[The Guardian] ‘If it doesn’t smell like funk, something’s wrong with your recipe’: Brazilian baile funk goes global, again

This is a story assignment for The Guardian. It was first published in November 2023.


Harsh, thunderous kicks; offbeat, crispy cymbals; powerful – sometimes incomprehensible – vocals, all preferably blasted out of sturdy speakers. This is the sound of baile funk, an electronic music born 40 years ago the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and one of the most thrilling and downright weird sounds to ever cross into mainstream culture.

While it has long since spread throughout Brazil, it has recently spilled over the country’s borders into memes, fashion weeks, and today’s anglophone pop: Cardi B and Travis Scott have tapped into it this year. And there’s a new wave called bruxaria, which translates as witchcraft, a sombre, four-on-the-floor strain that blossomed in São Paulo’s fluxos – parties in favelas (slums or working-class neighbourhoods) where souped-up car sound systems blast music throughout narrow streets all night long. Bruxaria has also gained momentum beyond Brazil, in turn giving birth to phonk: an internet-based music that exaggerates (and arguably smooths out) its predecessor’s main traits, and has exploded on TikTok and Spotify. Nearly 7m people are subscribed to Spotify’s main phonk playlist, making it one of the most popular in the world.

Priscila Cavalcante, who records as House of Pris, says: “Whether in the club or within another genre, baile funk is now part of modern music DNA. If it doesn’t smell like funk, there’s something wrong with your recipe.”

Baile funk grabbed the heart and soul of São Paulo’s Guilherme Galdino, who grew from a fan into DJ Arana, one of the prime movers in bruxaria alongside producers such as DJ Patrick R, DJ Blakes and DJ K, whose tracks are often topped with equally popular MCs. DJ Arana first made music on a Samsung Duos mobile phone, and the 18-year-old has now amassed more than 210m views on his YouTube channel, while 7m people a month listen to his sombre and eerie tracks on Spotify, countering the stereotypical tropical vibes associated with Brazil. “My producer persona is like a character, like a game skin,” he says. “I bring horror stuff to my music because people don’t expect it – I like to make music that makes people want to scream.”

Baile funk has triggered online dance crazes and is filtering into clubs, where its hyperactive blend of elements means it has been paired with everything from hard techno to reggaeton and Afrobeats. DJ Arana has seen his music being played everywhere from Japan to Switzerland.

A couple at the 2015 Rio Parada Funk event
A couple at the 2015 Rio Parada Funk, an annual baile event in the birthplace of the movement. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Cavalcante faced a very different landscape as a twentysomething at the turn of the 2000s, when she left Brazil to make a living out of music in Europe. She settled down in Amsterdam and started DJing 90s baile funk. “People didn’t seem to enjoy it”, she says. “Like, 10 people at the club would dance to those songs.” She had learned to love baile funk in packed free parties in her home town of Fortaleza (in the state of Ceará, northeastern Brazil). “The first time I heard It’s Automatic, I cried,” Cavalcante says, referring to the track by US group Freestyle, a hit in Rio’s suburbs, where it features heavily on the radio and on the best DJs’ playlists.

The track was also a hot pick in a 1988 compilation record released by Furacão 2000, one of the main baile funk crews at the time. Such collectives blossomed in the 70s, throwing Black and favela-centered parties soundtracked by funk music such as James Brown or Brazil’s own Tim Maia. As the years went by, the music mutated as it was exposed to Miami bass, New York freestyle and Los Angeles electro, but the name remained the same, more or less: baile funk has also been called funk carioca and favela funk.

Throughout the 90s, the style continued to evolve and became a Rio phenomenon, earning it greater scrutiny: media and politicians would link the scene to violence and drug trafficking. And yet, the infectious tamborzão, baile funk’s original rhythmic pattern, flourished outside Rio, becoming popular in other Brazilian cities such as Fortaleza, Recife, Belo Horizonte, São Paulo, and even abroad.

In the mid-00s, “there’s a baile funk renaissance, with the MC taking the front of the stage in lieu of the DJ”, says Cavalcante. The 2004 compilation Rio Baile Funk: Favela Booty Beats, concocted by German DJ Daniel Haaksman, took the sound to a wider audience outside Brazil. American DJ Diplo was another high profile international champion, bringing the sound into his productions with Brazilian musician Deize Tigrona, British rapper MIA and Jamaican-American dance music trio Major Lazer – whose 2009 song Pon De Floor, inspired by baile funk, became the basis for Beyoncé’s 2011 hit Run the World (Girls).

Young men dancing Rio’s Vila Valqueire neighbourhood.
Young men dancing passinho style to baile funk in Rio’s Vila Valqueire neighbourhood in 2014. Photograph: Phil Clarke Hill/Corbis/Getty Images

Cavalcante has amassed a collection of almost a thousand baile funk vinyl records, and is now based in Miami, one of the main hubs for sounds that made up baile funk in the 80s. She has made a name for herself spinning early funk tracks that meld together Brazilian Portuguese vocals and Miami bass beats. “The first party we had here was crowded,” she says. “And we didn’t have an Instagram account whatsoever.”

The US pop charts seem to be the next frontier: Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s Bongos or Travis Scott’s K-pop might sound flat to connoisseurs, but both songs draw from recent iterations of baile funk. And there’s Anitta, a trailblazing Brazilian pop star who kicked off her career as a baile MC prior to international stardom.

Taísa Machado is a dancer, researcher and one of the curators of Rio’s first major exhibits dedicated to baile funk, at Museu de Arte do Rio. She asks: “But do people listen to Anitta abroad? What kind of funk are these international DJs are playing? Everything is cloudy now.” She says of the genre’s breakout global success: “It’s something like, ‘I told you so’. But there’s also a sense of panic. A common fear is that so-called gringos start making baile funk without linking up with Brazilian artists. I’m afraid that pop artists only scratch the surface here, and that underground artists don’t get the mentions they deserve.”

Rennan da Penha, one of Rio’s main baile funk DJs, who has 1m followers on Instagram, now leads a campaign against what he calls “TikTok baile funk”. Tracks that are massively shared on the platform, spawning dance moves that have gone viral, have no place in his crowded parties. “When TikTok dance trends became a thing, several baile funk dancers, the passinho dancers, lost ground to TikTok influencers,” Machado says. There’s also a sense that, just as in the 90s and 00s, baile funk is looked down upon by high culture – there are no funk artists in the new best Portuguese-language urban performance category at the Latin Grammys this month.

However big baile funk gets internationally, Cavalcante hopes that “producers keep blending it with other genres like reggaeton and hip-hop – this is the kind of thing that brings energy to a genre so it becomes global,” she says. Machado also sees this culture-blending as important: “There are DJs and producers in Brazil crossing baile funk with house, Afrobeats, amapiano [South African dance music] – they have eyes wide open to what’s been on the rise internationally”.

Painting of a person with gold hair and black crop top

For Machado, however, there’s one thing that give Brazilian baile funk artists an edge, something that will always keep the genre advancing: baile funk street parties in the favelas the genre sprang from. These bailes were where Cavalcante and Arana heard for the first time the kicks and vocals that are an integral part of their lives today. “Everything in baile funk comes out of the bailes. That’s where you’ll find the next trends,” says Machado. “If you want to make baile funk music, your life experiences need to be connected to the favela. Funk is favela.”

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