I’ve got an article in The Wire‘s new issue devoted to “Freedom Principles” (December 2014). I was inspired by the call for submissions to thread the idea of freedom through the story of Dutch bubbling, which I think embodies it in a number of important ways.
After having the privilege to visit with some of bubbling’s pioneers and torchbearers in Aruba this September, I’m feeling as inspired — and required — as ever to give this wonderful story of translocal music culture and creativity the telling it deserves. This is a start.
I’ve also put together a “portal” of audio and video examples for the Wire’s site; check it out and sink deep into the sounds and images of bubbling!
The essay that appears in the print issue follows below. Big up Moortje, Chuckie, Coversquad, Fellow, & everyone else involved in this remarkable story! Thanks for sharing with me. Keep bubbling free!
Moortje on the decks in ~92
Is there any sound so free as DJ Moortjeâs mid-1990s track âDonnaâ, his remix of Singing Sweetâs 1992 lovers rock rendition of Richie Valensâs 1959 hit pitched to chipmunk levels and propelled by doubled-up dancehall drums in double time? With such feathers in its cap, Dutch bubbling should have long ago established the Netherlands on the global bass map. A hyperkinetic, hyperlocal, sample-centric take on dancehall, bubbling thrived in obscurity throughout the 1990s, and today it continues to enjoy a certain liberty on the margins of international reggae culture. Obscurity is but one of several key forms of freedom embodied by its almost implausible existence. Its very genesis and gestation, never mind its spectacular and strange shapes, are products of the buttressing effects of inherited traditions with liberating aesthetics, technologies with plasticity, and the social support and political economy of small scenes.
Networking Hollandâs immigrant enclaves in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and the Hague, bubbling took root in dancehalls where African-Antillean youth could gather, socialise and dance. Notably, the music of choice for first and second generation migrants from Aruba, Curacao and Suriname was supplied not by these islands or the Netherlands, but by Jamaica. At clubs such as Voltage in the Hague or Imperium in Rotterdam, dancehall reggae provided a soundtrack for couples to rub-a-dub, schuren (thatâs Dutch for rub), or, in the parlance of the day, bubble along with sensuous, polyrhythmic Jamaican music that sounded at once Caribbean and global, ancestral and utterly modern. Bubbling — or bobbeling — channelled the energies of a new youth culture that gave people united by their experience in postcolonial Dutch society a common platform for creativity and community, especially as DJs and dancers together pushed tempos beyond reggaeâs comfort zone and twisted dancehall into a shape that became more recognisable as a local innovation.
Bubblingâs DJs, MCs, producers and dancers took flight from reggaeâs DJ driven and remix-oriented music culture, an imperative to revisit and revise familiar forms accentuated by hiphopâs relentless flipping of scripts. Inspired at once by hiphop sampling and reggae versioning, the practitioners of Dutch bubbling remade dancehall in their own image, manipulating samples of well-worn riddims in ways no Jamaican producers ever would. In this way, bubblingâs referential yet irreverent chop and stab approach to dancehall — more directly derivative than a reggae relick but less faithful to a riddimâs integrity — makes it an uncanny twin of reggaeton; they even share a love for the same canon of riddims: âFever Pitchâ, âBam Bamâ, âDem Bowâ and pretty much anything featuring Cutty Ranks. With a premium on transformation, skirting the line between recognition and surprise, Dutch-Antillean DJs like the pioneering DJ Moortje would take reggae B side versions and make them the basis for new performances, quite as they were intended — if not in the wildly distorted shapes Moortje and cohorts would make of them. Recording new vocals over an instrumental is one thing; combining loops from multiple riddims, some pitched to double time and some screwed to molasses, spiked with whimsical samples from the hardcore gabber of Rotterdam Termination Source or Snoop Dogg album skits, is another thing entirely.
Moortje enjoyed a critical degree of creative freedom thanks to the affordances of vinyl and turntables. Exploiting the limited but profound capacities of these playback technologies, he took the familiar records that made dancers bubble and pushed their tempos into uncharted territory by playing 33 rpm records at 45 rpm and sliding the pitch fader right up to and beyond its upper limit. Given the opportunity, Moortje would sometimes remove the turntable platter from a pair of Technics to access an internal knob controlling the pitch adjustment range, allowing him to shift 100 bpm riddims into a far more uptempo terrain.
Moortje showing me, in the sand, how he would modify the Technics’ pitch range
Later, audio software vastly expanded bubblingâs creative possibilities. Moortjeâs innovative performances planted the seed for speed bubbling, a digital development first enabled by Amiga 500 tracker software that allowed production crews like The Coversquad to take tempos upwards of 150 bpm, much to the bemusement or dismay of visiting reggae artists experiencing bubblingâs love of chipmunked and screwed vocals and drums. Commissioned by dancers requiring dramatic, sample-packed soundtracks for their choreographed, competitive routines, producers would suture audio from films and rap albums onto the breakneck bubbling beats that impelled dancers to move like marionettes doing the butterfly. Indeed, the strikingly experimental nature of bubbling productions was predicated on an intimate feedback loop with audiences who appreciated how the music had coalesced as a genuinely local style. Such a supportive setting was fostered and enjoyed by MCs like Pester and Pret, who helped to push the tempos and excitement levels as they added their own accents to the mix. With their Dutch and Papiamento lyrics chanting down Babylon or simply telling people to shake it, bubblingâs MCs further imbued the music with local resonance.
For better or worse, bubblingâs deeply idiomatic qualities may also grant the genre a certain freedom from external forces. In its heyday, it only happened live or on recordings informally circulated on cassette, meaning its heavy use of samples bypassed the attentions of the mainstream pop industry. Whether mainstream Dutch house has since effectively sublimated bubblingâs mojo is an argument for another day. And even as the musicâs artefacts finally mount up in online archives like YouTube and Soundcloud, or as musical references percolating through the releases of Fade To Mind, Mad Decent, or Planet Mu, bubblingâs baseline weirdness might yet guarantee that its signature sound will always be free.
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!
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
Today is the final meeting of my last class at Harvard this year — and possibly my final class as a college-level instructor, but we’ll save that discussion for another day. For now, I’ll leave you with a few playlists I created in order to have some examples a click on during class.
In short, this was the one class this year that I didn’t completely make up myself. Music 97c (“Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective”) is a long-running requirement for Music concentrators here. Essentially an introduction to ethnomusicology — theories, methods, and repertories — it departs from standard “World Music” courses by eschewing the survey/smorgasbord and instead focusing on just a few geographical areas in some depth. I designed my own syllabus from scratch, of course, and perhaps unsurprisingly the emphasis largely fell on the Caribbean, North America, and Afrodiasporic matters. We did, however, also include units on Turkish and Balinese/Indonesian music. You can see the whole syllabus here, if you like.
Or you can just edutain yourself by perusing these playlists–
If you haven’t heard it yet, I finally cooked down a Zunguzung Mega Mix that features all 50+ instances that have come to my attention since I first started listening for that catchy likkle tune and, with the publication of this piece back in 2007, enlisting others to lend me their ears.
The impetus for finally bringing this together is that my friend and fellow music scribe, Garnette Cadogen, was visiting Yellowman last week and told him about my work. (Garnette reported, much to my delight, that King Yellow was “touched, truly touched” by my work on his legacy.) When he requested a full mix of the “Zigzagging Zunguzung Meme,” I could hardly refuse.
So here it is, for now anyway: 54 strikingly similiar contours! (See full track list below.)
1982 — Yellowman, “Zunguzungunguzunguzeng”
1982 — Yellowman & Fathead, “Physical / Zunguzung (Live at Aces)”
1982 — Sister Nancy, “Coward of the Country”
1984 — Frankie Paul, “Alesha”
1984 — Toyan, “Hot Bubble Gum”
1985 — Little John, “Clarks Booty”
1985 — Super Cat, “Boops”
1986 — Cocoa Tea, âCome Againâ
1986 — Cutty Ranks @ StereoMars PNP Rally
1986 — BDP, “The P Is Free”
1987 — BDP, “Remix For P Is Free”
1988 — BDP, “T Cha T Cha”
1988 — Queen Latifah, “Princess of the Posse”
1988 — Masters of Ceremony, “Keep on Moving”
1988 — Sublime, “Roots of Creation”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Nice & Smooth”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Dope on a Rope”
1991 — Leaders of the New School, “Case of the P.T.A.”
1992 — Lecturer, âGal Yu Mean Itâ
1992 — Sublime, “Scarlet Begonias”
1992 — Leila K, “Open Sesame”
1993 — Us3, “I Got It Goinâ On”
1993 — K7, “Zunga Zeng”
1993 — KRS-One, “P Is Still Free”
1993 — Jamalski, “African Border”
1993 — Buju Banton, “Big It Up”
1994 — The Coup, âPimps (Freestyling at the Fortune 500 Club)â
1994 — Ninjaman, “Funeral Again”
1994 — Bounty Killer, “Kill Or Be Killed”
1995 — Buju Banton, “Man a Look Yu”
1995 — Junior M.A.F.I.A. ft. Biggie Smalls, “Player’s Anthem”
1996 — 2pac, “Hit ‘Em Up”
1996 — Captain Barkey, “Go Go Wine”
1996 — Junior Dangerous ft. Lucas, “Comin’ Out To Play”
1997 — Cru, “Pronto”
1998 — Mr. Notty, “Sentencia de Muerte”
1998 — Black Star, “Definition”
1999 — Lilâ Cease ft. Jay-Z, “4 My Niggaz”
2000 — Dead Prez, “It’s Bigger than Hip-Hop”
2000 — Daisy Dee, “Open Sesame”
2000 — Wyclef Jean ft. Xzibit and Yellowman, âPerfect Gentlemen Remixâ
2001 — Ăejo, “El Problema Ser Bellaco”
2003 — Joe Budden, “Pump It Up”
2004 — Jin, “Learn Chinese”
2005 — Looptroop, “Chana Masala”
2006 — POD ft. Matisyahu, “Roots in Stereo”
2006 — JD (aka Dready), “UK Zunga Zeng”
2007 — White Rappers, “One Night Stand”
2007 — Gwen Stefani ft. Damian Marley, âNow That You Got Itâ
2009 — Wax Taylor ft. ASM, “Say Yes”
2010 — Vybz Kartel, “Whine (Wine)”
2011 — Tifa, “Matey Wine”
2011 — Yellowman, “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng (Horsepower Productions Remix / Dub)”
2013 — Benga & Kano, “Forefather”
Notably, with the exception of Nice & Smooth, K7, and Horsepower Productions, all of the echoes of Yellowman’s tune to date have been re-sung rather than sampled. Sometimes a one-off phrase, at other times it structures the chorus. The tune twists and turns in so many ways over the course of 30 years, I find it truly beguiling. I just want to sing it all the time. That’s a good riff for you.
[Update: Only took a day before another version popped up in the comments! Thanks to Noriko Manabe and Marvin Sterling for pointing out that Rankin Taxi’s “You Can’t See It, and You Can’t Smell It Either” — a 2011 post-Fukushima protest song — also contains a zunguzung allusion. Guess I’ll have to re-mix the mega mix, again, at some point. Nice to have an appearance from beyond the Americas & Europe.]
I can’t leave you with just that, however, as similar threads demand to be looped in.
When we make songs, Spanish people take it and sing it different, and we don’t speak Spanish, so we don’t realise. Because of that, the Spanish artistes don’t pay us royalties and it slips right under our nose. I think the Spanish owe reggae music millions of dollars right now.
Niney may be right. It’s true that this happens all the time. Indeed, the latest example I stumbled across is classic in its overt and simultaneously reverent and irreverent reanimation of a hit reggae song. Still, I wonder whether Ricky Blaze knows about this (or, for that matter, this) and what he’d think —
Niney offers additional barbs about white people owning ska & other perversions of property. He even raises the specter of the entire genre of reggaeton owing a grand debt to Shabba Ranks’s (and hence, Bobby Digital’s / Steely & Clevie’s) “Dem Bow” — though he reduces it to a general rhythmic pattern that is hardly copyrightable. And though I could discuss dembow for days, here I want to flag another specific allegation and its recursive riffs on riffs:
Songs like Murder She Wrote is in Spanish right now and I don’t even think Sly and Robbie know.
Niney’s reference to “Murder She Wrote” is interesting, especially as the first track mentioned in this light. Of course, he’s right, to some extent. But it’s not actually true that “Spanish people” are singing the song so much; more precisely, little loops and bits of the riddim from “Murder She Wrote” have, by this point, been as deeply embedded into the aesthetic code of reggaeton (especially Dominican dembow) as “Dem Bow” itself. (& I will add that I find Niney’s comments on “Dem Bow” quite timely given that I’ve got a piece in a forthcoming Wax Poetics detailing the surprisingly mixed-up and mysterious “origin” of reggaeton’s Dem Bow. Spoiler alert: reggaeton’s favorite loop was not recorded in Jamaica.)
As it happens, not only does “Murder She Wrote” live on in a thousand DJ Scuff mini-mega-mixes, it’s about to get as big a push into the US (& global) mainstream as it has received since the early 90s thanks to none other than French Montana (featuring, natch, Nicki Minaj), who additionally riffs on the vocal melody from Chaka Demus & Pliers’ warhorse:
As odd as I find the juxtaposition of two unrelated early 90s dancehall songs here, and as squirmy as such caricatured takes on dancehall make me, “Freaks” represents an exciting moment for the lil lilting riff that so defines “Murder She Wrote” (also known as the Bam Bam riddim) — a riff which, as I’ve explored in mini-mega-mix form, is itself quite caught up in international networks of creative riffing —
I hope French’s folks licensed those samples, though, since his jam is not as likely to fly under the radar as its Puerto Rican cousins. That said, I’d love to see a case like this actually go to court somewhere. (Not really.) It’s more than clear that this stuff goes around and around and around, and hence making claims to ultimate origins (and exclusive exploitation rights) always seems a little suspect. But who knows what a judge or jury might decide.
Along those lines, the last riff on a riff (on a riff?) I want to share here is based around a story BigBlackBarry told me when I was in Kingston last month. Check this set of echoes:
As complicated as this may seem, just because Bo Diddley recorded it “first” (and who knows who he may have been riffing off) didn’t stop Willie Cobb from shaking down Dawn Penn when her rocksteady hit was rejuvenated with a mid90s twist and became a sudden crossover success.
So I’ll leave it here for now: big up the one King Yellowman for recognizing how influence and allusion work, for relentlessly riffing on the sounds around him, and for never suing the many, many souls who did him the same service and extended his echoing chant into a realm of truly remarkable reverberation.
Summer vibes really on lock all a sudden, eh? Boston tropical and ting! (In fact, the main reason I’m finally getting around to writing this post — best intentions notwithstanding — is on account of IT IS TOO HOT TO SLEEP.)
The dog daze arrived just in time, tho, for I’m delighted to report that this very evening, FRIDAY JUNE 22, on only the second or so night of summer, I’ll have the pleasure of plumbing some seasonal depths by playing what has become, hands down, my favorite dance party in town: PicĂł Picante. And alongside no less than my pardner-in-beatresearch, DJ Flack, & other local luminaries —
Can’t wait! Nuff props to Pajaritos for making the space. It’s really an honor to finally get behind the decks (if while triggering a laptop) to rock the reliably great crowd they rally. You’ll find few sessions in Boston as welcoming and warm. Expect plenty reggae/ton from me. Time to get some dembow into dem bones!
The second gig I want to mention here isn’t actually mine at all, but it’s well worth your consideration — and as it happens, it’s being put on c/o two good friends: Pacey “Library of Vinyl” Foster and local author Elijah Wald (who, I’m pretty tickled to say, was a student in my global hip-hop course this spring).
Elijah is a real polymath and a serious scholar, and when he sets out to write about something — whether the blues or narcocorridos — he sure digs deep. His last book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll, is an indispensable history of US popular (dance) music during the first half of the twentieth century, no less worth your time for its polemical title (which is really more of a subtext).
I’m pleased to note that Elijah’s new book bears at least as provocative a title as the last, especially for those of us who grew up a little closer to hip-hop than r’n’r —
This new tome, hot off the presses, is the subject of Elijah’s talk this Sunday night at Pace’s place (accompanied by germane musical selections by the vinyl-librarian himself), the first of what I hope will be many such “salons” Pacey hosts at his awesome East Cambridge loft. Here’s the deets:
“The Dirty Dozens: From Mississippi Blues to Gangsta Rap”
A talk/listening session with Elijah Wald, author of “The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama”
Sunday, June 24, 8-10 PM
Library of Vinyl Experience @ The Chicken Loft (above the “Live Poultry Fresh Killed” sign)
613 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA. 02141
$5 Tickets at Brown Paper Tickets
Snacks and beverages will be available. Also copies of the new book.
Limited to 30 People! Get your tickets now to reserve your spot.
DJ Pace will be spinning dirty classics before and after the talk. Friend the new Library of Vinyl on Facebook for information about this and future events.
And here’s a little about the book, including some pretty killer blurbage:
A century before gangsta rappers took dirty rhyming to the top of the charts, Mississippi barrelhouse pianists were singing lyrics as hardcore as anything in the rap canon. In fact, they were singing some of the same lyricsâthe nasty insult rhymes known as âthe dozens.â A form of verbal dueling popular in rural fields and on urban streets, the dozens is one of the basic building blocks of African American vernacular virtuosity, and has overlapped into pop songs, comedy routines, instrumental cutting sessions, and rap freestyle battles.
Tracing back to African ritual poetry, the dozens is part of a vast tradition of unashamedly sexual verse that consistently flourished in African diaspora communities but rarely surfaced on record or in print, except in heavily censored or bowdlerized versions. Some popular rhymes have endured in oral culture since the nineteenth century, turning up in the work of artists as disparate as Jelly Roll Morton, Zora Neale Hurston, George Carlin, and Flavor Flav.
“This book is sexy… and poignant, smart and a piece of history.”
“This impeccably researched study of the classic black insult game may be the funniest work of serious scholarship ever published.”
–Terry Teachout, Artsjournal
“The Dozens are in very good hands here. Wald gives them the detailed, broad, and serious consideration they have long deserved.”
–Tricia Rose, author of Black Noise and The Hip Hop Wars
Maybe I’ll see you or your mom there?
Finally, I just want to remind that we’ve got our next session of Beat Research coming up next week, and buay is this one gonna be a doozy!
Click on that flyer above for an “invite” and check the video promo below c/o D’hana, aka Chubrub —
Not much more to add here. But get yourself ready for a full-on live performance from LE1F, plus a set from Boston’s own Micah, and yeah, we really couldn’t be more thrilled to host the first appearance of ZOMBIE NU LIFE. (Pretty sure Rizzla DJ is my favorite people-mover on the planet right now.)
Of course, Yellowman’s earworm par excellence, at least for this happy host, is the ol’ zunguzung meme. I can’t seem to go long without encountering another iteration. In fact, I came across two in the last month, and they’re both worth sharing here (instead of just embedded as comments on a running tally of a post).
The first I ended up using in my global hip-hop class earlier this semester to show how closely Jamaican dancehall sessions of the early 80s resembled coeval hip-hop jams. Rapping to the beat and all that. Browsing various mid-80s Skateland uploads, I happened pon a scene I’d clearly yet to give a good view:
As you see, some serious rub-a-dub a gwaan as Yellowman — sporting yellow shades no less! — riffs on “Nobody Move” (later sampled for Eazy-E’s debut) and starts singing “ooh-wee baby” — a classically ecumenical nod to Frankie Ford’s (& Huey “Piano” Smith’s) “Sea Cruise.” Just as he gets going with the ooh-wees, a peal of machine-gun fire punctuates the performance. In response, King Yellow bellows “Jah!” And they wheel up the riddim as a second round tears through the night air.
Relatively un-unsettled, the selector calls for the crowd to “seckle” before another gentleman explains that such gunfire is illegal and is only going to invite the police to shut things down. From there, he turns things back over to Volcano soundsystem, at which point Josey Wales is handed the mic and again asks people to please chill on the “explosion” and “seckle seckle seckle seckle.” And the session begins again, real nice like, as Wales gets into a couple crowd pleasing routines, playing on well-known melodies (“hula hoop, hula hoop”) and alluding to Muhammad Ali.
About 3:20 into the video, Yellowman gets the mic back and he’s quick to deploy the zunguzung melody — “boogie fi me” — in service of grabbing people’s attention before launching into a fairly extemporaneous performance as “di mic MC,” shouting out his fellow DJs at the dance, various local spots and posses, as well as mobilizing a few important throw-away lines like “when me come a dance, me no chat fuckery.” Papa Toyan and other fun follow from there, but I’ll leave the rest to your eyes & ears.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention here that the cosmos sent yet another zunguzung reference my way (albeit a little late) about a month ago as I got into the car to head off to Beat Research. No sooner did I turn the key than Big City 101.3 started playing ye olde melody at me, this time c/o last year’s “Matey Wine” by Tifa (how’d I miss this one?), a strong addition to quite a growing list:
Finally, while we speak of embedded videos in comment threads that largely go unseen, let me take the opportunity to make sure you’ve witnessed the remarkable resonance of “Papi Chulo” in Turkey:
Tomorrow / today / whenever it is as you’re reading this — Tuesday Feb 28 marks both the release of Munchi’s Moombahtonista EP and as mentioned last week, his first appearance here in Boston, at none other than Beat Research! According to the opaque metrics at Zuckerborg, as I’m writing this some 56 registered users are “Going” to come thru, which is cool. I’m sure the place will pack up. It’s gonna be a special one, no doubt.
As I also mentioned, I gladly penned the notes accompanying the release of Munchi’s EP. It’s an odd job juggling promotion with what I think is also valued as my ability to be a critical observer, but I stand behind the text. (And I appreciate the affirmativenods.) Of course, I’m happy Munchi likes it — and that he thought of me to write it. I should give him some real credit too: he had lots of ideas, as always, and his own ability to articulate where he’s coming from is, I think, one of his greatest strengths as an internet-era artist. Anyway, you can judge for yourself (I added some links for fun):
Soon as the first moombahton edits hit the net, Munchi was ready. Slowing down Dutch house tracks to make mutant reggaeton made a lot of sense to a resident of Rotterdam with roots in the Dominican Republic. Munchi knew as well as anyone (and better than most) that Dutch house and reggaeton were kindred genres, each a skip and a jump away from dancehall reggae. He began cooking up his own moombahton that night, emerging with much more than another set of edits. Arguably the first originals of the genre, Munchi’s tracks were built from scratch, imbued with touches of baile funk, cumbia, kuduro, bmore, samba, breakcore and more. Unlike Dave Nada’s seminal edits or influential remixes by A-Mac, Uncle Jesse, and Melo making the rounds, Munchi could put his name on his tracks front and center. Blowing up the blogs, he proved himself prolific and popular almost immediately, releasing acclaimed promo packs by the pound and building a devoted audience.
By pursuing his own singular vision of what the genre could be, Munchi pointed the way — lots of ways actually — to move moombahton beyond surprisingly serviceable novelty remixes in order to make it a genuine genre. His cross-breeding fusions even birthed a substyle he dubbed moombahcore, a steroidal take on the sound that now boasts hundreds of its own adherents. After Munchi’s wildly successful experiments, moombahton became a lot more kitchen-sink. This EP collects the classics, marking the moment that Munchi blew the frame open. Club wreckers that set the stage for a wave of producers learning to love the space between the kicks, the place to wind your hips. You’ll find it all here: evocative samples, epic build-ups and drops, thick-ass drums, sudden jokes and, of course, that trademark jingle. It also features new twists on old bangers, like lacing “La BrasileĂ±a Ta Montao” with brand new vocals from Angel Doze, Munchi’s favorite reggaetonero, making it the first real meeting between moombahton and its Puerto Rican cousin.
I can’t seem to find a buy link for the dang thing yet [ok here it is], but for now, here’s a mini-mix preview, which has racked up 9000 plays in just 3 days —
Come hear the man live if you can. I’ve seen him in action. You gotta be ready.
Oh & nice EP art! Props for the totally understated use of boobs —
Ok, one last time, here’s the deets for tonight / tmrw night (TUESDAY!):
TUESDAY – 2/28
W/ SPECIAL GUESTS: MUNCHI & OXYCONTINENTAL GOODLIFE
Check it out, my micropublic: I’ve got another “Throwback Thursdays” post over at Okayplayer’s LargeUp blog. This time I’m waxing nostalgic about a song produced by none other than El Chombo —
Incluye el tema…
Veteran readers of W&W may remember El Chombo as the producer of the notorious “Chacarron,” a song which — back in my blogspot days — consumed a seriesofposts as I attempted to document in relative realtime my endeavor to discover the story behind the song.
I’m not quite ready to reminisce about “Chacarron,” however; rather my post turns to “El Gato Volador,” which I also once discussed on this very blog. Alas, the brilliant homemade slideshow that inspired that ol’ post has since disappeared, but the official video is still on the ‘Tube, and this gives me a chance to discuss the song in a little more detail. And quite a song it is.
Here’s the frame:
While Panama is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of dancehall reggae en espaĂ±ol, Puerto Rico gets credit for eating up the faithful versions of Panamanian artists like Nando Boom and El General and spitting out something more hip-hop laced and sample-based, as heard on the Noisy collages that made dembow loops the centerpiece of maratĂłn mixtapes. But Panamanian producers deserve props of their own for developing and popularizing an equally distinctive and irreverent, sample-based approach to Spanish dancehall (though faithful approaches persist under the plena banner, sin duda).
Panama’s master of the style is El Chombo, aka Rodney Clark, a pretty Jamaican name, though the internet reports (very vaguely of course) that he was born in the US and moved to Panama in the late 70s as a youngster. None of these facts is remarkable in Panama, where people have been named Rodney Clark for a century (at the turn of the 20th, Panama was receiving 62% of all Jamaican emigrants), and where foreigners continually arrive, especially from the US in more recent times, drawn into Canal-related work as so many Caribbean migrants before them. “El Chombo” is also something dark-skinned people, especially Afro-Caribbean folk, have been called in Panama for a long time. El Chombo’s embrace of the term and intentional projection of blackness were central to his first mixtape series, Spanish Oil, which he was issuing annually in the mid-late 90s at the same time Playero and The Noise were circulating their seminal mixtapes. The reference to oil is, of course, a reference to blackness, and it’s telling that reggae in Panama was sometimes called petrĂłleo in the 90s, not unlike melaza (molasses) in Puerto Rico.
But go ahead and click thru to hear about (and watch) El Chombo’s “unlikely hit ostensibly about a flying cat but alsoâŠa joke of a song that seems to offer meta-commentary on the state of the genre itself.”
It should be said that these two songs — “Chacarron” and “El Gato Volador” — are obviously rather on the silly side, but El Chombo is also in his way a serious producer. Over the last decade he’s enjoyed quite a bit of success, and its remarkable that even his crossover hits (mainly in Latin American and European dance markets) bear the same trademark sampladelia, largely drawn from American crossover dance-pop.
His crown jewel in this regard (perhaps his flying cat?) is no doubt Lorna’s Dee-Lite sampling “Papi Chulo” (2003), the first reggaeton song to become an international hit, years before Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina.” The song was a top ten hit in several European countries (#1 in France, #2 in Italy) and huge across Latin America. It’s really something of an underrated classic. (When I dropped it at Que Bajo a few years back, people went plĂĄtanos.)
So widespread is the song’s popularity that, among other spin-offs, it inspired a Pakistani cover which some, according to YouTube comments, even read as a pan-African gesture c/o “Makrani singer Younis Jani” (-Wikipedia). Makrani, I’m told (also by Wikipedia), is sometimes synonymous with “Siddi / Sheedi” (which is what one commenter calls Younis), which is also, far as I can tell, more-or-less Urdu for “El Chombo.” Now how do ya like that?
It may be tempting to read something like “Karibu Ya Bintou” as a relatively straightforward exercise in “indigenizing” or localizing hip-hop, but the story of Baloji’s transnational musical moorings — especially his ambivalence toward Congolese pop — complicates such an interpretation:
His first rap outfit, Les Malfrats Linguistiques (“The Linguistic Hustlers”), morphed into Starflam and Baloji became something of a Belgian hip-hop heartthrob. Meanwhile, living above a legendary record store, Caroline Music, in LiĂšge did wonders for his musical education. “I heard everythingâŠPiL, Kraftwerk, Queens of the Stone Age, the SmithsâŠ”
Despite suffering from the rampant racism of smalltown Belgium â he was almost deported back to the Congo at the age of 20 â Baloji can thank his adoptive country for the eclecticism of his style. Until recently, however, he hated most African music, especially Congolese soukous, the bedrock style of post-independence pan-African pop. “For me, it was the worst music in the world,” he says. Nonetheless, when he received a letter from his mother out of the blue, in 2007, his Congolese heritage came back into his life with a vengeance. It inspired Baloji to return to his roots and record an album â a kind of soundtrack without a film â to tell his mother what his life had been like over the past 20 years.
That said, it’s perhaps telling — as with the success of Crammed Discs’ marketing of Konono NÂ°1 as Congotronics — that Baloji would find the greatest interest in his work at precisely the moment he decides to place himself on a map that is easy enough to read.
Legibility does have its advantages. So it’s not terribly surprising that Baloji’s surrender to soukous on another song, “Independence,” ends up serving as a vehicle for a sort of Congolese nationalism, if one that strongly resists the authority of the state. As with “Karibu Ya Bintou,” the video is directed by the duo Spike & Jones, who have an awesome name and seem to make pretty awesome clips:
Most poignant though, I think, are Baloji’s own words on the matter of musical heritage and nationhood, or of signifying Africanness vis-a-vis certain source material. Here he shows himself to be, among other things, a thoughtful student of hip-hop, which, for all the dots it connects around the world, clearly draws plenty of lines in the process–
I want to make music that is very African and very modern. You have to be proud of who you are. You can sample Bob James or Curtis Mayfield, but it means more when Talib Kweli or Kanye West sample them because that’s their heritage. But we Africans also have an interesting heritage, which has richness and a diversity that is huge and under-exploited. We can also go deep into it and make it modern, celebrate its value, just like the Americans.
If I may be allowed one last little addendum, I’d like to share a recording that seems somewhat germane. While revisiting The Noise 6 for the post I wrote for LargeUp, I came across a real gem of a pre-reggaeton track. Don’t get me wrong, the Ivy Queen and Bebe songs are standouts, to be sure, but the final track — #16 to be exact — is definitely the biggest eyebrow-raiser. It’s worth noting, if you don’t know, that the last tracks on proto-reggaeton albums are often the weirdest, and this one, simply labeled “Bonus Track” (mp3), is an interesting outlier indeed:
As you’ll hear, there’s definitely a nod to “Whoomp! (There It Is)” and no doubt a few other jams from the Miami-Atlanta axis (though all the percussion can make it sound a bit like drum’n’bass at times, save for the tempo). Oh, yeah, and there’s the appearance of that ol’ “Egyptian” melody.
Although plenty is going over my head, no doubt, I suspect this is about as allusive as any other track from this era, which means it’s utterly full of vocal references and direct samples. It definitely gives a good sense of how widely Puerto Ricans were listening to hip-hop and contemporary club music as they sought to synthesize their own thing. No doubt for plenty of listeners — and maybe the producers and performers themselves — such a track might even sound both “very African and very modern.”
I’ve got a brief contribution to LargeUp’s Throwback Thursdays series today. Returning to one of my favorite videos from the underground-era, The Noise 6 — a video you’ve likely seen if you’ve ever caught one of my reggaeton lectures — I provide a quick bit of exegesis and some points of entry.
Head over there to read all about it and watch the video!
I’m especially thrilled to finally contribute not just because of the good company — Jesse, Eddie, Rekha, et al. run a tight ship — but because, as you may or may not know, I’ve was a major Okayplayer devotee in a former moment of internet music nerditry. Back in 1999-2002, it was basically my main source for daily news and discussion (though I tended to be more of a lurker than participant). And, especially thanks to ?uestlove’s generous engagements there, it served a major source for my article on sampling in Callaloo.
So it’s an honor and a pleasure to finally show my face there — not to mention use my real name, which necessarily resulted in a fine bit of disambiguation from my Jamaican namesake!