Two months ago, Awez Darbar, an Indian dancer and choreographer with a sizable following — 1.7 million subscribers on YouTube and close to 19 million followers on TikTok — posted a new dance video online. Most of his clips are set to songs that are popular in India; occasionally Darbar dabbles in English-language hits like Drake’s “In My Feelings” or Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You.” But at the end of September, the dancer was writhing around on the floor and punching his fists skyward, trying to keep up with the jackhammering raps of El Alfa.
El Alfa hails from the Dominican Republic and specializes in the genre known as dembow. This homegrown style is characterized by tracks that hurtle along, sticking close to the ground and emitting short, sharp samples like a submarine sending out sonar. The rapping in dembow is often drilling and repetitive — like an answer to the instruction “say this 40 times fast” set to blistering instrumentals that can push past 135 beats per minute.
Dembow has thrived in the Dominican Republic and its diaspora in Spain, New York City and elsewhere for years; now, for the first time, it appears to be on the verge of reaching a wider listenership. On the other side of the world, Darbar has taken notice of the genre. Closer to home, so have major labels — Universal Music acquired the rights to Lírico En La Casa’s “Motorcito,” which amassed over 50 million views on YouTube, while Warner-Chappell scooped up one of El Alfa’s main producers, Chael Betances — and Major League Baseball, which used the sputtering, squeaky dembow hit, “Limonada CoCo” to soundtrack an advertisement for the 2019 postseason.
The rising interest in dembow, combined with the global growth of Latin music over the last five years, has some dembow insiders ready to make bold predictions about the genre’s future. Santiago Matias, whose Alofoke radio show enjoys more than 1.5 million YouTube subscribers, has long championed dembow from his studio in Santo Domingo. He believes the genre has the potential to re-shape mainstream Latin music, saying simply, “dembow is the new reggaeton.”
In a sense, dembow is the old reggaeton, too: The term refers to both a tremendously popular rhythm, which forms the basis of reggaeton, and the spare, pummeling off-shoot from the Dominican Republic.
This is partially the fault of Bobby Digital, a producer who recorded a single titled “Dem Bow” with the Jamaican singer Shabba Ranks in 1990. “Bobby used a steady rhythm, the kick drum plays four to the floor, the snare cuts a classic Caribbean beat across each bar, and that’s on a loop,” explains Paris Cabezas, a musician and a managing partner at Innercat Music Group, which has worked with El Alfa and distributed Lírico En La Casa’s YouTube hit “Súbete” (over 185 million views). “That became popular because it’s extremely sticky.”
During a trip to Long Island, Cabezas explains, the Panamanian singer Nando Boom cooked up his own variation on Ranks’ “Dem Bow;” the instrumental developed during that session spawned the foundational loop of Puerto Rican reggaeton. Matias says “the essence” of the current Dominican dembow sound comes from key Puerto Rican acts like DJ Playero and The Noise, who became popular in the Nineties.
But as Puerto Rican reggaeton became increasingly successful, it underwent a softening process — it became more melodic to appeal to a wider group of listeners. “By 2005, reggaeton was already getting full-blown mainstream attention in the U.S., the sound was getting more polished, there were a lot of love songs,” explains Pedro Guzman, who leads music operations for MediaNet Partners, which aims to invest in local Dominican labels so they can grow without requiring assistance from majors.
The softening process (and the mainstream U.S. success) skipped the Dominican Republic, according to Guzman. “When the Dominicans started doing their own brand of urban music, it was a lot more raw,” he says. “It was basically just a beat and vocals. There wouldn’t be much harmony, just a drum loop with people shouting over it.”
And it was gasp-for-air fast. “I interviewed J. Balvin two years ago and asked if we could hear him in a dembow,” Matias says. “He said, ‘Look, I don’t understand the speed of the dembow.’” (Two years later, however, Balvin joined El Alfa and global EDM evangelists Major Lazer on “Que Calor.”)
The reason Dominican dembow gallops may have to do with the island’s historical preference for uptempo merengue, says Cabezas. “Dominicans are used to dancing to merengue at incredible high speeds,” Cabezas explains. “In order for dembow to work in the average club, it had to be fairly fast.”
Dembow has become so popular in the Dominican Republic this decade that merengue has been pushed out of the spotlight — especially for young listeners. “Merengue got displaced so hard that the Recording Academy stopped getting submissions in the category for a Grammy Award, and because of the lack of the submissions, they had to remove the category,” Cabezas adds. “Submit merengue, and you’ll land in [the] tropical [category].”
Dembow moved easily from the Dominican Republic topockets of Dominicans living abroad. “New York has always been a big hub for it uptown, Washington Heights, because of the concentration of Dominicans in that area,” says Luis Rivera, director of programming for Music Choice, which controls audio for more than 60 million Americans who listen to music through their TVs. “It does well in Philadelphia too, areas like Boston.” “You saw it get traction in the Dominican communities in Miami, also within Spain,” Guzman adds.
In a different era, the genre might have stayed there. But one of the defining musical movements of the decade has been the digitally-enabled spread of Spanish-language music to populations around the globe — YouTube dancers in India, for example, or pop radio programmers in America.
Melodic reggaeton led this charge, but dembow has benefitted as well. “With YouTube channels and metrics from Spotify, we started to see countries were really starting to support the dembow — Spain, Italy, Chile,” says Jairo Bautista, the co-CEO of Aparataje Music Group. Aparataje releases music from dembow acts like Lírico En La Casa, Liro Shaq, and Chimbala, whose “Stand By Me”-esque dembow “Rueda” is currently Top Ten on Spotify in Spain.
Streaming of dembow tracks on Spotify has increased over 13,000 percent between January 2014 and August 2019, according to data provided by the platform. When El Alfa started working with Innercat in 2017, he had around 300,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. Two years later, his audience has climbed to nearly 12 million.
Still, marquee streaming service playlists are primarily focused on supporting pop-leaning reggaeton, which has been the commercial engine for mainstream Latin music in recent years. “One of the problems is that the big streaming platforms don’t program the dembow in their big lists,” Matias says. Spotify’s Baila Reggaeton, which is nearing ten million followers, is largely populated by Puerto Rican and Colombian artists. Baila Dembow, on the other hand, has just 56,000 followers. “Don’t isolate dembow,” Matias counsels. “Don’t see it as an underground genre.”
When it comes to video and radio distribution, dembow can face similar hurdles. “The challenge with us is we’re a national service,” Music Choice’s Rivera says. “I have to take into account San Antonio and Chicago [where there are fewer Dominicans than in New York City or Miami], so to a large degree I haven’t been able to play music that I like from the dembow movement.” (Still, he is considering putting together an entire video channel devoted to dembow.)
DJ Eddie One, who serves as assistant music director for the Los Angeles radio station KLLI, echoes Rivera. “The West Coast is not like New York when you have Dominicans and Puerto Ricans with the most knowledge of dembow,” he says. “The majorities here are Mexicans followed by Central Americans, so you gotta break the ice.”
There may be no more effective ice-breaker right now than Bad Bunny, one of the biggest names in pop music. But even so, his latest collaboration with El Alfa, “La Romana,” did not crack the Top 30 at Latin radio in the U.S. Eddie One refers to Balvin and El Alfa’s “Que Calor” as “La Romana Part 2” — and with Balvin’s hummable melodies tempering El Alfa’s ferocity, the single appears shrewdly engineered to reach a wide audience. But “Que Calor” hasn’t proved to be the breakthrough either: It still hasn’t made it to the Top Ten on Latin radio.
Success on the airwaves may not be necessary for dembow to achieve mainstream recognition outside of the Dominican Republic . Matias goes further, suggesting radio success runs contrary to the genre’s core principles. “Dembow is not promoted on the radios,” he says. (Dembow tracks have been banned from the airwaves in the Dominican Republic.) “The essence of dembow is to promote yourself in the street.”
There is recent precedent for radio-less popularity in Latin pop: Latin trap, a sub-genre that erupted a few years ago, enjoys a healthy following even though it hasn’t had many major radio hits. Established artists like Arcángel, De La Ghetto, Maluma, and Daddy Yankee were quick to collaborate with young trap acts, helping them achieve name recognition — and plenty of streams — without the support of program directors.
Established stars have started to embrace dembow, if not quite to the degree that they swarmed Latin trap in late 2016 and early 2017. Along with Bad Bunny and J Balvin, Cardi B and Diplo have also made music with El Alfa. Farruko, another Puerto Rican hit-maker and an early supporter of Latin trap, jumped on a pair of dembow remixes this year, adding verses to “Súbete” and Chimbala’s brassy “Maniqui.” “One of the next steps [for the genre] is making more collaborations,” says Bautista of Aparataje Music Group. And, adds Matias, “better visuals.”
Touring outside of the Dominican Republic will also be necessary to continue to raise dembow’s profile. Both El Alfa and Lírico En La Casa have found success recently performing in Spain. “Spain is a phenomenal arena for Dominican artists,” Cabezas says, but “I went through hell to get El Alfa to say yes to go on tour in Europe. He did not want to do it.” The dembowsero did eventually make the trip, and, Cabezas adds, “he can’t get enough of it now.”
Matias is adamant that dembow is primed for its own period of commercial glory. “Merengue was lethargic because the genre did not bring in new faces,” the radio host explains. “Music genres are like a pool. If you don’t change the water, it stagnates.” While he’s talking about merengue, observers could make a similar argument about commercial reggaeton. What’s the problem with stagnation? “Then,” Matias says, “nobody can dance.”