A Secret Ingredient in Songs of Summer

Songs of summer are like M&Ms or wildflowers: If you’re out to pick just one, you’re doing it wrong.

Each year, when the days get long and the first cherry blossoms on my block begin to bloom, I scan a vast, annual crop of would-be songs of summer — the first of which usually begin percolating around Presidents’ Day — and fill a playlist with my favorites. For me, it’s not about the popularity of, or consensus on, any individual summer song. It’s about the singular feeling that the best ones can unlock, and the way that I can use my playlist to sustain that feeling in a blissful wave.

What’s the secret to evoking that singular summer feeling? What makes me select a certain track for my annual playlist, while another song that I otherwise like gathers dust in the queue? Until a few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that there could be a genuinely satisfying answer to that question. Like most people, I’d have responded by invoking the desired setting as shorthand for the sound — a backyard barbecue, say, or a rooftop pool party — or else muttered something about tempo and tone, the sorts of sonic signatures scrutinized by pros and lucratively cross-referenced by algorithms like Spotify’s.

But that changed beginning in 2015, when, for three consecutive summers, I recognized that one absurdly simple but extremely potent sound could give me a Pavlovian urge to crank up the volume, head to my nearest patio bar and order something boozy and frozen.

It was the dembow rhythm — a syncopated, three-beat pattern that, when paired with the steady pound of a kick drum, sounds like a caffeinated heart with a sticky chamber: boom-ch-boom-chk. Untethered from its foundations in ’90s dancehall and reggaeton around the second half of this decade, it became the common denominator of hits ranging from “Sorry” (Justin Bieber) and “One Dance” (Drake), to “Shape of You” (Ed Sheeran) and “Despacito” (Luis Fonsi, featuring Daddy Yankee and Bieber).

Hear the Dembow Rhythm

For a remarkable period between July 2015 and July 2017, the dembow rhythm fueled a total of six Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles, many of which seemed to cast a spell on the public right as summer came to a boil. In those two years over all, the drum pattern led the charts for a cumulative 51 weeks, meaning that, on any given day, the odds that America’s favorite song had a dembow rhythm were essentially a coin toss.

Though things have cooled off since, the sound remains ubiquitous on car stereos in my neighborhood in the cloudless months before Labor Day. This year, the song that initiated my summer playlist was “Hear Me Calling” by Juice WRLD, which floats in on an airy saxophone sigh and a languid but crisp diet-dembow beat: boom-chk-a-chk. I first heard it on Beats 1 radio while I was brushing my teeth in March. It was still snowing in New York then, but my mind instantly leapt ahead to beach season, as if I had felt the heat of the sun raise the temperature of my skin.

The dembow rhythm likely has origins as old as drumming, but its modern usage can be traced back to the 1989 song “Poco Man Jam,” by the Jamaican dancehall artist Gregory Peck. The beat, with its irresistible percussion, was produced by the pioneering duo of Wycliffe Johnson and Cleveland Browne, known as Steely & Clevie. It was sampled the following year on another song, “Dem Bow,” a hit produced by Bobby Digital for the reggae superstar Shabba Ranks, and became the stuff of dancehall legend.

Another important breakthrough came more than a decade later, when the Dominican-born producers Francisco Saldaña and Victor Cabrera, known as Luny Tunes, used a Latin variation of Steely & Clevie’s rhythm as the basis for seminal early reggaeton hits. One of them, Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina,” took the genre mainstream in 2004 and cemented a blueprint — a pulse-quickening dembow beat at the center, accessorized with boisterous synthesizers — that’s still heavily used today.

“If you were to do a pie chart of how many reggaeton songs use that beat, it would look like Pac-Man,” said Rob Kenner, an executive editor at Mass Appeal magazine and the founder of the reggae blog Boomshots. “Some rhythms have an infinite shelf life — it just takes a new producer to come along, put a fresh spin on it, and then boom.”

Dembow’s spread to the heart of mainstream pop music in 2015 was part of an international pandemic, in which artists and producers from Nigeria, Germany, Australia, Canada, Britain and beyond, became infected with dembow fever. An early carrier was the German electronic producer Felix Jaehn, who, in 2014, added a dash of dembow to his buoyant remix of “Cheerleader,” a sweet-tart ballad originally recorded by the Jamaican reggae singer Omi in 2012.

It took more than a year for their dark horse collaboration to reach No. 1, in July 2015, but, just three months later, Bieber’s “Sorry” (regrettably branded as “tropical house”) landed like a bomb. Sia followed it in February 2016 with “Cheap Thrills,” later tapping the dancehall star Sean Paul for a remix. Then came Drake with the Afro-dembow of “One Dance,” featuring the British singer Kyla and the Nigerian superstar Wizkid, followed by Sheeran and, eventually, even French Montana and Swae Lee (“Unforgettable”).

Some of this cultural cross-pollination, of course, had the stench of opportunism. But scanning this year’s crop of summer songs, I was encouraged by the popular music landscape that has emerged in dembow’s wake. It is more expansive, and far less Eurocentric than at any time in recent memory, with breakout stars like Nigeria’s Burna Boy and Jamaica’s Koffee, and a whole new generation of Spanish-speaking artists, including El Alfa, Bad Bunny and Rosalía, that no longer has to record in English to reach the audience that it deserves.

The pop charts, and my summer playlists, are better off.

Listen to a Spotify playlist of the dembow rhythm through the decades.

Reggie Ugwu is a pop culture reporter covering a range of subjects, including film, television, music and internet culture. Before joining The Times in 2017, he was a reporter for BuzzFeed News and Billboard magazine. @uugwuu

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