Brazil has long been a laboratory for sonic innovation, synthesizing the unique musical traditions of the country’s diverse population. At the cutting edge is baile funk, a sound that stems back decades but evolves in new directions at a lightning-fast rate, reinventing itself as a genre as unexpectedly as the beat switches. You can still hear traces of the electro, Miami bass, and early hip-hop styles it evolved from in the off-kilter rhythms and metallic shards of noise, but baile funk has become its own complex musical ecosystem, with a diverse spectrum of regional variants and specific subgenres.
Hip-hop began as dance music, but American rap music frequently has a cagey relationship to its origins in the discotheque and roller rink, often privileging the mental stimulation of clever lyricism over the physical exhilaration of live performance. Baile funk has none of those same qualms, as much rap music as it is rave music: you often have the classic hip-hop combination of a boisterous MC combined with a nimble DJ, but the MC’s primary function is to pump up the jam, often just repeating the same word or phrase over and over until it blends into the beat. The primacy of producer-rapper duos within baile funk makes it a highly collaborative form, born from the uniquely electric relationship between a producer, a rapper, and the crowd they’re conducting.
The sanded-down mainstream version of baile funk might already be familiar to audiences outside Brazil — thanks to mainstream pop stars like Anitta and the Fast & Furious franchise’s enduring obsession with the city of Rio de Janeiro — but its most adventurous corners have often been a locally-kept secret. Even then, baile funk is a scene that’s intensely online as it is on the ground in the favelas, spread through viral clips on social media and raiding every corner of recorded media for unexpected samples.
Where so many dance music styles from the Global South have been pilfered for parts by uncreative Yankees, baile funk has somehow managed to largely resist outside commodification — despite Diplo trying his hardest for almost twenty years — in part because of its openly lawless spirit. As a scene largely pioneered by Afro-Brazilian artists, underground baile funk parties have been unfairly criminalized and targeted by police along racial lines, which in some way has encouraged artists to embrace anarchy and extremity as a fundamental part of their work — the ear-shattering volumes and frenetic bootleg samples push back against authority as much as illegal parties.
Due to Brazil’s immense geographic and cultural diversity, every region has its own unique soundtrack. There might be similar rhythms or shared features across different styles of baile funk, but it’s hard to encapsulate it under the umbrella of a single genre. In many ways, baile funk is almost as broad a descriptor as “hip-hop” or “dance music,” an entire network that grew from a shared origin point: some is closer to rap, some is closer to rave; some funk artists mostly work with samples, others stick to original beats. The breadth and depth of sounds that baile funk contains makes it feel endlessly rewarding to explore; even if you’re a native Brazilian well-versed in the history of baile funk, there’s always going to be a sample you haven’t heard flipped or a beat switch you weren’t expecting. These five artists are some of the most vivid stylists working in baile funk today, but they represent only a fraction of what’s out there.
Baile funk has created a unique space for female voices and queer artists, and few embody that defiant spirit more than Badsista. Her 2021 album Gueto Elegance is unmistakably funk, but there’s a sparse chicness that feels as indebted to minimalist techno, acid house, and UK garage — “Farse” could have been a scrapped Daft Punk demo from Yeezus, while “A Braba do Jaco” is a classic hip-house bop begging for an Azealia Banks remix. While the prototypical baile funk MC might be a braggadocious boy, Gueto Elegance is a proudly femme experience, highlighting dexterous female vocalists like Cronista do Morro and MC Yallah.
As the title of his Hyper Funk EP suggests, D.Silvestre combines baile funk with the intense speed and distorted beats of hyperpop artists like 100 Gecs and Machine Girl. His beats don’t just bleed into the red, they turn almost every level up to eleven, until human voice and drum machine blend into a sound bath of pure harsh noise, like the body-rattling bass tone emanating from a car with the subwoofers jacked to infinity. D.Silvestre employs MCs more like instruments than actual vocalists, looping individual words for percussive emphasis like he does with actual drum kicks and claps: over half of the track “Oakley Oakley Oakley” is literally just the name of the sunglasses brand repeated until it loses all meaning, just another layer of sound amid the white noise.
While baile funk has its roots in Rio de Janeiro, its most experimental frontier can often be heard in São Paulo. DJ K (pronounced “Ka”) is one of the city’s most gleeful sonic wizards, the godfather of a style he calls “Bruxaria,” meaning witchcraft. Appropriately, DJ K brings a horrorcore edge to baile funk, mixing banshee wails and cackling witches with airhorns and laser blasts, all over beats that recall Memphis-inspired phonk music as much as the industrial edge of South African gqom. Where other producers might shy away from dissonance and darkness, DJ K is like the proverbial devil on your shoulder, almost taunting you toward a bad trip as he distorts and deconstructs familiar samples into uncanny new combinations.
The self-described “Destruido Do Funk,” DJ RaMeMes mixes on hyperdrive, and his debut album Sem Limites is like baile funk nightcore, full of chipmunk voices and sped-up loops. Pitch-shifted MCs stutter and break until they fall apart into scattered rhythms. There are traces of trance on “Rabiscando no Pontin,” and even Skrillex-like dubstep drops on “Sentando na Glock Rajada,” but RaMeMes’s rave bangers have a distinctly Brazilian flavor, with super-charged drum breaks derived from the kind of percussion instruments you hear in samba music, like the cuíca and timba. Subgenres like 150 bpm funk have already increased the speed of baile funk, but RaMeMes pumps the gas pedal even harder on tracks like “Upa Upa Pocoto X 170BPM”, suggesting an alternate universe where hardcore rave was born under the sunny skies of Rio de Janeiro instead of the storm clouds of England.
No matter the language, rappers are going to brag at one point or another about the shiny things they own; where earlier baile funk MCs often spoke to the sociopolitical conditions of the favelas, the funk ostentação style — literally “ostentatious funk” — is more concerned with material flexes. São Paulo’s MC Lan might rap about familiar topics, but his beats frequently come from left-field. The DJ Arana-produced “ABCDÁRIO DA GUERRA” opens with a ghostly ambient interlude, as a haunting voice wails against the muffled sounds of warfare, before MC Lan starts barking orders over a distorted sample of Ultra Nate’s iconic deep house anthem “Free.” Just when you’ve settled into a groove, the beat swerves in a new direction, from gunshot-punctuated Jersey club rhythms to minimalist synthesizers.
Rap Column is a new column about rap music by Vivian Medithi and Nadine Smith for The FADER.