Taken from the spring/summer issue of Dazed:
High above Lisbon, where miles of anonymous high-rise housing projects give way to fields, DJ Maboku is looking over Bairro do Pendão, the hood he grew up in. To his right a shanty town clings to rocks above a knot of illegal housing. Behind him a commuter train rumbles past. “How many DJs are there round here?” he says. “Too many to count. Too many to count.”
We’re here in Portugal, western Europe’s poorest country, to find out the story of the continent’s most thrilling new scene, a frantic and as yet unnamed digital distillation of decades-old high-tempo African dance music created almost entirely by kids housed in bairros sociais (vast areas of government-built social housing). It’s largely made with early 00s software FruityLoops and played at block parties and anywhere kids congregate with an MP3-playing phone.
“Every day something new comes up”, says Maboku, one of the most important producer/DJs in Lisbon. “There are just too many new kids to mention.” Tonight we’re going to be heading to Noite Principe, the now-legendary monthly club night that brings all the disparate strands together.
Breathless editorials over the last few months have been calling it the new grime and “the waist-windingest music ever”, but no one has yet found a label that truly sticks for this unnervingly precise polyrhythmic stew, created with ghetto speed and insistence and showcasing a melodious, breakneck creativity. “This music,” says Chicago-based DJ J-Cush, “will change your life.” He’s not messing about: his label Lit City Trax releases an EP this month by Marfox, the biggest Lisbon scene DJ around.
“There’s not a problem with us calling ourselves ‘little ghetto DJs’, because that’s where we’re from. And that’s where our music is from. But at the same time it’s not ghetto in my mind” – DJ Firmeza
The sound’s roots lie in African dance forms like kuduro, semba, kizomba, and tarraxinha, and in mood it’s similar to the oft-derided late-00s ghetto-bass explorations led by the likes of M.I.A. and Diplo, which took rich kids on funk tours of everything from Brazilian baile parties to South African townships. But the people behind the new music are fiercely resistant to being written off purely as ghetto music. “There’s not a problem with us calling ourselves ‘little ghetto DJs’, because that’s where we’re from,” says DJ Firmeza of Piquenos DJs Do Guetto. “And that’s where our music is from. But at the same time it’s not ghetto in my mind. It can be from somewhere but it can expand way beyond. It was born here: it doesn’t have to die here. If my music was on TV tomorrow, would you still call them ghetto beats?”
It’s an unusual scene in that its birth can be pinpointed to a single decision in a single building, a train station. There, in 2005, young DJs Marfox, Pausas and Fofuxo, all of whom had built a sizeable reputation playing block parties and assadas (communal barbecues) in their own suburbs, decided to join forces by launching a crew, DJs Do Guetto. They were later joined by DJs NK, Nervoso and Jesse.
Almost everyone I speak to cites this crew, and the free zip they released on eMule on the first day of school in 2006, as year zero. (Piquenos DJs Do Guetto even named their crew after them.) They opened the channels for communication between bairros, helping to spread the technical knowhow needed to create these batidas (beats) across greater Lisbon, where three million inhabitants live in an area 30 times the size of the city centre. Many are immigrant families dumped into hastily erected public housing on the periphery and stranded with limited transport.
“400,000 young people have left Portugal since the 2007 crash. That’s from a country of ten million. That’s an entire generation. It’s only us, young rich people and the ghetto kids left” – Pedro Gomes
It can take two to three hours to cross the city, and few outsiders take the trip out to visit the areas that incubate this extreme music. We’re here courtesy of André Ferreira and Pedro Gomes from Lisbon label Princípe. As well as releasing hand-crafted records from the scene with minimal, pared-down line illustrations by renowned Lisbon graphic designer Márcio Matos, they promote Noite Príncipe and act as bookers, managers, publicists and advisers for many of the DJs. “We’re a militia,” Gomes says, looking out of the window at abandoned buildings and car lots while Ferreira drives. He’s skinny and witty, chain-smoking Marlboro Reds while speaking impeccable English. “400,000 young people have left Portugal since the 2007 crash. That’s from a country of ten million. That’s an entire generation. It’s only us, young rich people and the ghetto kids left.”