We speak with the Seattle-based DJ and producer about his new album and the music bridges connecting Brazil, the US and the world.
It’s a common joke in Brazil: once three or more Brazilian people gather together, they will start a WhatsApp group. The producer and DJ Kai Wright, who goes by the alias Sango, is well aware of that. While he is giving this interview through a Zoom call, a sound notification pops from his computer. “Do you hear that?” he says, amidst laughs. “It’s WhatsApp, this album was made through WhatsApp groups.”
Once and for all, Sango is not Brazilian. “I am an ambassador for that sound, but I am a Black American,” he says. “That sound” is baile funk, the most prominent Brazilian electronic and popular music of the past decades. Born in Michigan and based in Seattle, Sango became a beacon for a new strain of baile funk around 2012, when he released the album Da Rocinha—a suite that he revisits in his new release, Da Rocinha 4.
The series is named after the favela da Rocinha, one of the largest underprivileged communities in Rio de Janeiro. This was one of the places where baile funk was born in the ’80s. In Da Rocinha 4, Sango continues on his journey to revisit this music while crossing it with unexpected beatloops and soulful underlying textures. A novelty even to Sango, in this release he has managed to gather different Brazilian artists to work with, spanning from rising producers such as Vhoor to trapstars like Jé Santiago.
In Da Rocinha 4, Sango continues the series that has become a staple on a sub-genre known today as chill baile or future baile. The tag covers a wide range of music styles that have sprung from baile funk rhythmic patterns, samples and textures into encounters with everything that suits dancefloors around the world—from Chicago juke to Durban gqom, from London grime to French rap.
Sango – Kalimba Funk (Movement Visual) Ft. Pablinho Fantásticoyoutu.be
Sango first started to make this music playing around with software like FL Studio in the 2000s. His first contact with baile funk goes as far as 2006, when he listened to the joint song between Brazilian pianist Sergio Mendes and Will.i.am, “Bahia Funky.” “There was this section which was baile funk, and that was the first time I heard that music,” Sango recalls.
He didn’t know much about Brazil back then. So, just like any ’90s kid with internet access, he took a deep dive into Google and YouTube searching anything that could hook him up to that music he was into. That sound, he remembers, was not that different from some of his childhood memories. “What I loved about baile funk is that it reminded me of bounce music from New Orleans, footwork from Chicago and jit music from Detroit,” he says.
Sango has been kindly welcomed by Brazilian fans since the early days of his works with baile funk. More than just a gringo spitting some trivia learnt on Wikipedia, he proved to be a skillful producer reshaping baile funk and expanding the genre’s boundaries. If today this represents a new avenue to the genre mutations around the world, relying on SoundCloud and Bandcamp communities, it also represents a new bridge in the diaspora.
“We both know that baile funk started in Rio, but it got its roots from America, from hip hop, from Miami Bass. At the end of the day, it is a Brazilian thing because this is where it lives. So I kind of took the sound back to America and re-did it, and now the chill baile, the future baile is a sub-genre,” he says.
In this conversation, Sango talks about music and his trips to Brazil, but he also discusses prejudice and racism both in Brazil and the US. Baile funk is still nowadays a music genre discredited by many Brazilian people who tend to discriminate the culture born and raised in favelas.
This was never an issue for Sango, just like communicating with his fellow producers and DJs from Brazil, so he is always up to date with new baile funk tunes and sub-genres. “I would say I speak Portuglês [i.e. Portuglish]! It is much easier on WhatsApp!”, jokes Sango, a non-Brazilian who, just like all Brazilians, addresses the music genre just as “funk” instead of “baile funk” or “Brazilian funk.”
Photo: Nick Beeba
What has changed since the first Da Rocinha album, in 2012, and why have you made a comeback to the Da Rocinha series?
I took a break from the series. When I made Da Rocinha 3 it was the final thing for me. I wanted to revisit the idea and I made the Da Mim Pra Você. I wanted it to be Da Rocinha 4, but kinda got away with that. When I did that, it was carefree. I saw a lot of people commenting on social media, especially Brazilian people asking for Da Rocinha 4. I talked to the Soulection guy and I said ‘I think I’m ready to do the Da Rocinha 4’, and they were excited. Now, so much has changed, I have more fans especially in Brazil. It was my chance to finally connect and work with more Brazilian artists. I had help with the budget, I had a team behind the idea. It is the first time I made a “Da Rocinha” album with a push. It is proper, man. The artist who made the cover is from Rio. I have four, five artists that are from Rio on the album. There are people from SP, other parts from Brazil. It is a carioca album. It is dedicated to the city of Rio de Janeiro, to the favela Rocinha. It is dedicated to the favela Rocinha. One of my favorites songs is Dia e Noite, a proibidão, this is part of the culture and the guys featured in the track are from Rocinha. DJ 2L, I met him on WhatsApp.
How did you manage to connect with them? I see that speaking a foreign language may be hard for many Brazilian people.
I would say I speak Portuglês! It is much easier on WhatsApp, you take your time to respond. The album was made on WhatsApp! That was how the album got done. I was in Brazil, last year, in July. That’s when I started the album, I was in the studio with my friend Carlos do Complexo. We were just talking, and he said: ‘Man, you should release an album’. A lot has changed since 2015. My Portuguese is better, I’ve been to Brazil like four times. A lot has to happen for me to make this, and I’m glad for the past.
Back then, in 2014, baile funk was getting bigger as a SoundCloud culture. But now, even Drake has done baile funk. How do you face that?
Will.I.Am, who is a genius, always ahead of his time, was the first American I remember who made [Brazilian] funk. It was 2006. He did this song with Sergio Mendes. There was this section which was baile funk. That was the first time I heard [Brazilian] funk. Fast forward, I heard MIA doing, Diplo doing. I think there was a compilation Diplo made also, which was very important because [Brazilian] funk was getting popular underground and a lot of people didn’t know what was that. A lot of the time, they thought it was an European thing. I do agree it is a trend for some people, but for others, it’s not. Lot of black music is dealt like that, reggaeton, trap music, especially now with a lot white DJs ruining the sound. If it is gonna go big, it’s gonna be touched by everyone. The ones who care are gonna protect it. Drake does this thing: he touches and it turns into gold. He doesn’t use things up. Kevin o Chris was huge in Brazil, but no one knew him in America.
Also, a few years ago you were one of the single DJs and producers who were making this kind of music with baile funk, and now I am sure that there are a lot of DJs who look up to you, who are inspired by your work. How do you see that?
It’s been an honor to know that the sound that I create is used as an example. We both know that baile funk started in Rio, but it got its roots from America, from hip hop, from Miami Bass. At the end of the day, it is a Brazilian thing because this is where it lives. So I kind of took the sound back to America and re-did it, and now the chill baile, the future baile is a sub-genre. You have paulista funk, carioca funk, funk acelerado, even brega funk. I think you can add my style to that list. It’s American bass baile funk. I guess I was hoping someone else heard my music, take what I made and do something new. I heard a kid from South African who is a producer and he listens to my music all the time, now he has this South African [baile] funk, it’s amapiano mixed with baile funk.
This is also the diaspora, right?
Yeah, it’s beautiful.
Baile funk is still a discriminated music in Brazil, especially because of some of the lyrics. Since you come from a different background, from the US, do you think this helped you in some sort of way that you didn’t see that music with prejudice?
Initially you have to imagine me speaking no Portuguese, not knowing what those words mean. What I loved about the sound is that it reminded me of bounce music from New Orleans, footwork from Chicago and jit music Detroit. A lot of these genres have lyrics that are heavy. I think it was the rhythm that drew me in. Every rhythm in the world has a signature, and baile funk is famous for its rhythm now. The most important thing when I heard baile funk first was the way they were rapping, the cadence. The first song that drew my ears for a sample was “Eu sou o Jonathan da nova geração”. I sampled that, and it was amazing to me that they used the old school snare sound. It reminded me of Planet Rock, in America we call that poplock music. I hadn’t prejudice because it felt like home, it wasn’t foreigner to me. It wasn’t porn. It was the language, the way it was rapped. It was very familiar, and it was different at the same time. It was like the first time I had feijoada! I was like ‘this is our food, we eat this!’. We eat fried okra with fish, rice and beans, we have cornbread too like in Brazil. I grew up in Michigan, and my family comes from Louisiana, Tennessee. Where I come from it’s kind of like Minas. It’s kind of forgotten, it’s really big. The same way a lot of people from the Northeast moved to Minas, in US, after slavery was done people moved to North, Chicago, Detroit. My grandfather was in a jazz band, he plays congas.
So music has always been a part of your life?
My upbringing had a lot to do with music. I used to listen to a lot of gospel music, R&B, hip hop. But the thing that made the biggest change in my life in music was electronic music. My father always played house music around the house, of course, he’s from Chicago.
Photo: Nick Beeba
I also think that baile funk is a form of rapping, but I would like to hear more of your thoughts about this connection.
My guess is this: the traditional baile funk flow comes from the way Brazilian people sing samba or pagode [a sub-genre of samba]. When you sing, it’s a very Brazilian way. So when they’re rapping, they put this cadence from samba. You don’t do this in America. Another thing is singing samba and clapping hands, because Brazilian people do this with baile funk too. It’s the same rhythm. [Brazilian] funk is rap mixed with Brazilian traditional music. Our rap in the US is made of R&B, jazz and funk.
Listening to your album, there are tracks that feel like listening to radio. For instance, the song “Cangaíba to 7 Mile”, which has a totally different section by the end—one that sounds harsh, dark. Could you tell more about what you tried to do in this album? This Brazil-US mixture of places, sounds, feelings.
I wanted to make sure in this album that I hit the points showing the people where I come from the United States. I wanted to show people that I am not Brazilian, but I love the culture. I am an ambassador for that sound, but I am a Black American, so I wanted to show these things. When I went to São Paulo recently, I was with a friend that lives in this neighbourhood, Cangaíba. It reminded me of Detroit, because 7 Mile is a long road in Detroit. I’m taking this baile funk sound, this baile funk paulista thing. It was really São Paulo style at first, but I kind of trimmed down to make it more Detroit techno. At the end of the song, you go full techno, dark techno. I do this craziest mix. How can I mix these two things that people will be like “what?” A lot of people think “let’s mix Nigerian music and Brazilian music”, but yeah we heard that. How about we mix salsa and samba, house music and baile funk, west coast rap and [Brazilian] funk. What is important when you mix sounds is that you have to keep the things consistent.
How do you keep so up to date with Brazilian culture?
I talk to my friends every other day. My friend Vhoor, a producer from Minas; I talk to Jonas, producer for (Brazilian rapper) BK and part of Bloco 7 crew; producers DKVPZ, everybody. All my producer friends are my friends for real. We are in a group chat, and this is a different level of being nervous because you can say something really wrong—I’ve been in that situation. So yeah we have a producer group chat, a Discord server with people from Brazil, from Portugal. I met this guy from Luanda. I’m making music that is in Portuguese, so you attract it. People don’t know how many people are in Brazil! I don’t understand why people don’t do music as I did. The size of Brazil is probably the size of Europe. Also, a lot of Americans do go there as well. My friend producer Gio, my friend Jonas books shows in Brazil with Gustavo, from Rio.
As a black man, what are the differences and the similarities between Brazil and US in your point of view?
I will tell you a story. I was in Ipanema, I was staying in a hotel, and we were going to go to my friend’s house in favela Vidigal. I was waiting for the Uber and my friend, the music producer Carlos do Complexo, was waiting for the car outside the hotel with me. It was a Sunday, we were hanging out, relaxing. In the entrance there was this family and the guy, he has his daughter, and he’s like “come with me, come with me”. Avoiding both of us. We were going to a favela, so we had to make sure we were dressing a carioca outfit, flip-fops, regular t-shirt, just normal. After that happened, I was like: “man, what was that?” And he was like: “it happens all the time”. It was a moment we didn’t have to explain in our languages, because I didn’t know how to speak that in Portuguese and he didn’t know how to explain that in English. He had the eyes. It happens, the racism happens. When I was in Brazil, Marielle got killed.
The city counselor, right?
Yes. She used to work for the people of color, she was working for gay rights, and it was a set up by the police, I think. I was in Rio the day it happened, and I was watching the news. I was blown away. I was scared honestly. It was the first time I’ve been in Rio and I was scared. In terms of not speaking about music, I’ve dealt with that.
In the past months, we’ve been seeing the birth and rise of a Brazilian scene of grime music that is also connected to baile funk. Also, the Brazilian grime MC SD9 is featured in one of your songs. How do you connect with these new music genres that are spanning from baile funk?
I wish to make something and make it further. I’m making baile funk to America. The way Brazilian are doing grime music now is the same way I’m doing my music. They saw their inspiration from London, I saw my inspiration from Brazil. Emicida is a Brazilian hip hop artist, he’s not a funkeiro [a bail funk artist or fan] at all. Emicida is a rapper and I’m pretty sure he listens to Jay Z, Nas, and he takes some inspiration from them and he takes what he knows from Brazil, making a Brazilian rap. When you think about Brazilian hip hop, you think about São Paulo. When I think about hip hop from Brazil, I think of São Paulo: the graffiti, it’s harsh, people skateboarding. But there’s [Brazilian] funk also. So it’s interesting to see how every city has its own style of how they do [Brazilian] funk. We have to pay respect to how they do it.
So I need to ask you this: in this sort of rivalry that exists between São Paulo and Rio, what side do you stand for?
I don’t have a preference, but I will say this: if I’m gonna play a song and I’m gonna love it, it’s gonna be from Rio. It’s warm. The song that got the biggest reaction when I played in Brazil was “Baile do Helipa”, and it was in São Paulo. Even if I play some stuff by Kevin o Chris in Rio, people are like “OK, we hear this all the time”. I was taking a flight from Rio to São Paulo and I have the Flamengo shirt, and a guy said “you’ve got to take that off” [laughs].
In your opinion, where is baile funk heading to in the near future?
Baile funk is big now. They coming to a point of baile funk will become pop music, which it already is, but it’s gonna be something that it’s here to stay. It took 20 years to happen. I will say that the 2000 era, 2000 to 2005, was a golden era of baile funk. No one knew about it besides carioca, and there was so much music coming out of it. In the future is gonna be very popular, everywhere we go. Maybe 2025 is gonna be very popular. Thinking of style, I think there’s gonna be a new city with a style. Maybe it’s time for a thing like, Amazonian funk, funk from Manus. Funk from Amazon would be crazy!
You’ve once tweeted that Kaytranada should be praised as the mastermind of one could call Montreal House music. Would you say that you could be seen as the same way for chill baile, future baile?
I was in São Paulo, doing a show, and a guy said: “you created this style, you are the best!” And as I walked to the crowd, an American man said to me: “I would never know Brazilian funk if it was not because of you”. Anytime an American hears the baile funk rhythm, they think I made it, but I didn’t make it all! I would say I created chill baile in 2012.
But your music definitely is not only that, right?
Yes. A lot of artists don’t have different styles, especially producers. They just do one thing. For me, it’s about creating a signature. You can hear this and also hear this as well and be totally unaware that I make this style of music.