Zen of Recording

The New Bo Diddley Beat, From the ’90s to Now

It’s a veritable wellspring of (often mis)information: the Internet. Or, as they referred to it in Christopher Guest’s movie For Your Consideration, the Interweb. The Great Digital Book of Answers is something that didn’t even exist for half my life, so I know the difference and consider myself lucky to have lived without it long enough to truly appreciate its wondrous potential.

Sometimes, however, I read something that is so particularly moving, impactful, or influential that I am inspired to share that knowledge with others. I open my browser and begin typing in search terms, only to find myself suddenly overwhelmed with information; much of it useless. Often, the object of this quest is never found.

This brings me to a recent example, wherein I wanted to find the exact quote to bolster a point I hope to (but maybe won’t) come to during the course of this article.

Some years ago, the late David Bowie gave an interview wherein he was asked about his ability to continually reinvent himself musically and consequently appear to be at the crest of whatever was in vogue, stylistically speaking. His reply was in essence, “Once you’ve heard something, it’s already out of style.” This made great sense to me at the time, especially considering the time-intensive process of creating, refining, performing, producing, marketing, and disseminating any art form to a mass audience or really any audience at all. By the time that cycle has come fully around, the world has already moved on to something else. Only a constant drive to innovate can keep you away from the perils of recycling clichés and rehashing played-out formulas and idioms.

So there I was, listening to Latina Pop on the radio (remember those?) and thinking, “I kinda dig this one recurring rhythm. Maybe I could bring that musical influence into what I do and meld it into some sort of fresh musical alchemy. Add some new colors to the palette, so to speak.”

Just as I was musing upon that inspiration, the song playing (Shakira’s “Me Enamoré”) abruptly gave way to a new one, Ricky Martin’s recent hit, “Vente Pa’Ca.” I immediately noticed that while the rhythmic patterns of the two songs were slightly different, the attitude, inflection, drum samples, and even the song structures down to the beats per minute were very similar, both in the ferocity of their attack and in their big, giant sing-along hooks.

The beat’s style and rhythm is called Reggaeton. It’s a fairly new musical genre that originated in the clubs of San Juan, Puerto Rico during the 1990s and if the lyrics to many of the songs are to be taken at face value, this is the beat that makes the girls all populate the dance floor.

The underlying pulse features a girthy, hard-driving kick drum (often layered with an Roland 808-like sample) playing a simple but insistent one measure pattern, like Dotted Quarter– Dotted Quarter–Quarter (hits on the 1, the “and” of 2, and the 4). This is complemented by a busy high-hat pattern, a syncopated conga or woodblock, and an aggressively midrangy snare sound.

The rhythm is called dembow and its presence throughout all of its subtle variations are what bind these grooves  together.

I continued listening and for eight songs in a row, this particular beat propelled every one of the arrangements. I starting Shazam-ing all of them, just to lay down a trail of “bread crumbs”…

“Hermosa Ingrata” by Juanes. “Si Una Vez (If I Once)” by Play-N-Skillz. (feat. Wisin, Frankie-J, Leslie Grace)
“Ven Balliao” by Angel Y Khriz
“Al Filo De Tu Amor” by Carlos Vives
“Sigo Extrañándote” by J Balvin
“Alguien Robo” by Sebastian Yatra (feat. Wisen & Nacho)

Shakira and Carlos Vives even had a hit collaboration with “La Bicicleta,” a frothy, confection that still manages to exude a burnished authenticity in its arrangement.

I changed the channel to a modern pop station, pretty much fleeing from the beat’s omnipresent barrage and was met like a slap in the face with Maroon 5’s latest, “Cold” (feat. Future) and it was exactly the same beat.

I grabbed the dial and spun it wildly, my mind pegging the meters with its fixation on three short and seemingly unattainable syllables: Must. Essscaaape.

I can’t fully explain what happened next, except to say that this actually occurred.

I miraculously found another pop station in one swift, uninterrupted twist to the left. Just straight up stuck the landing and brought it into perfect tune like some kind of radio ninja.
Little did I know that my decisive (if somewhat herky-jerky) manhandling of the dial would unleash an even greater torture unto myself and those around me. Maybe you’ve already guessed it, just from that description. That’s right: Ed Sheeran.

English, carrot-topped, neo-folkie-poppy-troubadour I-think-I’m-using-all-of-these-hyphens-because-even-the-thought-of-his-music-drives-me-a-little-bit-crazy was dropping the very best example of what to do with that beat. You know, the one that I was a lot more excited about 42 minutes earlier.

Still, I gotta give it up to Sheeran and producer Steve Mac’s use of restraint, offering a leaner, softer, and less cluttered arrangement that feels no need to provoke you, because it knows it already has you in its thrall.

So, no. I’m not as stoked on using a Reggaeton beat as I was. I still may try, just to see what it feels like, but… while I do like the vibe of those songs I heard, it seems like kind of a narrow road, stylistically speaking.

Go to YouTube.com and cut and paste the titles and artists to learn more about this interesting and relentless style. There are even producers who will show you how to construct this infectious beat. All in all, I found it a fun diversion in learning about a musical form I hadn’t realized I was already so immersed in.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer, singer and songwriter. Check Facebook, or go to www.kaspro.com

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