By Doug Gray, Senior Reporter
The Formative Years – Rio’s Black Music Explosion
The name Funk Carioca is taken directly from the musical genre pioneered by James Brown in the mid 1960s after he seized upon Little Richard’s funked up rock n roll, ripping out the horns, upping the bass and creating his signature groove. That and the funk of Rio in the 21st Century have only their name in common, however, as well as an undeniable ability to move a dance floor. Instruments were binned in favor of the 808 drum machine, singers replaced by MCs and samplers. Producers took hold of funk and remixed into something quintessentially Carioca – Baile Funk.
Along with soul music, ‘traditional’ funk was picked up and taken to the hearts of kids in the major cities of Brazil in the 1970s as an entirely new and thrilling sound inaccessible via the predominantly white, middle class-controlled media, though only a handful of DJs lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a trip to the US could actually get their hands on the music. Brown had the moves, the attitude and the clothes to make the kids want to be like him, and his music forced samba down the pecking order in their attentions.
To get hold of the records, fans like DJ Nazz had to call in favors with airline stewardesses, import/export companies, whoever they could find to help fuel the burgeoning desire for this new sound taking over from the traditional Brazilian rhythms. As the rich playboys of Ipanema and Leblon discovered clubbing, so too in the poorer neighborhoods live bands became less and less integral to parties and DJs became increasingly popular.
Unusually in a city of such rich live musical history, the pioneering Bande Black Rio were one of the few domestic purveyors of the 70s funk sound taking the city by storm, a group assembled by Soul Grand Prix from the best musicians around to capitalize on the popularity of the music. By and large, the DJ with his imported records was taking over.
The likes of Nazz and DJ Big Boy began with home made set-ups and handfuls of tracks by the likes of KC and The Sunshine Band, Kool and The Gang, Average White Band and of course James Brown, and for the people of the north zone and favelas, this burgeoning party scene was the only means of hearing this exciting new form of music.
With rapidly rising popularity these humble beginnings were soon outgrown, and the sound system culture that had begun at the turn of the decade exploded. Like-minded DJs and aspiring promoters began hosting huge block parties, with the MC singing rough Portuguese translations over the original vocals. The sense of belonging for the mostly black audience fueled the Funk parties’ popularity further still, and with a military dictatorship in power and imposing tight censorship over mainstream culture, they became rebellious, untouchable, and, ultimately, highly profitable.
Journalist Silvio Essinger, author of ‘BATIDÃO – Uma História do Funk’, the only comprehensive volume published on the subject of Funk eloquently summarizes the situation;
“The scene got huge and the authorities were becoming worried. There were literally thousands of kids dancing to funk at any of the hundreds of bailes happening every weekend in the poorer neighborhoods of the city. These guys were earning a lot of money, the parties were unregulated, and sound systems like Soul Grand Prix were taking over neighborhoods with literally hundreds of speakers pumping out funk all night long.”
The money coming into the scene helped it expand quickly and soon DJs were able to take cheap, chartered flights to the US to pick up armfuls of music and bring them back for the baying crowds. “In much the same way as occurred in Jamaica” Silvio continues, “DJs would scratch the names off the records and leave just a reminder as to what they were, keeping other sound systems from stealing tracks and reinforcing the fierce independence of the scene.”
When journalists began to pick up on the new movement, by the end of the 1970s it had become something of a victim of its own success and while Zona Sul’s clubs got busier, the block parties’ popularity waned. The underground taken over, the music no longer so new and exciting, they had seemingly run its course.
New tracks like Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” (1979) may have hinted at what the future would hold by introducing rapping as a progression of emceeing, but with the arrival of Disco the whole movement became more mainstream, and the interest shown by the middle class took it into new and, for the purists, unwelcome realms; the radio, onto television – even beginning a daily novela (soap opera) with the black music bailes as the recurring theme.
Fortunately for those seeking the next new sound, in 1982 a track was released that would change the face of black music in Rio for good. Years of lovingly crafted imitation and enjoyment of the sound of 1970s black America would rapidly take on its very own persona.
In the next installment of this three part feature, we’ll explore where Baile Funk diverged and established it’s own sound that evolved into the thriving genre heard all over Rio and the world today.
With thanks to Silvio Essinger.