In 2009, Dominican natives and descendants alike congregated in coros, or gatherings in parks, up and down the East Coast, from Boston to New York to Philadelphia and Miami. Blasting from a sea of chucheros — the speaker boxes custom-built into cars, vans and school buses — was a dembow that took the Dominican Republic by storm: El Alfa El Jefe’s “Coche Bomba.”
As one of the most popular songs at the time, the track transcended local hoods, barbershops and colmados (convenience stores). But most important, it served as an introduction to the artist Emmanuel Herrera Batista, a.k.a. El Alfa. Over the past decade, the dembowsero has not only built an extensive, consistent catalog but amassed a groundbreaking following in his journey spearheading Dominican dembow. In the process he has propelled onto global airwaves a style of music that has historically been discriminated against.
His 2018 album El Hombre, featuring “Mi Mami,” a collaboration with Cardi B, peaked at No. 6 on Billboard’s Latin Rhythm Albums chart. That same year he celebrated his decade-long career with a historic concert at the country’s Palacio de los Deportes Virgilio Travieso Soto, becoming the first Latin artist of the movement to headline that storied venue. As 2018 drew to a close, he appeared on Bad Bunny’s debut album, X 100PRE, where he was the only Latinx artist to be featured in a collaboration — a pivotal moment centering El Alfa as the movement’s leader. On his 30th birthday, we celebrate his life, music and impact.
Born in Haina, Santo Domingo, the artist had moved out of his parents’ home to pursue music by 17. After eight months of developing his style in the studio, he dropped “Coche Bomba” at 18. Though he had yet to figure out his style and flow, the sample-based production, infused with DJ snippets, bolstered his entrance and garnered local and eventually nationwide support. Two years later he released “No Wiri Wiri,” produced by fellow dembowsero Chimbala, and shortly after that he began a run that yielded “Muevete Jevi,” “Agarrate Que Te Solte” and “Cacao.” In 2013, El Alfa came to embody his artistic identity; the tracks released that year displayed his trademark versatility, including his vocal tones and his unique take on song structure and formula. In addition to the peculiar, quirky sounds, the integration of productions by Bubloy and Nico Clinico brought other elements.
To completely understand his impact, it’s essential to examine the genre’s ascent as well as the barriers dembowseros faced, from the music’s most experimental beginnings in the ’90s through its formative years of the 2010s. The revival of iconic Jamaican dancehall loops gained popularity in DR in the 2000s. Rooted in the “Dem Bow” riddim, and inspired by transnational movements like Reggae en Español and (pre-reggaeton) underground rap, the subgenre transcended the barrios of Santo Domingo. Unlike a classic perreo track, which is in the 80-100 beats per minute (BPM) range, dembow — which has gathered global influences, with beats incorporating, for example, hip-hop and Brazilian funk — averages in the 120s and often gets up to 140 BPM.
Created by the youth in more impoverished communities, dembow evolved thanks to innovative minds who created art using anything at hand. For producers, sounds were crafted using objects they had at home or by using their mouths to make noises; for the artist, all it took was the perfect sample track and clever lyrical delivery. As a result, the genre has come into its own, with a particular style and colors apart from reggaeton and dancehall, making it synonymous with Dominican culture. And as is the case with most Black-rooted music, dembow was and continues to be categorized culturally as “hood music”; in elite spaces, the subgenre is harshly criticized.
This sort of opposition has also come from el Movimiento, the umbrella term that encompasses transnational Afro-diasporic genres like rap, reggaeton, Latin trap and dancehall. In the country, well-established rappers condemned the music throughout its developing years, preaching that it wasn’t music at all and that dembowseros had no lyrical ability due to their humorous topics and repetitive lines. Artists fought back against such criticism by creating more potent punchlines and sharper bars. An ironclad argument could also be found in the rap-to-dembow pivoting of such lyricists as Pablo Piddy, Secreto El Biberon, El Mayor Clasico and, of course, El Alfa.
The movement’s track battle between El Mayor and El Alfa led to a lyrical revolution, motivating change in delivery and song format. Instead of repetitive phrases, El Alfa began to incorporate greater variety and wittier lyrics. His 2014 diss track “No Te Panike” marked a transition for his flow, as he remodeled his typical eight bars of cotorra, or party-and-bullshit chatter, into 16 bars of hard-edge, straightforward wordplay. In the same year, his Clinico-produced track “Tarzan” commenced a fresh era and sound defined by snares, trap keys, flutes and horns.
These newfound qualities expanded El Alfa’s creative process even further. Chael Produciendo, his co-producer and currently his right-hand man, entered the scene creating hip-hop and mambo. They’ve worked alongside each other for over seven years, adding influences from genres outside dembow and strategizing collaborations with non-Dominicans.
A series of collaborations with old-school and new-school Puerto Rican artists granted El Alfa increased visibility throughout Latin America. Songs like “Segueta (Remix)” featuring Nicky Jam; “Banda De Camion (Remix)” with Farruko, De La Ghetto, Bryant Myers, Zion, Noriel and Villano Sam; and the Jowell y Randy collab “Te La Gua Deja Pisa” found the reggaetoneros and traperos embracing the dembow structure and flow.
Chael’s transitions and style, coined “trap bow,” ushered in a new era in El Alfa’s artistic evolution, and the pair’s fusion of trap and dembow pushed for another stage in lyrical advancement.Just listen to tracks such as “Los Cajeros” featuring Arcangel and Mark B, and his epic collaborations alongside Bad Bunny, “Demaga Ge Gi Go Gu” and “La Romana.”
Though El Alfa had amassed a substantial following throughout his career, he became a mainstream phenomenon in 2019. It was projected, pre-Covid, that 2020 would be the year of dembow. The movement didn’t get that moment, yet El Alfa’s contributions have continued to propel the sound to new spaces and charts. On his El Androide LP he demonstrated even more progress: Along with such special guests as Diplo, Lil Pump and Farruko, and Dominican artists like Kiko El Crazy and El Fother, he delivered an eclectic project infused with Mexican folk, Detroit techno, Colombian vallenato and traditional machuqueo — the dry boom-chick-boom sound rooted in dembow.