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!
If raggamuffin hip-hop never gets tired for you either, I’m happy to report that yet another juicy mix of fliptongue stylistics over dusty breaks and jeepbeat bass has come to my attention —
Originally cooked up in 2010 by one Matt Nelkin, and now re-upped with special edits for your DLing & DJing pleasure, “Boombap Riddims” pays tribute to more or less the very same moment in time that inspired my & Pace’s digging in the crateses for Cluster Mag.
Beyond enjoying soaking up the heavy ragga vibes, I was happily surprised to hear yet another instance of that ol’ zunguzung tune suddenly rear its head as Rev. Baddoo’s “Bop Scuche” comes into the mix. I can’t find complete discographical info on it (or a YouTube even), but it likely dates to around 1993 — definitely a hot moment for the riff, with echoes via Us3, K7, KRS-One, and Jamalski — and the production & distribution c/o none other than Bobby Konders & Massive B makes a lot of sense for yet another NYC-based vector for Yellowman’s viral chune.
Big up Mr.Nelkin on the tuff mix, and thx to anyone who can help me pin down the date of “Bop Scuche”!
While I’m on topic, I also want to share a recording that seems rather illuminating for hearing Boogie Down Productions’ seminal ragga-rap in context. Listening to Colonel Mite’s “Bless the Selector,” recorded in London the same year that BDP were proclaiming the Bridge to be over and the P to be free (1986), I can’t help but be struck by the verbal / stylistic overlap. It’s pretty clear, to these ears anyway, that KRS was manipulating the very same repertory of dancehall gestures (“come inna a dance”) as his compatriots across the pond. In other words, BDP were essentially producing a NYC-tinged version of contemporary dancehall. But do tell if you disagree —
West Coast examples of raggamuffin rap only appear briefly toward the end of our mix, so it’s great to have the picture fleshed out a little more. Here’s the hook —
Back when Shabba and Super Cat were killing the game in the early â90s, the influence of dancehall could be felt throughout hip-hop. While East Coast rappers with Caribbean backgrounds like KRS-One and Heavy D collaborated with dancehallâs heavyweights themselves, artists from the West Coastâwhere the connections to Jamaica were less apparentâhad to get a little more creative. Hence, the faux raggamuffin deejay styles on records by NWA, DJ Quik and other gangster rap acts of the day.
While I’ve got you here, I thought I should share something of an author’s cut of the Cluster Mag article, which had to be about half the length that I wanted it to be. At one point in the article, there appears a rather brief history of Jamaican soundsystem culture, accompanied by the disclaimer, “To make the very long story unforgivably short…”
Well, what else are blogs for? Here’s the longer version for any of you who care to read. For me, the little leaps of logic involved in the beginnings of reggae and rap really do deserve explication and emphasis –
Playing records to people, interactively, sounds totally commonplace today, because it is. But at the time that âsoundsystemsâ in Kingston started holding dances backed not by bands but by savvy selectors with hot and hit records and powerful speakers, that sort of thing was hardly seen outside of sock hops or the first French discothĂšques. As they later did with the recording studio itself, Jamaicans were in the process of making the jukebox a live instrument, which required some little leaps of logic and a lot of ingenuity.
When Clement âCoxsoneâ Dodd was working as a migrant laborer in Florida in the 1950s, he attended lots of parties. And while picking oranges, he was also picking up plenty of the 45s running the local jukeboxes. Back then, there were two main sources for the soundtrack of the party: canned jukebox or live band. Returning home to Kingston, Coxsone decided to combine the two: to play records as live performance. He started with a PA at his parentsâ pharmacy, bringing in customers with the slick sounds of Southern R&B. Before long Coxsoneâs Downbeat soundsystems were operating across Western Kingston and beyond, vying with Duke Reidâs Trojan as keeper of the best downtown dancehall sessions. Soon after, he opened up Studio One, where the feedback loop between what dancers liked and selectors played could be made even tighter. Eventually, through the magic of dubplates and multitracks, selectors could rinse instrumental versions of popular tunes while, inspired by African-American radio disc jockeys, jive-slanging âdeejaysâ such as King Stitt and U-Roy toasted in a local, cosmopolitan tongue. It didnât take much longer, if another little leap of logic, for these masters of ceremony to become recording stars in their own right: in 1970, U-Royâs first âtalkoverâ singlesâa trio of rocksteady-repurposing noveltiesâheld the top spots on Jamaican radio for months.
This interactive approach to playing commercial dance records is, of course, essentially the same insight that would engender disco right around the same time, and which carries forward via house, techno, and their EDM ilk as perhaps the dominant paradigm of modern musical experience. It is also the same insight that sparked hip-hopâquite directly, in fact.
As the story goes, hip-hop was born on a summer night in 1973 in a rec-room on the ground floor of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, an apartment building in the West Bronx, when Clive Campbell, better known as Kool Herc, hosted a party with his older sister Cindy. Born and raised in Kingston, Campbell was well familiar with the importance of a customizedâand loud and clearâsonic experience. For the party, Herc borrowed a powerful PA from his father, a soundman for local R&B acts, and played the role of selector, hand-picking and cueing up records, as well as MC, using a mic to praise partygoers with rhyming routines, and to hype the musical selections, make announcements, and encourage dancing.
Like any good DJ, Herc sought to respond to the demands of his audience. Given the context, this entailed embracing certain soundsystem techniquesâespecially the license to manipulate a recording in realtimeâwhile departing from what one might have heard at a dance in Jamaica. Despite borrowing liberally from soundsystem culture, Herc didnât play reggae at the party. Among his peers, Jamaican music and style had yet to undergo the cool recuperation that eventually followed Bob Marleyâs success and, more important in New York, the violent dominance of the drug trade by Jamaican gangs, or âposses,â in the mid-80s. Just as Herc made an effort to swap his Jamaican accent for a Bronx brogue, he played soul, funk, and driving disco tracksâespecially records with stripped-down, percussion-led breaksâin place of reggae anthems.
Herc and Cindy began throwing parties regularly, and the audience steadily grewâas did Hercâs crew, including dedicated MCs like Coke La Rock and a coterie of flashy dancers. Running out of room at 1520 Sedgwick, Herc relocated to nearby Cedar Park where, repurposing what little civic infrastructure remained in a place haunted by the politics of neglect, electricity from a utility pole powered the soundsystem. In contrast to clubs, where cover charges and age restrictions kept teenagers out, the âpark jamsâ were active incubators, stylistically and socially, of a new kind of public youth culture. In this way, Hercâs burgeoning audience, some driven West by gang violence in the South Bronx, helped essentially to co-produce a remarkable phenomenon: a vibrant party scene where local culture thrived as DJs, MCs, and dancers wrested new forms out of the resources at hand.
Hip-hop was so tied to realtime social gatherings in its early years that the idea of committing such performances to tape and selling them as commodities required some imagination. Recordings of parties were made, of course, and tapes circulated informally and even quasi-commercially, but it was not until a seasoned and savvy record executive, Silvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records, saw potential in the form that the rap song emerged as such, six years after Hercâs back-to-school jam on Sedgwick Ave. Most of hip-hopâs biggest names at that time were not easily convinced, or drawn away from the relatively lucrative party circuit, so Robinsonâs first attempt was more a studio simulation than a faithful rendering of contemporary party practice. Assembling a ragtag crew of aspiring rappers as the Sugar Hill Gang, Robinson released a 15-minute single called âRapperâs Delightâ stitching together popular routines drawn from such prominent MCs as Grandmaster Caz over a replayed loop from Chicâs âGood Times,â then a current favorite among hip-hop DJs. Despite its unusual length for a pop single, as a passably genuine artifact of hip-hopâs sprawling party style, âRapperâs Delightâ became a massive hit on urban radio, selling millions of copies and offering the wider world its first exposure to hip-hop. (Multiple Jamaican acts recorded reggae-fied versions of the song before the year was out.)
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 –
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
Later this week, on Friday April 19 from 2-3:45pm, I will have the pleasure of hosting a panel of some dear friends & colleagues & all-around awesome folks at the EMP Pop Conference at NYC (at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts @ 721 Broadway). An experiment of sorts, this year’s Pop Conference will take place in five cities at once over the course of the weekend: the EMP Museum in Seattle, NYU/NYC, Tulane in New Orleans, USC/LA, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Each will take on a different theme. For NYC, it’s “After the Deluge” — a reference to Hurricane Sandy, if interpreted farily loosely.
As a longstanding admirer of and participant in the #PopCon, it was an honor to be asked to curate a conversation at the conference, and I’m taking the opportunity to bring together several of my favorite artist/writer/smartfolk to talk about some overlapping and intersecting music scenes across the boroughs. Here’s the skinny –
In the wake of a different kind of deluge, this roundtable aims to explore how particular waves of migration — a constant if dynamic feature of the city — serve to initiate new senses of locality across NYCâs boroughs. Each panelist, all drawing from a wealth of experience as artist-practitioners as well as public critics of sorts, will explore how immigrant cultures have reshaped the sound of the city through an often diffuse but undeniable soundscape presence, savvy use of club spaces and informal commercial networks, and in culturally charged interplay with other new and established scenes. Building on years of engagement with cumbia communities from Buenos Aires to Monterey, Jace Clayton (aka DJ /Rupture) will describe how transnational cumbia today flows through Mexican Brooklyn; Jazmin Soto (aka Venus X) will discuss how Dominican music textures Harlem life as well as how it serves to address a wider GHE20G0TH1K public; “Chief” Boima Tucker will report on the burgeoning African club scene in the Bronx and Queens; Dr. Larisa Mann (aka DJ Ripley) will tease out the ways that Jamaicans work within and beyond established diasporic spaces; and LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs will add crucial perspective on African-American Harlem to flesh out our picture of how places gets made and remade by the arrival of newcomers. Hosting the roundtable is Wayne Marshall (Harvard University / wayneandwax), whose work on reggae, hip-hop, and reggaeton consistently revolves around NYC’s vibrant, variegated, sonically-mediated encounters between established and emergent groups.
I’m pretty sure none of these panelists need any introduction to readers of W&W. But just to whet appetites a bit, allow me to share some recent items from/on them all:
1) Jace Clayton’s latest project, The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, has been receiving great critical praise. A recent profile in the Guardian does a nice job of exploring his aesthetics and how this latest effort makes sense within his varied oeuvre.
2) Venus X continues to make waves with the GHE20G0TH1K movement. Check out this piece published last week that examines the wider ripples she & partner Shayne HBA are having on the fashion world & NYC culture more broadly.
3) Chief Boima’s always cooking up something. Look out for his forthcoming report for RBMA delving into the African club scene he’ll be talking about at #PopCon. Meantime, get a sense of the sounds swirling through the club scenes he deftly navigates as a DJ, this time with Dutty comrade Geko Jones:
4) For her part, Dr. Ripley has also recently issued a blistering Dutty mixtape, an ode to her roots & abiding interest in high tempos & dark moods:
5) Latasha Diggs has just published TwERK, a book of “poems, songs, and myths” that ask “only that we imagine America as it has always existed, an Americana beyond the English language.” Allow me to quote the mighty Vijay Iyer’s blurb:
This long-awaited compendium of works by LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs will blow your mind with its delirious play of signs, its cultural repurposings and reclaimings, its endlessly spinning polyglot wheel, and its breezy repertoire of ribald, faux-naif cyberfolk myth-science. With dazzling rigor and imagination, Ms. Diggs shares with us a view from Harlem that shines a knowing light on every place in the observable universe.
Given the recent attention on Harlem as both real and imagined space of ebullient dance, I can’t wait for our panel to, ahem, shake out some new perspectives on the musically-suffused significance of the many waves of culture constantly washing over the place. If you’re in NYC, hope you’ll be able to join us. If not, do tune in! (And follow the hashtag on Twitter: #PopCon.)
I’m happy to announce that I’m headed to the Big Apple this Friday for a couple awesome engagements.
First, at midday on Friday (12:10-2:50, to be precise), I’ll be guesting in ethnomusicolleague Ben Tausig’s class at the New School this semester, MP3: A Global Perspective. Our topic on Friday will be the history of filesharing, which I’ve weighed in on here and there. If you’re not aware, Ben is pretty cool. When not teaching about MP3s or designing crossword puzzles, he works on sound in Bangkok.
The class is open to whatever lil public it might address! Come find us at 66 west 12th street, room 002.
Later that night (much later — like, 10pm-4am) I’ll be tag-teaming the decks with another dear colleague (and, as it happens, recent New School grad), Chief Boima, at Bembe in Brooklyn. Extending the family affair, Brooklyn Shanti (who has a new EP out on Dutty Artz) will be playing host. Should be hot like toast.
Consider it another mode of file-sharing (esp since Boima uses Serato and I Ableton), but with particular and powerful attributes: realtime, face-to-face, only in that moment and space, quite #rare and #based.
Plus, it’s Boima’s birthday, so trust vibes will be nice. We’ll be keeping things rootsy for the most part, a bit more old school than new, but these traditions are very modern traditions and the lines get plenty blurred (especially by remixes). Boima offers the following track as a “sonic preview”; for my part, I might have to dig into some of the deeeeep repertories I’ve been teaching about over the last couple weeks.
It’s always a treat to play in the city that never sleeps. Lookin fwd to seeing some ol New York frens — and maybe making new ones.
It begins with a six minute opening from me, then I introduce my esteemed co-panelists — Boima, Poirier, Ripley, Max, and Jesse — and we finally REALLY get into the convo about 10 minutes in. From there it’s a solid 50 minutes of discussion (but not a minute more! #realtalk), followed by another 15 of tantalizing open-mic action (just joking; stop watching at that point; really).
These are some of my favorite voices in wot-ever-we-wanna-call this thing (though the labeling, as we discuss, remains inextricable and carries consequences), so they may be of interest to you too –
I’ll be in NYC this weekend participating in the annual EMP pop conference, always a lively gathering of people who not only care about music but care about finding the right words to talk about music. I’m pleased to be involved in two promising panels — a roundtable with the likes of Eddie Stats, DJ Rekha, Chief Boima, and Venus X on Friday; and a panel with some Cluster Mag family on Sunday.
The explosion of international sounds in the pop sphereâassociated with Pitbull, Black Eyed Peas, Shakira and M.I.A, among others–has been paralleled and driven by a mirror-underground usually simply called global bass, ghetto bass or tropical bass for lack of a better umbrella. Ghetto bass in particular implies the convergence of urban centers around the worldâNew York, Johannesburg, Rio, Bombay, Kingston, Luanda and othersâinto a single urban space–a ghetto archipelago–connected by youtube, DJ blogs, filesharing and software sequencers.
We propose a roundtable to explore the politics of this convergence, in particular tracing: 1) the connections of specific, localizable urban styles; rap, Bollywood, kwaito, Baltimore club, dancehall, baile funk, bhangra, cumbia villera, etc.âwhere they merge into this new melting pot/marketplace 2) the power dynamics of cultural appropriation, tastemaking and music discovery within this digital space–and how technology has altered (or reproduced) the dynamics of previous iterations (world music, âraceâ music, ethnomusicology, etc.) 3) the model of âpost-racialityâ as it collides uncomfortably with the realities of music production.
We believe the best way to engage these issues is not through the presentation of papers but in a dialogue between critical voices and the creative producers behind the actual events and recordings under discussion. Drawing on NYCâs status as a global metropolis par excellence (and home to flagship nights like Basement Bhangra, Que Bajo, NY Tropical, Made in Africa, Ghe20 Gothik, etc.) members of the roundtable will include (but not necessarily be limited to): Edwin STATS Houghton, Rekha Malhotra, Wayne Marshall and Venus X Iceberg.
“Music as Social Life in an Age of Platform Politricks”
The advent of socially networked media sharing sites such as YouTube and SoundCloud have facilitated an unprecedented democratization and deprofessionalization of popular music. Thanks to the relative ease and affordability of pro-grade production software and global publishing capacity, today we bear witness to an interminable flurry of new and endlessly reworked musical texts. Local and translocal scenes alike have sprung up around shared musical signifiers, software presets, and hashtags. In the wake of such striking industriousness, the conglomerate formerly known as “the music industry” is increasingly overshadowed but hardly out of the picture. For today’s cultural vitality coexists with a state of precarity as video and audio uploads routinely disappear or become muted, victims of an outmoded copyright regime and clunky audio-detection algorithms. Despite a sea change in how music is made and circulated, emerging from broadcast culture into a more decentralized, peer-to-peer process, twentieth-century business models and interests continue to shape popular music, often in subtle and insidious ways. Public culture is being remade in the age of social media (and music’s outsize role in it), but these popular “platforms” for our individual and collective creativity are far from the public resources we imagine them to be.
Funny as it may be, I’m pretty sure Run DMC’s “Roots, Rap, Reggae” (featuring Yellowman) is the first “reggae” song I ever knew. As an occasionally awkward and awfully chintzy attempt at reggae via New York, it’s an odd introduction in nuff ways. On the other hand, there are a couple moments in the song, especially during Yellowman’s verses, which make it a really excellent primer.
One such moment is King Yellow’s wonderfully concise (if slightly defensive) assertion that “reggae music is not so strange” (which served as an apt epigraph to my dissertation). But it’s a different line that I want to draw your attention to here.
At another point in the song, Yellowman offers the following definition:
Reggae music is rapping to the beat
Of course, that makes a lot of sense in a song with Run DMC, as if Yellowman wants to assure listeners that reggae really is not so strange — in fact, from a certain perspective, he suggests, it’s essentially the same thing as hip-hop. This is hardly pandering on his part, certainly by the mid-80s, when a great deal of reggae was just that: rapping over beats.
But we can extend his definition even further — back to the pre-reggae days of ska and rocksteady even, to the early days of soundsystems and mic-wielding deejays, when Yellowman’s “talkover” forbears were rather profoundly revising what it means to make music in the age of its technological reproducibility.
I’m hardly the first to propose that the conceptual and artistic innovations that emerge from Jamaican soundsystem practice, especially during the late 60s, deeply inform musical production and practice throughout the late 20th century and well into the 21st. Even so, I often find that this remains an underappreciated revolution. So it’s a lesson I’ve been trying to impart in my own classes, guest lectures, and other talks for some time.
Toward that end, I’m once again grateful to Roifield Brown for helping me to make these points — and make them more publicly — thanks to his solicitous interviewing and careful editing. Roifield’s latest episodes in his podcast series include some of my thoughts on these matters — pertaining both to the initial rise of deejays in Jamaica and to how Kool Herc transmitted & transmuted these practices to help bring hip-hop into being:
Of course, it’s hard to just talk about New York in this regard and leave out London. UK soundsystem formations — from faithful to faithfully mutated — are key to understanding the resonance and reverb of Jamaican soundsystem culture, and there are few who’ve done as stellar and vibrant a job of representing that side of the story as London’s Heatwave.
You could say that I’m grateful to them too — as a teacher, researcher, and as a listener. I’ve been using their classic mix An England Story in my classes for years now. There’s simply no better resource for audibly apprehending the links that run through reggae, rave, jungle, garage, grime, and so on. So I’m pleased to note that the Heatwave has produced a fine supplement for me, my students, and unenrolled enthusiasts too: the SHOWTIME! DVD.
The DVD is gathered around a historic stageshow that the Heatwave presented last summer, bringing together an epic posse of UK bashment luminaries. Interspersed between the lively show segments are illuminating interviews with some pioneers of the scene, many crucial in forging a distinctly Jamaican-British accent. (I myself might have like to see & hear a little more from the hip-hop and grime scenes, which are represented thickly on the mix, but I can appreciate and respect the focus on reggae here.) As for further explicating the significance of the DVD and what it means, I’m going to leave that to the ever-sharp Dan Hancox, who published a deeply contextualized review just this week.
I showed some scenes from the DVD a few weeks ago in the latest incarnation of my global hip-hop class, and I can’t resist sharing an excerpt here featuring none other than Wiley, probably the UK’s most relentless, restless exponent of JA-indebted production over the last decade —
“They must have installed it in me,” he says, referring to the ways that reggae (or, rapping to the beat) insinuated itself into him — and notably naming Yellowman as prime perpetrator (perpetuator?).
Installed! I really love that. What seems at first like a bit of mispeaking actually proves entirely eloquent. He’s talking about enculturation, yes, but the slip of install for instill also says something about reggae as conceptual framework, reggae as software, reggae as operating system, reggae as memory.