Moombahton settles in L.A. after becoming D.C.’s first breakout electronic music genre

It’s past midnight on a Sunday and the line outside the W Hotel stretches all the way to Hollywood Boulevard. A hundred or so disgruntled dudes fold their arms and swear to an aloof doorman that they’re “on the list.” If you can talk your way past the velvet rope, you enter an elevator bathed in red light and ascend to the rooftop. This is Dim Mak Sundays at Drai’s, a poolside Vegas-style nightclub that hosts weekly electronic dance music bacchanalia.

On the roof, Dave Nada — the Maharishi of moombahton, an L.A. transplant raised in Prince George’s County — serves up pulverizing beats that sound like what a robot would listen to after dropping ecstasy on a tropical vacation. But the patrons are actually part-time male models downing Patron and buxom girls clutching champagne flutes. The bottle service brigade probably can’t explain what they’re listening to, but their shoulders shake, jiggle and bounce at roughly 108 beats per minute.

That is the speed of moombahton. It’s not as fast as most pulse-quickening electronic music, the result of Nada slowing down a popular Dutch house track called “Moombah” and combining it with the Caribbean strains of reggaeton. These new, staggering rhythms quickly found an audience, particularly among Latin teenagers, as Nada discovered the nexus between up-tempo oontz oontz oontz and sun-stunned tropical grooves — the bass and percussion both hit with savage force. His “eureka” moment happened in Washington in November 2009 and moombahton incubated there as an underground phenomenon. But recently its hub relocated from the nation’s capital to the other side of the country, as the lure of Los Angeles and its interconnected music scene became too hard to resist.

“A lot of people initially wrote off moombahton because they said it was some dumb fad on [online streaming site] SoundCloud,” Nada said. “But when you heard it in the club properly, it knocked.”

The new genre was an unruly fusion of Nada’s roots. He was a former hard-core punk turned Baltimore club producer who had spent summers absorbing reggaeton and cumbia in his family’s ancestral home of Ecuador. His creation was dance music for the decentralized Internet era, a hybrid of a hybrid — with just enough organicism.

The burgeoning micro-genre gained traction in the wake of Nada’s “Moombahton” EP. Released in the spring of 2010 on T&A, the label co-owned by DMV native Jesse Tittsworth, moombahton was quickly pegged for “next big thing” status. There were trend pieces in Spin and the Fader and co-signs from the chameleonic cool-hunter Diplo and Fool’s Gold label boss, Nick Catchdubs. It also helped mint dance music stars like Dutch wunderkind Munchi and Los Angeles’s Dillon Francis.

“It may have began with [Nada] slowing down a Dutch house record, but there was cultural significance for many Latin kids,” Tittsworth said. “For them, it was more than just a trend.”

Within Washington, it was immediately embraced by a nascent dance music scene. U Street Music Hall, also co-owned by Tittsworth, opened in March 2010 and quickly emerged as a home base, hosting packed monthly Moombahton Massive parties. (The 25th such party is Wednesday night; an even-bigger bash will take over the 9:30 Club on June 1.) For the first time, Washington had produced a viral electronic music genre of its own. Then one by one, the people who built it decamped to Los Angeles.

Noisy neighbors

From the outside, the Haas Building looks like any other newly renovated luxury high-rise in downtown Los Angeles. It’s next to an expensive specialty vodka bar, the lobby is engulfed in baby-blue light. The concierge? Of course he sports a ponytail.

It’s probably the closest thing the electronic dance music set will get to its own Chelsea Hotel. Residents include Nada and his fiancee, the DJ/producer Jen Lasher; Dillon Francis, bass-head AC Slater and DJ Sabo. The interior design is as diffuse as the sounds reverberating through the walls: Each floor is a mash-up of marble and cinder-block walls, lime-green paint and exposed brick.

A decade ago, this area was dilapidated and strewn with junkies. Today, it’s an electronic music epicenter. Asymmetrical-haired superstar Skrillex lives a few blocks away. Tittsworth lives around the corner. So does 12th Planet, an early American emissary of dubstep. It’s this transformative atmosphere that lured everyone away from the District. Nada arrived first in late 2010, after being offered a management deal through Diplo’s ex-partner, the producer Switch.

“We wanted to push our career further,” says Nada, 34, in his spartan but elegantly furnished apartment. Despite a party-rocking reputation, there’s a bookish vibe to the DJ/producer, born David Villegas. He’s bespectacled and wearing a black leather jacket with a yellow Moombahton Massive tee. His hair is straight, ink-black and extends to his clavicles. “D.C. will always be home, but we felt like we did as much as we could there.”

Moving yielded immediate dividends. In 2011, Nadastrom — Nada’s raucous collaborative project with fellow producer Matt Nordstrom — toured with Skrillex and Nada curated a moombahton compilation for Diplo’s Mad Decent label. Last fall, there was a dedicated Moombahton Massive stage at HARD’s popular Day of the Dead Festival.

Then there are the intangibles of being immersed in a vibrant creative environment. Both Nada and Nordstrom note the inspiration that arises from in-person exchanges of ideas and songs. They also cite Los Angeles’s diverse sonic archipelago, including nationally recognized club nights such as Low End Theory and the Do-Over.

“There’s so many talented people, and that leads to constant exposure of new ideas,” says Nordstrom, who moved to L.A. shortly after Nada.

“You’ll hear certain records or you catch a vibe and you end up writing a wholly new track,” Nada adds.

“I’m probably working on a dozen musical projects with my neighbors,” Tittsworth says, with only slight exaggeration. He was the last of the trio to head west, but has acclimated nicely since moving here last summer. He lives nearby in the Pegasus Building, a mid-century Modernist tower where loud house music blares at 3:30 p.m. on a Friday.

Like Nada and Nordstrom, Tittsworth returns to Washington regularly for the Moombahton Massive parties at U Street Music Hall.

“Moving here took me out of my comfort zone. It was humbling. You realize what works at U Hall doesn’t always fly here,” Tittsworth says, flanked by a pair of surfboards. They belong to his roommate but underscore the new surroundings.

Younger than his peers by roughly a decade, Dillon Francis is moombahton’s biggest star. If Nada supplied the innovation and cultural heritage, the L.A.-bred 24-year-old gave it mass appeal among neon tank-topped bros and Hollywood club kids.

“I couldn’t get into reggaeton because I couldn’t understand what the artists were saying, but moombahton had immediate appeal,” says Francis, whose first musical love was punk rock. “I figured that if I’m into it, other kids like me would be, too.”

This hypothesis was confirmed upon the release of Francis’s viral video for “Que Que,” a 2011 collaboration with Diplo. A performance at this month’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival amplified the sound to its loudest levels yet — even if few in the crowd could actually define it.

With little trace of the reggaeton that inspired Nada’s original vision, Francis’s set electrified the heavily teenage crowd. Once the beat dropped, animated bunnies started somersaulting on towering video screens. Francis screamed at the crowd: “LET’S MAKE HISTORY!” The audience obeyed — exploding in a spastic euphoria of glow sticks, fist pumps and the occasional toy giraffe raised to the heavens.

The Compound is only one block from the Haas Building. A multi-room warren being rented by dubstep producer 12th Planet, it doubles as a studio, office space and crash pad for visiting producers, DJs and miscellaneous musical family.

The new wrinkles

One such guest is the highly respected British DJ Plastician, who is recording his program for London’s Rinse FM. Tonight is the Moombahton Massive episode featuring Nadastrom. A dozen friends, new and old, have gathered to watch the pair deliver a mix for the prestigious electronic station. The mood is celebratory — complete with a feast of honey-nut fried chicken, sausages wrapped in bacon, and craft beer.

“It invites girls back to the dance floor,” Plastician says when asked about his interest in moombahton. “Bass music was getting heavier and darker, but this has a swing to it. There’s no real scene yet in the U.K., but a lot of people there are interested in it.”

That’s not to say that the moombahton global takeover is necessarily imminent. Its honeymoon has already expired as the darling of those obsessed with future sounds. Most of the major players no longer deliver sets solely consisting of moombahton, and everyone seems acutely aware of electronic music’s constant need to evolve.

“It can’t become incestuous, where every producer tries to sound the same,” Nada says of his creation. He’s working on a new Nadastrom album that figures to offer a new wrinkle. There’s also been talk of a regular Moombahton Massive in L.A., provided the proper venue can be found.

“What happens in the next year will probably determine whether moombahton can turn into something flexible enough to be a timeless tradition, or merely remain a local legacy,” acknowledges Tittsworth, who is assembling a compilation of new moombahton tracks. “The most important thing is that its fans are open to new versions of it.”

For the moment, there’s optimism. After all, it was unlikely that an experimental tempo shift done almost four years ago would trigger a series of events that would uproot their lives and transmit their music across the country and the globe.

Before he takes the turntables to deliver his mix, Nada surveys the room as if taking inventory of the past 30 months. He is about to merge club rhythms from Rotterdam to Charm City to the Caribbean on the show of a British DJ temporarily based in L.A. And all he had to do was walk down the street.

“See what I was saying,” he says smiling. “This is a perfect example of why L.A.”

Weiss is a freelance writer.

Moombahton Massive XXV is Wednesday at 9 p.m. at U Street Music Hall, 1115 U St. NW. $12.; Moombahton Massive Day is June 1 at 10 p.m. at 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. $20.

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