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.
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.
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.
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.
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.