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.
What can I say? It’s been a chockfull summer. Mostly with farming and teaching, but also, I’m happy to note, with writing and talking about music as well. And while I’ve found the time to do some “dancing about architecture,” I’m afraid I’ve been a little slack when it comes to linking/re-posting it here. So here are some items from the last few months that I’d like to call attention to if you haven’t already seen & heard em. (FYI, I’ve also been reviewing albums for The Wire, but I’ll be reposting those separately.)
First, I’m excited to report that I was asked by the nice ppl at Mixpak Records to pen an essay for Popcaan’s debut album, Where We Come From. Writing reggae liner notes is something I’ve always dreamed about doing, and I was thrilled to sit with this stellar set of chunes for a few months before it went out to the world. Here’s a little teaser, but definitely click through to read the wole ting — and do give the album a good listen, it’s well worth the time!
In turns uplifting and haunting, reverent and rude, Where We Come From gives voice, as the best reggae does, to the contradictions of life in a society rife with inequities and yet so rich. Whether odes to the ghetto or the good life, Popcaan’s lyrics bring realist portraits and utopian visions into dynamic tension. Songs about struggle and sex and happiness occupy the same space because they do. …
Like his predecessors in crossover without compromise, Popcaan appeals to listeners outside of Jamaica precisely because he brings a distinctively Jamaican voice to the proceedings. In a world gone global, Popcaan occupies that sweet space of possibility where a deeply local accent communicates to outernational listeners. With his patois lyrics, plainspoken and poetic, his own takes on the latest slang, and his vowels stretched in that Portmore twang, Popcaan is unapologetically uberlocal in address. But since dancehall is itself a globe-spanning style and symbolic code, Popcaan’s performances are also pitched to the world. For all the downhome detail, nuff translatesâand plenty comes across in universal terms: hustle for the money, too damn evil, everything is nice.
Speaking of hustle for the money (and it shall appear?), the Popcaan essay dovetails with a conversation I had recently with Afropop Worldwide for their “Money Show,” which explores the role of money (or not) in music scenes spanning Ghana, Kenya, Colombia, Jamaica, and South Africa. The topic turns to Jamaica at around the 45 minute mark:
Ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall says reggaeâs success can be attributed to its many divergent (even contradictory) forms and meanings. âThe genre offers a flexible palette for a wide range of ideological positions,â he explains, âfrom Pan-Africanism and other forms of transnationalism to utterly provincial nationalism, from peaceful and respectful postures to aggressive machismo and militancy, from tolerance to its own forms of oppression.â So whether itâs the image of Bob Marley as a revolutionary avatar, the liberated body politics of dancehall music, or simply the flows of culture enabled by the sprawling networks of English empire, something has made reggae stick in a number of unlikely locales.
âYou can find local reggae scenes just about anywhere in the world: Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Native American reservations, you name it,â Marshall continues. âIt really is remarkable that reggae has inspired local scenes all over the world, especially since Jamaica is such a small place.â
This is, admittedly, an exaggerated example, and itâs hard to imagine anyone enjoying it save from a certain ironic distance. But itâs noteworthy â if not mindblowing â that someone uploaded it at all, and it speaks volumes about the political economy of contemporary music circulation. The intense compression artifacts may or may not be intentional â whether anti-piracy technique or incidental product of crappy software defaults. It reminds me of Jonathan Sterneâs contention that the MP3 puts the listener on a Â«sonic austerity programÂ». Illustrative because so extreme, the warped sound of this clip is deeply familiar to the MP3 generation â like cumulative tape hiss or dusty record crackles for older ears. Due to better bandwidth, the death of DRM, hi-qual darknets, and more liberal leaking practices, such distortions already strike us as Â«artifactsÂ» in the archaeological as well as audio sense.
In the wake of Rupert Murdoch buying Myspace and ânukingâ the imeem streaming service in 2009, ethnomusicologist and blogger Wayne Marshall, a longtime annotator of the microtrends popping up every second on any number of online streaming platforms, wrote an extensive blog post, spurred by the very real fear that âentire media ecosystemsâ might suddenly âsuccumb to the sudden slash and burn of corporate logic, which cares little for what we might celebrate as cultural vitality.â Iâve been using the word âplatformâ throughout this article as linguistic shorthand to describe a variety of streaming services, but as Marshall notes, the term can disguise as much as it describes. YouTube and other services use âplatformâ as strategic PR, Marshall contends, to cover up the much more precarious technological and political realities that underpin their use. Calling YouTube and other streaming services âplatformsâ creates the image of an elevated space on which one might communicate to a large audience, strategically eliding the fact that uploads can vaporize at any point, often without warning.
For their 4th etude of our summer adventures in technomusicology, my students produced their own YouTube montages (as I’ve discussed here and there), and, as usual, I’m smitten by the results. I even shed a few YouTubeTears in class as we screened them together. I’ve rounded them up in playlist form, but allow me to embed here several examples that are well worth a watch.
Many students did the mega-montage thing, and they selected quite a range of songs and routines to explore this way. Their subjects run the gamut from predictably enduring songs such as “Imagine” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to more recent upstarts such as “Let It Go” and “Thinking Bout You” to such YouTubey phenomena as “Canon Rock” and routines inspired by K-pop and the collectively-sourced cultural products built around Vocaloid software to tango warhorses. Wow!
A few videos merit a little more contextualization, so here they are with the students’ explication:
This is a video montage of “Bar Bar Bar,” the popular song by K-pop band, Crayon Pop. K-pop is largely characterized by bubble gum tunes and catchy lyrics, and “Bar Bar Bar” is no different. However, the song has somehow managed to rise above the rest of the K-pop scenery, taking Korea by storm and causing a multitude of different dance covers to surface in the past year . The various groups shown here range from Korean police departments to taekwondo teams in Korea, and this montage attempts to offer a vivid perspective into one aspect of the pop culture minutiae that permeates through Korean life today.
Kokoro x Kiseki is an original Vocaloid mix of two versions: Kagamine Rin’s and Kagamine Len’s. In Len’s version, he usually sings over a recording of Rin, but not vice versa. In some parts of this montage, it is possible to hear just Rin’s version, just Len’s version, as well as the mix of the two versions.
Due to the nature of this being a Vocaloid song, there is heavy emphasis on the accompanying video. Though there are some vocal and instrumental covers of the song, the majority creative works kept the original song but changed the video. In the different videos, people got creative with using their own drawings to make an animation, making slideshows of pre-existing art and playing with timing, cosplaying and acting out the story of the song, translating the song, and playing with camera angle and various other features of the Miku Miku Dance (MMD) program. There is an official dance for this song, so the dance is the same in the videos that use the dance, but the smoothness of the dance, the camera, and the backgrounds and costumes are noticeably different.
In this video montage, I focused on showing the different videos that people have uploaded onto Youtube. The song’s lyrics tell a linear story, so I wanted to keep the flow of the story of the song. I achieved this by keeping the video clips with their respective section of the song and by giving the videos their own space in the limelight. The only video that I showed multiple times throughout the montage was the Official Live version. The Live performance of a Vocaloid song is impressive, and I felt that letting it flit through the montage follows the story of Kokoro x Kiseki.
Since the majority of videos used the original song, it was not very difficult to sync the videos to make a smooth song. The difficulty in creating this montage was choosing which frame to switch videos because this song is riddled with pickups. Depending on what followed the pickup, I alternated between changing videos on pickups and on downbeats. The instrumental/vocal covers also used the original song, so even if they weren’t perfectly synced 100% of the time, they always met back at the start of new phrases. I decided not to forcibly sync the covers with the original song because it would be destroying the artistic license of a human musician.
Aside from the videos with creative animations, MMDs, cosplays, and covers, there are some videos there that are more featured for the translation. The few that I incorporated into this montage are Vietnamese, Spanish, and English subs, which give a small view at how popular and widespread this particular song is.
In the pre-WWII era, the song was recorded throughout the world by classical, jazz, opera, and popular music artists, swing bands, and orchestra’s. I have tried to pull from my own research into the song: the ripped collection of videos as well as those recordings and amusing or exciting interludes that best exemplify most of the era’s this song has run through, as well as some really old Tango dancing by Rudolf Valentino (who was really quite passionate about Tango dance) from the film, The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse and taken from a video that mashed up Rudy’s moves with the Italian pop singer Mina’s over the top production of the song from 1968.
I also include some very nice dancing by Tango artist Chicho, dancing with a lot of ornamentations with his partner to a recording of a live band. A little later in my clips, I cut in Mina’s production film as she is singing the last verse of lyrics from the popular version, an ending to the effect of, to paraphrase: “the sun no longer shines the same on the abandoned bedroom, and even our dog stopped eating because you left and finally ran away from me, on seeing me so miserably alone.” An amusing farce indeed! Since it matched up to the Mina versions eventual cheesy guitar passage, I added Gene Kelly’s solo stepping to the song, from Anchor’s Aweigh. On a humorous note, I close it out with a scene from Some Like It Hot, when Daphne (Jack Lemmon disguised as a woman) forgets and starts taking the Tango lead from his/her would-be suitor and the orchestra plays an interesting version of La Cumparsita.
I took advantage of the many pauses and lurches inherent to the song and made single audio layer with plain cuts of the phonographs playing 78’s and a 45 rpm of the song. I did the same with the cuts between the live Tango orchestra’s of Alfredo De Angelis and Juan D’Arienzo. I did not need to do any fading or layering until at the end of Mina singing the farcical passage after which the song starts again with a real twanging 60’s guitar and a rock beat. That is when I fade it out and in comes Gene Kelly dancing a relatively soft shoe tap dance to the song. I enter the song from that scene of Anchor’s Aweigh since it matches with Mina’s rock passage, and that then easily lends to the rather interesting version from Some Like It Hot.
And I’ll close with an example that departs from the collages above as one student was inspired to take a page from Kutiman‘s book and create his own YouTube sourced jam session that opens with an overture of sorts, revealing the sources of his palette:
Over at Complex, David Drake offers up a supercut that “trac[es] the lineage of the Migos flow” — that is, the 8th note triplets that underpin “Versace” and have been making waves across the rap world.
For Drake, the recent, remarkable spread of the so-called “Migos flow” offers compelling evidence that, even as it may rankle all manner of commenters, the Migos’ Quavo is no less than “the most influential rapper of 2014“:
part of the reason Quavo has become so influential is because his rapping isn’t overly concerned with the intricacies of lyricism. Instead, he’s imprinted a very specific rhythmic pattern on hip-hop’s psyche. By finding a flow that stood apart and emphasizing it, he shifted the way rappers rap.
This is a contentious claim, and the technomusicologist in me loves that Drake has gone the extra mile to put together some audible evidence to convince the skeptics — a video montage that speaks for itself. So don’t take my word for it, or Drake’s, just peep the supercut:
As you’ll note, the montage not only depicts the undeniable post-Migos spread of the flow, it also includes a series of clips that predate Migos and show how the flow has been around for quite a while, especially in Southern hip-hop but even all the way back to a memorable turn in Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise”!
Such an audible genealogy is certainly convincing, and even the pre/proto-Migos examples don’t necessarily lessen Drake’s argument about Migos’ role in popularizing the flow for 2014. (As something of a sidenote, it’s interesting that this sort of cross-rhythm is also a consistent presence in recent juke/footwork tracks from DJ Rashad and cohorts. That’s one helluva hemiola!)
That said, I’m not totally persuaded that, as Drake further contends
No single rap artist has so completely popularized a single, distinct flow.
I suspect we could pick out a few examples from the 80s or 90s or 00s, but even in the last few years — as Drake himself notes — something like Lil Reese’s / Chief Keef’s trademark stuttered, splattered, staccato syllables would seem to offer a similar example. It may be true that that flow has had less “reach” than the Migos flow, relatively speaking, but it’s still a remarkable spread. Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” was maybe the most obvious example of copping that flow and making it “pop,” but echoes continue in “Drunk In Love” and other recent recordings. Moreover, far as I can tell, that Chicago drill flow has less of a history than 8th note triplets, which have been a staple flow — if not for entire verses — for a couple decades, especially if we look to, say, Bone Thugs’ early oeuvre.
But perhaps I need to make a supercut to make my point ;) Better yet, sign up for my Technomusicology class this summer and you can do it as homework!
The Summer of Love is way behind us, as is the Second Summer of Love, & perhaps the Third and Fourth. The Summer of Technomusicology, however, will soon be here!
I’m thrilled to report that I’ll be offering my favorite class to teach in the world right now, as premiered last year at Harvard U, this July-August as an intensive 7-week course at the Harvard Summer School. If you’re planning to be in town and around, it should be a good chance to make some conceptually cogent, historically situated, and, we hope, aesthetically engaging media.
Here’s a taste of what we did last year. So if that whets the appetite, you can access the syllabus and look into registering via this page:
Readings, discussions, and projects focus on significant forms and their histories, including soundscapes, mashups, montages, DJ-style mixes, and radio sound design. Students will develop a fluency in the history of sound studies while cultivating competencies in audio and video editing, sampling and arranging, mixing and remixing, and, in framing their projects, descriptive and poetic forms of writing.
Class sessions comprise a mix between discussions of relevant readings and audio works, software demonstrations, and in-lab project-centered work. Readings and listening/viewing selections will be available via the course website or the WWW.
ASSIGNMENTS / GRADING
1) Attendance & class participation – 25%
2) Ătudes (6 in all) – 60%
3) Final Project – 15%
Ătude #2: Compose a radio collage, focusing on a particular dimension/station/time of the Boston/Cambridge airwaves. Include brief description of subject and methods.
Week 3 /
Mashup Poetics & the Ethics/Aesthetics of Sampling
Sterne, Jonathan. âThe MP3 as Cultural Artifact.â New Media & Society 8:5 (2006): 825â842.
Katz, Mark. âListening in Cyberspace.â In Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, 158-87. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Marshall, Wayne. âMashup Poetics as Pedagogical Practice.â In Pop-Culture Pedagogy in the Music Classroom: Teaching Tools from American Idol to YouTube, ed. Nicole Biamonte, 307-15. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010.
McGranahan, Liam. ââIt Goes Beyond Having a Good Beat and I Can Dance to Itâ: Mashup Aesthetics and Creative Process.â In Mashnography: Creativity, Consumption, and Copyright in the Mashup Community, 35-70. Ph.D. dissertation, Brown University, 2010.
Schloss, Joseph G. âElements of Style: Aesthetics of Hip-hop Composition.â In Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop, 135-168. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.
Ătude #4: Create a video montage that illustrates a particular story of musical circulation and/or relationship.
Week 5 /
DJ-style Mixing & the Mini-Mega-Mix
Katz, Mark. âMix and ScratchâThe Turntable Becomes a Musical Instrument: 1975-1978.â In Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ, 43-69. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Ătude #5: Produce a brief DJ-style mix guided by some logic of musical, cultural, and/or historical connection between the recordings involved. Make efforts to use blends, cuts, and other edits strategically. Include notes explaining aesthetic choices and narrative (i.e., poetics).
I’ve realized that I neglected to mention such obviously indigenous YouTubery as dhol playalongs and keystyling vids (wherein one “freestyles” a few bars in the comments section of a hip-hop instrumental), but these clearly have their precedents in pre-online-video cultures — if far less public and “permanent” — whereas the K-pop reaction video, which Alexis “@pm_jawn” Stephens recently brought to my attention, is one of the best examples I’ve seen yet, in part because so recent and in part because so inextricable from YouTube. (And which I used to frame the “Sorry Sorry” montage I made last month.)
A reaction video is when someone records themselves watching a music video for the first time via a webcam and then uploads it to YouTube. In K-pop reaction videos, there is often a picture-in-picture showing the progress of the music video, or MV, so that the viewer can follow along with the YouTube userâs knee-jerk, often funny responses. Nothing gets more up close and personal as YouTube, because it gives you a direct visual portal into the living spaces of other fans. The popularity of the K-pop reaction video has grown alongside K-popâs ascent as an international cultural phenomenon.
Recorded all over the world and in a variety of languages, these reaction videos can themselves rack up hundreds of thousands of views — a staggeringly popular form of meta-voyeurism. (Surprising but persuasive, Alexis proposes a possible genealogical link, or at least predecessor, in the 2 Girls 1 Cup meme from a few years back.) And of course, they aspire to be as effectively performative, complete with tropes and archetypes, as the original spectacles to which they bear affective witness.
Alexis shares the following example, instructive and quintessential in a number of ways:
What immediately struck me was the self-conscious performance of fandom here — and the remarkable parallels between the mastery of codes and forms by reacting viewers and by the spectacular performers of K-pop. The particular viewer-performers above are from the UK but totally fluent in contemporary American/global slang, much of it in the form of stylized African-American vernaculars (including black men’s, women’s, and queer idioms) — indeed, about as fluent, it strikes me, as the K-pop performers themselves (who, it must be admitted, are pretty virtuoso in this regard).
Along these lines, if one frame removed, the video by G-Dragon they’re reacting to above clearly merits a multitude of reactions:
It’s amazing, dense, vivid, masterful, and playful. Clearly, it would be a mistake to reduce the pleasures of K-pop to a simple if charming form of mimesis. Rather, this is sui generis mastery of craft and gesture. Observing K-pop stars making a splash at fashion weeks around the world may offer a better angle from which to appreciate K-poppers’ distinctive synthesis of an irreducible array of signifiers, whether or not many of them are cribbed straight from the (Af-Am) hip-hop playbook.
It seems to me that K-pop’s “appropriations” demand a different frame of analysis (although, this video prolly owes MIA money) — and the reaction vids, including entire networks of African-American appreciators help complicate the picture further. (My “Sorry Sorry” montage includes a group of black college students watching the Super Junior video, with one singing and one dancing along.) In contrast to many other “global” (ie, local, non-US) hip-hop scenes, K-pop’s take on hip-hop does not begin to pretend to any alignment with the margins of society. The only authenticity operative here, it seems, is a demonstrated commitment to cultural currency. It’s purely a matter of style and swagger and savvy manipulation of global symbols, musical and sartorial and gestural &c.
And it’s pretty damn impressive.
Stepping back another frame again, there’s something perfect in how reaction videos themselves function so similarly, often mobilizing and reaffirming the same sets of codes and signs. K-pop reaction videos are an amazing and amusing performance of fandom in an age when it’s easier than ever to share that experience with others. They’re an imagined but also, notably, asynchronously witnessed form of collective joy — of the pleasure of sharing an appreciation for cultural codes and their spectacular, affective enactment (across language lines or other borders).
In some interesting ways, then, reaction videos might be understood as attempts to bridge the gap that Michael Warner contends is always there for so-called publics. For Warner, publics are necessarily constituted imaginatively and asynchronously as people engage the same circulating text, privately, and then imagine themselves as part of a collective addressed by it. Reaction videos may still be “private” engagements both in their production and reception, requiring private attention, but their publicness and persistence would seem to heighten the feeling of sharing such collective engagements with public texts. These private moments of attention become a lot more visible, perhaps even more intimate, ironically.
As such, and in contrast to publics gathered around print material, K-pop reaction communities may better resemble the “counterpublics” that, for Warner, “make expressive corporeality the material for the elaboration of intimate life among publics of strangers” [p.76].)
And without a doubt, reaction videos — which may soon transcend K-pop as a genre, if they don’t already — are a “native” YouTube genre par excellence. O Brave New World that has such people watching people watching people in it!
Appended below is the “director’s cut” (or unabridged author’s version) of a book review I wrote almost a year ago, which will soon finally see the light of day in the Journal of Popular Music Studies. The book is Mark Katz’s Groove Music, and I say enough below that I needn’t say more here, but as you’ll see, my review is quite supportive. If you’re interested in the history of the DJ, or hip-hop, or just good music writing and scholarship, I highly recommend you check this one out.
ps — here are the proofs if you like PDFs, but do see below for the full monty!
Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ by Mark Katz
Oxford University Press, 2012, 336 pages, ISBN: 9780195331127
With Groove Music, Mark Katz has written a definitive history of the hip-hop DJ, filling a conspicuous void in the hip-hop literature while contributing more broadly to studies of music technologiesâor perhaps better, to our understanding of how people make technologies musical. For Katz, the transformation of the turntable from a mere playback machine to a remarkably flexible and responsive control deviceâa musical instrument, no lessâstands as âthe signal contribution of the hip-hop DJ to modern musical cultureâ (5). This is quite a claim, but Katz represents, as hip-hop parlance would have it, offering historical, ethnographic, and analytical perspectives on hip-hop DJing, from roots to offshoots, with an unprecedented degree of thoroughness and attention to what matters to practitioners and audiences.
Like Joe Schlossâs authoritative works on beat-making and b-boying, Making Beats (2004) and Foundation (2009), which Groove Music should now sit alongside on shelves and syllabi, this is a lucid and deeply grounded work on a pillar of hip-hop practice and artistry informed by dozens of interviews, years of participant-observation, and deft close readings of live performances, canonical recordings, and oral histories. Groove Music fleshes out the growing (if still lagging) musicological literature on the DJ (Fikentscher 2000, Lawrence 2003, Butler 2006) by shifting focus from the relatively suave mixing of disco, house, and techno DJs to the more explicit performativity of hip-hop DJs, as embodied most audibly by the scratchâor zigga zigga as Katz sometimes glosses it.
To his credit, even while engaged in important acts of translation for his primary reading public (i.e., colleagues and students), Katz sets out to write the book that hip-hop DJs themselves would want to read. As such he commits himself to a chronological and narrative approach, and to a down-to-earth and occasionally playful prose style, peppering the text with such useful terms as âbadasseryâ (168). The book is all the better for this approach, addressing the wider publics that these stories deserve to reach.
The rhythmically stuttered introduction of âDJ Premier in Deep Concentrationâ (1989), a hallmark production of the hip-hop DJ as hands-on artistâHereâs a little story that must be toldâserves as an unremarked but undergirding imperative. While DJs such as Premier have been telling the story themselves and various works in the hip-hop literature address the subject in some detail (Chang 2005, Fricke & Ahearn 2002), no single text prior to Katz has sought to synthesize an overarching story of hip-hop DJing from its beginnings in 1973 to the present. Moreover, with the literature so focused on the foundational work of hip-hopâs hallowed trinity (Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash), little attention has been paid to the changing aesthetics and contexts of the hip-hop DJ in the decades since the formâs origins in the Bronx, especially how scratching has moved in and out of the spotlight in hip-hop and more broadly in American and global popular culture.
Throughout the text, Katz touches on numerous signposts, among them: the crucial feedback loop with dancers (14-16); influences from funk, reggae, and salsa (23-32); hip-hopâs ties to disco, however disputed (32-5); the urban context of the Bronx (35-42); the world of DJ-producers (121); the Bay Areaâs Filipino DJ scene, dominant in the world of turntablism (145-7); the rise of mix-and-scratch academies (230) and virtual video games like DJ Hero (237). But it is Katzâs clear periodization of hip-hop DJ history, always grounded in ethnographic analysis of the political economy, material culture, and aesthetics of the enterprise, which emerges as the key contribution of the book.
Most crucially, in chapter 2, âMix and Scratch,â Katz details the development of the turntable as a musical instrument, focusing on the mechanical and stylistic innovations by the likes of Grandmaster Flash and GrandWizzard Theodore (generally credited with inventing the rhythmic scratch). A centerpiece of Katzâs argument is his close reading of Flashâs seminal seven minute showcase, âThe Adventures Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steelâ (1982), elaborating the techniques and effects, technologies and repertories involved in the performance. Grandmaster D.STâs standout scratching on Herbie Hancockâs âRockitâ (1983) also serves as a key text in the popularization and reimagination of the turntable as instrument. Katzâs simple but profound point is that these DJs took a technology of sound reproduction and used it for âreal-time manipulationâ of sound (62). This story of transformation finally comes full circle toward the end of the book when Katz examines the rise of digital vinyl (e.g., the Serato or Traktor systems), which embodies the utter shift of the vinyl record from a storage medium to a control surface.
Other chapters divide up the history of the hip-hop DJ according to the strange and sometimes circuitous paths the tradition has taken. Chapter 3, âOut of the Bronx and into the Shadows,â addresses the question of how hip-hop, despite its beginnings as a DJ-driven phenomenon, would soon enough be synonymous with rap. According to Katz, the rise of the MC and concomitant decline of DJ, relegated to back-up band or, by the late 1980s, even replaced by DAT machines, actually served in its way to make room for new forms of hip-hop DJing. Despite the DJâs recession during hip-hopâs commercial and cultural ascent, where other hip-hop chronicles tend to depart and leave DJs in the shadows, Katz remains stalwart in his focus, turning to the expansions of DJ practice in chapter 4, both in terms of scratch technique (and Philadelphiaâs specific contribution: the âtransformerâ), as well as the art of beat-juggling. Katz carefully describes new techniques as they develop, putting them into aesthetic, functional, and socio-cultural context, noting the emergence of new contexts for DJ practice, particularly the rise of the competition circuit. Indeed, chapter 6 is entirely devoted to the forms, rituals, tools, and techniques of the DJ battle, judiciously examining points of aesthetic conflict and consensus.
Given Katzâs abiding concern with the instrumentalization of the turntable, the advent of turntablism in 1990s is an obvious watershed, and chapter 5 explores this practically autonomous and increasingly abstracted realm of hip-hop DJ practice. Katz explores the symbiosis between turntable, needle, and crossfader design, noting that while initially many of these features were ad-hoc innovations on the part of tinker-DJs and their âvernacular technological creativity,â by the mid-1990s manufacturers were taking notice and incorporating them into their products. Here, as elsewhere, weâre treated to some sharp material culture analysis: new mixers and crossfaders enabled innovative new techniques such as the âcrab scratchâ where technical limits had previously made them impossible.
In chapter 7, Katz turns to the new ubiquity and legitimacy that scratching enjoyed between 1996-2002, not in hip-hop itself, notably, but in âalmost every corner of popular musicâ (182): pop, rock, jazz, electronic music, and even the classical world. The scratch comes to mean any manner of things in a wide variety of contexts: âWith the mainstreaming of hip-hop, signifiers started to float freelyâ (180). This creates further room for experimentation, giving rise to the âcult favoritesâ the DJ albums made by the likes of DJ Shadow, Qbert, and Kid Koala, rich and remarkable works to which Katz devotes some overdue analysis.
The question of âFalling Barriersâ in chapter 8 reads as a fitting coda, bringing the story of the turntableâs instrumentalization back to its beginnings in important if unexpected ways. Contrasting the rejection of CDJs with the embrace of âdigital vinyl systemsâ allows Katz to make an insightful point about vinylâs place in hip-hop aesthetics as âprecious,â âauthentic,â âelemental,â and âfundamentalâ (218). Vinylâs tenacity as a control surface not only speaks to these values, grounded in decades-old practice, but to the ontology of the turntable as instrument: a seemingly sudden crossfade that makes total sense in retrospect.
Notably, rather than a CD insert (which would have been an enormous tangle of licensing permissions), Oxford University Press offers a useful companion website full of media referenced in the text. These may be mostly links to YouTube videos, leaving their stability in question, but itâs a rich resource all the same, especially if readers use it soon, before the inevitable link degradation.
Groove Music represents a strong monographic extension of Katzâs previous work in Capturing Sound (2004) and the recent anthology he co-edited with Tim Taylor and Tony Grajeda, Music, Sound, and Technology in America (2012). All of these works are animated by a concern with registering the plasticity of sound technologies, or how people find their own creative uses for such things. In the history of sound recording and reproduction, there may be no more spectacular example than the advent of performative hip-hop DJing, and Katz has given the tradition a fitting monument. The specter of legitimation may yet haunt the hip-hop literature, but efforts such as Groove Music help to push beyond such entrenchments precisely by taking the subject so seriously that no hint of novelty or condescension corrupts it.
Butler, Mark. Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Music. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Chang, Jeff. Canât Stop, Wonât Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: Picador, 2005.
Fikentscher, Kai. âYou Better Work!â: Underground Dance Music in New York City. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.
Fricke, Jim and Charlie Ahearn. Yes Yes Yâall: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hopâs First Decade. New York: Da Capo, 2002.
Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.
Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2003.
Schloss, Joseph. Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.
_______. Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Taylor, Timothy, Mark Katz, and Tony Grajeda, eds. Music, Sound, and Technology in America: A Documentary History of Early Phonograph, Cinema, and Radio. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2012.
an utterly awesome eight-year-old diva, via YouTube
This past week I’ve whipped up another couple YouTube montages in the vein of Gasodoble, Bump con Choque, and my students’ projects in last year’s technomusicology class. Unlike my previous efforts, which not too surprisingly involve reggaeton, these new mega-montages engage repertories that I don’t generally mess with: opera and K-pop.
The dear colleagues I have to blame for these excursions are two Berklee faculty, Isaiah Jackson and DJ Hatfield. I’m collaborating with them, as well as with Lori Landay (who has posted her own video here) and Darcie Nicole, to explore the possibilities for using YouTube in the classroom, as well as in our efforts as scholars — and as artists.
We’re giving a collective presentation at Berklee tomorrow morning as part of the college’s annual BTOT event (Berklee Teachers on Teaching), and I’m grateful to Isaiah — an ol’ friend, an acclaimed conductor, and a consummate gentleman — and the others for letting me interlope and help guide the discussion.
In a nutshell, or an abstract, here’s how we’re framing the thing —
We are all familiar with YouTube as an endless archive of weird, ordinary, awesome, and awful performances, but suppose we approach YouTube itself as a creative teaching resource. Since we can now remix video as easily as audio, YouTube performances can be edited into montages that 1) tell vivid stories about contemporary music culture; 2) stand as artworks in their own rights; and 3) supply valuable insights to students seeking to understand the role of social media. This session will explore the ways in which everyday audio/video software and global publishing sites now render visible and audible a staggering variety of musical performances. Participants will learn how they can harness new tools for examining the state of musical arts.
Of course, I have my own favorite examples in this regard, from Kutiman’s collages to the works that I and my students have cooked up, but I was excited to partner with other faculty, with their own realms of expertise, to see how the technique of using montage to represent a song or dance’s social life, as made visible by YouTube, might play out in other musical and cultural domains.
The first (mega)montage I’d like to share reveals the remarkably sustained “virality” (i.e., the ability to find new hosts) of a tune composed more than 200 years ago. Isaiah suggested that I take on Mozart’s well-worn soprano aria, “Queen of the Night,” as the sort of musical text so resonant that surely a staggering number and variety of performances would reside on YouTube.
Sure enough, Isaiah picked out (and annotated!) about 30 instances for me to consider, a small selection all told, but a fine cross-section of contexts, modes of performance / reception, and arrangements. Notably, one of these selections, which I didn’t actually use, was itself a mega-montage of some 40 different renditions. (In that regard, it’s worth noting that the amateur montage is something of a native YouTube genre in its own right, though as Lori will explain tomorrow, as a cultural form “Soviet” montage has been ascendent for some time.)
I’ve been chatting with Isaiah about what has emerged from this exercise, asking how a text so, well, old could continue to enjoy so lively a social life — only glimpses of which are revealed by trawling YouTube — even into the media-suffused 21st century. And despite clearly calling for a certain virtuosity (which some deliver and some do not), one significant detail that Isaiah noted about the story behind this favorite aria from The Magic Flute is that it was composed precisely to inspire such a desire to sing along (or hum or whistle). Apparently, Mozart’s friend Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto and played the role of Papageno in the production’s first run, encouraged him to make the aria short and punchy, the sort of thing that would be popular at “the Lodge,” as Isaiah put it (they were both Freemasons). In this sense, Mozart’s aria might be thought of as a proto pop song, written to be short and catchy and popular. It sure looks and sounds that way according to YouTube.
To my eyes and ears, the montage, which aside from a slightly extended coloratura section essentially sticks to the original (brief) length of the composition, vividly reveals how the aria spans professional and amateur contexts, gender and age, virtuosity and cringeworthiness, various modes of reception (e.g., note which examples contain applause), drama and humor, private and public settings — the sort of versatility that helps to secure a certain longevity. Despite pre-dating “participant culture” theory by a few centuries, surely this is a spreadable song for the ages!
The other montage I worked up may be more familiar in some ways, if you keep up with YouTubey dance memes, but I find it no less interesting or revealing when it comes to grappling with YouTube and what it shows us about music culture in the contemporary moment. DJ Hatfield’s central text is a song — and, crucially, accompanying dance — called “Sorry Sorry,” performed by the popular K-pop “boy band” Super Junior. (And yes, there are already other fan-produced montages of it floating around.) Like lots of other popular song+dance routines (e.g., Crank Dat), one can search for “Sorry Sorry” on YouTube and discover a plethora of examples, from solo routines at home to large numbers performing their mastery of the popular steps in public.
Pointing me to just over 20 examples — again, a small slice of what’s up — DJ led me down a K-pop rabbithole, wherein I found residing alongside each other a marvelous variety of instances: slick commercial productions from Korea and ambitious spoofs from Mexico, goofy karaoke sessions, dead serious tutorials, all manner of home- and school-based versions, breathless TV broadcasts, anime remixes, toy robots, and of course, Filipino prisoners. (You just haven’t made it as a dance meme if the CPDRC hasn’t immortalized the choreography in all their orange splendor.) You can even see the choreographers of the dance, two guys from Los Angeles, strutting their stuff in their own darkened dance studio version. It’s really quite a rich set of instantiations, raising on old question for me: what’s the text and what’s the paratext? (EL QUĂ?!). Take a look yourself —
One genre that I couldn’t resist including here, and which may also deserve the status of “YouTube native,” is the K-pop reaction video. Apparently, watching people watching people on YouTube on YouTube is a thing. Special thanks to longtime W&W interlocutor Alexis Stephens, aka @pm_jawn, for bringing this phenomenon, which really deserves a post or two of its own, to my attention. The K-pop reaction video gave me a way to frame the whole montage that was just too meta to resist.
What makes the example especially interesting to DJ — and notably what doesn’t show up as much on YouTube as the dance routine per se — is that, back in 2009 or so, the particular hand-rubbing gesture for “Sorry Sorry” entered the greater gestural lexicon. People would do that hand-rub gesture anytime they apologized! Such quotidian moments don’t show up especially well on YouTube, but one other interesting example of the dance’s “migration” connects to DJ’s work on music in Taiwan. As you’ll see at the end of the montage, a Taiwanese artist named Suming incorporates the gesture into a video for his song “Kapah” that mashes up a variety of traditional and popular Taiwanese (and other) gestures and references.
There’s a great deal to be teased out here, obviously, and it’s our collective hope to do some of that tomorrow morning while also gesturing (sorry sorry) to other possibilities and uses of YouTube, whether we’re thinking (or singing or dancing) as scholars, teachers, artists, choreographers, or toy robots.
Been thinking about “native” YouTube genres, or genres which, in their way, are “native” to the platform, having necessarily emerged on YouTube — new forms and conventions, in other words, essentially made possible by YouTube’s existence and special features (especially, but not limited to, unprecedented access to an endless archive, thanks to massive uptake and network effects).
Lots of forms and practices that might seem novel to YouTube have been around as amateur / fan / folk / underground culture forever, which is why it may be instructive to ask not only about what is now more spectacular or obvious or invigorated (though those are all good queries), but what is also necessarily new (i.e., native). This would help us get a better idea of this juncture’s interplay between creative process, media ecology, and tech affordances/constraints.
I liked how several of my students’ YouTube montages from last fall — in seeking to plumb a song’s social life as depicted, richly if always incompletely, on YouTube — revealed certain YouTubey genres alongside and amidst the sundry contexts of meatspace (homes, buses, studios, stages) and their associated, overlapping genres (personal, public, pedagogical, performative and so on). Things like, say, Sponge Bob or Barack Obama belting cut-n-paste pop jams —
In addition to productions like these, native genres to YouTube would also have to include the likes of YouTube Poop, which, as the name suggests, is fairly obvious (if meta/dada) in its YouTubeness.
A lot of these examples are, tellingly, pastiches or other remixes — not surprising, given 1) wealth of access and 2) ease of editing — but native genres on YouTube are not limited to that mode. Something like the “Harlem Shake,” for instance, in centering on a shareable/viral syntax rather than a particular gesture or sign, suggests a class of YouTubey forms that are distinct from, say, the latest neighborhood dance step to jump from the corner to all corners (though those are also, as I’ve explored before, very much themselves YouTube abetted now).
In search of other native genres, I tried a little poll yesterday on Twitter, and I was treated to at least one class (or maybe more) of arguably native YouTube genres that have little if anything to do with remix or pastiche. One particularly interesting rabbithole, or more like a vacuumtube (if not quite a 9 hour suck), led me into a world of looooong non-musical sound clips on YouTube.
S/o Young Heraclitus / Dreamboat Slim for promptly pointing me to a video given the alluring billing of “Vacuum Cleaner Relaxation White Noise Sound Sleep Colic” and tagged with such canny search engine optimization as —
Mask Tinnitus, Sleep Aid, Enhance Privacy ,Block Distractions, Pacify children and pets, Soothe Migraines, Increase Focus
Lessen Stress vacuum cleaner sound
vacuum cleaner noise
sound of vacuum cleaner
noise of vacuum cleaner
Included in the description, you might be glad to hear, was a link to a page where one can download a 109mb 717 minute mp3. The page helpfully reads: “1 Man, 12 Hours of Vacuuming” and “You’ll get an MP3.”
Incidentally, I think the epic “performance” may simply be a 15 minute-or-so loop, but I haven’t studied it so closely; that said, I did have it on for a good hour yesterday. At low volume, I found it remarkably compelling.
Anyway, before you download, you might want to check it out on YouTube:
I should have suspected, I suppose, but it turns out there are LOTS of videos in this vein. The vid above leads, via YouTube’s recommendation engine, to any number of similar or indistinguishable efforts (especially at low volume). This 8 hour piece claims to be a “remix” but I have no idea what that means:
Truth be told, there’s a veritable plethora of epic ambient videos freely available on YouTube for your very own epic ambient experience, which, based on the descriptions and comments, mainly seems to be sleep. These include such evergreens as “Airbus 320 Cabin Sounds – 12 Hours – Take Off and Complementary treats served” or “The Sound of a Air Conditioner.” But for my money (i.e., earballs), you just can’t beat “Sucks 9 Hours” (tagged: Hood Fan Sound, Range Hood, Ventilation Fan, Cooker Hood, Extractor Hood, ASMR), though “The Sounds of a Box Fan 8hrs” (also available in mp3) is a close second —
This particular form’s nativity is, of course, directly related to one relatively big affordance: the unprecedented access to time that YouTube now provides. People, especially the non-Warhol sort, just didn’t typically make 7-12 hour films very frequently prior to the advent of unlimited time on YouTube. So one emerging “native” dimension of vernacular video we might lay at YouTube’s feet is the sudden desire to exploit the “platform” as something other than a visual medium — but not just as a jukebox, rather as a long duration white noise machine (or pink, if you prefer).
But another arguably “native” dimension here — at least in terms of popular practice — is this particular use of sound, via YouTube, to produce physical/psychological/psychosomatic effects. Many of the videos like those above, you may notice, are also tagged with ASMR — i.e., âAutonomous Sensory Meridian Responseâ — which Joshua Hudelson describes in a post on Sounding Out! as “a pseudo-medical designation whose native soil is YouTube.” (h/t @pm_jawn)
For Hudelson, ASMR videos “traverse the gap between the sonic and the haptic.” Notably, for all its “nativity,” this blurring across sensory registers as well as cultural domains / listening contexts, and this particular use of YouTube as source of pleasure and therapy, makes for an uneasy and sometimes rather dissonant experience. According to Hudelson,
The slow-paced, low-volume respite that Whisper videos offer is made all the more necessary by the fact that viewers must go online to watch them. This paradox is amplified by YouTubeâs advertisements, which will sound especially abrasive because viewers tend to turn the volume up while listening to Whisper videos.
While this discordance may be more acute in the “Whisper video” genre Hudelson examines, than, say, low-volume and interminable ambient noise clips, it does suggest that native genres on YouTube are not exactly “at home” there even if that’s where they reside. In other words, just because something is native to an ecosystem doesn’t mean it will enjoy ideal symbiosis.
Which is certainly one insight to emerge from this vacuumhole.
But what else am I overlooking/hearing/touching? Let me know. I’m all earballs.
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
Wow, this is quite an amazing piece of work. Stephen Malinowski collaborated with Jay Bacal to make an animated graphical score of Stravinsky’s controversial classic. I love tracking music this way, far more interesting than a static and graphically impoverished waveform. Now that’s what I call technomusicology!
Malinowski and Bacal have carefully pegged shapes and colors to elements of orchestration and pitch, which makes it even more edutaining! Very cool to see all those tone clusters in action. Pitches have been matched to a twelve color wheel, and each shape corresponds to a family of instruments–
ellipse: flutes (also cymbals and tam-tam)
octagon: single reed (clarinet, bass clarinet)
inverted ellipse/star: double reeds (oboe, English horn, bassoons)
rectangle: brass (also, with “aura,” timpani, guiro and bass drum)
See the YouTube instantiations for an FAQ and more info, but I’m embedding parts 1 & 2 here for your viewing pleasure —