City Paper is not for tourists
Just because Moombahton is barely a year old doesn’t mean it’s not entitled to its own creation myth. After all, the dance-music genre has spread from suburban Maryland around the world during its brief lifespan, inspiring packed parties, scholarly examinations, and its own slew of subgenres. It stands to reason there’s a log-cabin story out there, too.
So here it is: One morning in November 2009, Dave Nada found himself in a basement in Prince George’s County, surrounded by fucked-up teenagers listening to the slow, cantering sounds of reggaeton and bachata. Nada’s cousin, Jean-Pierre, had asked him to spin at his friend’s “skipping party.” But Nada—a fixture of D.C.’s progressive DJ scene—hadn’t really arrived with this audience in mind. “I cant play house/techno shit,” Nada later wrote. “I’ll get jumped.” So he took one of the best-known tracks of the stylish Dutch house genre and screwed it down from about 130 beats per minute to 108. A slower, stretched-out track also meant a heavier one, with dense bass punctuated by hard percussion hits. Turn up the bass! announced a voice in the song. “And that’s when shit popped the fuck off,” Nada wrote.
He called it Moombahton—for “Moombah,” the Silvio Ecomo & Chuckie track whose remix by Afrojack he’d contorted, and for reggaeton, the immensely popular Latin genre whose slow tempo he’d neared.
And so it began. Nada—who is 32, and whose birth name is David Villegas—gave Moombahton its proper local club premiere this spring. By October, a “Moombahton Massive” gig had packed U Street Music Hall. The sound is undoubtedly the freshest thing to emerge from Washington’s electronic dance music scene this year. Incubated here, and featuring numerous hometown practitioners, Moombahton seemed to be a crowning moment in a year that has many local enthusiasts convinced that D.C.’s high-minded DJs have entered a golden age.
Which is why the final tracking point in Moombahton’s ascent comes off as a little bit tragic, for Washington if not for Nada: By this fall, he was a Los Angeles resident, drawn by Southern California’s burgeoning underground-DJ community and beckoned by one of the world’s most buzzworthy electronic-music producers. Our boy was spinning Moombahton on the roof of the W Hotel in Hollywood.
Another case of local talent lured away by bright lights and big entertainment industry? That’s where the story of Moombahton—and the very notion of geographic place in this age of webbified music—gets tricky. Moombahton (pronounced moom-buh-tone) may be from D.C., but it’s not exactly of D.C: The essential summery vibe of his music, after all, comes from the Netherlands and a variety of Latin sounds. Nada’s Moombahton peers, likewise, owe little to the Potomac basin. Within a month of his first Internet posting of Moombahton tracks, DJs elsewhere created their own versions. Even the Moombahton Massive gig featured artists from Alberta and New York, not to mention a 21-year-old Dutch wunderkind named Munchi.
Moombahton could never belong to D.C., because it almost immediately belonged to the Web.
Nada’s fans describe the DJ’s discovery of Moombahton as if he’d identified an element or a mathematic principle. “It could’ve been anybody who had a Serato box and had ‘Moombah’ in his Serato box and accidentally set the turntable box to 33 instead of 45, but the thing is, it was Dave, and he’s Latino and he has a deeper understanding of the history of [reggaeton],” says Marcus K. Dowling, a local blogger and EDM-scene booster. “It really could’ve been anyone, but it was Dave.”
The sound has a few basic identifying characteristics: A thick, spread-out bass line; some dramatic builds; and a two-step pulse, with quick drum fills. Sometimes, there are ravey synthesizers. Occasionally there are a cappella rap samples. Almost always, there’s a reggaeton vibe. Jesse Tittsworth, a DJ and co-owner of U Street Music Hall, says that vibe is one reason why Moombahton makes sense to D.C. crowds and DJs. “Being from this area, a lot of us have been exposed to reggaeton,” he says. “It has a scene, but musically it hasn’t progressed here. Moombahton took a reggaeton/Latin flavor, and it took that European influence. He tapped into something out there.”
But less than a year into the Moobahton era, when October’s Moombahton Massive rolled around, it was already pretty hard to pick out the original ingredients—because there were so many more. These days, it’s more like a club-oriented version of the unironic, continent-hopping style epitomized by M.I.A.’s 2007 Kala. The crowd at the gig was similarly diverse, ethnically and subculturally: DJ-scene mainstays, club kids, local music journalists and bloggers, and a large cultural-class delegation from Brightest Young Things. There were baggy jeans and skinny jeans.
“One of the biggest things I get from it, from fans or DJs, is that it’s a refreshing thing to hear, not just in the club but also to play out,” says Nada, a former punk rocker who’s been making music in D.C. and Baltimore for at least a decade. “Before, you either had to live or die at 130 bpm.” Moombahton is somehow different from other mid-tempo EDM, he says. “Even though it’s slowed-down house, the energy is very much there.”
The real story of Nada’s past year is a bit more involved. After that happy accident in the basement, he began honing the sound in the studio. This March, he emerged with a five-song Moombahton promo EP, released for free via Tittsworth and DJ Ayres’s T&A Records. That month, Nada and his production partner Matt Nordstrom (they perform together as Nadastrom) created the first official Moombahton remix, and the influential Fool’s Gold label from New York commissioned a Moombahton mixtape for its podcast, featuring tracks from Nada and other DJs. Other Moombahton releases from Nada and Nadastrom followed.
In the meantime, Moombahton had caught the attention of a Rotterdam-born novice DJ with Dominican roots named Rayiv Münch, better known by his nom de Web, Munchi. “I was broke and missed the last train and i was like ‘FUCK, that means no party today,’” he writes in an e-mail. “So I went home and started to check out some blogs, and I found this site and saw this Moombahton thing of Dave Nada…. It was like finally getting home or something. The idea was so simple, yet I heard the potential. It was so perfect because Dutch house had blown up and reggaeton had me disappointed for a long time. Being a reggaeton head, I was trying to blend reggaeton with all these genres …I started making the [Moombahton] EP that same night.”
With his only interactions with scenester peers taking place online, Munchi in April began releasing a string of Moombahton tracks that managed to catch the attention of taste-making bloggers. A Dominican kid from Rotterdam was globalizing the sound of a Latino kid from Maryland.
From there, Nada, who already had a following thanks to Nadastrom’s material, had an easy time finding the right ears. He broke out Moombahton at an Olympics party in Vancouver in February. Fool’s Gold’s Nick Catchdubs picked up on Moombahton in March. At the massive South by Southwest music conference in Austin that month, DJs were playing Moombahton at parties Nada hadn’t even been invited to. Diplo, the Philadelphia DJ who is one of America’s most influential dance music producers, began spinning the sound live, ultimately creating his own Moombahton-style remix. Munchi caught the wave, too: By fall, he was in the studio with Diplo and with Pharrell, of the very mainstream hip-hop production unit The Neptunes.
For the most part, Nada spent the summer here, working Moombahton’s sound with Monday-night appearances at the Velvet Lounge. By the end of his stint there, the music had outgrown the small U Street NW venue. “It was packed every time, and he had candles going, and this whole atmosphere to it. By the end, it was a party no different than what we would have on a weekend night,” says Andrew Bucket, Velvet’s booker.
Other DJs, meanwhile, began creating Moombahton spinoffs. Munchi brought in echoes of Colombian cumbia and the Angolan sounds known as kuduro, and later transformed Moombahton into the harder-edged Moombahcore. An Austin DJ created “Boombahchero,” blending the sound with Mexican guarachero. Nada estimates more than 100 DJs have now toyed with Moombahton. Soundcloud, the favored music hosting service of many musicians and producers, features more than 500 Moombahton tracks.
And while certain corners of the blogosphere pushed the genre hard, Moombahton found some detractors—somewhat surprisingly, the practitioners of the sound that inspired it, Dutch house. “The Dutch folks kind of look down on it,” says Tittsworth. (Dutch producer Afrojack, who created the “Moombah” remix that Nada originally slowed down, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Even Nada admits that not every Moombahton remix out there is worthwhile—much of it comes down to fairly lazy, slower versions of fast songs. “Fishing through Soundcloud, like any genre, there’s a lot of busted tracks,” he says.
Moombahton gained chroniclers even as it attracted critics. Wayne Marshall, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology ethnomusicologist who co-edited a scholarly book about reggaeton, wrote an essay praising Moombahton as part of a new kind of unforced world music made possible by diverse artists in far-flung locales. Closer to earth, Rolling Stone singled out Moombahton in an October print item on “Nano-Scenes.”
Of course, the magazine listed Moombahton’s key artists as “DJ Dava Nada and a bunch of random people on Soundcloud.com.” And its item described “scenes where the people making the music almost outnumber those listening to it.”
Citing a packed Austin gig from last month, Nada said it wasn’t so—at least not anymore. He was pretty sure the “hot chicks” who crowded into the show weren’t mere dance-music dorks.
Nada’s Moombahton year paralleled a watershed year for D.C.’s EDM scene. U Street Music Hall opened in the spring, and almost every regular progressive DJ night based in a rock club moved to the new venue. A-list DJs who previously spent little time in D.C. began stopping by UHall. The venue even inspired a parody involving the Hitler-and-his-generals clip from the German-language film Downfall, surely an indicator of post-modern cultural penetration.
On the production end, the city’s DJs also impressed. Dowling points to Steve Starks’ tribal house track “Git ‘Em” and Will Eastman’s warped disco anthem “Feelin’” as essential works. Nacey, who along with Starks and Gavin Holland runs the popular Nouveau Riche prog-house night, saw Diplo and Switch use his remix of La Roux’s “Bulletproof” to lead off a Major Lazer mixtape. It went to No. 1 on Hype Machine, a site whose algorithm tracks the dissemination and popularity of songs on mp3 blogs.
Tittsworth, one of the city’s biggest DJ names, has been around long enough to know that scenes ebb and flow. But he says the tide is currently high. “I got my start in the mid-’90s,” Tittsworth says. “I kind of cut my teeth when [defunct Navy Yard–area clubs] Tracks and Capitol Ballroom were going really, really strong. When that area died down, for me the scene slowed down…For a while, the feeling wasn’t quite there. I remember talking to Dave and Matt [Nordstrom] and Will [Eastman] about it—it was frustrating, I would tour extensively and come home and I wouldn’t really have anything.”
The scene began to pick up several years ago with an influx of younger DJs and producers—and now with his own dedicated venue. “To play 9:30 Club a few times a year is a far cry from having a healthy EDM scene in the backyard.”
Dowling, an office manager by day and independent professional wrestling manager on weekends who says he only sleeps four hours a night, is essentially the only local writer wholly dedicated to the DJ scene. (He’s written about Moombahton on his site True Genius Requires Insanity almost since its inception). He’s perennially enthused, but he’s not sure the city’s there yet. “People talk about how D.C. is the next New York. But it’s really the fact that D.C. is evolving into becoming D.C.,” he says. “It’s really the fact that D.C. is learning how to support a dance scene.”
But if D.C. is becoming an EDM hub, why did Nadastrom move to Los Angeles?
There are some personal reasons (Nordstrom’s wife works in the film industry) but mostly professional ones. “The move to L.A., it’s basically us just pushing our careers trying to see how far we can take it,” Nada says. Switch, of Major Lazer, has been releasing singles by Nadastrom since 2008, and this spring invited the duo to join his L.A.-based production company. They’ll release a series of singles next year, mostly the kind of electro-house and tech-house bangers by which Nadastrom made its name. (Moombahton notwithstanding, Nada still wants to live by 130 bpm some of the time.)
There are also some things about L.A. that Washington can’t match. Nada had five gigs his first week there. He rented an apartment that’s close to more prominent electronic artists than live in all of D.C. That proximity to the industry—both the increasingly useless major labels and some high-cachet independent ones—is important, Nada says.
By contrast, D.C.’s small boutique labels are mostly vehicles to larger platforms. Munchi is releasing a record on T&A soon, but it’s hard to imagine him spending a career there.
The decision to move wasn’t easy in the end—especially once D.C.’s DJ scene really began to pop. But you can stage a successful DJ career from anywhere, Nada says. “It’s definitely possible, especially this day and age,” Nada says. Certainly, an in-demand DJ will spend plenty of time in the air, brought to cities by party promoters and fellow DJs. “Look at Munchi, he’s 21 from Rotterdam, and now he’s getting flown to play just months into his DJ career,” Nada says.
And Moombahton still needs to grow. The sound hasn’t yet penetrated DJ culture like reggaeton or dubstep did, and probably won’t—it’s too dance-focused for listening outside the club, and too specialized for wide appreciation in every dance club. But it’s about to get some critical endorsements: Nada is working on a dedicated Moombahton compilation for Diplo’s Mad Decent label, and rapper Waka Flocka Flame has commissioned a Moombahton remix of his hit “No Hands.”
Nada may yet return to D.C. His L.A. lease, he notes, is only for a year. And he’ll be back a bunch in the next month: Nadastrom will spin at U Street Music Hall on New Years Eve; he’ll host Munchi and others at the second Moombahton Massive party there in January. All the same, when we chatted over coffee at Tryst in October, his always-enthused tone ticked a notch higher whenever our chat turned to his new home. “You go out there and you just get inspired,” he said. “It’s a good time to be out there.”