Hispanic Heritage Month: How Dembow Evolved into the Hottest Thing in Latin Urban Music

It’s the classic underdog story.

The genre of dembow — a Dominican style of music identified by its playful, rapid drum pattern and carefree energy — began as a musical pariah, rejected by both mainstream and underground communities in its birthplace. “When I’d go to the television and radio stations, they’d say, ‘No, we can’t play that,’” El Alfa told Billboard in March. “But you step in the streets, and all you could hear was dembow.”

At that time, dembow faced relentless criticism and resistance due to what one Dominican Republic government official recently referred to as “sexual and obscene content” (not too dissimilar to what reggaetón acts faced early on in Puerto Rico). But in recent years, the genre has taken the world by storm. Latin stars across the board, including J Balvin, Rosalía, Camilo, Natti Natasha, Daddy Yankee and Justin Quiles, have tapped into the genre in the last year alone, collaborating with dembow mainstays Chimbala and El Alfa, as well as the genre’s iconoclastic up-and-comer, Tokischa.

The genre has experienced greater awards show presence (Tokischa and Rosalía live-debuted “Linda” at the 2021 Billboard Latin Music Awards), as well as Billboard chart highs (El Alfa’s “La Mama de la Mama” reached No. 9 on Hot Latin Songs last May). Its biggest stars are now transcending local nightclubs, performing across the global and and even packing arenas (El Alfa played a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden in 2021).

While many non-Dominicans were exposed to dembow by way of El Alfa, today, a number of dembow artists are sharing the spotlight, including Tokischa, Rochy RD, Yomel El Meloso, La Perversa, Braulio Fogon, Gailen La Moyeta, Leo RD, Kiko El Crazy and Bulova, among others.

“Dominican Dembow is survival hood music and embodies Dominican Black joy — its all ancestral from the dance movements to the diasporic drum patterns,” says dembow historian, Jennifer Motaval. “Throughout the years we’ve seen it evolve in production and lyricism, captivating global audiences. The music rose organically despite the many barriers — that is monumental.”

Below, Billboard explores the evolution of dembow by way of some of its most iconic musical moments.

1990: Shabba Ranks, “Dem Bow”

The genre dembow pulls its name from Jamaican dancehall artist Shabba Ranks’ anti-imperialist (and unfortunately, anti-gay) anthem “Dem Bow,” Jamaican Patois for “they bow.” The forever-sampled track became a catalyst for the Dominican genre, and sister genre reggaetón, both by way of “reggae en espanol.”

1993: DJ Boyo, “Mujeres Andadoras”

Within three years, Ranks’ riddim found its way to Quisqueya. Arguably the founder of Dominican dembow, DJ Boyo worked painstakingly to usher in a sound suited for a population responsible for the sweat-inducing tempo of merengue. “Mujer Andadora” arrived on the heels of Panamanian “reggae en espanol” godfather El General’s “Tu Pum Pum,” but was met with disdain from both radio DJs who mainly played salsa, bachata and merengue, and local spanish-language hip-hop artists. It remains the first example of Dominican dembow, before the sound became fully solidified.

2006: Los Andolocos, “Ando Loco”

Thanks to the rise of the internet and blogs, dembow was able to begin blossoming without the help of major television and radio stations. The track “Ando Loco” by Los Andolocos was the first to gain large-scale recognition in the Dominican Republic, being spun at clubs nationwide. This time period was also extremely fruitful for reggaetón across the way in Puerto Rico.

2010: Pablo Piddy, “Quisqueyano Dembow”

The 2010s can be understood as dembow’s springtime. An outpouring of popular tracks and artists bolstered the genre, like rapper-turned-dembowsero Pablo Piddy, Monkey Black, El Alfa and Chimbala, among others. Because of Piddy’s lyrical abilities, tracks like “Quisqueyano Dembow” brought a new level of composition and structure to the genre.

2012: Chimbala, “Baila Con Lo Pie”

While he started off producing records for dembow greats like El Alfa, Chimbala, aka el pequeñito, stepped into full artist mode with the danceable “Digo E” and “Con Lo Pie.” Both tracks mark a pivotal moment for the ever-rising dembowsero, and remain dance favorites two decades later.

2014: La Materialista, “La Chapa Que Vibran”

Standing tall as one of the most recognizable women in the dembow genre, La Materialista made waves with her 2014 single, “La Chapa Que Vibran.” Moments like this (including Milka la Mas Dura’s “Dale Ven Ven” in 2009) were extremely noteworthy in a genre that like many others, did not prioritize creating space for women artists until much later in its history. Around the same time, other Dominican women in the urbano genre were also rising, like Amara la Negra and La Insuperable.

2017: Bad Bunny feat. El Alfa, “Dema Ga Ge Gi Go Gu”

El Alfa and Bad Bunny’s “Dema Ga Ge Gi Go Gu” brought much of the larger Latin Urban music audience to dembow. The Puerto Rican megastar became a major supporter of the genre, collaborating again with El Alfa (2018’s “La Romana”) and sampling other dembow artists like Chimbala and Rochy RD. While Conejo Malo was among the first of mainstream artists to tap into the explosive genre, he certainly wasn’t the last, with Rosalia, J Balvin, Jowell y Randy, among others boasting a dembow track under their belts.

2020: Tokischa & Yomel El Meloso, “Desacato Escolar”

Dembow received the shake-up of a lifetime in 2020 by way of budding rapper-turned-genre mainstay Tokischa. Within a space historically dominated by male artists (save standouts like La Materialista, La Insuperable and Milka la Mas Dura), Toki burst onto the scene with sex-positive lyricism, bringing along a number of other female dembow acts, like Yailin la Mas Viral and La Perversa. She foreshadowed her mark on the genre with the opening line of “Desacato Escolar”: soy una nena rebelde.

2021: El Alfa, CJ & El Cherry Scom, “La Mama de la Mama”

It was the dembow single heard ’round the world. In summer of 2021, El Alfa, CJ and Cherry Scom’s “La Mama de la Mama” dominated the streets and the charts, marking El Alfa’s (and arguably the genre’s) most noteworthy mainstream breakout moment, outside of a major outside collaboration. The electrifying single peaked at No. 9 on the Hot Latin Songs chart, marking a career high for El Alfa and the dembow genre.

Neena Rouhani