Dembow Explained (+19 Songs Featuring the Iconic Rhythm)

How the dembow beat—found in reggaeton, hip-hop, pop, and far beyond—became a global phenomenon.

March 18, 2024

It’s heard in the clubs. All over TikTok. In nearly uncountable Spotify playlists. Thumping off the walls of Zumba classes. Through the halls of malls. Scan the radio—it’s there too.

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Suffice it to say, you’ve likely heard the dembow beat, even if you didn’t know it by name. Bad Bunny’s chart-topping, Grammy-winning album Un Verano Sin Ti, which was inescapable in 2022, features the beat throughout, with a good example being 30 seconds into “Tití Me Preguntó.” Also, “Despacito,” the 2017 mega-hit by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee credited as a breakthrough moment for Latin music’s popularity in US markets, centers its rhythm around dembow. 

So how did this drum rhythm come to dominate the global pop music charts? The answer is anything but simple.

Roots of a Jamaican Riddim

On the surface, it’s not so difficult to trace the rhythm’s origins, since the name comes from the 1990 song “Dem Bow,” by Jamaican dancehall musician Shabba Ranks. But go just a little deeper and things get more complex. The rhythm track (or “riddim” as it’s referred to in Jamaican parlance) propelling "Dem Bow" was first used by Jamaican production duo Steely and Clevie for Gregory Peck's “Poco Man Jam” (1989), an instrumental they released on the B-side of Peck's record as “Fish Market” (1990). (Add to this the fact that, lyrically, “Dem Bow” is deeply homophobic, which has made it an unfortunate namesake).

Steely and Clevie's riddim brought this cherished rhythm into modern reggae form and to the world, inspiring the Spanish language interpolations that would help shape reggaeton. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Caribbean, dembow becomes not just a popular beat, but its own genre once it finds its way to the Dominican Republic. It also bears mentioning that Dominican dembow is a harder, faster derivative of Puerto Rican reggaeton, which is itself a derivative of the Spanish reggae that began in Panama in the 1980s. But also, you don’t get any of this without New York City.

Still with me?

“New York is a global city,” says Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist and professor in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Department who did his doctoral work in Jamaica and has become a leading expert on reggaeton and dembow. He explains that reggaeton wouldn’t have happened without the decades of migration to New York from Jamaica, Panama, and Puerto Rico. “Every city, every country in the world is in New York. So of course, it's going to end up being a center for global culture.”

Reggaeton—and Dembow—Goes Global

While the intersecting geographic origins of dembow can help us understand the beat's explosion into the mainstream, the spread of this rhythm across borders and cultures also represents a far more personal story of artists and their communities.

“It stopped being about locations and started being about people,” says Rodney Alejandro, chair of the Songwriting Department, who created the course Latin Pop Songwriting and Production in 2021. Wherever these communities existed, Alejandro explains—New York, Florida, Texas—"certain populations of people can congregate and create a market for the music there. So, you're now music for the people. Now you're creating more of an ecosystem where before it was radio in America playing English songs or Spanish stations playing only Spanish songs, and none of them would blend.”

In his course, Alejandro makes sure to center the international perspectives of his students, recognizing that this is where innovation happens. “One of my favorite things about the class is helping the students recognize that where they come from has tremendous value for where they're going,” he says. “This is what I'm trying to encourage with the students—your musical experience meeting the industry standards and production value now is going to create the future.”

There's almost no corner of the musical world now that hasn't been touched by it. . . . It really establishes [dembow] as one of the premier world rhythms.”

— Wayne Marshall

Take Daddy Yankee’s 2004 breakout hit “Gasolina,” which is a key stepping stone in giving Latin pop—and dembow—a global boost. “Gasolina” was also a breakout hit for the song’s producers, Francisco Saldaña and Víctor Cabrera, collectively known as Luny Tunes. The Dominican duo spent part of their childhood in Puerto Rico before relocating to Lynn, Massachusetts, and shortly before being discovered, were working at Harvard Dining Services. 

“To me, they typify the sort of migratory essence of reggaeton,” Marshall says of Luny Tunes. “It really is so much about the movement of people and culture in that way.” The song has since been sampled 15 times, including songs by Indian composer Anu Malik and the trap group Migos.

The Rhythm of Migration

While the modern history of dembow is largely an exchange among communities in the Americas over the past 40 years, the rhythm's roots reach even further into the past and across the globe. In many African countries such as Congo and Ghana, there are versions of dembow-like rhythms, often used in call-and-response and dance contexts, that stretch back through history. It is particularly important to remember these deep roots, given that these traditions arrived in the West Indies and the Americas not through an equitable cultural exchange but by way of the Atlantic slave trade.

“[Culture] gets all tangled up with money grabs and a history of racial exploitation. That makes it a much bigger mess,” Marshall says. But through this mess, he adds “there's almost no corner of the musical world now that hasn't been touched by it. . . . It really establishes [dembow] as one of the premier world rhythms.”

The Eternal Call to Dance

From an anthropological and cultural standpoint, it’s important to trace the lineage of musical attributes such as dembow. At the same time, understanding its origins can only take us so far in terms of explaining why this beat has become so globally dominant. There is perhaps something even more elemental to the human experience at work as well. Marshall explains that in Congolese tradition, there is a dembow-like rhythm called mbilu a makinu, which has been translated as “the call to dance.” 

“That was what that rhythm was supposed to do,” he says. “Get us dancing.”

On the first day of the reggaeton class that Marshall teaches, he asked the students what they found interesting about reggaeton. “Several of them said, ‘It just makes you dance.’ You know, there's something about that beat.” 

Yes, there is, and it calls to us.


Listen to the following playlist to hear how the dembow beat came to be, and to hear where it's going. Read the tracklist below for a better understanding of the traditions and cultures behind the beat. 

Tracklist and Notes

The songs on this playlist are an attempt to showcase how a rhythm varies and changes over time. Ultimately, of course, there is no way to trace a definitive path, and even if such a thing were possible, it would be far more exhaustive than what a playlist can hold. Instead, consider this a quick look into all the cultures and traditions at work in a musical element like the dembow beat. 

Echoes and Origins

1. "Shanti Om," Lord Shorty 

  • Year: 1978
  • Country: Trinidad
  • Genre: Soca

2. "Gondolier," Andre Toussaint

  • Year: 1950s
  • Country: Bahamas (Toussaint is originally from Haiti)
  • Genre: Calypso

3. "Kneebone," Queen Quet (Original Unknown)

  • Year: The first written account occurs in the 1840s; likely older
  • Region: West Indies, via the Atlantic slave trade
  • Genre: Ring Shout

4. "Bamboula," Louis Moreau Gottschalk

  • Year: 1849
  • Country: United States (New Orleans, Louisiana)
  • Genres: Classical, Creole

5. "Controversia," Ismael Rivera 

  • Year: 1969
  • Country: United States (Puerto Rico)
  • Genres: Bomba, Salsa

6. "Descarga General," Cachao

  • Year: 1962 (recorded 1958)
  • Country: Cuba
  • Genres: Son Cubano

7. "St. Louis Blues—Alternate Take B," Louis Armstrong (Original by W. C. Handy)

  • Year: 1929 (originally published in 1914)
  • Country: United States (Memphis, Tennessee)
  • Genre: Blues

8. "Opening Fanfare—Live at the Apollo," James Brown

  • Year: 1962
  • Country: United States (New York City)
  • Genres: Soul, R&B

Regional Examples of Dembow

9. "Fish Market," Steely and Clevie

  • Year: 1989
  • Country: Jamaica
  • Genre: Dancehall

10. "Te Vues Buena," El General

  • Year: 1991
  • Country: Panama
  • Genre: Panamanian Reggaeton

11. "Dile," Don Omar

  • Year: 2003
  • Country: United States (Puerto Rico)
  • Genre: Puerto Rican Reggaeton

12. "PLEBADA," El Alfa, featuring Peso Pluma

  • Year: 2023
  • Country: Dominican Republic 
  • Genre: Dominican Dembow (Pluma's style adds Regional Mexican influence)

Genre Crossovers

13. "Gasolina," Daddy Yankee

  • Year: 2004
  • Country: United States (Puerto Rico)
  • Genre: Reggaeton

14. "Despacito," Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee

  • Year: 2017
  • Country: United States (Puerto Rico)
  • Genre: Latin Pop

15. "Tití Me Preguntó," Bad Bunny

  • Year: 2023
  • Country: United States (Puerto Rico)
  • Genres: Latin Trap, Dominican Dembow, Bachata, Psychedelia 

16. "CANDY," Rosalía

  • Year: 2022
  • Country: Spain
  • Genres: Reggaeton, Pop
  • Note: Rosalía is famously hard to categorize, so it's worth mentioning that "CANDY" interpolates the dubstep song "Archangel" by British DJ Burial, and "Archangel" itself samples "One Wish" by American R&B singer Ray J.

17. "For My Hand," Burna Boy, featuring Ed Sheeran

  • Year: 2022
  • Countries: Nigeria, England
  • Genres: Afrobeats, Pop

18. "Further Up," Caspian

  • Year: 2005
  • Country: United States (Beverly, Massachusetts) 
  • Genres: Post-Rock

19. "A Man / Me / Then Jim," Rilo Kiley

  • Year: 2004
  • Country: United States (Los Angeles, California) 
  • Genres: Indie
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