On Major Lazer, Moombahton, Latinos, and America’s Dance Music Future

Six years after it seemed like it might change everything, where’s moombahton? Ecuadorian-American DJ/producer Dave Nada’s spontaneous experiment of a genre – born from his need to mimic dembow to keep the peace at a “skip party” largely attended by Latino teenagers – is just over half a decade old. But Nada, alongside production partner Matt Nordstrom, has already moved past the genre he invented. Nadastrom’s eponymous debut album is largely an ode to techno; dembow, cumbia, dancehall, hip-hop and reggaeton are there in spirit, but not so much in rhythm. Creatively, Nadastrom may be better than ever before – but where does that leave Latin American culture’s progression into the American dance music mainstream? Should those of us wanting better representation for Latin American culture care, or nah?

Over the last three years, moombahton’s biggest underground-to-mainstream singles have all come from one act: Major Lazer. Spearheaded by Mad Decent Records boss and accused Caucasian “culture vulture” Diplo, Major Lazer is a project that involves a plethora of globally-based DJ/producers who collaborate on a spectrum of EDM-leaning, Jamaican/West Indian sounds: dancehall, reggae, reggaeton, etc. On some level, it makes sense that Major Lazer would be the ones to turn moombahton into a veritable cottage industry for thumping summer party bangers.

Dave Nada
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But while Dave Nada’s Latin-American heritage gives him an organic tie to the pitched down Dutch house turned techno-cumbia/electro-dembow, Diplo not so much. This year, Major Lazer’s big moombah jam sees the one-time Parisian trap lord DJ Snake (of “Turn Down For What?” fame) collaborating on a snap and snare-laden dembow ballad called “Lean On.” It’s tailor-made for top 40 to festivals, just like 2014 smash “Come On To Me” (featuring Sean Paul) and raucous dancehall-inspired 2013 hit “Watch Out For This (Bumaye)” (featuring Busy Signal).

At this point, hating Diplo is almost comically easy to do, and when his latest album is entitled Random White Dude Be Everywhere, it’s clear that he’s in on the joke too. Maybe that’s the problem. The need for moombahton to be bigger than music for white girls in headdresses and Forever 21 is obvious. Though an accident, Dave Nada’s music seemed like it was going to pave a way for Latinos and other U.S.-based ethnic minorities to carve out a space in the dominant American club culture. Dembow and cumbia are the sounds of the drum, a drum that has been a unifying call for non-Caucasians in times of both peace and warfare for literally thousands of years. At a time when minorities worldwide (and especially in America) needed to find shared space for anguish and celebration, moombahton was starting to become the anthem. EDM-based? Check. Rap-friendly? Check. Soulful? Absolutely. Impossible to appropriate? Oh wait…

Major Lazer
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21st century production technology has dumbed down the creation of pop music in the same way that synthesizers did 40 years ago. The fact that moombahton wasn’t specifically connected to any socio-political movement hasn’t helped things either. On some level, just like disco, moombahton was totally screwed once it reached a certain level of popularity. Understanding how to manipulate the sounds of the drum from tribal impulse to dance-floor smash was once an underground trade passed among our communities. Now, a YouTube tutorial, a hacked version of Ableton, and a pop universe that still values white men (young and old) over all others, is derailing that “underground railroad” of minority musical invention.

But hey, at least there’s still Willie Colon, right? If there’s a silver lining to all of this Diplo and Major Lazer control of moombahton-as-pop, it’s that at least they can get the samples right. Both “Come On To Me” and “Watch Out For This (Bumaye)” have sampled Fania legend Willie Colon.

This is the same Fania whose “All-Star” group of Latin salsa musicians and vocalists sold out Yankee Stadium in 1973. This is the same Fania that represents the heritage of Latinos creating Latin culture in America and being taken seriously as contributors. Of course, we’d ideally want the hordes of people going nuts at Mad Decent Block Parties to be aware of this lineage, or at least stream some Fania albums on Spotify and do the learning, but that has yet to really occur.

So this is where are. It’s 2015 and a “random white dude” and a Parisian guy making music largely defined by African-American urban culture have crafted a likely summer hit out of sounds with well-defined roots in Latin culture (from a micro-genre created by an Ecuadorian-American…who now dabbles in techno). Confused? Join the club. In the same way that Fania defined a culturally significant movement, and everything from freestyle to Selena, Ricky Martin, Shakira and Enrique are special, moombahton is equally as important. Is the finish line for Latinos in American culture a legacy of pop one-hit wonders? No. It’s permanence, which in this case means having summer hit, after summer hit, after summer hit.

Those Latin sound-driven number one hits coming from Diplo instead of Dave Nada (or someone else)? Not ideal, but in looking at historical precedents and current conditions, also not surprising. Hey, at least we still have Willie Colon…