Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Brazilian Hip-Hop

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to Brazilian Hip-Hop
World Music Network

Hip-hop has become the new lingua franca of the world, or at least the poor and oppressed parts. The existence of this Portuguese-language compilation stands as stark proof of the fact that the appeal of hip-hop knows no linguistic or cultural barriers.

Perhaps it has something to do with the music’s direct nature. Whereas other recent forms of protest music, such as punk and folk, were often couched in poetic forms transplanted from slumming bourgeoisie, rapping is a form of direct speech that can be as brutally pointed as it can be poetic. I imagine all you would need in order to translate hip-hop’s direct appeal would be to bring a boombox with a simple beat to a party — the funky drummer loop would do — and begin to rhyme provocatively over the rhythm. Rapping is one of those things, like rhythm guitar or chess, that is simplicity itself to learn but deceptively difficult to master. Anyone can do it effectively. Not just anyone can go toe-to-toe with Rakim, but that’s hardly the point. That’s Advanced Application; we’re talking Basic Theory here.

There’s a reason why some west African guerillas carry Tupac Shakur’s tattooed visage on their arms as they creep into battle. The party music that spread outward from a flashpoint in New York in the early ’80s carried irreducible political heft as it traversed the globe and crossed multiple borders. First-world countries in Europe and Asia assimilated hip-hop as they had assimilated every cultural fad for the previous half-century, absorbing the language into a constantly changing stew of youth musical culture. But in poorer underdeveloped regions such as Africa and much of South America, the music carried heavier connotation. As it traveled from the first world to the third, it became political dynamite. The social critique of Public Enemy and N.W.A became catalyst and license for oppressed classes across the globe to express themselves in an unprecedented and direct fashion.

It must have been a bit frightening, for instance, when Gabriel O Pensador’s 1992 hit single, “Tô Feliz, Matei O Presidente” (“I’m Happy, I Killed The President”), became a hit. Brazilian President Fernando Collor had just resigned facing impeachment on charges of corruption. In America, regardless of the political scene, you couldn’t release a song like that without going to jail. (By comparison, Eminem was questioned by the Secret Service for even implying violence against G.W. Bush on the song “We Are American”.) But in a country where 22% of the population lives below the poverty line (which is good for South America but just about twice the United States’ rate), there’s a lot of inequality to go around. (These statistics were courtesy the US Government’s 2003 World Factbook.)

In terms of lyrical content, I can’t really judge the tracks on The Rough Guide to Brazilian Hip-Hop. I don’t know any Portuguese. Of course, there is the fact that regardless of what language you speak, rap in a foreign language can’t help but sound effortlessly musical (except for German: German rap sounds about as artless as you’d expect from such a consonant-heavy language). To someone who doesn’t speak English, Silkk the Shocker probably sounds like Serge Gainsbourg.

I can speak to the fact, however, that the music itself betrays about as much ingenuity as you could possibly expect. Separated from the atmosphere of constant exhaustive novelty that the American rap world cultivates, these Brazilian talents have created a diverse and imaginatively distinctive sonic universe. For one thing, South America’s lax attitude towards copyright infringement has created a much more liberal attitude towards sampling. André Abujambra’a “Nóis Eh Sampli” contains a large and distinctive recurring sample of Public Enemy’s anthemic “911 Is a Joke” contrasted against a hard Latin breakbeat.

The Latin element is another cultural constant that gives these tracks their unique flavor. Instituto & Sabatoge’s “Dama Teresa” is built atop a strangely whimsical hybrid of hip-hop beat and bossa nova guitar. There are, to be sure, many tracks that seem more directly inspired by American hip-hop and R&B (such as 509-E’s “Saudades Mil”, which, if you subtract the different language, could have been a staple of domestic R&B radio at any point in the last 20 years). But there are also tracks like Personagen’s frenetic “No Corpo A Coisa Pega”, which reminds one of nothing so much as the entirety of an urban street fair compacted into just one-and-a-half minutes. It’s like nothing you’ll see on 106th and Park, I assure you.

At the very least, it’s hard to listen to this disc without coming away with a newfound appreciation for hip-hop in all its forms. It’s survived and thrived to the point where it has become a new source of power and influence across the world. You will think twice on the power of the spoken word set to booming beats before you buy that new Big Tymers album… or at least you should.