If you’ve turned on the radio at any time in the past few years, you’ve heard major pop hits — Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Drake’s “One Dance,” Major Lazer’s “Lean On,” Luis Fonsi’s Bieber-featuring “Despacito” — that are united by one thing: the syrupy, midtempo grooves of Afro-Caribbean sounds such as dancehall and reggaeton. But fans of the electronic music underground have heard something else: the unmistakable signature of moombahton, a genre with a legendary origin story based in a Prince George’s County, Md., basement that was the hottest trend in dance music at the start of the decade. But in the quickly shifting dance music landscape, moombahton had its big moment, then gave way to the next hot sound. So how did it end up being reborn in some of the biggest pop songs of all time?
The origin of moombahton is equal parts global music exchange and in-the-moment happenstance. As the tale goes, the D.C.-raised DJ-producer Dave Nada stumbled upon the sound at a cousin’s party where he needed to please a crowd of Latin American teens hoping to hear reggaeton. Nada slowed down a Dutch electro-house tune (Afrojack’s remix of Silvio Ecomo and Chuckie’s “Moombah”) from the standard electro-thump of 138 beats per minute to a much more languid 108 bpm. The technique was a hit, and Nada soon started spreading the gospel of moombahton through the world of electronic dance music.
“It was the peak era for neon clothes, really loud, really crazy” music, says DJ Ayres, the New York-based co-founder of key moombahton label T&A Records, of the time when Nada’s creation made an impact. “For it to be slower and sexier . . . that was the touchstone for a lot of the audience that found it.”
Moombahton also had value as a cultural curiosity. “It’s a wonderful story of an invented genre,” says ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall, an assistant professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Most interesting to Marshall is the “deep relationality between reggaeton, dancehall reggae and Dutch house” in moombahton. “For a single genre to embody all of that was very exciting to me,” he explains. “The fact that it went beyond edit experiments and engendered a whole slew of production was remarkable.” Moombahton was also an early “hashtag genre” supported and fostered by online communities such as SoundCloud. Moombahton belonged to the Internet, and thus the world.
The global nature of moombahton was embodied by one of its most prolific proponents, Munchi. A Dutch producer of Dominican descent, Munchi had grown tired of reggaeton, which he started to find stale and formulaic. Hearing Nada’s first “Moombahton” EP changed everything for him: “I was making hybrids of reggaeton [and] everything, so that triggered me to make this free moombahton promo thing that same night,” he writes via Skype. The tracks he released in summer 2010 were possibly the first original moombahton productions; until then, most tracks — including Nada’s — had been edits and remixes. Apart from his creativity, it was perhaps Munchi’s biography — a Dominican reggaeton fan, born and raised in the home of Dutch house — that made him best suited to make moombahton into a legitimate genre. “Munchi is a pivotal figure in the story of moombahton,” Marshall says. “He perceived all those connections and possibilities and took it somewhere else.”
Soon, moombahton was a global sensation. It was championed by DJ-producers who had already been experimenting with mixing Afro-Caribbean sounds and electronic dance music, such as DJ Sabo and Toy Selectah, and by those who saw moombahton as a twist on the electro-house they were making at the time, such as Dillon Francis. And it found patrons in Diplo and Skrillex, EDM superstars who helped bring the sound to new and larger audiences.
Networking isn’t just for office-bound professionals: It affects the music world, too. Nada has known Diplo since the latter was making a name for himself with Philadelphia dance parties in the early 2000s, and he met Skrillex shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 2010. Skrillex saw Nada playing a moombahton set at Steve Aoki’s Cinespace club and loved the sound; he soon invited Nadastrom, the duo of Nada and Matt Nordstrom, to perform on his Mothership tour, during the first peak of his popularity. Skrillex “has always been a big fan of the moombahton stuff,” Nada says. “He even tells me ‘Reptile’ was him trying to make a moombahton song.” While “Reptile” might have something resembling the midtempo groove of a moombahton song, it has the womp, whirs and burps of dubstep, the genre with which Skrillex first found success.
It would be a few more years until Skrillex mastered the moombahton sound and brought it to previously unseen heights. Before that would happen, moombahton still had to make it through its underground life cycle. First, Nadastrom teamed with Sabo to launch the Moombahton Massive party series, held first at D.C.’s U Street Music Hall and then taken on the road. (The event returns to the D.C. venue for a “reunion” Saturday night.) Then, Nada was tapped by Diplo’s Mad Decent label to assemble a compilation that catalogued moombahton’s first year.
But as soon as moombahton was codified, it started to become formulaic: Countless SoundCloud producers began churning out 108-bpm bangers with the same sounds, samples and sirens. And as quickly as it had ascended, moombahton was soon supplanted by the next big dance music trend: trap, an EDM genre that took its name and signature sounds from Southern hip-hop. “The guys who were more agile and less tied to the Latin side of [moombahton] started doing trap,” Ayres says.
By 2013, moombahton had lost its luster. T&A Records released “Moombahton Forever,” but Ayres admits that they were “a little late,” as the genre “had already started cooling off.” While still hosting monthly Moombahton Massives, Nadastrom turned their focus to the kind of deep house that would inform their debut album. “The way moombahton was heading, it was going the same formula-based style” that reggaeton had become at the turn of the decade, says Munchi, adding: “You had just a handful of people that were setting the bar, but most people were just jacking my style.” On Facebook, he wondered aloud if moombahton was dead.
But if moombahton was dead, it didn’t stay that way for long. In 2015, Diplo’s Major Lazer project scored one of the best-selling singles of all time in “Lean On,” a sensual song with a distinct moombahton influence. Later that year, Skrillex helped propel moombahton even higher up the charts as the co-writer and co-producer of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” a 100-bpm jam with a dembow groove, synthesizer riffs and chopped-up vocals that Nada calls the “signature sounds” of the genre. “You can make the argument that ‘Sorry’ doesn’t exist without moombahton,” says Marshall, the ethnomusicologist. The same could be said for the biggest song of 2016. “Drake came out with the biggest moombahton track of all time,” Nada says with a laugh. “To me, ‘One Dance’ is 110 percent moombahton.”
“When records are so big like that, it grabs everyone’s attention,” Nada says of the reggaeton-, dancehall- and moombahton-inspired songs of the moment. Fonsi’s reggaeton smash “Despacito” recently became the world’s most streamed song of all time, due in part to a remix featuring Bieber. It’s easy to connect the dots from “Despacito” to Bieber and Skrillex, all the way back to moombahton. “It seemed in a way to be a flash in the pan,” Marshall says of moombahton. “But it actually has had a pretty good influence and continues to reverberate.”
Moombahton Massive Reunion with Dave Nada and more takes place at 10 p.m. Saturday at U Street Music Hall.