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DJ K's underworld of baile funk and witchcraft

PANICO NO SUBMUNDO, the Brazilian producer's new album, highlights the rave imbued and hallucinogenic ambience of contemporary baile funk from São Paulo. Meet the funk "sorcerer" guiding the favela sound.

Submundo (masculine noun): “a group of outsiders or delinquents regarded as an organized social group” (Dicio, online Portuguese dictionary). The stage is thus set for PANICO NO SUBMUNDO, (panic in the underground) the new album by DJ K, a young prodigy from São Paulo earned his stripes in the Baile de Helipa in Heliópolis, the biggest favela in Latin America’s largest city. Despite numerous attempts by the authorities to suppress it, “baile” is the hot outdoor party that takes place every week in hundreds of favelas, during which DJs and their super-powered sound systems play the latest favela funk trends. Funk is this mutation of Miami Bass, born in Rio in the 1980s, which has become a worldwide phenomenon and a platform of expression for many of the country’s most disadvantaged populations.

It’s been a long time since funk belonged only to the favelas: the biggest MCs and producers are now racking up hundreds of millions of views, reaching the middle class and its households, hosting TV shows and getting booked at today’s biggest festivals. And yet, the favela baile remains at the heart of this constantly evolving music, which has intensified in recent years, with catchy, good-natured refrains giving way to faster, more industrial and experimental productions, constantly seeking to push the limits of our eardrums. If “Rap da felicidade” (the “rap of joy”) was the dance of 1995, the new hits of the genre, particularly in São Paulo, are now more aggressive than joyful, and sound more like rave music than samba.

DJ K’s new album, nonchalantly produced in three days, is a glimpse of what the original audience of this music in São Paulo is listening to today. The strident peaks, mournful vocals, 30-second transitions and ear-shaking bass plunge us straight into the phantasmagorical world and organized bazaar of Helipa’s baile. It’s a live transmission of what’s being broadcast from the explosive perimeter walls of the favelas, the nerve center of the country’s tensions and the music of tomorrow.

How would you describe the “submundo” or  “underworld” to which you belong? 

What we call “submundo” is, in a way, the favelas, the baile, the substances, everything that goes on there in a more or less illicit way. And the element of panic is the state in which the favelas currently find themselves, with the current repression, Covid, inflation… I wanted to evoke all this in music, with the most popular genre currently in the favelas.

This genre you’re talking about, it’s mandelão funk, isn’t it?

There are many different styles in Brazilian funk. Mandelão funk, automativo funk, conscious funk… I mix it all up a bit and call it “funk bruxo” (sorcerer’s funk). It’s an uncensored style. We talk about whatever we want: favelas, baile, what’s consumed there, the repression… It’s our reality. In terms of music, it’s very aggressive, it’s very strong, it’s fast. It’s a feeling of the atmosphere in which we play in the baile: it’s a total letting go.

Why do you think this style developed in São Paulo?

The biggest favelas in Brazil are in São Paulo! And the reality is quite different from Rio, for example, which is a city with the sea, nature… Carioca and Paulista funk have long since differentiated themselves, because they are two very different atmospheres. Our BPM is much faster, for example, and our sound is much colder. Our music is more in tune with our reality, although we talk about realities and problems that exist all over the world. But perhaps a little more in São Paulo than elsewhere…

And when did “bruxo” (sorcerer) funk arrive?

In fact, it all started with a joke. It was the rapper Emicida, who is known all over Brazil, who one day made a tweet saying that what I was doing was no longer production, it was downright witchcraft! It spoke to me straight away, and I’ve kept that expression in the way I present myself.

Witchcraft fits well with the visuals around funk mandelão: horror movie clowns, exorcisms…

These are visual codes that go with our music. People like the thrill of fear, they love to go to the cinema and watch horror films. They like suspense, surprise… So we put that into the music, but also into everything visual around it. Generally speaking, in the parties I play in, the more advanced, the more aggressive, the darker, the more the audience likes it.

Although it’s very popular, from an outsider’s point of view, your music could be considered niche electronic music. Do you see a convergence between the favela baile public and the public for trance, techno, electro…?

Funk has been mainstream for years now. Funk no longer belongs to the favelas, the whole of Brazil listens to it, so the public is already very mixed. Secondly, I can see a convergence of electronic and favela audiences. For example, I’ve already been invited many times to play at electronic festivals, rave festivals, techno festivals… I’m currently in Germany, and just yesterday I did a show in Berlin, where the people are more techno oriented. And it went really well!

And how does your scene relate to the much more mainstream funk of Mc Kevin O Cris, Mc Kevinho, Mc Livinho…?

Personally, I have nothing to do with commercial funk. To get on TV, on the radio, in the big media, you have to make a much smoother type of funk, which is very censored. Even though I’m trying hard to get a large audience, and I’m in the middle of propaganda to increase the number of people who listen to me, I’ve got nothing to do with them. And above all, in the favela, people don’t listen to commercial funk. They don’t like it. If you play in the favela, you have to play something more aggressive, a sound much closer to mine.

What other artists inspire you?

Actually, when I was younger I listened to a lot of rock and reggae. Bands like Evanescence, System of a Down, Pearl… A lot of punk. These are the energies I try to convey in my music. It was only later that I started getting interested in funk. Right now, I’m very eclectic in my listening. I listen to a lot of samba, pagoda, rap, trap…

And how did you end up playing Baile de Helipa? Who decides who plays?

It’s a very closed system. You have to know the right people to play there, and it’s virtually impossible to be a DJ there if you’re an outsider. At the same time, it’s understandable: the favela baile scene is still a bit dangerous, so before hiring a DJ you have to know who he is, where he comes from… And nobody makes any money playing there! However, it’s a very competitive system, and many Brazilian DJs would love to play the Helipa Baile.

Personally, it took a while before I could perform there. Through friends of friends who had listened to what I was posting on Soundcloud, I was able to get my place. Everyone knows me there now, and I’ve been playing there almost every week for three years. Then there’s the snowball effect: the more you play, the more people come on your Instagram and ask you to play in other parties.

What does releasing an album on Nyege Nyege mean to you?

I didn’t know them. I met them through my manager. They made me an offer to do an album, so I did it in three days without any great expectations. At the time, I had a lot of things to do, accounts, events… and then when the album came out, I quickly realized the repercussions. We got reviews in American and European magazines, from journalists everywhere. I realized that this work was taking me elsewhere. My life is already changing!

PANICO NO SUBMUNDO is available now via Nyege Nyege.