Digital Rhythm: The loopy origins of dembow and the knotty dancehall roots of reggaeton
How one song created a genre
Ever wonder why Bobby Digital hasn’t sued the pants off Puerto Rico? If, as the story goes, the dembow rhythm that underpins the lion’s share of reggaeton tracks directly derives from Shabba Ranks’s “Dem Bow,” an early 1990s song produced by Digital using a riddim built by Steely and Clevie, he’d seem to have quite a case.
But what if the full story has yet to be told? It might help to explain why no cease and desist orders have silenced the sampled loop that lends reggaeton its trademark thump. Beyond questions of intellectual property, the untold history of dembow reveals why reggaeton is so widely embraced and deeply resonant. When we follow the path of the percussive pattern synonymous with reggaeton—for a while, Puerto Ricans referred to the genre itself as dembow—we trace a circuit connecting Kingston to Colón to New York to San Juan and eventually every other city in Latin America.
You’ve heard it before. It’s the reason reggaeton gets dismissed as monotonous, a genre with “one beat.” At a mid-tempo stride, a kick plays four to the floor while a snare cuts a classic Caribbean curve across each bar. The loop takes on a two-measure shape, conjuring the Cuban clave as percussive filigree accentuates the rhythm while a quick drum roll (tra!) heightens the return of the downbeat and repeat of the cycle. It’s a particular arrangement of beloved samples, their familiarity an essential part of dembow’s affective charge.
But the drum loop most commonly circulating as “Dembow” on Best Reggaeton Beats CDs or as a minimally metadata’d MP3 is not the same one that underpins Shabba’s seminal single. Instead, it stems from the instrumental of another version of “Dem Bow,” a re-lick of the riddim for a Spanish version, “Ellos Benia,” by Panamanian reggae en español pioneer Nando Boom. Produced neither in Panama City nor Colón, hot spots of the isthmus nation’s reggae scene, but out on Long Island, New York, the recording resulted from a charmed collaboration between Panamanian and Jamaican reggae musicians and producers. Their efforts to translate and cross-market dancehall hits to New York’s sizeable Spanish-speaking community laid the foundation for an entire genre, especially once Puerto Rican producers got their hands on this particular instrumental.
Reggaeton’s myth of origins is now a well-worn yarn. Panamanian descendents of Jamaican labor migrants embraced reggae right away, and by 1980, local vocalists were performing Spanish-language routines, translating the day’s dancehall hits while deploying popular melodies and riddims for odes to such local patrons as bus drivers, club owners, and drug dealers. Around 1990, fleeing Noriega’s military dictatorship, some of Panama’s top vocalists worked with Jamaican producers in New York to make reggae en español a tri-state (and hence Pan-American) phenomenon. Finding their way to Puerto Rico rapidly, their recordings’ instrumental B-sides propelled freestyle sessions in San Juan’s burgeoning hip-hop scene, and soon enough, DJs started chopping up and rearranging the most popular tracks in order to stitch together marathon rap sessions passed around as mixtapes.
Although disputes still arise around the importance of one site over another, reggaeton’s pioneers and devotees generally acknowledge the importance of Jamaican music in Panama and how Puerto Ricans were inspired by, as they departed from, Panamanians’ relatively faithful interpretations of dancehall anthems. Running dancehall riddims through hip-hop’s sample-based blender, Puerto Rican producers like Playero, DJ Negro, and DJ Nelson reimagined reggae en español as a gritty and thickly referential style. Their sample-heavy productions directly indexed the music of Jamaica and Nueva York, overlaying dozens of samples from the same records filling DJs’ crates in San Juan and NYC. In the process of hip-hop-ifying dancehall, they Caribbeanized hip-hop for a new generation of Spanish-speaking rappers.
So distinctive was this bricolage that it needed a new name, and while a great many terms cropped up—undergound, melaza, música negra, dembow—reggaeton stuck as the best way to mark, and market, Puerto Rico’s transformative take on dancehall and hip-hop.
But in highlighting the central sites of Jamaica, Panama, and Puerto Rico, the established narrative downplays the role of New York City, not only a necessary node in the network but, in its way, the birthplace of reggaeton’s most cherished sample, the very loop synonymous with the genre.
Philip Smart cut his teeth as an engineer and producer under the tutelage of King Tubby, tagging along with childhood friend Augustus Pablo to such storied sessions as those that produced King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown. Smart traveled to New York City in the mid-’70s to study audio engineering and broadcasting at Electric Lady Studios, with every intention to return to Jamaica. Instead, he started a long-running reggae radio show on WNYU called Get Smart and in 1982 founded HC&F, “arguably the most significant and longest-running reggae studio in the U.S.,” according to reggae scribe Jesse Serwer in XLR8R.
Smart employed top-notch Jamaican expatriates like Dennis “the Menace” Thompson and a rotating cast called the Super Power Crew to coax contemporary burners from keyboards and drum machines. Recording at HC&F, “it was like you were in Jamaica,” recounts El General, one of Panama’s pioneering dancehall deejays.
The premier reggae studio in New York in the late 1980s and well into the 1990s, HC&F was responsible for almost every dancehall record that crossed over into the American and global mainstream during this period: Shabba’s “Mr. Loverman,” Super Cat’s “Don Dada,” Dirtsman’s “Hot This Year,” Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina” and “Boombastic.” The studio’s reputation for slinky digital drums attracted producers and vocalists from far and wide, especially from Jamaica, from New York’s sizeable Jamaican community, and from the international reggae massive.
One such producer was Ramón “Pucho” Bustamante, a Panamanian with a famous Jamaican surname who got his start in Panama working with a mobile sound system and recording specialized cassettes for buses. He graduated to producing and managing Nando Boom, a leading local vocalist. In 1990, having relocated to New York, Pucho began collaborating with Dennis the Menace and HC&F’s house imprint, Super Power Records, the Brooklyn-based distributor for the U.K.’s Shelly’s Records.
A genuine collaboration, the Jamaicans suggested dancehall hits to cover while the Panamanians contributed, according to Pucho, some Latin sabor to the proceedings. They would review the translations together, to be sure nothing got too lost in translation. This was the context for Nando’s cover of Shabba’s “Dem Bow,” a dancehall anthem chanting down taboo sexual practices and Babylonian oppression in the same breath.
For their version of “Dem Bow,” the multinational crew at HC&F went beyond simply reproducing the instrumental Steely and Clevie built for Bobby Digital, preserving the original’s signature vibe while adding touches of their own. Between Smart’s studio band wanting to develop their own sound and Pucho’s feeling that the original lacked “certain tropical elements,” a distinctive re-lick emerged, including a catchy timbal line inspired by the bouncy, live snare of Steely and Clevie’s riddim but also evoking the 3/2 clave of such quintessential “tropical” genres as son, mambo, and salsa.
Nando’s first attempt to redo Shabba’s song resulted in a recording called “Pensión,” which, in true Panamanian form, stayed true to the melodic and rhythmic twists of Shabba’s performance. But rather than a colorful condemnation of oral and anal sex, “Pensión” celebrated a decent salary.
Pucho’s collaborators were disappointed when they discovered the discrepancy. On second pass, Nando mirrored Shabba’s graphic sexual metaphors as well as his anticolonial, Pan-African politics. Both takes made a splash in the international reggae en español scene, but neither carried the all-important wordless version, the source of the loop that would propel sample-based Spanish dancehall across the Americas and, eventually, the globe.
Instead, the instrumental to this Long Island re-lick of the dembow riddim circulated via another recording using the same version, a voicing by two New York–based Jamaican deejays, Bobo General and Sleepy Wonder. Their ode to strong-backed lovers like themselves, “Pounder,” would bestow a different name on the dembow in Panama. There, Pucho’s and Dennis’s dembow is known as the pounda riddim thanks to what Pucho described as “a bad custom of the Jamaicans,” putting an instrumental version on side B to enable downstream uses.
The “Pounder” 12-inch was released by Shelly’s Records in 1990, distributed by Super Power Records out of Church Avenue in Brooklyn. On the record itself, the only musician credited is Dennis the Menace, with production and arrangement attributed to Super Power Crew. The B-side, humbly titled “Dub Mix II,” should be instantly recognizable even to passing fans, or detractors, of reggaeton: it’s the very loop that animates the vast majority of the genre’s productions. (Sharp listeners, however, will note that “Dub Mix II” features some subtle, dubby turns that have gone neglected in the sample’s loopy afterlife.)
The rest is history: Puerto Rican and Panamanian producers ran with the instrumental, making it the backbone of the genre. Today, the Long Island recording’s timbres and rhythms reverberate from the Dominican Republic, where a local revival of old-school proto-reggaeton travels under the dembow banner, to Panama, Colombia, Mexico, and across Latin America and the wider world, where the lucky loop serves as a key component of reggaeton’s transnational robotics kit.
In the final analysis, this means that Bobby Digital does appear only tenuously entitled to the reggaeton royalties some have speculated he deserves. As for Pucho or Dennis the Menace, they seem to have relinquished any hopes of cashing in, even though a small cut of the dembow would sure make one hell of a pensión.
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