Monthly Archives: July 2014

Shabba Ranks, Dem Bow, and Reggaeton

Mr. Loverman

In the early Oughts it was impossible to walk into a bodega and not hear Reggaeton playing loudly. Going in to by a beer was accompanied with a soundtrack by Don Omar, Calle 13, Daddy Yankee or Tego Calderon. Latin radio advertised heavily that Reggaeton was ruling the airwaves. Although the pop crossover didn’t happen to the degree expected you only have to stand a few moments on a street corner in Brooklyn or the Bronx to catch a snippet of the ubiquitous rhythm.

Daddy Yankee

The root of the genre, and the singular beat has migrated from Puerto Rico to NYC and then globally, is based on a Dancehall single. 1991 saw the release of Shabba Ranks’ song Dem Bow. The Bobby Digital produced single was one in a massive run of Dancehall dominance by Shabba. Although many in pop listeners know Shabba’s cheesier side, he had Dancehall locked down in the early 90′s. Dem Bow was one of several hard hitting singles that he released. Dem Bow itself is a re-lick of the Steely & Cleevie produced, Gregory Peck DJ’d track, Poco Man Jam.

Dem Bow 45 single
Dem Bow 45 single VERSION

Listening to Shabba’s song you can hear the skeleton of Reggaeton but there is something missing. And when you hear the version track it is a bit closer but there is still something not quite right. The actual track that undergirds the many Reggaeton versions is a re-lick of Shabba’s single by Nando Boom. “Ellos Benia” takes Dem Bow and adds a slight bit of sonic Sofrito that then takes the Spanish Reggae scene by storm. Dem Bow and the re-lick were unstoppable in the Caribbean with English and Spanish artists getting up on their respective riddim.

Nando Boom

What fascinates me is the both the widespread popularity of the versions of Dem Bow and its staying power. The 1990′s was an absolutely massive time for reggae riddims with many cut into versions a decade later, but none have the breadth of Dem Bow. I was on a flight in India watching Hindi movie videos to pass the time when I my jaw dropped upon hearing the open bars of Dakku Daddy. Buried within a masala intro were the bones of the Dem Bow riddim. IshQ Bector’s song was clearly the Indian re-lick of a Reggaeton beat, which itself is built upon a Reggae riddim that is a re-lick of an older riddim. This is the DNA of a riddim moving through time and place.

IshQ Bector

The musical signifiers of Dem Bow traveled well but less so the lyrics. Breaking down the patios finds lyrics typical to the Rasta rebellious Puritanism of time. On one hand Shabba is calling out oral sex as a vestige of colonial oppression (both the gay and straight variety). On the other chorus is giving a big-up to those who don’t bow to colonialism and oppressors. The problematic duality of raising demands of repression as signals of freedom in Dancehall is well discussed. What I find interesting is the moving the core track of Dem Bow away from English seemed to free up its lyrical space. In Spanish it is a rallying cry, a love song, a party song, etc, where in the Dancehall context other artists used the riddim to toast lyrics along the same theme.

The Dem Bow riddim is obviously rich culturally and I could research and say so much more. I have to give major props to two sources that I recommend and leaned on to learn about this song. Both by Wayne Marshall, there was, first, an article in Wax Poetics, and then later I found a more academic article by Mr. Marshall.

Dem Bow 45
Dem Bow single

Tense Presence / Record Game – Bel-air Radio (in exile)

photo (1)Paul on the ones and twos.

Last Sunday Paul and I went to do a show on BEL-AIR radio but there was a screw up and it didn’t happen. We have a special edition here — the radio show in exile. Listen and/or download.


A previous show is archived here.

ANC Radio Freedom

Radio Freedom front cover

Abasakwazi Nokupumula (They Cannot Rest)

Dawn Breaks commentary

Here We Are/Khaya Bakulindile (Here We Are/They Are Waiting for You at Home)

Kea Rona (It Is Ours)/Basoba Nansi Indodemyama (Look Out, Here Comes the Black Man!)/Closing Remarks

Records are, for the most part, lenses by which you can view the past. Usually what can be discussed is genre, music styles, or cover art. The Radio Freedom album gives a look at how radically South Africa has changed in the past twenty eight years. When this album was released in 1986 by Rounder records, people caught listening to the ANC’s radio station, broadcast from several countries outside of South Africa, could be sent to prison for eight years. This is also a time where Mandela was still in prison, COSATU was recently formed and engaging in mass action, the townships were in revolt, and Apartheid still had a firm grip. The tracks are a sampling of the cultural and political milieux of the moment.

And that is was intrigues me. Instead of a backward looking document highlighting certain points of the struggle, it feels much more like a window into what was happening in the moment. The tracks themselves are set to bleed into each other as if part of a single radio broadcast, with commentary, rallying cries, and songs integral to the revolutionary culture. I suggest zooming in on the photo of the back cover as it goes into the backstory in depth, however, I am struck by a section on the end:

During our brief stay, we heard Bob Marley’s Blackman Redemption, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Jimmy Cliff’s Struggling Man, Oku Onuora’s Wi A Come and assorted tracks by an eclectic variety of others.

As people in Jamaica, England, or the United States could be inspired by the bravery and steadfastness embodied in the culture of the Anti-Apartheid struggle, they too were being motivated by other nodes of cultural resistance.

The Appendix blog has a good background article contextualizing the album.

ANC radio freedom back cover

ANC radio freedom lable

Boston Goes Def! Comp

Apparently, depending on the browser you are using the images in this post appear to be rotated incorrectly. I don’t know what to tell you other than to turn your head…


-Power in Our Rhymes

-Betty Lou

-Popeye Rap

There is a surprising dearth of information about the Boston Goes Def! compilation online, and given how small the Boston scene was (and is), it is also surprising that none of these groups seem to have the faintest existence outside of this album, although Edo.G might be on there with FTI Crew, but the date of his joining the group and when the recording was made might not match up. The Old School Hip-Hop forum does shed some possible light on the situation:

I grew up in Boston (actually Newton Centre which is right outside of Boston) and I can remember when this album was being put together. I used to listen to a show called Lekkos Lemma (sp?) They would promote this album on the air and accepted demo tapes from local acts. The guys name was Magnus. He would play demo tapes from up and coming acts. They all sounded low budget compared to the stuff that was coming out of New York at the time.

That pretty much sums the good and the bad about this album. It isn’t as good as other rap cuts from the time, in fact, some songs just sound like lesser versions of other songs. So it doesn’t seem that critical of a record to have stashed in the collection outside of regional identity based interest. But then again, when I listen past the Whodini and Run-D.M.C. aping it does have some nice moments. And after knowing the hyper-local and humble origins, it starts to be endearing.

Also, I am a bit fascinated by what is implied by this compilation – namely that given Boston’s demographics, some, if not many, of the artists are likely to be white. And while in 2014 this is nearly a non-issue, I can only think that in 1986 Boston it would only be one. The rappers here would have been young children during the Boston busing crisis. I think its a bit heartening that other issues aside, just nine years after the start of racist violence an integrated rap compilation could come out of those very neighborhoods.

The group that wears its name most obviously, the White Boy Crew, has some interesting connections to hip-hop history:
John Dorff, a.k.a. The M.C. Popeye, with rhyming roots in Mission Hill (Boston) and Four Corners (Dorchester, MA), founded The White Boy Crew when he teamed up with Seth Trafford, a.k.a. The Beat Box Spinach. For most of the 2 year career of the group it was just John and Seth, who earned considerable local respect by performing live, competing in talent shows, and getting airplay on 88.1′s Saturday afternoon underground hip hop show hosted by the Magnus Johnstone, the now legendary radio deejay credited with being instrumental in breaking the underground hip hop scene in Boston. Soon they were scouted to appear on the Boston Goes Def Boston Goes Def! compilation. The White Boy Crew did have a deejay as part of the act at two different points – first was Mike Dee, of the original Boston based Gangstarr (Keith Elam ‘The Guru’ later took Gangstarr to NYC but left Mike behind), and later Sean Gillis a.k.a. DJ Steady a.k.a. DJ Shamrock.
So despite the flaws there is a little more to this record than the first drop of the needle suggests.

UPDATE: After publishing this post I came across an article in Wax Poetics about the Lecco’s Lemma radio show and the origins of Beautiful Sounds record label. It is an interesting look at the Boston rap scene and the handful of artists, like Edo-G and Guru, who developed out of it. Wax Poetics is such a great resource and I should have known better and went there first.



Evelyn Thomas – High Energy 12″ single

Evelyn Thomas High Energy cover

High-Energy 12″ version


High-Energy Remix by Victor Flores


Emerging as one of the threads out of disco’s unraveling, the sub-genre HI-NRG began to be established in the early 80′s. Along with pushing up the tempo, producers began “Euro-fying” post-disco singles with a strong four on the floor approach, much like Freestyle producers were adding some Latin edge at the same time in NYC. Noted Northern Soul DJ Ian Levine found himself as the resident DJ in the London gay club Heaven. Heaven had, among other draws, an absolutely massive sound system. Levine began mixing in up-tempo Soul singles into his sets. The crowd’s reaction along with other up-tempo cuts pushed Levine into producing.

By 1983 HI-NRG charts were appearing and apparently Levine moved to capitalize on the genre that he had a hand in creating. Reaching back into his soul background, Levine recruited Evelyn Thomas to lay vocals on this chart-referencing single. Released on a London record shop’s label and licensed to a mom-pop-and-son label in the US, the song was a hit in the gay disco scene. The US issue of the single also has a light touch remix by Victor Flores. The song itself stands as a pretty solid summation of the HI-NRG sound and you can easily hear the genre’s basis as one of the threads that make up the soon emerging Euro-disco and House.

Evelyn Thomas label 2

Kool Rock Jay & DJ Slice

kool rock jay rotated 3
Check It Out

Slice It Up


Kool Rock Jay & DJ Slice were a duo out of Fresno and before they became a bit militant with It’s a Black Thing they debuted with this 1986 single on Erika Records / Jam City Records. Check It Out wears the period on its sleeve with style echos of Rakim. The flip is DJ Slice’s showcase and again the era is all over it- from the Planet Rock, Funkadelic, Wild Sugar, and The Smurf samples, to the cuts. I copped it because it is a pretty good taste of mid-80′s hip-hop. Fun Fact: they were later produced by Lionel ‘The Super Duper Dope Hook Man’ Bea. Clearly a man with a humble ego.