Recognizing Dominican Dembow: From Jamaica to El Alfa
Edited by Michael Quiñones
When our star of the year for 2018, Cardi B, and Dominican singer-musician El Alfa, a foremost “dembow” artist, teased a collaboration, fans were eager to hear the finished product. When their song “Mi Mami” dropped in November, however, it received mixed reactions.
El Alfa's bars were average compared to what his lyrical delivery is capable of, and the rhythm was of a much slower tempo than his usual beats. It was seen as a failure by those who hoped that Cardi's rocketing fame would propel the subgenre called Dominican dembow onto an international stage.
The Bronx native of Dominican descent took to Instagram to explain that the intention was to introduce the rapper — not the beat — to the market so that they can then introduce the sound later on. She added that she genuinely hoped to see urban Dominican artists represented in Latin-American awards shows moving forward.
The producer of “Mi Mami,” Chael Betances, known professionally as Chael Produciendo, shared with CHICA why it wasn't a Dominicanized dembow sound: “We understood that to hit the [mainstream] public with it out of nowhere could be overbearing. So what we did was create a more pop-influenced beat, so that it can touch other waters and later introduce the sound.” Stepping into the dembow scene circa 2011, Chael entered at a major evolutionary point for the subgenre. The Billboard Latin music award winner is also the creator of trap bow a fusion of trap and dembow developed in 2016.
Chael, El Alfa and Cardi B, as well as their “Mi Mami” critics, have sparked a much-needed conversation: What is Dominican dembow and when, if ever, will dembow artists get the same type of recognition that those of others urban subgenres, such as reggaetón, receive?
Dominicans have dominated various areas in Caribbean music for a long time — creating genres like bachata and merengue. They have been at the forefront of Latin trap's evolution — but have had minimal recognition in the Latin-American music awards scene. The conversation around this topic is deeply rooted in colorism and classism. Dominican artists face these trials internationally and locally. The Dominican government's habit of banning explicit music also limits dembow's international reach.
Dembow, reggaetón and hip-hop come from similar socioeconomic origins: Their music is created by the younger generations of poorer communities, using anything they had available — most times their only tools consisted of lyrical delivery and a sample track. As with most black-rooted music, dembow is seen by cultural and political elites as “hood music” and low class.
Distinct from reggaetón
The Dominican style of dembow is a fast-paced revival of iconic Jamaican dancehall loops, which gained popularity in the DR in the 2000s just as Puerto Rican–based reggaetón was blowing up. Reggaetón shares the primary dembow sound: Jamaican-based riddims — referring to the instrumental of a song, it's the Jamaican pronunciation for “rhythm” — and Spanish lyrics. The Dominican flavor is a local evolution of the sound, with beats incorporating, for example, Brazilian funk and hip-hop's synthesized sounds. Artists such as Chimbala, Lirico en La Casa, Secreto El Biberon, Liro Shaq, El Mayor Clasico and El Alfa lead the movement.
Brooklyn activist DJ Bembona, a tastemaker of Panamanian and Puerto Rican descent who's spun at NYC's Afro-Latino Festival, appreciates the dembow movement. The 27-year-old tells CHICA, “Speaking from the perspective of a Boricua-Panameña, born and bred in NYC, it's been beautiful to witness its humble beginnings [become] the powerful market it has created in and outside of Quisqueya [Dominican Republic].”
While many like to lump the subgenre together with reggaetón, there is definitely a difference. Now more than ever, modern dembow has become a fusion of sounds. Bembona explains, “For me, it is still a very DJ-sample-based production but, it has definitely evolved in the last couple years with the addition of other musical elements, quirky samples, and influences from genres outside of dembow.” She adds that unlike a true perreo track (perreo involves grinding from behind, “doggy style”), which is in the 80 to 100 beats per minute (BPM) range, Dominican dembow rarely falls below 110 BPM, averages in the 120s and gets up to 140 BPM.
Let's take it back, way back
Before we discuss where the term “dembow” comes from, all credit goes to Jamaica and Jamaicans in the diaspora for the musical style. Dominican dembow and PR reggaetón owe a major debt to the Jamaicans who went to work on the canal in the first part of the 20th century — more directly, their descendants. Flash-forward roughly 75 years, when as an act of resistance against discrimination, Afro-Caribbean descendants of those migrants in Panama created “reggae en Español”: dancehall and reggae music recorded with Spanish lyrics that ran parallel to the rise of dancehall in the 1980s and '90s. It was a way of embracing and staying in touch with their roots in a time of rampant racial bigotry — especially for having a “Caribbean” accent.
The iconic “riddim”
Jamaican reggae artist Shabba Ranks's 1990 to '91 “Dem Bow” from the album Just Reality, recorded in Jamaica, is the founding riddim for these subgenres and probably their most influential song. According to music historian Wayne Marshall, author of “Dem Bow, Dembow, Dembo: Translation and Transnation in Reggaeton,” major elements of the song can be heard in about 80 percent of reggaetón. Produced by Bobby “Digital Dixon,” the Patois-English lyrics linked anti-gay and anti-colonialist themes — the title means “they bow.” Shabba integrated his political views on imperialism and “bowing down to the man” with disparagement of gay love and sex acts (a country being sodomized by the Western world, for example). “Bow” even became a derogatory term for a gay man.
By the late '80s, reggae en Español had also sparked in New York City, where Jamaicans, Panamanians, African-Americans and Latinx of different backgrounds overlapped in the same scenes. Panamanian artists like El General (along with his group Franko Y Su Cuatro Estrellas) and Nando Boom ended up recording and translating dancehall songs created by Jamaican artists like Cutty Ranks and Shabba Ranks into Spanish, in Jamaican-owned NYC studios.
El General and Nando Boom both covered “Dem Bow” in Spanish less than a year after it came out, the former transforming “Dem Bow” to “Son Bow” and the latter to “Ellos Benia.” The theme of politics remained — in “ Ellos Benia” Nando Boom holds on to the anti-colonial mindset and embraces his nationalism saying, “Panama no eres un bow,” which translates to “Panama you don't bow.” Over time, as more Spanish-speaking artists sampled Shabba, the political message of the original reggae en Español covers slowly disappeared in favor of lyrics about masculinity and sexuality, as Marshall notes in his work.
Y el Dominicano, pà cuando?
In the Dominican Republic in the early '90s, an artist-composer born and raised in Guachupita, Santo Domingo, became an admirer of artists like Shabba Ranks, Cutty Ranks, El General, and Nando Boom. After hearing “A Who Seh Me Dun” by Cutty Ranks, DJ Boyo found himself playing with Jamaican riddims. He wanted to create reggae en Español more suited to the musical tastes where he lived — specifically, faster movements and beats. Most dancehalls was originally 105 BPM; so with his bare hands, spinning the turntables for three minutes straight to a 115 BPM speed and then transferring the sound to a cassette, he fastened the speed to “A Who Seh Me Dun” After El General came out with his rendition of Shabba Rank's “Dem Bow,” Boyo told himself that's what he was going to call his music.
The 43-year-old, sometimes referred to as “el padre del dembow criollo,” tells CHICA:
“For me, everything started in '91 when I really started getting into Jamaican music. In the early stages, it was difficult, as you know when someone brings a new project to someone. What was sounding here was merengue, bachata, and salsa. I was the only one creating dembow — people would trash my cassettes. I would pay to perform at clubs and would get booed on stage. They felt the beat was too crazy, they didn't understand the rhythm.”
As the only dembowsero around, he struggled to get airplay in the beginning. “We worked at clubs and purchased equipment in order to make parties and distribute our music in the same parties we hosted.” In 1993, he created the first Dominican dembow track, “Las Mujeres Andadoras,” rapping over the 115 BPM beat he quickened from “A Who Seh Me Dun.” “I made more than 4,000 cassettes at the time. We distributed everywhere, giving them to everyone.”
From PR to NYC and Back Again: The Noise and DJ Playero
Also during the early '90s, classic dancehall beats infused or alternated with hip-hop sounds became the essential taste-making loops for the likes of San Juan's DJ Playero and Puerto Rican collective The Noise's DJ Negro, who created 30-minute mixes circulated on cassettes — actual mixtapes. It was on these mixtapes that MCs like Daddy Yankee and Ivy Queen got their start. The Noise and Playero series hit big in Puerto Rico, and soon artists in the Dominican Republic and New York City found themselves rapping over the same Playero loops.
While the style was more hip-hop inspired, one still hears the reggae and Jamaican references in Daddy Yankee's and Ivy Queen's verses in DJ Playero's “Ragga Moofin Mix.” Yankee opens with swift Patois-influenced lyrics, then transitions to Spanish. In “The Noise 6,” Ivy Queen celebrated New York City culture while keeping the Jamaican style as well as the message of social non-conformity.
Again, New York City lived up to its melting pot reputation. It played host to a mix of Caribbean sounds that dovetailed with the burgeoning hip-hop movement in the Bronx, created in part by Nuyoricans (Puerto Ricans growing up in NYC). This mix and lifestyle became known as “underground” in the 1990s.
Afro-Caribbeans in NYC helped the reggae en Español and underground sounds emigrate back to the islands. The '90s saw Dominican producers and MCs mix hip-hop and tropical styles, adding percussion to the fundamental beats and, in the early 2000s, incorporating styles like bachata and merengue into reggaetón. Producers Luny Tunes showcased this in the Mas Flow and Mas Flow 2 albums. This mixture was also influenced by the rise of merengue-rap groups like Proyecto Uno, Sandy y Papo and Fulanito.
Boyo breaks out in DR
When Playero music hit the Dominican scene, DJ Boyo's style became more accepted. He gives his take on the dembow timeline:
“Puerto Ricans were always ahead of the game [internationally] because being in Puerto Rico gave them access to more resources. If we are speaking in terms of this country, I was trending first. Before me, it was Chombo from Panama. For the rest of the world, [Dominicans] were last to come out. But, in reality, my stuff was going around way before Playero, who started building momentum here after.”
With Playero's popularity, the new sound started to find a following in the DR, where Boyo had been prepping the crowd for it. He paved the way for up-and-comers like Secreto, Mr. Menyao and Doble T y El Crok aka Los Pepes. The latter's explosive track, “Pepe,” transcended Dominican media — the song became so popular that they were presented on Don Francisco's Univision talk show. Following the success of Los Pepes, a plethora of dembowseros like Pablo Piddy, El Mayor Clasico and Chimbala were able to popularize the subgenre.
Throughout the 2000s, Boyo invested in the ever-growing Dominican dembow scene. Alongside DJ Topo, who now runs Somos Topo Point media in Santo Domingo, he launched La Hora De DJ Boyo y DJ Topo, which was an hourlong TV segment that showcased urban talent. It became the only urban music–related broadcast of its kind during the '00s, and it was where listeners first got a glimpse of artists like Toxic Crow and JO-A.
A brief summary so far
In order to help us register what we just learned in that deep topical dive, ethnomusicologist Marshall sums up the relevant but nebulous interplay of musical notes for CHICA:
“The same dancehall riddims that were popular and heavily sampled in Puerto Rico's proto-reggaetón scene in the 1990s are the ones that Dominican producers continue to employ, even as Jamaican dancehall and Puerto Rican reggaetón have largely moved on: dembow, fever pitch, drum song. In Dominican dembow, it's common to combine elements from these riddims, and more, in the same production, layering them and alternating between them, which is something that never happens in Jamaica. Moreover, in contrast to the approach of Playero and the Noise in '90s Puerto Rico, Dominican dembow increases the density of these references, as well as the tempos.”
Thus we now understand what Dominican dembow is, in context.
So, why hasn't Dominican dembow broken out?
When Cardi defended the “Mi Mami” track on Instagram, she explained her belief in dembow and that these artists have the lyrical ability to one day be internationally known. Since there's a lack of mainstream dembow exposure, she believed dropping a song that could be considered strictly reggaetón or trap-like would be a start. The strategy, of course, was to highlight an artist and not the subgenre — and if any one artist sits atop the Dominican dembow throne, it is El Alfa. Cardi, Chael and Alfa likely took the following potential roadblocks into account.
Obstacles to exposure
In addition to the implication that mainstream audiences might not be ready for dembow, the trio's strategy also implies there are structural forces reining in the musical style. While theories vary as to why Dominican dembow hasn't made the Latin music awards show circuit yet, three underlying factors are in play: 1) The urban Dominican vernacular, el barrio lingo, has little support inside or outside the island; 2) the country's socio-economic situation makes many urban artists focus only on short-term, local success; and 3) the government's consistent, aggressive stance against urban music limits wider appeal.
The first reason is deeply embedded in prejudice against darker skin and urban slang and speech, typical of the entire Western hemisphere and its European-model standards. The second reason, based on socioeconomic realities, can be summed up by Alberto Nicolas Aponte Castillo — aka Nico Clinico — a dembow producer who has worked with Lapiz Conciente, Shelow Shaq, Mely Mel and the late Monkey Black. Clinico explains:
“Sadly, my country being a third world country, it means more to have money sometimes. An artist can go to any DJ association and put money down to keep it circulating for three months. The problem is, music should be long-lasting, not support a different track every three months. Promote good music and promote it so it is able to migrate to different countries, not stick to this country. Artists should be thinking on expanding and moving onto different countries, but they become comfortable with making shows at clubs instead of big concerts. Also if the artist wants to make it internationally, music should be understandable in different Spanish-speaking countries.”
Thirdly, the Dominican government has a long history of banning sexually explicit music, which many find classist. The National Commission of Public Spectacles and Radiophony regulates content played on TV or radio. In 2018 alone, it banned songs by Chimbala, La Materialista, El Alfa, Lapiz Conciente and Nene La Amenaza, among other urban artists.
Though silenced on radio stations, speedy dembow tracks flow untamed out of speakers throughout different neighborhoods via the internet. Media platforms like Alofokemusic.net, created by 37-year-old Santiago Matias, have kept the subgenre's circulation alive through interviews and topics that keep fanatics engaged. Dominican composer Steven Dominguez, stage name TYS, shared his thoughts on the topic with CHICA:
“I feel like in that sense, it's just not a smart move by the Dominican government. The power of freedom of speech on music platforms make the government's approach outdated and instead, it provokes the opposite effect that they desire on the public because every time a song gets banned, people just run to YouTube to hear what the song says, so it turns out to be more promotion for the song and the artist.”
PART 2: DEMBOW COMES OF AGE
Circa 2010, Dominican dembow evolved into what it is today through a variety of factors, in no particular order.
Around that time, DJ Scuff and Chimbala led a transition from the initial revival of traditional beats (used in the early years of the subgenre) to a new Playero style, with mixes alternating samples, often chopped and skewed. These mixes, separated into volumes, helped circulate the new sound. “DJ Scuff's mixes represented the new wave of dembow at the time. He's an influence to anyone who came after. Before the dembow artist Chimbala, however, it was mainly repetitive Playero loops. [Scuff's] dembow style transformed the curation process of creating from scratch,” explains Felipe Roberto Marticotte Feliz, known artistically as Light GM, who has produced for Arcangel, Bad Bunny and Mozart La Para (to name a few). Straight Jamaican loops had been transformed, no longer serving as the pure baseline.
But the Dominican dembow renaissance wasn't limited to musical techniques. A wave of female artists, such as Milka La Mas Dura, La Materialista, and La Insuperable, who owned their sexuality through their music, proved to be another advance. Similar to other urban movements, dembow is a male-dominated scene. The lyrics and videos frequently hyper-sexualize and marginalize women, but these empowered women shamelessly communicated their carnal desires along with their worth. This can be heard in Milka La Mas Dura's tracks “Dale Ven Ven” (2009) and “Yo Quiero Un Hijo Contigo” (2010) where she sings “Give me what I want, let's not waste time.” La Materialista continued the trend in 2015 with “Chapas Que Vibran.”
These women have influences that range from merengue and reggaetón to hip-hop. Milka was featured in the original 2009 “Capea el Dough” a hip-hop collaboration track that features the DR's hottest MCs. They were not tied to dembow but contributed to its sound and growth.
Women weren't the only ones blowing up the scene. The first openly gay urban artist in the Dominican Republic, La Delfy, was featured on the 2012 hit “Dame Leche,” which quickly brought him stardom. Considering the themes of the original song “Dem Bow,” La Delfy was reclaiming a space meant to reject gays. Artists in the DR's urban movement, such as Lapiz Conciente, showed nothing but solidarity.
Dominican dembow also began to breakout through dance videos showing a fusion of dancehall, traditional Afro-steps and popular movements from the United States. With the rise of videophones and YouTube by 2010, these grassroots dances done with partners or in teams would go viral — bypassing any DR government censorship and spreading the music to more ears.
Zahira Kelly-Cabrera, a Dominican writer and artist who reports on Afro-diasporic topics and culture, broke down the scene for CHICA:
“Specifically, in reggaetón, we see mainly coupled or group perreo dancing on the dance floor, which is also present in dembow. However, in dembow, we also see dance styles that are closely related to black American hip-hop, such as break dancing and Chicago footwork. We see acrobatic Jamaican dancehall inspired moves, booty isolation seen throughout the Afro-diaspora, and death-drop moves found in the queer ballroom scene. We see original, organized, rehearsed group choreography by barrio kids, often grouped by gender. There is an immense amount of well-studied inspiration, talent, dedication, creativity, and community involved in having those dance circles where groups and individuals then showcase all the dance moves they've been so diligently practicing among the community.”
“Everything is organic,” Light GM says of how the music and dance are intimately intertwined. Dembowsero Chimbala's “Con Lo Pie” featuring Black Gorilla in 2011 is a good example of a footwork anthem.
As dembow was building momentum post 2010, rappers who were appalled by the repetitive phrases started a “Say No to Dembow” campaign. The subgenre was constantly criticized by a collective of urban artists. Dembowseros had to step up their game, and did. Santo Domingo native El Mayor Clasico's vibrant personality and form of dressing caught a lot of attention. His extravagant performing style and unique way of dressing led him to be a fashion icon at the time starting trends like the blowed-out high top. 2013. More importantly for the lyrical evolution of the subgenre, a track battle (think a rap battle like Biggee Smalls and Tupac Shakur) heated up between El Alfa and El Mayor, which helped change the delivery and format of the songs. Instead of those repetitive phrases, Dominican dembow artists wrote wittier lyrics, adding more variety and sharp punch lines.
El Alfa: the name in Dominican dembow
Producer Nico Clinico — who invented the addicting trumpet-inspired rhythm for 2009's song of the summer “El Sol La Playa” — continued to push new style mixes now indicative of dembow's frequently tweaked sound: “In 2014, I reached out to Light GM for El Alfa's contact in order to invite him to create ‘Chillin,'' his first Latin trap song. He loved it and when we created it, he told me he wanted to record a dembow for me, and that's when we created ‘Tarzan,'” said the producer. The track introduced a beat that influenced much of the dembow we hear today.
Today, El Alfa is known as one of the most innovative artists of the genre, testing different sounds in every song he puts out. Born on December 18, 1990, as Emanuel Herrera Batista, in Haina, Santa Domingo, “El Alfa El Jefe” moved out of his parents' home to pursue music by the age of 17.
His 2018 album El Hombre peaked at No. 4 on Billboard for Latin Rhythm Albums, the only song to enter a Latin chart was, perhaps unsurprisingly, “Mi Mami,” which hit No. 9 on the Latin Digital Song Sales chart the week of November 8. The song's producer, Chael, who started in hip-hop and mambo, has worked alongside El Alfa for six years, and the two understand each other well.
As noted above, Chael is the creator of trap bow, a fusion of trap and dembow developed in 2016. He acknowledges that others had the idea of integrating the trap foundational 808s and snares sound to the original Jamaican-inspired riddims, but he's pushed and tweaked this style into his own thing. Trap bow gained popularity in 2017 when Chael, El Alfa and Bad Bunny united for the historic “Dema Ga Ge Gi Go Gu,” which came to characterize the new subgenre.
The trio came together again in 2018. “[Bad Bunny] said my album is about to drop, I need you guys to create a song so we can repeat our success,” Chael says. “We analyzed, and we felt we had to do something for the street. Something you can dance to, that people can feel it, feel the vibes. I said we need to create something people will be happy with. Alfa is very professional; he came up with good ideas.”
On Christmas Eve 2018, Bad Bunny dropped his first album X 100PRE. Of the three artists featured on Bad Bunny's 15-track album, El Alfa is the only Latino and appears on “La Romana.” The track, similar to Travis Scott's “Sicko Mode,” transitions to a different sound, going from an instrumental sampling a classic bachata to a full-blown dembow.
Bad Bunny took to Instagram live after his album dropped and spoke about his love for the Dominican Republic and the evergrowing dembow movement, saying the genre transmits happiness the same way the native people do. “I was uneasy about the track [‘Dema Ga Ge Gi Go Gu'] because I didn't understand the movement. After it was created, I visited the island for the time and entered a club, my life changed — and I think it happens to a lot of people who aren't familiar with the genre.”
The Puerto Rican native went on to explain that in order to understand dembow, you have to listen without judgment and understand the culture, comparing it to converting to another religion. When he thought about “La Romana,” he knew exactly who to contact. “I had to call the man that's a dembow machine.” He continued: “El Alfa risked a lot doing different things, has earned criticism and has ignored it all, focusing on his goals.”
Brooklyn's DJ Bembona also acknowledges the impact El Alfa has made, admitting that he is one of her go-to's when playing a set. “My ultimate fave…EL Alfa! His sharp, untouchable delivery, versatility with the tones of voice, his ability to develop formulaic but always engaging song structures, and the strength in his musical production team all equate to the perfect combination that will hype up an audience.”
As a lover of Afro-diasporic music, Bembona appreciates geographies of sound: “I admire the Dominican community especially, in my opinion, for always being…ahead of the game. For me, they spearheaded ‘trap en Espanol,' they've taken the roots of dembow and developed it in a way that specifically fit their culture.”
Is 2019 the year?
Clearly, some feel that it's time for Dominican dembow and artists like El Alfa to be recognized for their innovations to Latin music. It certainly helps to know that someone with Cardi B's reach is on the case.
Chael is hopeful for the new year: “People are going to see the work we are doing organically from the Dominican Republic, an island so small. And we are trying to take our music to the world, and it's being recognized and accepted…. I know that at any moment we…will be nominated in those international awards,” he says, citing dembowseros like Liro Shaq El Sofoke, Chimbala and Lirico en La Casa.
Chael and El Alfa recently worked on a beat sampling Sister Nancy's “Bam Bam,” paying homage to the origins of the sound. “It was a vibe that just came to me, I've always loved Jamaican music and culture, and I've always wanted to do something like that…. When [Alfa] heard it, he went crazy. Once he felt the essence, he said we have to call it ‘Pa Jamaica.'” In a style constantly refreshed with new beats and mixes, recalling roots is key.