to Caribbean forms — both musical and embodied — the video above has been received and recoded, again and again, as “African.”
When I first “stumbled upon” and reshared that video (via @culturedoctor, aka Sonjah Stanley Niaah), it wasn’t just called “Best Dance Ever. Watch it.” — it was called “Best African Dance Ever. Watch it.” And while I have no doubt that Africanists and Caribbeanists and scholars and enthusiasts of all stripes could hold an animated debate over what constitutes an “African” dance, whether here or there, and how much it hinges on aesthetics and history and politics — or, per Sonjah, whether “there is ground for analyzing inter-dependent genealogies” — I’m not so interested in hashing out that particular argument as I am in teasing out how ideologies of race and nation and sexuality, as routed through the charged site of Africa, play out in the public spheres gathered around YouTube and the myriad places, online and off, where a video like the one above can be discussed or re-embedded.
Comments on the various instantiations of the video reveal a remarkable resonance produced by the familiar movements and milieu. (It’s actually rather striking how little of the YouTube discourse around the song&dance mention the music at all.) This everyday but spirited rooftop jam clearly activates viewers’ social, global, and racial imaginations (to name a few). Some claim the dance for themselves, folding it into a capacious sense of identititity, others distance themselves from the scene and all it opens into —
All manner of associations and explanations are proffered —
Remarkably, debate continues despite that the uploader — who was, incidentally, not the first: this copy has nearly 20X as many views — finally “corrected” the title after several commenters correctly ID’d it as a Colombian scene/song (i.e., “Choque” by Son de AK).
People remain keenly interested in, skeptical of, and, indeed, ignorant of the video’s provenance. Some insist it is African African. Of course, even once we locate it in the Americas, that hardly means it’s not “African.” Note that Sonjah refers to the dance as a product of “the African community in South America,” an interesting (and, of course, political) way to describe it — as opposed to say, “Colombian” or “Afro-Colombian” or “Buenaventuran” etc. — and, I hasten to add, not necessarily an identititity that the kids in the video would oppose.
But pan-African commitments do not always lead to the tightest coalitions, for local cultural mores can produce fissures. It’s clear, for instance, that certain Jamaican viewers, even as they observe strong links to their own dear practices (“Dagga dat”!), find themselves repelled by certain practices that, no pun intended, give them pause (“dat cyaah gwaan a yaard”) —
And I think he was further convinced, and a little dismayed and bemused, when I shared some other choque videos I had turned up:
That video led me to a couple more, where the action is set in front of and then inside a home, and (thus?) it gets a little more intimate:
As you might imagine, given how YouTube has become ground zero for gay slurs, the comments on these videos get pretty hyperbolic. Indeed, trawling for interesting responses, I came across some classic chatroom Spanglish invective:
My friend and colleague, Michael Birenbaum Quintero, a self-identified “ethnomusicĂłlogo gringolombiano” who has been working in Colombia (and specifically in Buenaventura) for many years now, and is well acquainted with the choque phenomenon, offered another interpretation. He told me this sort of display — dancing in front of one’s house with a small soundsystem — is a commonplace practice in Buenaventura, including same-sex partnering. It may be homosocial, but it is not necessarily homoerotic — and according to MBQ such activity is rarely seen that way. Rather, and perhaps ironically (for some outside observers), this sort of galavanting is, more often than not, a means of showing off for girls. (But tell that to YouTube.)
Moreover, and this is something I hadn’t picked up on, MBQ noted that there’s a fair amount of subtle deflection in the dancing between men: rather than a square crotch-to-ass thrust, the guys are more likely to swivel hips at the last moment, so the bumping of sides is more frequent.
This is not always so, however, as some fellow Buenaventuran fellows demonstrate:
Then again, here they are again (and again), with opp-sex partners, so go figure:
And here’s a great example of two girls from Buenaventura, at what appears to be a family party, showing how the dance can be a lot more athletic than erotic —
Clearly, specific cultural frames and contextual understandings structure the meanings of choque, even as translocal elements (reggaeton, daggering, skinnyjeans) undeniably inform both local engagements and global circulation / fascination / revulsion. That said, it’s worth noting that the reason the choque became the phenomenon that it did — inspiring local and regional artists to record songs about and for it — is precisely because of all the kids in Buenaventura and ChocĂł dancing with abandon out in the street, up on the roof, and, eventually, on YouTube. This has made the choque more popular than ever, and it has invited contributions and appropriations of all sorts.
For one, thanks no doubt to YouTube, it has long since traveled beyond Buenaventura and Colombia: uploaded in September 2009, this video finds a Dominican couple doing the “baile de choque” (as well as jerkin’s “reject”) to some local dembow beats:
Closer to home, some recording artists have attempted to court crossover success by translating the choque for audiences outside of Colombia’s Afro-Pacific communities. As noted on the Masala blog a few months ago, Element Black and Bloke 18 premiered an upscale take on the tune, complete with HD video:
note the mambo outro
According to MBQ, although hailing from Buenaventura, Element Black appear to be targeting the regional capital, Cali, with this production. The most obvious cue is the participation of Cali-based group Bloke 18, but as MBQ told me via email, there are other signs to be read here: for one, whereas “videos for Pacific-focused music tends to have a generally darker demographic like that of the Pacific itself,” in this video we see “much lighter-skinned, upper-class-CaleĂ±o-looking models”; moreover, MBQ contends that “the fact that the more virtuosic aspects of the dance (e.g. head to butt headbutts) don’t appear” suggests that they wanted to “make it easier for Cali dancers,” a strategy seemingly buttressed by the use of mambo / merengue in the production. (But then, MBQ adds: “This is more that post-Ilegales No Pare Sigue Sigue neo-merengue mambo stuff than merengue, but it’s probably important that merengue is generally associated with the upper classes in Cali.”)
While listening to an Element Black mixtape I turned up, it occurred to me that mambo (as well as reggaeton) was working as a sort of platform in itself — as a means to project and promote one’s act, to invite the participation of a readymade public (i.e., one already addressed/amassed by mambo). It seems telling that there are multiple choque mambos circulating with their name on it. Then again, is mambo the platform, or does “choque” itself create a new scaffolding?
Perhaps inspired by the same crossover dreams, another act drummed up a (blanqueado?) salsa version:
Given the choque’s “African” connotations, there are consequences — in terms of social, cultural, and financial capital — for facilitating the circulation of choque beyond Colombia’s Pacific coast. While I can’t speak further to its reception in Cali, I have noticed a few videos portraying the choque in BogotĂĄ, where it is definitely received ambivalently, not least because the suggestive dance has been embraced by (putatively) non-Afro-Colombians — most scandalously of course, by highschool kids and even younger.
Indeed, the following footage of uniformed students in BogotĂĄ doing “EL NUEVO BAILE PARA JOVENES” (as the description phrases it) became the focus of an alarmist “national” news story —
Despite, then, what we might observe — and some would celebrate — as a certain set of cultural mores on display in choque videos, discourses of shame and scandal persist, at least in certain quarters. (One gets the sense, looking across these various videos and their metatexts, that these dances are ok, y’know, on the coasts, but not in the center!) Or maybe it’s just another lame excuse for the moralist media to replay the same supposedly salacious imagery again and again and again:
Resonant (and in conversation) with mediatized youth dance scenes the world over, the choque stands as another site of cultural and social contest. The myriad comments on choque videos using terms like “mierda” or “porquerĂa” alongside racist and heterosexist epithets merely serve to confirm, among other things, that as with its kindred genres (perreo, daggering, wining, freakin’) the choque can do a whole lot of cultural work at once. Whether teaching kids how to be in their bodies and cavort with their peers (sometimes a lot more innocently and playfully than critics let on), or pushing against longstanding biases, the choque vividly embodies the inevitable collisions in a post-slave, post-colonial, and multicultural society like Colombia.
And, indeed, despite vitriolic debates on YouTube and the fanning of populist fears on TV news, a large part of the choque’s cultural work may already be done. As MBQ also noted in our email exchange:
As for the upward mobility of choque, I recently saw on a friend of mine’s Facebook page a video of a middle-class white mother of about 40 and her 20something son in Buenaventura unironically dancing choque together.