The Dembow Never Stops

Medellín, once known for violent drug trafficking, is now the international capital of reggaeton

Dancing at the Graffitour, a walk of graffiti murals that pay tribute to rappers killed in Comuna 13. Medellín. 2019. Photograph by David Estrada Larrañeta.

A double-decker bus darted toward the Colombian border in the thick of night. Onboard, the musicians Dany Lee and Gabriel Molero were restless. Aside from one-way tickets stashed in their pockets, they carried with them only a shared suitcase and $150 donated by friends. “We left Venezuela with nothing,” recalls Lee, bearded, six feet tall, with a body sculpted by countless hours in the gym. After launching into musical stardom at home, singing ballads and reggaeton classics and securing a minor role in a teen telenovela, Lee didn’t have a penny left in the bank. At age 33, he was ready to restart his life in Colombia. Molero, two years younger, taciturn and even more muscular, had spent the past few years in part-time gigs: he played music in the Caracas subway, did stripteases as a member of a garoto musical group and sold strawberries with an uncle. Now, as the reggaeton duo Daga—formed from the first syllables of their names, and meaning “dagger” in Spanish—both Lee and Molero were determined to move to Colombia. “We had heard that Medellín was the base camp of reggaeton,” says Lee. “It’s where stars make their name. So it made sense to go there.”

Despite fearing Medellín’s dangerous reputation—the specter of the notorious cocaine drug lord Pablo Escobar hovered over the city thanks to the relentless retelling of his life in films, TV shows and books—Lee and Molero ventured to the city, nestled in the Aburrá Valley. But instead of the caricature of Medellín as a foreboding hub of crime and drugs, Daga found that Colombia’s second-largest city, a bustling metropolis of 2.5 million inhabitants, had largely reinvented itself after decades of violence.

On their first day in the city, without any professional contacts, the two musicians hopped on the pristine overground subway to busk. They had already performed in Bogotá’s infamous public transport system, trying to make a go of it in the nation’s capital for three months after fi rst arrivingin Colombia. In Bogotá, they earned 80,000 pesos a day (about $25), but they doubled that amount in half an hour in Medellín. “We felt blessed,” says Lee. “People gave us a hand from the start.”

As they made their way through metro cars and buses over the following weeks, never straying too far from the city’s most affluent areas like Laureles and El Poblado, the musicians started to acquaint themselves with the local nightclub circuit, including venues in Barrio Colombia. It’s a rugged zone next to the gentrified Parques del Rio, where the government demolished the carcass of Medellín’s old industrial factories to build a trendy cluster of open-air restaurants, office buildings and the centerpiece of the district: the bold Medellín Museum of Modern Art. Lee and Molero also played at clubs in the upscale Parque Lleras, a dizzying landscape where steaming food carts, weary prostitutes and North American backpackers intersect in a whirlwind of neon lights. They became regulars at Puebla, a popular venue. On a good night, they could earn 400,000 pesos—roughly $115.

At first, Daga’s musical repertoire consisted mainly of covers. But over time, as their confidence grew, they began to perform their own songs, which they composed at night before going to bed. Lee focused on the vocals, while Molero, a proficient cuatro player, fiddled with the boom-ch-boom chick known as dembow—the basic rhythm of reggaeton that was born decades before in Jamaican dancehall reggae music. Neither of them was actually fond of the genre, and both would rather have composed romantic ballads, but they knew that, at least in Medellín, it was reggaeton or bust. “If you release an album as a balladeer, good luck. You could at best hope for a 300-person concert,” says Lee. “And they would probably fall asleep,” adds Molero. “You have to play what’s on the radio, and that’s reggaeton.”

By early 2017, when the men arrived in Medellín, Colombian reggaeton had bloomed into a sprawling ecosystem of labels, clubs, production companies, and superstars like J Balvin and Maluma. Even local pop stars and widely known musicians in other genres dabbled in reggaeton in an attempt to ride the music’s towering wave of popularity, which by then was flooding streaming platforms and radio stations around the world. When Lee and Molero first left Venezuela, “Chantaje,” a collaboration between Colombian pop queen Shakira and Maluma, had held its ground as the most viewed video on YouTube for weeks. The duet, which went on to top the iTunes sales chart in a host of countries and cracked the Billboard Hot 100, ended up as the third most streamed song on Vevo in 2017, with almost two billion views. Other Medellín tracks soon joined it on the top 10. J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” a remix of French producer Willy Williams’ “Voodoo Song,” was the third most viewed on YouTube. Glued together by a contagious, unrelenting claxon that wails over the dembow rhythm, the track made waves in the US: Beyoncé hopped on for the remix, and Barack Obama named it one his favorite songs of the year.

The sound produced in Medellín made its way around the world, but nowhere was it more popular than in the Colombian city itself. Medellín had become the world center of reggaeton in a way that was never anticipated. From the sound system of an Audi speeding down the Avenida el Poblado to the crackling speakers of a corner store, the music enveloped the metropolis in a constant, buffering sound bubble. With three radio stations blasting it all day long and dozens of venues to perform in, reggaeton echoed throughout the Aburrá Valley.

The sound produced in Medellín made its way around the world, but nowhere was it more popular than in the Colombian city itself

The genre was first pioneered far from Colombia’s mountains, in Puerto Rico, in the early 1990s. DJ Playero and DJ Negro, among others, conflated hip-hop beats with rhythms of reggae en español, Panama’s refashioning of Jamaican dancehall tracks in Spanish. The result was underground, reggaeton’s direct precursor, a sample-based sound cooked in the projects and caserios of the island and informally distributed in batches of mix tapes. The songs, which were rapped, helped express “an explicit cultural politics of Blackness within a context of enduring racism and blanqueamiento,” argues Wayne Marshall, reggaeton’s preeminent scholar, in his 2009 essay “From Música Negra to Reggaeton Latino.” And they did so with a punch: the lyrics of underground were at times hypersexual and ultra-violent.

Then, in 1994, Puerto Rican underground reggaeton surfaced in the mainstream—and into a whirlwind of public hysteria. As scholar Raquel Z. Rivera details in her essay, “Policing Morality, Mano Dura Style,” albums like Wiso G.’s Sin Parar and the hugely popular Playero #38, often cited as the record that fixed dembow as the rhythmical bedrock of the genre, moved from informal distribution networks to record stores.

One Puerto Rican producer, DJ Nelson, began calling the long sessions he played of these underground tracks maratones (marathons) and, combining the word with the influence of reggae en español, coined the term “reggaeton.” In the following years, the new name brought new ingredients, as novel and inexpensive production tools like Fruity Loops, initially developed for techno production, allowed for electronic music to enter reggaeton. “The genre,” says Marshall, “started to move away from reggae and hip-hop samples and toward futuristic synths, cinematic strings, bombastic effects and […] crescendoing kick drums, snare rolls and cymbal splashes.” By the early 2000s, reggaeton had become a musical phenomenon in its own right, and with the financial push of the music industry, it began circulating outside of the island to cities like Medellín.

But how did Medellín become the new unofficial home of this Puerto Rican sound? Tucked away in the Andes mountains at 5,000 feet above sea level, Medellín might seem an unlikely landing spot for reggaeton. But Medellín carries on its shoulders a rich tradition of Caribbean music. Before Pablo Escobar and the drug trade ravaged the city in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Medellín nurtured a music industry that helped fashion the country’s modern tropical sound. What’s more, as far back as the 1930s, Medellín drew in sounds from all over the Americas, developing a reputation for making all kinds of music of its own.

• • •

Radio host Fernando Londoño first listened to reggaeton at the insistence of a flock of Medellín teenage schoolgirls. In early 2001, armed with a weathered bootleg compact disc, they made their way to his office in the Coltejer building, a needle-shaped high rise in the city’s downtown. They had downloaded the music from the internet, where it had started to circulate among people their age. Londoño, keen on tapping into new trends, let them play the tracks for him. After a couple of minutes, he was appalled. “I’d never heard anything like it,” says the broadcaster, publicly known as El Guru del Sabor (the Taste Guru). Rumba Stereo, the station he had led for six years, played mainly Colombian music, adding an occasional Caribbean track like dancehall or ragga. But the Puerto Rican genre was different—a thrusting, booming, libidinal discharge unmoored from any pretense of decorum. “Punish her! / Whip her! / On the dancefloor I’m going to give you / lashes and slaps!” barked Puerto Rican (or boricua) singer Daddy Yankee on “Latigazo,” a favorite of the girls.

The eagerness of the teenagers both baffled and intrigued Londoño, and he agreed to visit their school to see what the fuss was about. During a lunch break, he witnessed the full reach of the nascent musical movement. The students had cranked up a stereo to the sound of “Yo quiero bailar,” a harpsichord-tinged reggaeton belter by Ivy Queen, the genre’s matriarch. “I want to dance, you want to sweat / and rub your body against mine / and I tell you that if you provoke me / that doesn’t mean that I’m going to sleep with you.” As he stood in the schoolyard watching the students “perrear”—reggaeton’s twerking grind—an epiphany struck him. “They looked ecstatic,” he says. “This was probably happening at every school in the city. I could tap into it.” Back at the station, in March 2001, Londoño took out a disc, slid it into the console, and became the first person to play reggaeton on commercial air waves in Colombia. At 10AM, the lacerating whip samples of “Latigazo” reverberated throughout Medellín.

The floodgates opened. While a seemingly endless stream of students dialed the station asking Londoño to play songs from all of the big Puerto Rican stars like Yankee, Tego Calderón, and Don Omar, parents phoned in to complain about the obscenity of the lyrics. The apprehension of the adults, though, only further popularized the genre. “Music draws generational lines,” Londoño says. “It happened in the ‘70s with rock, and it happened again with reggaeton in the early 2000s.” In a couple of weeks, the ratings of Rumba Stereo skyrocketed, and Londoño made the genre a headliner.

Dancing perrea (a reggaeton-specific dance) at Gato por Liebre nightclub. Medellín. 2019. Photograph by David Estrada Larrañeta.

The sudden popularity of reggaeton at the dawn of the 21st century coincided with the rebirth of Medellín, a city that was recovering from the era of violence of Escobar, who died in a shootout with authorities in 1993. Under Escobar’s control of the Medellín cartel, as many as 5,000 people are believed to have been murdered in the country, including the more than 500 police officers whose executions he ordered in Medellín, offering two million pesos (roughly $600) per head. He also planned and carried out the assassinations of judges, politicians and journalists; in 1991 alone, at the height of the violence, Medellín earned the unwanted honor of being the most violent city in the world.

In the years that followed, a series of progressive reforms sought to articulate a new vision of the city. Under the precepts of “social urbanism,” local administrations readjusted their priorities to build the best public projects in the most vulnerable areas. By 2002, the number of homicides in the city had nearly halved, but the situation was still troubling. Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict was still raging. That same year, the largest urban military operation in the history of Colombia was carried out in Medellín: Operation Orión, an offensive by the Army, the National Police and the Air Force that, in coordination with paramilitary groups, sought to eradicate the last bastion of any guerrilla presence from the city. Although triumphant, the military victory did not take long to sour. In the following years, the paramilitaries who assumed control of the area would disappear more than 100 civilians in the local dump.

• • •

“Reggaeton touched a particular fiber in Medellín when it first arrived here,” says Ronald El Killa, a veteran of the scene and composer and artist at the city’s Kapital Music. “It tapped into our culture of violence, hoods, hitmen, drug trafficking, and loose women[…] The singers sounded like thugs; they were aggressive to their women. And we liked that.”

Wedged between an apartment building and a corner store, Kapital Music occupies a somewhat derelict, two-story house in the quiet Laureles neighborhood, where in the 1990s, the police hunted down the chief security officer of the Medellín cartel. Some of the rooms seem abandoned, their electric sockets exposed. Others, barely furnished, reek of hand sanitizer and weed. Killa commandeers one such room. Wearing all black, a sparkling Hublot watch and a grayish cap that reads “Purple Haze,” the reggaetonero inspires the respect of his younger peers. After all, he composed dozens of international hits at the studio, both for himself and other singers, including tracks for “Viva La Musik,” the popular album by the boricua duo Jowell y Randy.

Like many young struggling musicians from the late ‘90s, Killa, now 36, began as a rapper at a time when hip-hop helped channel the anxieties and dissatisfactions of a generation that grew up amid turmoil. Thanks to the arrival of ‘80s American movies like “Beat Street” and “Breakin,’” the hand-to-hand exchange of cassettes and CDs, hip-hop became a cultural fort in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where criminal gangs took the place of any state infrastructure. At the turn of the century, as reggaeton started to gain traction in Medellín, Killa drifted toward its less political and more rhythmic approach to music. “I wanted to make people dance—and I couldn’t do that with rap,” he says.

Killa’s Kapital Music was just one of the studios that began popping up around the city. The garage studio La Palma opened shop with just a single computer in 2002. Based at the house of 16-year-old Mr. Deck, in the low-income Robledo district, it started out as an amateurish music lab. “To make tracks, we would steal samples from Puerto Rican producers, in particular DJ Blass,” recalls Mr. Deck, who named the studio after a giant palm tree outside his front door. “The process consisted of cutting the bits of the songs that didn’t have any lyrics and repeating them in a sequence to create a track. Once we had the rhythm, we would add the melodies and mash the two together.”

Word of mouth quickly spread, and a litter of young local reggaetoneros like Don Chester, Jay T, Árabe and DJ Pope were soon dropping beats at La Palma. At the same time, Puerto Rican reggaetoneros became headliners at blockbuster concerts in Medellín. The duo Héctor y Tito performed there in 2003, shortly after releasing their first album with Universal Music Latino: A la Reconquista, which became one of the first widely distributed reggaeton records. Their gig at the Atanasio Girardot, the city’s soccer stadium, astonished them, drawing over 40,000 fans. “I’d never seen so many people gathered in a venue,” recalls Víctor Killa, the duo’s DJ. “On the island, we had played in front of 10,000 people at the most.” As Víctor did the sound check, the crowd sang along to each snippet he played. “How the hell did they know all of them?” he asked himself. The answer, in part, was radio host Londoño, who, in addition to keeping Puerto Rican reggaeton on a loop on the radio, had been responding to an increasing demand by throwing reggaeton parties throughout the city.

Londoño’s playlist was only boricuan in the beginning. He refused to play tracks by Colombian Connection and other budding Colombian groups like Tres Pesos. “I knew that the Puerto Rican songs sounded way better,” he says. “The Colombian kids were hungry and talented, but they didn’t have any production value.” Without access to commercial radio, the young reggaetoneros were forced to perform at the only type of parties willing to hire them: proms and underage clubs. Those teenage get-togethers, says Mr. Deck, helped shape the Colombian take on the genre. “From the start, we were less raw than the Puerto Rican artists. We focused more on romantic songs. Anyone could listen to our tracks, and that was in part due to the fact that many of our first gigs were for 15-year-old girls, and the parents didn’t exactly want ‘Latigazo.’”

• • •

In 2004, a sea change swept over Medellín with the arrival of Sergio Fajardo in the mayor’s office. The 48-year-old mathematician spearheaded the Compromiso Ciudadano movement, a coalition of academics, businesspeople, media figures and others who, eager to curb the city’s violence, proposed a new approach to governing that focused on social urbanism and civic engagement. That year, Medellín instituted an innovative gondola system—Metrocable—that provided mass transit for people in some of the city’s steepest and most remote neighborhoods. During his progressive tenure, Fajardo focused on the less privileged and oversaw the reintegration into civilian life of disbanded paramilitary groups like the Bloque Cacique Nutibara (BCN). “Medellín decided to bet on culture in an effort to reinvent itself,” says cultural policy expert Juliana Barrero. The city made music a staple of its agenda; it did not directly fund reggaeton, but the genre benefited indirectly as Fajardo’s administration rearticulated the city’s identity by highlighting culture. Soon, its first homegrown reggaeton star was born.

By 2006, the Colombian reggaeton scene had grown to the point that some radio stations started to air local musicians’ tracks. In those days, La Palma Productions, which had held its ground as the gravitational center of the movement, created a new crew: La Universidad de la Calle (The University of the Street), referring to the decision of many of its members to drop out of college to pursue careers as reggaetoneros. Among them was José Osorio Balvin, a boyish-looking 20-year-old who grew up on Nirvana and Metallica before a high school exchange program in rural Oklahoma exposed him to hip-hop. Infatuated by the sound, he headed to his aunt’s house in New York, where his crush became a calling. Long walks in Queens, under billboards of rappers like Jay Z and P Diddy, showed him the reach of a well-structured music industry.

Long walks in Queens, under billboards of rappers like Jay Z and P Diddy, showed him the reach of a well-structured music industry.

Following a brief stint in Miami, where a fellow Colombian artist rebranded him as J Balvin, he returned to Medellín and rose through the ranks of the reggaeton scene with his rapping skills, New York cred, and manic work ethic. Unlike some of his peers, Balvin had a middle-class upbringing in Medellín and enjoyed a head start: his father, Alvaro Osorio, an economist who specialized in marketing, managed him. “I gave him the recipe for success: persista, resista y nunca desista,” says Osorio.

The son and father relentlessly knocked on the doors of radio stations and television shows and booked every possible gig both in Medellín and throughout the country. “Balvin professionalized the scene,” says Ronald El Killa. “It was very hard for an artist from the streets to get himself into that position. He had the privilege to do so, and he made the business possible for all of us.” In his hands, Colombian reggaeton outgrew anonymity.

In 2008, the journalist Alonso Salazar, who had worked as Fajardo’s secretary of government, inherited the city’s mayorship and maintained his predecessor’s focus on cultural and civic engagement. His slogan, “Medellín: this has to continue,” referred to the many accomplishments achieved by the previous administration: a significant decrease in homicides, extortions and criminal recidivism, as well as a rise in the quality of life index. To rechannel the city’s money to those who needed it most, Salazar continued with a system of participatory budgets that allowed citizens to have a say in the destination of government spending. During his tenure, Medellín’s secretary of culture had a larger budget than the country’s Ministry of Culture.

Soon before Salazar took office, the Biblioteca España opened its doors atop what used to be a crime-ridden slum. Coated in dark tiles, the library’s three rock-shaped buildings went on to win international prizes and were featured in many articles as a symbol of Medellín’s transformation. That same year, the imposing Parque Explora, a science museum that houses the largest freshwater aquarium on the continent, transformed the north of the city with its creative straddling of culture and science. Like many of the new civic landmarks, it was funded by local businesses galvanized by the new breed of progressive mayors.

Even though Salazar had to face a spike in homicides in 2009, by the end of his tenure in 2012, the number of killings had declined almost 80 percent from the Escobar days. What’s more, when he handed the reins of the city to Anibal Gaviria, “Medellín’s reputation as a hub of narcotrafficking and armed violence was eclipsed by an optimistic narrative of transformation and pro-social development fueled by citizen engagement,” as scholar Melissa Brough writes. The city’s turnaround was hailed locally and internationally as the “Medellín Miracle.”

• • •

Colombian reggaeton’s success was its own kind of miracle—or at least a fortuitous confluence of events. As radio producer and music journalist Marlon Bishop wrote for Fader in 2016, the Puerto Rican genre “began to stagnate around 2010 from a lack of new voices and new ideas, and the genre’s stars turned toward uptempo, Pitbull-style dance-pop in order to make hits.” Medellín’s timely arrival on the scene at that moment, riding a wave of a romantic sound led by Balvin, allowed the city to carve out a space for itself on the international stage. In 2013, as the popularity of the Medellín sound rose to international acclaim, local journalists crowned the city as the new “world capital of reggaeton.” Though some Puerto Rican musicians objected to what seemed like a theft of San Juan’s title, more Puerto Rican musicians moved to Medellín.

Medellín. 2019. Photograph by David Estrada Larrañeta.

With their new take on reggaeton, an ever-growing number of producers, singers and sound engineers from Medellín pumped out a slicker, less aggressive sound than that of their Puerto Rican counterparts. “If you compare it to the old sound from Puerto Rico, the Colombian one is more melodic. Their lyrics are more romantic,” says Leila Cobo, vice president and Latin industry lead for Billboard. “They’re not only about going out and having a good time. They tell a story.” In the studios of Medellín, singing replaced snarling. Sexually charged dance anthems, for the most part, made way for belters about relationships.

By 2017, Medellín had hundreds of young, aspiring “urban poets” trying to climb reggaeton’s ladder, and one man in particular, was looking for the best of them. In mid-July, Álvaro Osorio had stacked some 20 flyers touting his company, Go Far Entertainment, on a table at the Juan Valdez café. The promotional leaflet offered a host of services to singers who were just starting off. For $600, the businessman guaranteed at least five concerts in schools across the country, 5,000 CDs to distribute during events, and a social media strategy—plus perks like courses on music production, artistic psychology, fan clubs and legal assistance.

By 2017, Medellín had hundreds of young, aspiring “urban poets” trying to climb reggaeton’s ladder.

Dany Lee and Gabriel Molero, the two young musicians who had hopped a bus from Venezuela to find fame in Medellín, scored an interview with Osorio. “We were really nervous,” Lee remembers. “This was with J Balvin’s dad, you know?” The meeting with the entrepreneur in the bustling mall started out on the wrong foot. When they told him that they didn’t have any money, he wasn’t impressed. So the pair decided to wing it. They stood up and performed a small number for him in the middle of the café. “People started to clap,” Lee says with a smile. “An old lady told us that we were going to be famous.” After seeing the crowd’s reaction, Osorio agreed to hire them, on the condition that they could find an investor to help with the expenses. Lee and Molero, who already had an investor in mind, were euphoric.

The two musicians went from busking and performing in nightclubs to receiving a monthly check and the benefits offered by Go Far Entertainment, which included concerts in venues and schools, their first music video and a campaign on social media.

But the Medellín Reggaeton Miracle had its critics. Many objected strongly to the music’s misogynistic lyrics. For example, in “Cuatro Babys” (2016), the singer Maluma raps: “I’m in love with four sweethearts / They always give me what I want / They fuck whenever I tell them / Not one says ‘but.’” Tens of thousands of people signed a petition demanding the track be censored. Medellín’s reggaeton scene was also faulted for its lack of diversity in its higher echelons. The top artists, all light-skinned, hinted at an uncomfortable truth: in Colombia, the genre had undergone a process of blanqueamiento.

• • •

Even though the number of homicides in Medellín dropped to a historic low during the popular administration of Aníbal Gaviria (2012-2015), journalists and political pundits have argued that “the Medellín Miracle” owes as much to a pax criminale among illegal groups that operate in the city (in particular the Oficina de Envigado, the heir of Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, and the Clan del Golfo). An investigative piece by Vice Colombia found that, in 2018, the city harbored about 350 gangs involved in everything from drug trafficking to extortion. What’s more: cocaine, responsible for so much of the city’s violence, is still prevalent. According to the United Nations, more than 150,000 acres of coca was planted in Colombia in 2019.

In 2017, in the recording booth of his studio, Latin Grammy winner Juancho Valencia faced a conundrum: the Colombian government had invited him to write a promotional song about Medellín. Valencia, a prolific indie musician and producer who had brought back and revitalized genres like cumbia, wasn’t sure if he wanted the track to bob to reggaeton’s dembow. Excluding it, he knew, would have been disingenuous. But including it would have meant to acknowledge Medellín’s full-fledged embrace of a genre that he had often criticized for its rhythmic simplicity and, more importantly, its moral shortcomings. “What values does reggaeton transmit to our society?” he asks. “Some of the kids dabbling in reggaeton today think Escobar is a TV character, not our deepest wound.”

In 2018, Valencia and his band, Puerto Candelaria, did produce a song for the government. Titled “Una eterna primavera” (“An Eternal Spring”), it debuted on YouTube. The video of the track opens with a shot of the Coltejer building, where radio host Fernando Londoño helped change the future of Colombian music. A title crawl in English reads: “Amidst a valley in the Andean mountains, there is a city where culture, creativity and innovation thrive, and where its charming inhabitants enjoy spring-like weather all year round. A place that will take your breath away and leave you forever changed.” As a trumpet blast announces the start of the song, the video shows a group of backpackers roaming the city: on the metro, on a rooftop bar, at the Medellín Museum of Modern Art. And underpinning it all is reggaeton’s tropical, relentless, all-encompassing dembow.


Christopher Tibble

Christopher Tibble is a journalist and writer based in Bogotá, Colombia. He edited the cultural magazine Arcadia from 2014 to 2017 and he worked as the fiction editor for Editorial Planeta Colombia in 2019.

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