This is a story assignment for Resident Advisor. It was first published in December 2020.
There is nothing to hear if you’re outside. No more than a few timid beats and thumps that come from inside a big two-story house on a silent, suburban street. It is roughly 8 PM. Once you sneak yourself into the basement, the sound grows stronger as if it was 4 AM in a hidden squat-club. As soon as the bass frequencies start punching your belly, you see it. A bunch of kids are enjoying some sort of party squeezed in a makeshift live streaming studio. Football jerseys everywhere, dri-fit hats, Nike gloves and Oakley sunglasses. One of these youngsters spits fast-paced bars on a mic while another breaks the beat flow with a rewind on the CDJ. Is it grime?
It is indeed, but we are not in London, or anywhere in the UK. We are in Brazil, São Paulo. The largest Latin American city is a 20 million-person megalopolis where, as an old rap song says, money is God. A high-rise city where a two-hour daily commute is normal. Like a gray mold spot, São Paulo stains the Brazilian tropical dream sold by travel agencies around the world. For that reason, this is the right place for the rise of Brazilian grime, a movement that has also landed in other cities around the country, such as Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, with artists like SD9, Vandal and collectives like the Brasil Grime Show.
In São Paulo, the grime spearhead is the Tracksuit Mafia. The crew is formed by music-makers, fashion designers, photographers and artists from different neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city. “The street is what unites us, the street culture, from rap to baile funk and electronic music, we all love that”, says Febem. A rather soft-spoken man, he’s bold when it comes to rapping. On his face, a small tattoo displays the name of the god-like indigenous divinity “Nhanderu.” Febem was one of the night’s main acts, alongside Fleezus, another Tracksuit Mafia MC.
“This crew is setting the pace,” Fleezus says. “We’re building up a scene that involves grime, drill, UK rap, samba. We started with grime, but we’re much more than that.”
There were around 20 people in the basement that night. A few of them swapped places behind the CDJs, spinning tracks like Skepta’s “Waze” or garage tunes by Todd Edwards. Some passed the mic while dropping rhymes over grime-ish baile funk loops. If you were not performing, chances are that you would be having a sip of whisky with a chunky rock of coconut water ice—it was a warm winter night. “This is real Brazil grime shit,” someone says when Febem and Fleezus start to sing “Raddim.” The song is a portrait of their lifestyle in São Paulo, one that describes the scene in that basement. This was just another night for the Tracksuit Mafia, a crew used to street parties fueled by booze, baile funk and boisterous soundsystems, downtown or in the surrounding favelas.
“Raddim” is the opening track of the Brime EP, the first all-grime album made in Brazil. Released in March, Brime is a collection of gloomy, jabbing bleeps and heavy basslines that drift through baile funk rhythmic patterns, 2-step grime loops, jungle breaks and eskibeats. It’s a staple for this music scene signed by Febem, Fleezus and CESRV (alias for Cesar).
At the party, CESRV could be found in a kind of control-room, cobbled together with monitors, audio interfaces and cables. The shows were being streamed online by the local internet radio Veneno and the creative agency Solo. CESRV and other Tracksuit members, like DJ Bartigga, ensured the broadcasting no matter the technical tricks and traps of the session—just as he has done with the Brime EP.
“Grime is diluted in different genres today,” says CESRV. “Think about Stormzy, he is not just a grime MC, but he has rather used grime to become the artist he is today, and grime in Brazil is a language that is being adapted. After all, this is not just about grime, it is more about people with different references coming together. We’ve had enough of Travis Scott.”
PLK and CESRV
CESRV’s refusal of a North American icon is more than a tantrum. Brazil and every other Latin American country have been a reservoir to the US culture industry since the beginning of the 20th century. For artists like Fleezus and Febem, grime provides a new set of cultural references—football and a non “make it rain” stance, for example. Whether partying or trying to make a life out of music, this universe feels relatable to their daily lives. They could personally grasp that in October 2019 on a trip to the UK.
“I saw that in London people loved football and music as much as I do, I saw the connection between England and Brazil,” says Fleezus.
The journey was both a personal and a work trip. In between a little sightseeing in the capital, the trio had the chance to connect with UK-based artists like Jevon and Teeboy—both featured in the Brime EP—and they recorded a performance at the Red Bull Music Studios. A stop by NTS was scheduled, but things did not happen as planned. As soon as the MCs got into the Hackney radio station they were handed the mic.
“We went there just to watch the session, but suddenly we were called out to rhyme and we did it, they saw we were for real,” Fleezus recalls. “They were like, ‘These guys from Brazil, they can really do some spitting,'” adds Febem.
“Febem, Fleezus and Cesar got the vibe here in London”, recalls Blue Canariñho. The British DJ nurtures close connections with Brazilian music, especially baile funk, since his early days as a bedroom producer and football fan. His show at the Reprezent Radio, Love In The Endz, has featured a number of DJs from Brazil. Febem, Fleezus and CESRV also made a guest appearance at the radio station while they were visiting London. “I’m from Bow, Stratford, and the whole grime aesthetics is just how we are out there,” says Blue Canariñho. “It’s interesting to see this going out in Brazil, to see what bits they’ve picked up on. The Brazilian grime people are doing it differently to how it was here in the UK, but they are still paying homage to where it came from.”
Back in Brazil, CESRV and the two MCs put the album together and reflected on their experience overseas. “They also face racism, they also live in rough areas, they also need to hustle, they also face police brutality,” says Febem. Brazilian police forces are one of the most violent in the world. According to the Human Rights Watch, in Rio alone the police killed 606 people in the first four months of 2020—and the vast majority of the victims were Black people. “But they have access to, let’s say, infrastructure, materials. We are a colonized country. Even a mobile phone is a hard thing to get in Brazil.” Fleezus says that he bought a phone on the UK trip—Brazil is known to be one of the world’s most expensive countries to buy smartphones and electronic devices.
At a party that night, Fleezus sipped whisky from a plastic cup. “I am not sure if everybody is aware of it,” he said, “but Brazilian grime is real, things are getting big, and soon there will be a music market for it. Then I will make money.”
Until then, they have got to follow some rules. The session was being held in a rented basement and when it was 11 PM, one of the house owners screamed out loud: “the party is over!” It was just in time for Fleezus’s last thought: “Originally grime has a message, and here we have our own elements blended in this music. This adaptation comes from our life experiences. This grime is ours.”
It’s all a matter of baile
Cesar packed his sound equipment shortly after the lights went out. He needed to go to his studio, leave his equipment there and then get back home. But not everyone was down for calling it a night. They were headed to a street party in downtown São Paulo, probably in front of a soundsystem blasting baile funk tunes.
According to Fleezus, the connection between this Brazilian electronic music and grime is organic. Hearing his friend speak, Febem agreed and said that he’s been listening to baile funk since he was a kid. “The great majority of people making grime music are also baile funk fans,” Cesar said a few days later in his studio. “The BPM is similar, the way the beat kicks is similar, and I believe grime has a lot to do with Rio’s funk.” Cesar refers to the rhythmic patterns filled with harsh drum attacks, from heavy kicks to crispy claps, along with the prosody styles found in baile funk and grime—both of these genres have a strong connection with hip-hop.
Baile funk is to Rio de Janeiro what grime is to London. The favelas and suburbs of Rio gave birth to this music back in the ’80s. Since then, the tamborzão rhythmic pattern has spread all over Brazil and the world, mutating and evolving as a unique living thing. In one of its recent successful assemblages, baile funk has sped up from 130 BPM to 150 BPM (or even more). Rio de Janeiro DJs and MCs from neighborhoods such as Nova Holanda are the ones to credit for that frenzied new strain of the music.
In this same area, roughly a two-hour bus ride from the Christ the Redeemer statue, a unique MC is also playing a leading role in the Brazilian grime scene, weaving in baile funk and a precise sense of storytelling. His name is Max, AKA SD9, a slim, 20-something-year-old man with a deep, sharp voice. Released in July, his first album 40˚.40 has earned him local, national and international recognition. He has drawn the attention of the Brazilian hip-hop and electronic music scenes. Whenever walking on the streets of Nova Holanda, Max is greeted by locals. From ganglords playing his album in their cars to young kids singing his punchlines, SD9 is a rising star.
“You know when you’re looking for your identity, you’re introduced to something and then you say, ‘Shit, that’s it’?”, Max says. He doesn’t need to finish the sentence: his “something” is grime. If the Brime EP captures the street life of São Paulo, 40˚.40 gives us the edgy spirit of Rio. It’s not the clichéd bossa nova portrait, but a complex montage of street violence, sultry parties and sunny after parties—a Carioca graphic novel that cannot be sold, once again, as a tropical gringo-made or high-class Brazilian dream. “In this record, I wanted to navigate through these two worlds: the beach life, as in 40 degrees Celsius, and the crime scene, as in the .40 handgun,” says Max. “It’s nothing but the daily life of a kid from a favela in Rio.”
Max thinks an MC can make music across different genres, so he describes himself as an MC. This title is commonly used by baile funk artists in Brazil, and this musical upbringing has forged SD9 in his flow. While remembering his nights at baile funk parties, he traces a parallel between grime and proibidão lyrics (the hardcore version of baile funk): songs may depict violent stories, but the rhythm makes people dance joyfully. “Grime is fast, funk is fast,” he says.
A skilful producer and DJ who lives near SD9, DIIGO also theorizes on these connections between Brazil and England. He created some of the most captivating SD9 tracks in 40˚.40, such as the fierce chopped-up beat of “B.O.” or the indisputable UKG of “Oi.”
“The proibidão baile funk snare is the same as in grime,” he explains. “The old school proibidão parties also feel just like what I think a grime party is. Maybe there’s some brawling, but c’mon, it’s just for fun. I just think that the clothing style is not similar to ours because, you know, it’s always hot in Rio. We are always shirtless!”
This was clear to anyone at Grime Execution, a party that took place in Rio back in January. It was a hot summer day and in the downtown paved area, filled with Portuguese buildings from colonial times, the temperature reached 40 degrees. This wasn’t a problem to the 100 kids crowded in a club called Desvio. They wanted to listen to the tunes recorded by their friends or the artists that they often listen to in YouTube videos or SoundCloud mixes.
The party was already going when one of the DJs dropped a grime beat. Tarcis, a young artist with short locks, grabbed the mic. Instead of rhyming about topics familiar to the grime universe, he started to sing “Festa de Umbanda.” Originally, this traditional song was made out of an elegy chanted in candomblé rituals—a religious practice rooted in Afro-Brazilian culture. Deities like Ogum were being summoned over sharp string attacks and reversed kicks. From that point on even the orishas, the Yoruba spirits praised in candomblé, might have blessed Brazilian grime.
One of the DJs that day was ANTCONSTANTINO (alias for Antônio Constantino). He is one of the founders of the Brasil Grime Show (BGS), a YouTube channel that has become a hub for grime artists from all over the country. The BGS was formed by Antônio alongside Yvie Oliveira, diniBoy, Rennan Guerra, Lucas Sá and Mateus Diniz. “We were inspired by London-based radios like Rinse, Reprezent,” he says. “The only difference is that instead of broadcasting on a radio station, we stream our sessions on YouTube.”
The first video posted on the channel is only one year old. In the past few months, BGS has boosted the grime scene’s popularity in Brazil, gathering an audience built on open-minded hip-hop fans that want to discover new sounds and bass music lovers who embrace the MC culture.
“Grime is a place apart from hip-hop, and it has reinforced the electronic music culture that was kind of overlooked in the trap scene,” says Antônio. A self-described internet addict, he spends hours in SoundCloud and Bandcamp rabbit holes looking for releases that fit his sets or artists that could be featured on BGS. This online persona has made him a sort of Brazilian grime curator, since he shares and endorses several new artists in the scene in funny Instagram Stories, Spotify playlists and tweets. “When the beat kicks in, I know if it’s good or not,” he says.
This key role played by the BGS channel has been noticed not only nationally, but also in the UK. “Wiley and Grandmixxer have commented on our posts, Skepta has reposted us on Instagram and DJ Oblig hung out with us and stopped by our studio when he came to Rio,” says Antônio. His teammate on the BGS pickups, diniBoy places the Brasil Grime Show as a distant, new-born relative to the second wave of grime that started in the UK in the mid-2010s. His and Antônio’s first contact with this music genre was on YouTube, a few years ago. Eventually the video platform turned into an alternative for them not just as music fans, but as music makers. “It was tough, as a DJ, to play grime in parties a few years ago, so the YouTube channel showed up as an easy way to share this kind of music,” says diniBoy.
diniBoy released his first EP, World Dini War, in July. Despite all the braggadocio that can sneak onto the scene, diniBoy is modest about his debut. “Grime is a cultural mix, it doesn’t fit into a single place,” he says. “So I am still finding my own style in this music.” So far, he is able to deliver powerful tracks ready-made for clubbing. In “Identidade,” for instance, he breaks down a four-on-the-floor pattern into a bass banger with the help of Street Fighter samples and rhymes by N.I.N.A., a young artist from Rio.
N.I.N.A. is a good example of how Brazilian grime has gained momentum thanks to platforms such as Brasil Grime Show, clubs like Desvio and their intrinsic connection with baile funk. She says her attention was drawn to grime after going to clubs where MCs like SD9 were performing. It didn’t take long for her to step aside from the CDJs—she was used to being a baile funk DJ—and start writing her own lyrics. “Here, in our country, whoever makes grime music comes from low-income neighborhoods,” she says. “And grime is dirty, just like Rio’s baile funk, the music we listen to in our ends.”
Born and raised in Rio’s suburbs, N.I.N.A. boasts her thoughts in her first single: “A bruta, a braba, a forte,” which can be translated to “The beast, the thug, the strongwoman.” “I am not a white girl from Rio’s upper-class southside, I am a Black woman from a favela and my feminism is set straight,” she says. N.I.N.A. was as a philosophy student in the Fluminense Federal University, one of the most prestigious schools in Rio. She decided to quit the bachelor course since she didn’t feel like she fit in. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statics (IBGE), it was not until 2019 when Black students became the majority in public universities—reflecting for the first time the national ethnic demographics. N.I.N.A. chose grime after focusing on Greek and French thinkers for a few months. “It was in music where I found the freedom I needed to be who I am.”
From Salvador to drill, from the past to the future
Just like N.I.N.A, Kenya20Hz is a young Black woman. She has DJ’d on Brasil Grime Show along with MCs Juju Rude and Thai Flow. Having a chat with Kenya is like being engulfed by a torrent of UK Black electronic music references—especially from the dubstep era. She drops the names of DJs, producers and collectives as easily as she connects the dots between Brazilian and British club scenes.
“It has been a while since I started to follow the music scene from London,” she says. “If people speak about Skepta today in Brazil, it’s not an accomplishment by gringos, but rather the result of hardworking people here,” she says.
Kenya belongs to a two-decade lineage of bass music in Brazil, a cultural phenomenon that sprung up on dance floors around the turn of 2010. She recalls that playing grime at the time was a hard task. Hip-hop kids didn’t feel comfortable with grime in parties focused on trap, and electronic music fans were not into the social criticism that can be embodied by grime music—a coalescence that, according to her, only now is being outreached. Many of these parties, like Collab and Wobble, took place in São Paulo and Rio. If you speak to almost any Brazilian grime MC, DJ or producer, they will praise these parties and nightclubs as their main entrance to the likes of JME, Kano and Dizzee Rascal. Indeed, each one of them has an affectionate episode of their life linked to grime (SD9 says that he used to love the drum & bass soundtrack of FIFA Street and CESRV has been a fan of Ninja Tune since the mid-2000s), but clubbing was an undeniable invitation to this UK music.
Another Brazilian city, however, has welcomed grime by the backdoor. In Salvador, Bahia, a capital known for having the largest Black population outside of Africa, music has been always swallowed and transformed into something new. A hybrid genre that fueled a generation of artists in Brazilian popular music, samba-reggae, for instance, was forged in the Bahia-Jamaica-Africa connection throughout the Black Atlantic. The London outpost in this diasporic web has brought grime, a genre rooted in the Jamaican toasting prosody, and an attitude familiar to Salvador artists.
“We play with elements taken out of London electronic music, we’re not a copy-paste of Skepta,” says Vandal, an essential artist from Bahia’s new music scene. “We’ve been making grime in Salvador for 15 years now.”
Back in the 1990s, Rio de Janeiro hip-hop artists Black Alien and Speed Freaks crossed ragga aesthetics with frantic beats in songs like “Quem Caguetou?” In his first album, 2002’s Fortificando a Desobediência, São Paulo rapper Xis spits fire in the opening track “Chapa o Coco.” Artists and crews inspired by Jamaican music like Jimmy Love, Kbrum and the vast soundsystem culture found in the outskirts of São Paulo have undertaken dialogs with the Caribbean country for a long time. But although it is hard to pinpoint when a music genre starts, Vandal makes a pioneering claim based on a 2002 recording session with DJ and producer Lordbreu. In what became the mixtape Fayaka Seppaz, he rhymed over the sinogrime influenced remix of “Find My Way,” by Kode9. “I don’t need to say I make grime music,” Vandal says. “I am grime music.”
The artist believes his narrative is overlooked by the media and artists as part of a biased cultural exchange in Brazil. Since the first days of national radio broadcasting, in the beginning of the 20th century, the southeastern cities of São Paulo and Rio have been important enclaves for the articulation of a cultural industrial complex. Moreover, racism and prejudice still underlie regional ties between the southern and the northern portions of the country. “There’s a latent xenophobic process,” says Vandal, while glancing at a match between Bahia and Corinthians—the main football team from São Paulo.
MCs and producers from São Paulo and Rio often mention Vandal when speaking about the early days of Brazilian grime, but they also believe that only today a scene is being molded. In this regard, Vandal is not keen to shape his work to a frame. “The artist Vandal does not fit in, he comes to break aesthetics and paradigms,” he says. “I don’t make 100 percent grime, and Salvador is an inventive city, so nothing made here sounds like a copy.”
Vandal also makes a claim while talking about drill, recalling that his song “40L” was the genre’s debut in Brazil back in February 2017. The track is a remix of “Everyday,” by Chief Keef, but once again it was London boroughs that succeeded in spreading its music in Brazil. After Pop Smoke’s take on UK drill, the genre is paving the road to be the next big thing among Brazilian kids. Rio DJ and producer DIIGO sums up the idea: “Grime and drill have come hand-in-hand to our country, but drill is going to be way bigger here, it will overtake the trap scene and grime will not be as popular.”
Many grime artists seem to be on that same page about the future of both genres, whether they are from São Paulo, like Fleezus, Febem and CESRV, Rio, like SD9, or Salvador, like Vandal. However, they are not concerned if their music will thrive in the underground. There is yet too much to do, a scene to build up, whether you are an MC, a producer or a DJ.
Another topic they appear to agree on, along with being football fans and embracing tracksuit clothing, is the Netflix show Top Boy. All of the artists featured in this story loved the series. SD9 made me promise I would watch the Summerhouse season. “There are gangs, conspiring, snitches, a lot of things we see down here in the favelas”, he says. DiniBoy made a mind-blowing gesture while talking about a scene backed by a dubstep track: “It’s a bit like the [Brazilian movie] Elite Squad, because it shows the reality, not all of that but still.”
“I had watched Top Boy before traveling to England and, to tell you the truth, I got crazy when I set my feet in London,” says Febem, one of the only Brazilian grime MCs that has ever been to the UK. “But not at the first sight. It was when we got to Brixton. I stepped out of the train and I heard some guys saying, ‘Wah gwan, boy’. Then I told myself, ‘OK, this is Top Boy‘,” and he left, with a boastful and yet humble walk, as if he was a Brazilian-English OG with his mandem crossing a junction under a London Overground bridge. “Wah gwan, fala memo.”