Thatƒ?TMs my DJ

By Eric Kelsey

The 2002 movie “City of God” directed theatergoers’ attention to the violence, destitution and distress of the Rio de Janeiro favela. The backdrop portrayed favelas in comparison to the abutting nouveau riche high rises as an accent on the drastic gaps of wealth in Brazilian cities. A favela is the equivalent to a shantytown on the outskirts of Brazilian cities, most famously in Rio de Janeiro. The residents of favelas, to legend and fact, were veterans and refugees from the Canudos Civil War of 1895, and today fashion their abodes out of mostly bricks but at times garbage and most any material that could be pasted together and withstand wind and rain.Despite all the material poverty of the Rio favela there was fruitfulness of cultural growth, and like the blues of the Mississippi Delta, the development of new musical styles and traditions. The creation was Funk Carioca, widely known in the United States and other parts of the world as “Baile Funk.” Baile resembles little of the “funk” name attached to it, but its origins can be traced to the 1970s and ’80s Brazilian record collectors and suppliers who came to the United States to find “funk” records and over time returned with fewer records resembling American funk but more of the nascent recordings of the Miami Bass scene.

The character of Miami Bass pumps high dance tempos, staccato and synthetic kick drum rhythms of Roland TR-808, complemented with stop-and-start vocals that rip with an unheard intensity. This led some critics to naively theorize that the force of an emcee’s flow corresponded proportionally with Miami’s murder rate. With the selective arrival of records from America, Rio de Janeiro DJs, singers and rappers mixed Baile with its own Afro-Brazilian rhythms creating a circle of cultural flows that dated as old as the importation of native Africans by the Portuguese in the 16th century, to as new as the latest beats spinning in American and European clubs.

The most recent transformation of Baile as an international dance music comes naturally as an outgrowth of the internet. Although the favelas often lack electricity, let alone computers, Baile parties are often arenas where social classes have mixed in the past and this collision of musical production with the means of electronic diffusion opened information and culture flows far beyond the reach of the recording industry.

Over the past eight years much has been made about where one gets music. Yet, as self-evident as the spread of information is across boarders with the internet, sharing records and radio used to be the only way of spreading the sound globally outside of the major record industry.

Mp3s have even gone as far as to become a commonplace even in some of our parents’ lives. And when the Baile-loving American DJ Diplo plays a show, he brings along with his turntables a laptop of mp3s. In the advent of the internet and consequently the mp3, the PC became the newest and most dynamic instrument in music and its own reproduction and diffusion.

It’s easy to locate the top-down actors in the music business, besides from corporate radio and internationally-distributing record labels, iTunes and other online purchase-to-download sites have opened up corridors of communication with the distribution of artists at unfathomable distances and speeds and have helped aid musicians that were once local into the national and even international spheres of “downloadability.” It used to be enough to tour nationally to become a national act but with sites like it takes only a website and a single mp3 to take your music global.

Even as the flows of American pop music grow smaller in size and scope, with fewer artists finding their way onto the top 40 charts, the cultural flows in and out of the U.S. are at their most congested. Traditionally, flows of people from the periphery of the economic sphere to the center bring multitudes of sounds and ideas that we consider staples of the commercial landscape. Artists from the Caribbean, and in particular Jamaica, forged a pathway of cultural hybridity and syncretism from the Caribbean to the U.S. and the United Kingdom. The scope of such cross-cultural flows can hardly be quantified unless in dollars of Bob Marley posters hanging in college dorm rooms, the number of concert tickets Ricky Martin sells and the appearance fees Wyclef and Shakira demanded to play “Hips Don’t Lie” at last summer’s World Cup final.

In the internet era, the DJ is like a navigator of the international waters. Although the DJ might at times be a pirate, she is nonetheless a navigator of new cultural transmissions. Armed with a turntable and a laptop of mp3s, the internationalist DJ spins songs reflecting not only the structures of economic and information pathways but connects the dots of culture that such structures have little or no use for.

Of the internationalist DJs responsible for opening and expanding cultural flows across borders, Diplo leads the American class. His preoccupation with trans-Arab beats and more importantly Baile, complete and reconstitute the circular paths of historical culture flows to and from the U.S. Notably, his relationship with Rio-based DJ Marlboro, has extenuated the four-continent flow of music between the U.S., Europe, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. The Diplo song “Diplo Rhythm” off of his 2004 sample-based album “Florida,” releases knotted polyrhythms behind the mashed-up patois of Sandra Melody and Vybz Cartel. The song comes to its climax after nearly four minutes when the Baile-rapper Pantera Os Danadinhos bursts through the turntable’s needle. The spontaneity in the Portuguese vocals shoots the song into earth’s orbit while Diplo as DJ links three localities seamlessly into a single totality.

As the internet spreads music with the load of a browser it has put an extra importance and burden on the DJ, as not only an arbiter of cultural forms and flows, but as a new cultural educator and sampler bringing the peripheral poundings of Baile to the center.