One of my biggest inspirations for assigning students to make YouTube-sourced montages is the fact that musical supercuts are already an ordinary practice, whether we’re talking about the best Nae Nae Vines or, say, all the footage of Elvis doing “Hound Dog” one can find.
In that sense — and I think this is consistent with the technomusicological enterprise — our practice is informed by digital folk culture, if you will, not simply academic theory, and our products are meant to themselves circulate as a form of online art, hopefully to some of the same communities, audiences, and individuals who serve as the subjects of our work.
Beyond that goal, YouTube montages also serve to archive some of this wonderful stuff in an age when we can’t necessarily take its permanence for granted. Along those lines, let me take the opportunity to note that my anxious critique about “Platform Politricks” I posted here five years back, was recently given new life — a new platform even!? — thanks to this recent piece by Ann Powers in which I serve as a sort of protagonist:
The advent of streaming was a game-changer for someone like Marshall, a connoisseur of older and emerging music surviving beyond mainstream. Material that once could only be found through diligent fieldwork â whether that meant connecting directly with far-flung communities or digging like crazy in record store bins or basement library stacks â was now immediately accessible, and framed by lively exchanges that often included the music-makers themselves. Streaming was changing music scholarship, as well as the day-to-day pleasures of any curious listener who could now instantly pursue a new fascination.
All that said — and you should read the rest if you have the time — I’m really writing here to share some stellar mega-montages from this spring’s technomusicology class. Without further ado, allow me to present a few favorites.
In the standout montage this semester (though I may be biased by the number of hours I spent in front of an NES), one student painstakingly assembled a collection of renditions of The Legend of Zelda “Overworld Theme” in 25 different styles! Complete with titles and framed with rare footage, this montage shows a striking, collective “nerduosity” at work in the ongoing social life of this enduring 8-bit earworm — particularly, the remarkable profusion of Brady-Bunch-style multitracked one-man-band freakouts:
Another student decided to plumb the depths of YouTube’s most popular video, “Gangnam Style” (currently at 2.3 billion views). In the process of auditioning 150 spin-offs and ultimately selecting 60 versions of the song/video to mash together, he discovered a fairly amazing thing: together, these “parodies” have 5-6 billion views, outpacing the incredibly popular original. As the student wrote–
Clearly, Gangnam Style created a platform of its own atop the YouTube platform, inspiring videographers the world over to ride the Gangnam wave to YouTube fame. But the viral genius of the video exceeded the easy-to-learn horse dance, as novel as it was. Psy unknowingly created a video framework for portraying style of any kind. Instead of Gangnam Style, it was now London Style, Klingon Style, Farmer Style; Oregon Ducks Style, Skyrim Style, Motorcycle Style, Filipino Style, Gandalf Style, the list goes on. By framing his video with the English word “Style”, Psy triggered a global video meme, powered by a viral platform. Anyone and everyone could use his common platform to spoof their culture or lampoon another.
Here’s 60 of em:
Ok, one more to call attention to, worth your consideration for its conceptual coolness. Another student decided to compose his own video montage of a Red Hot Chili Peppers song from a concert he himself attended by combining the sound-board audio that he purchased at the close of the show with 8 other concertgoers’ hand-held recordings of the performance. I’ll let him do the rest of the framing:
For my etude this week, I chose not to focus necessarily on a âviralâ spread. YouTube has encouraged countless amateur recordings; there were several examples shown in class about home videos that became viral, remixed, and spread. But there are also many videos that are uploaded without the intent of going viral: many people simply upload to YouTube so that their videos can be easily shared amongst family members and friends.
I wanted to show a way that this trend, combined with music, would do sort of the opposite of a viral spread: It would actually unite and bring a community of people together. I used to upload my own videos of concerts I attended, until I realized that if I truly wanted to reflect back, there would be tons of other people uploading that same concert. So I began enjoying the concerts in the moment, and finding the recordings later. I have made several online acquaintances from finding videos filmed by complete strangers that were standing next to me, so close that you can hear me singing.
To emulate this in my etude, I gathered various recordings of the same song from the same concert: 8 different people, all unrelated, in the same arena, enjoying the same performance. I chose âOthersideâ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers because I had a high quality mp3 recording of that entire night, and Otherside was the only track in the set that was under 5 minutes. I used the mp3 as an anchor for the video: the other clips still play their audio, though considerably muted.
By shifting between the different clips, these 8 strangers come together and produce a fuller view of the same event, sharing their insight and creating a bond. The result almost resembles what the band would sell as a concert dvd, all produced by amateurs with cell phones.
During the draft/workshop/revision stage, we encouraged the student to mix more of the ambient sound from each camera/smartphone into the video in order to give the audio some of the personalized texture of the video clips. The final version is quite the document:
And that’s just a sampling. If you’re looking for more, you can check out others via this playlist —
Gilles Aubry’s The Amplification of Souls is a meticulously composed and conceived “audio-essay” (Aubry’s term) on Kinshasa’s charismatic churches and the broader soundscape they inhabit and inflect. I reviewed the CD, along with its 80 page booklet, in Issue 371 of The Wire (January 2015).
Gilles Aubry The Amplification of Souls
ADOCS Verlag CD+8K
As speaker hum and empty plosives congeal into a stuttered mic-check for Jesus, a slight squeal suggests the looming threat of feedback. Because so many of Kinshasa’s churches are open-air affairs, the rumble of motorcycles and automobiles accompany the ambience of a band slowly tuning up and worshippers gathering. Preachers punch through the din with bursts of noise louder than anything else, the flat lines of distortion making palpable the power of their authority. Handmade PAs hit their limits as microphones bear witness to the possession of souls and of space. And then, sudden quiet save for the faint buzz of the sound system. Speakertowers of Babel from the Heart of Darkness, respectfully recorded and remixed for headphones and museums thousands of miles away.
The jump cuts are jarring, reminding that this is no straightforward documentary. The voice of the artist, Gilles Aubry, resounds here too. The Amplification of Souls is, according to its careful and copious framing, Aubry’s âaudio-essayâ on Kinshasa’s religious soundscape. Congolese charismatic churches are a laudable focus given the immensity of the phenomenon and the general indifference to it in the wider world, perhaps because megachurches and prosperity gospel seem more essentially American than African. Attempting what the artist contends is âa material-based form of cultural interpretationâ the work stands as a studious, self-aware approach to sonic ethnography. Aubry’s project is so steeped in reflexivity and rigorous attention to the sounds and their contexts and meanings, it clearly seeks to pre-empt perfunctory charges of appropriation. âHe doesnât even understand what weâre saying,â says a churchgoer quoted in the liner notes, âThem, the whites, they record anything.â
What constitutes understanding here is a crucial, vexing point. A dozen minutes in, the tongues begin. The glossolalia is striking in itself, alien and arresting and enjoying an undistorted sonic clarity in contrast to the punchy preachers. It also seems to mirror the varied textures of the audio-essay itself, composed of multiple sound sources created by different people with different objectives: church services and evangelical street campaigns, radio and video, cooking and football. At one point, a burst of traditional music, full of clapping and ululation, points more toward continuities than contrasts, while the appearance of local rap and meandering Hawaiian guitar suggest other Others to be heard. All the while, Aubry’s own voice emerges in the layering of samples, their stereo spatialization, and the inevitable narrative arc that emerges from his rearrangement of such disparate sonic documents.
Presented as academic sound art, The Amplification of Souls comes with an 80 page booklet including an interview with Aubry that contains the phrase âneo-colonial representationâ in its subtitle. It also boasts an essay on âThe Sonic Materialities of Beliefâ by a musicologist and cultural anthropologist which notes, among other things, that Congolese charismatic movements themselves âappropriatedâ the patina, and hence the power, of noise and distortion from Pentecostal missionaries. Performed previously as a sound installation and now as an ongoing set of public performances, Aubry’s remixed recordings stand at once as an impressionistic refraction of Kinshasa’s soundscape and as the material embodiment of sounds that he would like to let speak for themselves. One way that Aubry does so is to pair his collage with a 34 minute excerpt of a spiritual deliverance service that provides a great deal more context and less composerly initiative, though the profound act of framing remains. In another show of transparency, Aubry’s original recordings of the service in full have been archived online.
Even so, what makes this anything other than churchy Congotronics? Why choose Kinshasa instead of Kansas City? Or, for that matter, Berlin? Not only does the city that Aubry calls home play host to numerous charismatic churches itself, some are even Congolese. Obviously, the specific site of these recordings is crucial to their circulation as art in Europe and the US, but it is deeply ironic that, against the coolness of Kinshasa trance traditionalists like Konono No 1, Aubry must seek out possessed Christians to locate the hot exoticism Western audiences expect. How would Kinshasa’s charismatic communities receive this project? Would it sound like understanding? Should that guide the way audiences elsewhere experience it? The emphasis on sound as material culture suggests that we’re not meant to attend to the content so much as the deracinated affects of the audio. Perhaps glossolalia itself offers an answer. Does the lexical register matter when all that we’re waiting for is the outbreak of the unintelligible?
What can I say? It’s been a chockfull summer. Mostly with farming and teaching, but also, I’m happy to note, with writing and talking about music as well. And while I’ve found the time to do some “dancing about architecture,” I’m afraid I’ve been a little slack when it comes to linking/re-posting it here. So here are some items from the last few months that I’d like to call attention to if you haven’t already seen & heard em. (FYI, I’ve also been reviewing albums for The Wire, but I’ll be reposting those separately.)
First, I’m excited to report that I was asked by the nice ppl at Mixpak Records to pen an essay for Popcaan’s debut album, Where We Come From. Writing reggae liner notes is something I’ve always dreamed about doing, and I was thrilled to sit with this stellar set of chunes for a few months before it went out to the world. Here’s a little teaser, but definitely click through to read the wole ting — and do give the album a good listen, it’s well worth the time!
In turns uplifting and haunting, reverent and rude, Where We Come From gives voice, as the best reggae does, to the contradictions of life in a society rife with inequities and yet so rich. Whether odes to the ghetto or the good life, Popcaan’s lyrics bring realist portraits and utopian visions into dynamic tension. Songs about struggle and sex and happiness occupy the same space because they do. …
Like his predecessors in crossover without compromise, Popcaan appeals to listeners outside of Jamaica precisely because he brings a distinctively Jamaican voice to the proceedings. In a world gone global, Popcaan occupies that sweet space of possibility where a deeply local accent communicates to outernational listeners. With his patois lyrics, plainspoken and poetic, his own takes on the latest slang, and his vowels stretched in that Portmore twang, Popcaan is unapologetically uberlocal in address. But since dancehall is itself a globe-spanning style and symbolic code, Popcaan’s performances are also pitched to the world. For all the downhome detail, nuff translatesâand plenty comes across in universal terms: hustle for the money, too damn evil, everything is nice.
Speaking of hustle for the money (and it shall appear?), the Popcaan essay dovetails with a conversation I had recently with Afropop Worldwide for their “Money Show,” which explores the role of money (or not) in music scenes spanning Ghana, Kenya, Colombia, Jamaica, and South Africa. The topic turns to Jamaica at around the 45 minute mark:
Ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall says reggaeâs success can be attributed to its many divergent (even contradictory) forms and meanings. âThe genre offers a flexible palette for a wide range of ideological positions,â he explains, âfrom Pan-Africanism and other forms of transnationalism to utterly provincial nationalism, from peaceful and respectful postures to aggressive machismo and militancy, from tolerance to its own forms of oppression.â So whether itâs the image of Bob Marley as a revolutionary avatar, the liberated body politics of dancehall music, or simply the flows of culture enabled by the sprawling networks of English empire, something has made reggae stick in a number of unlikely locales.
âYou can find local reggae scenes just about anywhere in the world: Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Native American reservations, you name it,â Marshall continues. âIt really is remarkable that reggae has inspired local scenes all over the world, especially since Jamaica is such a small place.â
This is, admittedly, an exaggerated example, and itâs hard to imagine anyone enjoying it save from a certain ironic distance. But itâs noteworthy â if not mindblowing â that someone uploaded it at all, and it speaks volumes about the political economy of contemporary music circulation. The intense compression artifacts may or may not be intentional â whether anti-piracy technique or incidental product of crappy software defaults. It reminds me of Jonathan Sterneâs contention that the MP3 puts the listener on a Â«sonic austerity programÂ». Illustrative because so extreme, the warped sound of this clip is deeply familiar to the MP3 generation â like cumulative tape hiss or dusty record crackles for older ears. Due to better bandwidth, the death of DRM, hi-qual darknets, and more liberal leaking practices, such distortions already strike us as Â«artifactsÂ» in the archaeological as well as audio sense.
In the wake of Rupert Murdoch buying Myspace and ânukingâ the imeem streaming service in 2009, ethnomusicologist and blogger Wayne Marshall, a longtime annotator of the microtrends popping up every second on any number of online streaming platforms, wrote an extensive blog post, spurred by the very real fear that âentire media ecosystemsâ might suddenly âsuccumb to the sudden slash and burn of corporate logic, which cares little for what we might celebrate as cultural vitality.â Iâve been using the word âplatformâ throughout this article as linguistic shorthand to describe a variety of streaming services, but as Marshall notes, the term can disguise as much as it describes. YouTube and other services use âplatformâ as strategic PR, Marshall contends, to cover up the much more precarious technological and political realities that underpin their use. Calling YouTube and other streaming services âplatformsâ creates the image of an elevated space on which one might communicate to a large audience, strategically eliding the fact that uploads can vaporize at any point, often without warning.
The fifth etude in our summer session required students to cook up short DJ mixes that follow a particular musical thread across time and space. As readers will know, I’ve made a fewofthese over the years, and I’m obviously enamored of such an audible form of storytelling about music culture in the age of digital sampling.
Of course, not every etude made it up on Soundcloud thanks to its algorithmic/automatic pre-screening according to a draconian and short-sighted copyright regime — sensors are the new censors, innit — but several are still standing, spinning, and shining there. Allow me to share a few.
Here’s a ton of Ashley’s Roachclips:
And here are several iterations of Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby”:
Variations on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, perhaps?
Or echoes of Nina Simone’s âFeeling Goodâ?
How about a big playback for “The Big Payback”?
Finally, in quite an inspired, creative departure, here are some Polynesian war/rugby chants sutured onto remixed dubstep instrumentals:
The Summer of Love is way behind us, as is the Second Summer of Love, & perhaps the Third and Fourth. The Summer of Technomusicology, however, will soon be here!
I’m thrilled to report that I’ll be offering my favorite class to teach in the world right now, as premiered last year at Harvard U, this July-August as an intensive 7-week course at the Harvard Summer School. If you’re planning to be in town and around, it should be a good chance to make some conceptually cogent, historically situated, and, we hope, aesthetically engaging media.
Here’s a taste of what we did last year. So if that whets the appetite, you can access the syllabus and look into registering via this page:
Readings, discussions, and projects focus on significant forms and their histories, including soundscapes, mashups, montages, DJ-style mixes, and radio sound design. Students will develop a fluency in the history of sound studies while cultivating competencies in audio and video editing, sampling and arranging, mixing and remixing, and, in framing their projects, descriptive and poetic forms of writing.
Class sessions comprise a mix between discussions of relevant readings and audio works, software demonstrations, and in-lab project-centered work. Readings and listening/viewing selections will be available via the course website or the WWW.
ASSIGNMENTS / GRADING
1) Attendance & class participation – 25%
2) Ătudes (6 in all) – 60%
3) Final Project – 15%
Ătude #2: Compose a radio collage, focusing on a particular dimension/station/time of the Boston/Cambridge airwaves. Include brief description of subject and methods.
Week 3 /
Mashup Poetics & the Ethics/Aesthetics of Sampling
Sterne, Jonathan. âThe MP3 as Cultural Artifact.â New Media & Society 8:5 (2006): 825â842.
Katz, Mark. âListening in Cyberspace.â In Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, 158-87. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Marshall, Wayne. âMashup Poetics as Pedagogical Practice.â In Pop-Culture Pedagogy in the Music Classroom: Teaching Tools from American Idol to YouTube, ed. Nicole Biamonte, 307-15. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010.
McGranahan, Liam. ââIt Goes Beyond Having a Good Beat and I Can Dance to Itâ: Mashup Aesthetics and Creative Process.â In Mashnography: Creativity, Consumption, and Copyright in the Mashup Community, 35-70. Ph.D. dissertation, Brown University, 2010.
Schloss, Joseph G. âElements of Style: Aesthetics of Hip-hop Composition.â In Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop, 135-168. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.
Ătude #4: Create a video montage that illustrates a particular story of musical circulation and/or relationship.
Week 5 /
DJ-style Mixing & the Mini-Mega-Mix
Katz, Mark. âMix and ScratchâThe Turntable Becomes a Musical Instrument: 1975-1978.â In Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ, 43-69. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Ătude #5: Produce a brief DJ-style mix guided by some logic of musical, cultural, and/or historical connection between the recordings involved. Make efforts to use blends, cuts, and other edits strategically. Include notes explaining aesthetic choices and narrative (i.e., poetics).
I don’t know if you dear readers get tired of hearing about dembow, but I sure don’t. That said, if my boom-ch-boom-chick narratives start to seem as monotonous a march as some allege with regard to the dembow beat itself, do let me know. Well-worn paths notwithstanding, I’m happy to share this latest riff on a loopy history I’ve been trying to put together for many years, especially since it was the result of some protracted detective work, including actual purchasing of vinyl (s/o Deadly Dragon), interviews conducted via MySpace, and a whole heap of Spanglish-spelunking through Panamanian plena chatroom rabbitholes and other lively niches of the net.
First things first, go over to Wax Poetics to read the article in its full multimedia glory:
I’m pleased to have placed the piece there, as Wax Poetics is a publication I’ve admired for a long time, but especially because the story of the dembow’s origins is, crucially, a story about a particular physical record, an actual piece of vinyl, a deeply generative slab of “wax” that thousands of producers have molded into their own shapes and forms since it first issued from a Brooklyn-based distributor in 1991.
It’s also a record that, hard to believe, I was unable to locate and listen to back when I was writing my epic chapter for our reggaeton book. At the time, though, close listening was leading me in the right direction, as indicated in footnote #55 (p.72):
Significantly, it appears (to my ears) that the most common versions of the Dem Bow riddim circulating in Puerto Rico may in fact be sampled from Nando Boomâs âEllos Benia,â produced by Dennis âthe Menaceâ Thompson, rather than directly from Shabba Ranksâs âDem Bowâ (though elements from the Bobby Digital version crop up as well).
While my ears had more or less figured out the identity of the actual samples traveling under the Dembow banner, I still didn’t know the story of how, or who, or when or where, someone first got their hands on the instrumental, which didn’t appear on any Nando Boom records (and never appears as a naked loop in “Ellos Benia”). Maybe most mysteriously, I hadn’t been able to figure out why Panamanian enthusiasts seemed to refer to the same riddim as the Pounda, or sometimes Ponda (a transformation / transliteration not unlike such Puerto Rican variations as Dembo or Denbo).
When I first read about the Pounda on Panamanian websites, the way people described it, I thought it might simply be a local way of naming âDem Bowâ not unlike the way that, say, the instrumental from Dirtsmanâs âHot This Yearâ — better known to reggae aficionados as a re-lick of the classic Drum Song riddim — sometimes masquerades as “El Chespa Riddim” in tribute to the stuttering repetition of Dirtsman’s “dress back!” in the vocal version: chespa, chespa ches, chespa, chespa ches, chespa! And because I couldnât locate an actual record called âPounder,â my best assumption, given what Iâd read, was that it was simply another name for the same riddim Puerto Ricans call Dem Bow. Which it is. (What it is not, however, is the same version propelling Shabbaâs influential performance on “Dem Bow.”) But I had no idea what that would have happened.
The identity of the Pounda, and its relationship to the loop people call Dembow, seemed crucial to understanding the transnational history of reggaeton. And though I felt I had done my best by the time of publication, it still nagged at me. Moreover, this missing link continued to complicate the fraught retellings of reggaeton history. Take, for example, this quintessential collection of lore from a 2009 article on reggae in Panama:
By some reports, Jamaican dancehall first arrived in Puerto Rico in the suitcases of visiting musicians from Panama. Another story has the Panamanian producer RamĂłn âPuchoâ Bustamante collaborating with a Jamaican to create a salsa-infused variant of âdem bowâ called âpounda,â then handing it over to Puerto Rican producers. While the truth is likely less clear-cut than either yarn, the debate over who started reggaeton, or rather, how Puerto Rican artists discovered âdem bow,â rages on outside shows and on countless Internet message boards today.
Indeed, as a gringo gawker, but a devotee and champion of all this music, it was largely these online debates that served as a key set of texts for the meta-narrative I was trying to tease out, my story of the stories people tell about reggaeton. I would come across fascinating debates and tantalizing fragments hinting at a history still largely uncovered, or certainly unpromulgated —
EL PONDER REALMENTE ES UN RITMO JAMAIQUINO, HAY COMO DOS ESTILOS DEL MISMO Y DEL MISMO AĂO QUE UNO ES EL DEL ESTILO QUE LLEVA LA CANCIĂN “PENSIĂN” DE NANDO BOOM Y EL OTRO DEL ESTILO QUE LLEVA “DEM BOW” DE SHABBA RANKS QUE ESE FUĂ HECHO POR STEELIE & CLEEVIE POR VP RECORDS. PERO EL PONDER DE “DEM BOW” DE SHABBA RANKS FUĂ EL MĂS FUERTE EN ESE TIEMPO Y LAS DOS DE NANDO BOOM CON LA BASE RĂTMICA HECHA POR DENNIS FUERON LAS QUE MĂS APOJEARON HASTA EN CANADĂ QUE LAS OTRAS EN INGLĂS. ——————– pAnAmAiCaN jAm
To get to the bottom, I had to go beyond reading Spanish wiki entries and their discussion pages, and even beyond Panamanian reggae discussion forum rabbit holes and email follow-ups with their authors. I had to track down one of the record’s producers on MySpace and, ultimately, at least for my peace of mind, I had to get my hands on a real, physical copy of the record, since there were no online instantiations of a song called “Pounda” or “Pounder” — never mind its instrumental b-side (given the distinctive label, “Dub Mix II,” I would later discover).
I have Marlon Bishop to thank for putting me back on the trail again, which is ironic since he contacted me while researching an article he was writing on reggae in Panama for none other than Wax Poetics. At any rate, Marlon’s reasonable inquiry about the Pounda riddim sent me back into the chat forums, which eventually led me to the Deadly Dragon guys, who actually had the record in stock. And of course, when I listened to it, and it contained precisely the same sounds propelling Nando Boom’s “Ellos Benia” and appearing as “Dembow Original” on CDs like Pistas Famosas de Reggaeton, it came as a revelation.
Also revelatory, and useful for confirming some things, was getting to talk with none other than “Pucho,” aka Ramon âPuchoâ Bustamante (a name bearing witness to his Jamaican heritage, recalling Jamaicaâs first prime minister). We had an illuminating exchange via MySpace, and I’ll never forget his funny opinion about Jamaica’s riddim tradition, or as he put it, “UNA MALA COSTUMBRE DE LOS JAMAICANOS” —
And that’s all she wrote. Or, at least, that’s all I’ve written so far. You might think that a 24,000 word essay might suffice, but apparently not. And as another way to share an amazing story, I’m grateful to have been able to put the pieces together. Thanks to everyone, from Pucho to pAnAmAiCaN jAm, Marlon to Wax Poetics, for aiding me in my not-so-quixotic quest. Always room for another dub!
Appended below is the “director’s cut” (or unabridged author’s version) of a book review I wrote almost a year ago, which will soon finally see the light of day in the Journal of Popular Music Studies. The book is Mark Katz’s Groove Music, and I say enough below that I needn’t say more here, but as you’ll see, my review is quite supportive. If you’re interested in the history of the DJ, or hip-hop, or just good music writing and scholarship, I highly recommend you check this one out.
ps — here are the proofs if you like PDFs, but do see below for the full monty!
Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ by Mark Katz
Oxford University Press, 2012, 336 pages, ISBN: 9780195331127
With Groove Music, Mark Katz has written a definitive history of the hip-hop DJ, filling a conspicuous void in the hip-hop literature while contributing more broadly to studies of music technologiesâor perhaps better, to our understanding of how people make technologies musical. For Katz, the transformation of the turntable from a mere playback machine to a remarkably flexible and responsive control deviceâa musical instrument, no lessâstands as âthe signal contribution of the hip-hop DJ to modern musical cultureâ (5). This is quite a claim, but Katz represents, as hip-hop parlance would have it, offering historical, ethnographic, and analytical perspectives on hip-hop DJing, from roots to offshoots, with an unprecedented degree of thoroughness and attention to what matters to practitioners and audiences.
Like Joe Schlossâs authoritative works on beat-making and b-boying, Making Beats (2004) and Foundation (2009), which Groove Music should now sit alongside on shelves and syllabi, this is a lucid and deeply grounded work on a pillar of hip-hop practice and artistry informed by dozens of interviews, years of participant-observation, and deft close readings of live performances, canonical recordings, and oral histories. Groove Music fleshes out the growing (if still lagging) musicological literature on the DJ (Fikentscher 2000, Lawrence 2003, Butler 2006) by shifting focus from the relatively suave mixing of disco, house, and techno DJs to the more explicit performativity of hip-hop DJs, as embodied most audibly by the scratchâor zigga zigga as Katz sometimes glosses it.
To his credit, even while engaged in important acts of translation for his primary reading public (i.e., colleagues and students), Katz sets out to write the book that hip-hop DJs themselves would want to read. As such he commits himself to a chronological and narrative approach, and to a down-to-earth and occasionally playful prose style, peppering the text with such useful terms as âbadasseryâ (168). The book is all the better for this approach, addressing the wider publics that these stories deserve to reach.
The rhythmically stuttered introduction of âDJ Premier in Deep Concentrationâ (1989), a hallmark production of the hip-hop DJ as hands-on artistâHereâs a little story that must be toldâserves as an unremarked but undergirding imperative. While DJs such as Premier have been telling the story themselves and various works in the hip-hop literature address the subject in some detail (Chang 2005, Fricke & Ahearn 2002), no single text prior to Katz has sought to synthesize an overarching story of hip-hop DJing from its beginnings in 1973 to the present. Moreover, with the literature so focused on the foundational work of hip-hopâs hallowed trinity (Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash), little attention has been paid to the changing aesthetics and contexts of the hip-hop DJ in the decades since the formâs origins in the Bronx, especially how scratching has moved in and out of the spotlight in hip-hop and more broadly in American and global popular culture.
Throughout the text, Katz touches on numerous signposts, among them: the crucial feedback loop with dancers (14-16); influences from funk, reggae, and salsa (23-32); hip-hopâs ties to disco, however disputed (32-5); the urban context of the Bronx (35-42); the world of DJ-producers (121); the Bay Areaâs Filipino DJ scene, dominant in the world of turntablism (145-7); the rise of mix-and-scratch academies (230) and virtual video games like DJ Hero (237). But it is Katzâs clear periodization of hip-hop DJ history, always grounded in ethnographic analysis of the political economy, material culture, and aesthetics of the enterprise, which emerges as the key contribution of the book.
Most crucially, in chapter 2, âMix and Scratch,â Katz details the development of the turntable as a musical instrument, focusing on the mechanical and stylistic innovations by the likes of Grandmaster Flash and GrandWizzard Theodore (generally credited with inventing the rhythmic scratch). A centerpiece of Katzâs argument is his close reading of Flashâs seminal seven minute showcase, âThe Adventures Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steelâ (1982), elaborating the techniques and effects, technologies and repertories involved in the performance. Grandmaster D.STâs standout scratching on Herbie Hancockâs âRockitâ (1983) also serves as a key text in the popularization and reimagination of the turntable as instrument. Katzâs simple but profound point is that these DJs took a technology of sound reproduction and used it for âreal-time manipulationâ of sound (62). This story of transformation finally comes full circle toward the end of the book when Katz examines the rise of digital vinyl (e.g., the Serato or Traktor systems), which embodies the utter shift of the vinyl record from a storage medium to a control surface.
Other chapters divide up the history of the hip-hop DJ according to the strange and sometimes circuitous paths the tradition has taken. Chapter 3, âOut of the Bronx and into the Shadows,â addresses the question of how hip-hop, despite its beginnings as a DJ-driven phenomenon, would soon enough be synonymous with rap. According to Katz, the rise of the MC and concomitant decline of DJ, relegated to back-up band or, by the late 1980s, even replaced by DAT machines, actually served in its way to make room for new forms of hip-hop DJing. Despite the DJâs recession during hip-hopâs commercial and cultural ascent, where other hip-hop chronicles tend to depart and leave DJs in the shadows, Katz remains stalwart in his focus, turning to the expansions of DJ practice in chapter 4, both in terms of scratch technique (and Philadelphiaâs specific contribution: the âtransformerâ), as well as the art of beat-juggling. Katz carefully describes new techniques as they develop, putting them into aesthetic, functional, and socio-cultural context, noting the emergence of new contexts for DJ practice, particularly the rise of the competition circuit. Indeed, chapter 6 is entirely devoted to the forms, rituals, tools, and techniques of the DJ battle, judiciously examining points of aesthetic conflict and consensus.
Given Katzâs abiding concern with the instrumentalization of the turntable, the advent of turntablism in 1990s is an obvious watershed, and chapter 5 explores this practically autonomous and increasingly abstracted realm of hip-hop DJ practice. Katz explores the symbiosis between turntable, needle, and crossfader design, noting that while initially many of these features were ad-hoc innovations on the part of tinker-DJs and their âvernacular technological creativity,â by the mid-1990s manufacturers were taking notice and incorporating them into their products. Here, as elsewhere, weâre treated to some sharp material culture analysis: new mixers and crossfaders enabled innovative new techniques such as the âcrab scratchâ where technical limits had previously made them impossible.
In chapter 7, Katz turns to the new ubiquity and legitimacy that scratching enjoyed between 1996-2002, not in hip-hop itself, notably, but in âalmost every corner of popular musicâ (182): pop, rock, jazz, electronic music, and even the classical world. The scratch comes to mean any manner of things in a wide variety of contexts: âWith the mainstreaming of hip-hop, signifiers started to float freelyâ (180). This creates further room for experimentation, giving rise to the âcult favoritesâ the DJ albums made by the likes of DJ Shadow, Qbert, and Kid Koala, rich and remarkable works to which Katz devotes some overdue analysis.
The question of âFalling Barriersâ in chapter 8 reads as a fitting coda, bringing the story of the turntableâs instrumentalization back to its beginnings in important if unexpected ways. Contrasting the rejection of CDJs with the embrace of âdigital vinyl systemsâ allows Katz to make an insightful point about vinylâs place in hip-hop aesthetics as âprecious,â âauthentic,â âelemental,â and âfundamentalâ (218). Vinylâs tenacity as a control surface not only speaks to these values, grounded in decades-old practice, but to the ontology of the turntable as instrument: a seemingly sudden crossfade that makes total sense in retrospect.
Notably, rather than a CD insert (which would have been an enormous tangle of licensing permissions), Oxford University Press offers a useful companion website full of media referenced in the text. These may be mostly links to YouTube videos, leaving their stability in question, but itâs a rich resource all the same, especially if readers use it soon, before the inevitable link degradation.
Groove Music represents a strong monographic extension of Katzâs previous work in Capturing Sound (2004) and the recent anthology he co-edited with Tim Taylor and Tony Grajeda, Music, Sound, and Technology in America (2012). All of these works are animated by a concern with registering the plasticity of sound technologies, or how people find their own creative uses for such things. In the history of sound recording and reproduction, there may be no more spectacular example than the advent of performative hip-hop DJing, and Katz has given the tradition a fitting monument. The specter of legitimation may yet haunt the hip-hop literature, but efforts such as Groove Music help to push beyond such entrenchments precisely by taking the subject so seriously that no hint of novelty or condescension corrupts it.
Butler, Mark. Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Music. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Chang, Jeff. Canât Stop, Wonât Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: Picador, 2005.
Fikentscher, Kai. âYou Better Work!â: Underground Dance Music in New York City. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.
Fricke, Jim and Charlie Ahearn. Yes Yes Yâall: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hopâs First Decade. New York: Da Capo, 2002.
Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.
Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2003.
Schloss, Joseph. Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.
_______. Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Taylor, Timothy, Mark Katz, and Tony Grajeda, eds. Music, Sound, and Technology in America: A Documentary History of Early Phonograph, Cinema, and Radio. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2012.
an utterly awesome eight-year-old diva, via YouTube
This past week I’ve whipped up another couple YouTube montages in the vein of Gasodoble, Bump con Choque, and my students’ projects in last year’s technomusicology class. Unlike my previous efforts, which not too surprisingly involve reggaeton, these new mega-montages engage repertories that I don’t generally mess with: opera and K-pop.
The dear colleagues I have to blame for these excursions are two Berklee faculty, Isaiah Jackson and DJ Hatfield. I’m collaborating with them, as well as with Lori Landay (who has posted her own video here) and Darcie Nicole, to explore the possibilities for using YouTube in the classroom, as well as in our efforts as scholars — and as artists.
We’re giving a collective presentation at Berklee tomorrow morning as part of the college’s annual BTOT event (Berklee Teachers on Teaching), and I’m grateful to Isaiah — an ol’ friend, an acclaimed conductor, and a consummate gentleman — and the others for letting me interlope and help guide the discussion.
In a nutshell, or an abstract, here’s how we’re framing the thing —
We are all familiar with YouTube as an endless archive of weird, ordinary, awesome, and awful performances, but suppose we approach YouTube itself as a creative teaching resource. Since we can now remix video as easily as audio, YouTube performances can be edited into montages that 1) tell vivid stories about contemporary music culture; 2) stand as artworks in their own rights; and 3) supply valuable insights to students seeking to understand the role of social media. This session will explore the ways in which everyday audio/video software and global publishing sites now render visible and audible a staggering variety of musical performances. Participants will learn how they can harness new tools for examining the state of musical arts.
Of course, I have my own favorite examples in this regard, from Kutiman’s collages to the works that I and my students have cooked up, but I was excited to partner with other faculty, with their own realms of expertise, to see how the technique of using montage to represent a song or dance’s social life, as made visible by YouTube, might play out in other musical and cultural domains.
The first (mega)montage I’d like to share reveals the remarkably sustained “virality” (i.e., the ability to find new hosts) of a tune composed more than 200 years ago. Isaiah suggested that I take on Mozart’s well-worn soprano aria, “Queen of the Night,” as the sort of musical text so resonant that surely a staggering number and variety of performances would reside on YouTube.
Sure enough, Isaiah picked out (and annotated!) about 30 instances for me to consider, a small selection all told, but a fine cross-section of contexts, modes of performance / reception, and arrangements. Notably, one of these selections, which I didn’t actually use, was itself a mega-montage of some 40 different renditions. (In that regard, it’s worth noting that the amateur montage is something of a native YouTube genre in its own right, though as Lori will explain tomorrow, as a cultural form “Soviet” montage has been ascendent for some time.)
I’ve been chatting with Isaiah about what has emerged from this exercise, asking how a text so, well, old could continue to enjoy so lively a social life — only glimpses of which are revealed by trawling YouTube — even into the media-suffused 21st century. And despite clearly calling for a certain virtuosity (which some deliver and some do not), one significant detail that Isaiah noted about the story behind this favorite aria from The Magic Flute is that it was composed precisely to inspire such a desire to sing along (or hum or whistle). Apparently, Mozart’s friend Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto and played the role of Papageno in the production’s first run, encouraged him to make the aria short and punchy, the sort of thing that would be popular at “the Lodge,” as Isaiah put it (they were both Freemasons). In this sense, Mozart’s aria might be thought of as a proto pop song, written to be short and catchy and popular. It sure looks and sounds that way according to YouTube.
To my eyes and ears, the montage, which aside from a slightly extended coloratura section essentially sticks to the original (brief) length of the composition, vividly reveals how the aria spans professional and amateur contexts, gender and age, virtuosity and cringeworthiness, various modes of reception (e.g., note which examples contain applause), drama and humor, private and public settings — the sort of versatility that helps to secure a certain longevity. Despite pre-dating “participant culture” theory by a few centuries, surely this is a spreadable song for the ages!
The other montage I worked up may be more familiar in some ways, if you keep up with YouTubey dance memes, but I find it no less interesting or revealing when it comes to grappling with YouTube and what it shows us about music culture in the contemporary moment. DJ Hatfield’s central text is a song — and, crucially, accompanying dance — called “Sorry Sorry,” performed by the popular K-pop “boy band” Super Junior. (And yes, there are already other fan-produced montages of it floating around.) Like lots of other popular song+dance routines (e.g., Crank Dat), one can search for “Sorry Sorry” on YouTube and discover a plethora of examples, from solo routines at home to large numbers performing their mastery of the popular steps in public.
Pointing me to just over 20 examples — again, a small slice of what’s up — DJ led me down a K-pop rabbithole, wherein I found residing alongside each other a marvelous variety of instances: slick commercial productions from Korea and ambitious spoofs from Mexico, goofy karaoke sessions, dead serious tutorials, all manner of home- and school-based versions, breathless TV broadcasts, anime remixes, toy robots, and of course, Filipino prisoners. (You just haven’t made it as a dance meme if the CPDRC hasn’t immortalized the choreography in all their orange splendor.) You can even see the choreographers of the dance, two guys from Los Angeles, strutting their stuff in their own darkened dance studio version. It’s really quite a rich set of instantiations, raising on old question for me: what’s the text and what’s the paratext? (EL QUĂ?!). Take a look yourself —
One genre that I couldn’t resist including here, and which may also deserve the status of “YouTube native,” is the K-pop reaction video. Apparently, watching people watching people on YouTube on YouTube is a thing. Special thanks to longtime W&W interlocutor Alexis Stephens, aka @pm_jawn, for bringing this phenomenon, which really deserves a post or two of its own, to my attention. The K-pop reaction video gave me a way to frame the whole montage that was just too meta to resist.
What makes the example especially interesting to DJ — and notably what doesn’t show up as much on YouTube as the dance routine per se — is that, back in 2009 or so, the particular hand-rubbing gesture for “Sorry Sorry” entered the greater gestural lexicon. People would do that hand-rub gesture anytime they apologized! Such quotidian moments don’t show up especially well on YouTube, but one other interesting example of the dance’s “migration” connects to DJ’s work on music in Taiwan. As you’ll see at the end of the montage, a Taiwanese artist named Suming incorporates the gesture into a video for his song “Kapah” that mashes up a variety of traditional and popular Taiwanese (and other) gestures and references.
There’s a great deal to be teased out here, obviously, and it’s our collective hope to do some of that tomorrow morning while also gesturing (sorry sorry) to other possibilities and uses of YouTube, whether we’re thinking (or singing or dancing) as scholars, teachers, artists, choreographers, or toy robots.
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 —
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
Thanks again to my eloquent interlocutors, all of whom had colorful stories & trenchant perspectives to share, and to the Together panel people — especially Sara Skolnik and Ethan Kiermaier — for making it happen. And thx to everyone who attended the panel, tuned in, and/or wish to help continue the convo.