Sep 23, 2015

Portugal’s Branko is a tastemaking, globe-trotting underground legend whose debut album “ATLAS” succeeds in fusing the past, present and future of global bass. As he prepares to enter his second decade as a producer and label owner, the Buraka Som Sistema member offers thoughts on politics, music, and what’s next for his career.

Branko feat. Mr. Carmack & Nonku Phiri - Let Me Go (Original Mix) [Enchufada]
LessThan3: What initially went into pulling this diverse project together?
João: The idea for ATLAS took shape in 2014, beginning with conversations regarding connecting with Red Bull because we wanted to use their studios to make things easier. At that time, we wanted to do the video content for the making of the album, too. The trips to the various cities where we recorded happened in January and February 2015. The last one was Lisbon, so after that week, I locked myself in the studio and finished putting the puzzle that was ATLAS together.
LessThan3: Take us through the process of figuring out where you wanted to travel. Were the choices because of genres that interested you, artists, scenes, or a mix of all three?
João: A lot of stuff came naturally because of the cities we chose. I knew I wanted to go to South Africa because I’ve been really shilling that whole gqom scene. It was interesting because I never really loved that whole South African house thing that’s super polished with bright pianos and ladies with beautiful voices singing on top. I understand it, but it’s never been my thing. So it’s intriguing to me that 16-year old South African kids are picking up on this and making these twisted drum sounds.

In Brazil, I knew that there was a new wave of baile funk, and I wanted to go to Sao Paolo and figure out why baile funk is sounding different in 2015. The reason that I stumbled upon was that baile funk was now extending outside of Rio, so the original loop over that Miami bass sound was eclipsed by what people outside of Rio were making. Understanding the reasons why these progressions were happening were important.

Going to Amsterdam was interesting because it’s such a magnet for different sounds. Cape Verdean people, Surinamese people and Arubans are all there, so there’s that Caribbean vibe. The Dutch sound, which is like its own industry now, comes from bubbling, which is influenced by all of those cultures.

Obviously I had to go to Lisbon, because it’s me, and there’s a ton of new stuff going on here. I wanted to include where I grew up. And New York was important too, because it’s a magnet for all of these different genres. I had to get DJ Sliink on the record we made in New York because I wanted to include the evolution of Baltimore club to Jersey club to the more progressive sounds coming from there, too.

LessThan3: You’ve been mixing and mashing global bass for a decade now. What has improved in that time in the production and distribution realms, and what are things that are worrisome or that you miss?
João: I think there’s a lot more information circulating now than there was 10 years ago, when the only available tool was MySpace. Now, there’s a number of platforms that have come through that are sincredibly helpful for trying to figure out what’s going on in a specific place. As well, there’s just more music being made than ever before. This whole scene comes from the do-it-yourself process, which means that someone who’s not from inside the traditional music industry is able to create sounds that are truly unique and different. It’s good to hear people using a computer and cracked software to re-invent a riddim or create music that reflects their particular social situation in a specific place.

There’s also more access to computers than there was 10 years ago. 10 years ago I was still making music on my father’s computer. A lot of people who grew up with me are now producers, or making music by themselves. Production is easier and music is circulating more.

Unfortunately, I’m not really sure that the world is open to such a positive message of diversity right now. There’s less of a progressive feeling in terms of mankind moving towards a goal together. Now things feel like people are moving more individually which has caused separate groups of people to have opinions against each other and always talking about a group of people as “them,” which doesn’t make any sort of sense. Ten years ago, the world was probably more prepared to embrace music like mine than it is now, to be honest.

LessThan3: When you speak about places that are divided and possibly sliding backwards, I can’t help but think about America. What are your thoughts about how/if you would want to try to break your sounds here right now?
João: I never thought about that to be honest. I just want to produce the best music possible and make music that I like. I had to zone out from everything happening worldwide to make this album. Actually, if somebody seven years ago told me what was happening in America right now would be happening, I’d say it was a joke. Moreso than anything with ATLAS, I wanted to bring people together who could bring interesting musical and geographical coordinates to the record. It would be nice if people stumbled on ATLAS because of its progressive and global musical message, but that’s not what I was specifically aiming for in making the album.
LessThan3: In looking at the various combinations of artists and producers on these recordings, which one of these tracks positively surprised you in how the component pieces worked together and how the final project came together?
João: Let Me Go, the track with Mr. Carmack and Nonku Phiri. We put that together from scratch. Nonku came into the studio and Carmack and I were playing beats, and instead she said that we should do something unique between the three of us in the room. They did more than I was doing because I knew I had to take their stems and create the finished track.

Nonku wanted to sing in venda, which is a South African dialect, for the verses. I asked why, and she explained that when she would try to come up with top lines in English, she felt like her lyrics were commonplace because all of the words in English have been used in songs. Nonku said that when she wrote and sang in venda, she was able to come up with unique stuff. So she sang the verses in venda, and she sang the hook in English, to give people something that sounded natural. The beat I came up with is zouk bass, but not really zouk bass, because if I came up with something that was very zouk bass, Carmack would’ve been like, “what is that?”

Once I got back to Lisbon I mixed different sounds together. Even with Take Off with Princess Nokia, I knew that I wanted her to be on a beat that sounded like baile funk mixed with something else. Getting all of these sounds to work into an album was a tough situation, because there was so much recorded. Leaving songs off the record, all of that stuff, those were hard decisions.

LessThan3: Your label Enchufada is making huge strides these days. How are you finding balancing the album with running the label, too?
João: It’s getting more and more interesting. ATLAS is the reason why Enchufada hasn’t done albums and EPs in awhile. It takes such a long time to properly promote and service and album, and there are really only three people working with Enchufada right now. Also, we wanted the album to showcase what we’ve been doing with the label for the past two years. Enchufada’s exciting these days because we’re becoming a reference point for all of these sounds.

Enchufada’s message, which we’ve been trying to establish for the past two years, is coming across really well. We want people to believe that the music we’re releasing is actually all one language with different variations. It’s hard to do this because the scene we’re building doesn’t have an epicenter like London for dubstep or Chicago for house. This whole global scene involves us throwing things around and shuffling, but still trying to send out the same message. We have some interesting and super-dope releases in the months to come.

LessThan3: Let’s end at the beginning. Buraka Som Sistema, the groundbreaking kuduro and global dance band that you’re a part of, has announced that the project is taking an indefinite hiatus in 2016. Why was the decision made, and what are your thoughts about moving forward?
João: It was a conscious decision. We spoke a lot about it over the summer while we were playing shows and festivals. The decision was based around the fact that the band had been our priority for 10 years and that the project had become almost too intense. The decision was about getting some room, not directly related to solo projects, but getting enough space after a break to be objective about whether or not the band and the music it was making was still essential. We might also know where we want the band to go as far as new goals and new sounds. We are trying to determine if the band is the best vehicle for the messages we want to send across, or if the messages become less informative or interesting in presenting them as a band. I think it’s more of a stop, think, and consider than a sharp ending for Buraka after 2016. That’s definitely a decision that’s still in the open. We might come back in 2018 if we have the right idea.

I’m going to breathe a little bit, try some other stuff. I’m 35 now, and since Buraka stopped playing shows this summer, I actually attended a barbecue with my family from start to finish. I even organized it! I had a whole Sunday off to do that, and it felt like the sh*t that I was missing. Being there and getting all dirty with the meats and the coals and everything. You know, stupid stuff like that. Something clicked.

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