Dillon Francis on Recapturing Moombahton’s Golden Age
If there’s one thing Dillon Francis knows for sure, on a recent morning before his first cup of coffee, it’s this: the early days of his career, sleeping on friends of friends’ couches and working on music whenever he felt like it, are so totally long gone.
Just a blurry day or so before, the 27-year-old L.A. DJ-producer presided over a mass of finely honed, plucked and tanned bodies at a fancy day party at Las Vegas’ Encore Beach Club. He dropped beats for club kids, high rollers and actual world champions; Women’s World Cup winner Christen Press paused for a photo op in the VIP section with Brazilian soccer megastar Neymar.
Still, he’s just weeks away from releasing a collection of tunes that harks back to simpler times. Due out August 14th, This Mixtape Is Fire, a tidy seven-track EP, hums with a sweet nostalgia for the heyday of moombahton, the 110-bpm, low-end-favoring genre that seemed poised to take dubstep’s spot in the EDM mainstream five years back.
Just in time for loose, late-summer vibes, the EP locks into vintage moombahton’s laid-back, groovy vibes, full of dembow-inflected, reggaeton-inspired beats and overlaid with house flourishes. It’s the kind of thing for which Francis was almost exclusively beloved at the start of his ascent.
Just don’t shoehorn This Mixtape Is Fire into a boring “return to roots” story line, OK? Sure, Francis’ club and festival sets have long ago expanded beyond moombahton — these days, they draw heavily from various strains of house and, yes, trap. But moombah’s always remained in there, even as options for new tunes continued to shrink.
“I hate that language so much,” Francis says, perking up, sans coffee, at a mention of the return-to-roots angle that early press on This Mixtape has bandied about. “If you listen to my last record, Money Sucks, Friends Rule, there are three or four moombahton songs on there. I’ve always been doing it my whole career.”
Where Francis might have stuck with moombahton, though, many of his other early peers didn’t. Lest you’ve forgotten — and if you have, it’s cool, because the dance-music hype cycle moves fast — moombahton threatened to become the actual It Sound around 2010.
The name gives away its origins. As legend has it, Washington, D.C. DJ-producer Dave Nada, spinning a high-school-aged family member’s party, slowed down a Dutch house record, DJ Chuckie’s “Moombah,” to please the diverse, reggaeton-loving teen crowd. They ate it up, and a hybrid genre appeared, with few rules other than that general 110-ish-bpm, reggaeton-style tempo.
That standard speed was just about the only genre convention. “At the time, moombahton didn’t have rules like drum-and-bass and house music, where you need to use this type of snare or this type of kick. Trap music, it’s really now ingrained with the certain snare, the certain 808s you have to use,” Dillon recalls. “Moombahton was always really easy, and nobody had made those rules yet.”
In light of that freedom, Francis, Nada and particularly the Dominican-Dutch producer Munchi, set about creating a borderless new sound, one that floated between Latino and Caribbean rhythms, hip-hop flourishes and European electronic beats. Nada’s series of Moombahton Massive parties mushroomed across the major cities, and the sound took over big-time industry and fan events like the Winter Music Conference.
But moombahton never really achieved massive commercial lift off. (A Munchi–Azealia Banks Twitter beef seemed to be about the closest it came, when Banks used the beat for Munchi’s “Esta Noche” on a 2012 mixtape without crediting him at first.) “Moombahton never really hit, where there was a record where it exploded and made everyone wanted to do it,” Francis says.
With the ascent of electronic trap music — a slower, grinding, markedly darker genre laced with Southern-rap samples — moombahton seemed to die on the vine, in Francis’ eyes. “I think every single person I know that was making it, that got popular, sort of never went back to making that stuff,” he says. “It is a bit of a hard tempo.”
Still, crowds still dug Dillon’s dips into the genre’s short list of classics during his sets, until even Francis himself got bored with playing that limited selection. Thus came the genesis of This Mixtape Is Fire.
“I only had so many records that I played forever, and I started to feel like, ‘I’m copping out because I’m still playing the same part of my set,’” he says. In his few free moments, he re-spun his old favorite moombahton records, stirring up Proustian nostalgia for his early days as a couch-surfing, laptop-toting new signee to Diplo’s label, Mad Decent.
“That was really the innocent kind of hustle mode, and that’s where that music resonates for me,” he says, “just having the most fun I could possibly have making music, and not really caring about anything.”
That easy vibe pervades This Mixtape Is Fire, even though the EP features a host of friends and guests that form a who’s-who of current headliners. Bro Safari, Chromeo, Kygo and Skrillex all show up, and Dillon also landed a joint track with the even more overbooked Calvin Harris, who lends warped organ sounds to the afterhours-worthy, old-school-rave-inflected “What’s My Name.”
“Everything’s been really easy and organic and fun,” says Dillon, and it sounds like it. The merry band of hustlers-made-good on This Mixtape Is Fire ride cresting waves and drops, but land in backyard-barbecue-ready grooves laced with vaguely Caribbean percussion and synthetic brass.
If the whole thing won’t necessarily revive moombahton — and at EP length, it isn’t really meant to — it’ll at least remind listeners of why the genre once seemed like the guiding light out of the mainstream dubstep morass. “Those songs are specifically for having a Friday night, having fun, and that’s it. They’re not songs to put on the radio,” Francis says. “I wanted it to be a fun, weird, cool, moombahton-party-jam time.”