Sounds from cumbia to Balkan brass have bonded with club beats to birth a global party scene. Is it the future of music?
If you ever find yourself in need of proof that the world has become a very small place, there’s probably a party I can recommend for you.
Whether you are in Los Angeles or London, Melbourne or Hong Kong, there’s a club night you can go to where the DJ will play a set that is utterly untethered by geography. Maybe she’ll start with a 1970s Colombian cumbia banger, then follow up with a Caribbean-scented Bollywood edit before blending into last year’s Ivorian club anthem. You will most likely dance your ass off.
The flyer for that club night will probably have the words “global bass” printed somewhere on it. It’s a term that has evolved to talk about a wide array of international club music sounds favored by a community of global-minded party people. Genres like Angolan kuduro, Dominican dembow, South African house and Brazilian baile funk, and many others have all fallen under this heading. And there’s a decent chance that the world-savvy attendees at that club night can pinpoint each one of those genres after hearing just a few bars. It’s the music of the world all tangled up in one place, the sound of a Utopian, post-colonial, post-internet, pro-booty future. And it’s complicated.
You’d be forgiven if you found the term “global bass” vague. I asked thirteen DJs associated with the scene to give me their definitions, and didn’t get the same answer twice. I wasn’t surprised. Trying to put so much music under one umbrella is bound to be tricky.
“It’s a new genre that combines folklore or traditional music from different parts of the world with heavy bass,” says Isa GT, a London-based Colombian artist and DJ.
According to DJ UMB, who runs the music blog Generation Bass:“It’s music that inhabits dancehalls around the world – whether they are Indian, Balkan, African, whatever. In a nutshell, it’s just dance music from around the world, with a local vibe to it.”
Some people told me it was a genre. Others told me it was definitely not a genre.
“Global bass doesn’t really describe a musical style,” says Marflix, a German DJ and record label owner who specializes in Trinidadian soca. “It describes more the way the music was made, an attitude, or how the people who made it connected.”
“I think global bass is an approach to DJing, producing, or throwing a party that recognizes the diversity of electronic music,” says Uproot Andy, one-half of New York-based crew Que Bajo, adding, “It’s the recognition that electronic music isn’t just from the US or Europe, and that all music is connected in certain ways. And that it can all rock a dancefloor. It’s the openness”
DJ Ripley, (real name, Larisa Mann) points out perhaps the most obvious truth about global bass: “It’s intrinsically a meaningless term, since everything is from the globe.”
What most will agree on, surprisingly, is the origin story of global bass. If you’ve read anything on the topic before, you’ve probably heard this narrative. If there’s a single moment that set the current scene into motion, it’s when a then-underground DJ named Wesley Pentz, alias Diplo, released a widely-circulated mixtape titled Favela On Blast in 2005. The mixtape, which included track titles like “Rio Baile Funk 04,” connected the dots between hip-hop culture and Brazilian baile funk, then barely known outside of Rio. Diplo had been clued in to the sound by Argentina-born DJ Ivanna Bergese (who spins as DJ Philomena) and passed him a mixtape labeled “Your’s Truly” at one of his shows.
“There was no art, no nothing, just the most acidic, mind-burning hardcore tropical funk,” says Knox Robinson, editor of The Fader magazine at the time. “Wes was just giving it out to people. He was still teaching elementary school in Philly, coming off this real emotional beat stuff as a producer. That CD transformed him into a different kind of character. That moment.”
There was virtually no information about the music online, so Diplo decided to head to Brazil. He wanted to find out more about the music, and hopefully license some tracks. Knox Robinson came along to document the journey for The Fader. Issue 23 ran a 11-page feature titled “Favela Funk: Going To Hell Searching For The Sound Of Rio’s Second City”, detailing their adventures palling around with DJ Marlboro in Rio’s slums. Legend has it that Diplo edited together Favela on Blast on the plane ride home.
Of course, it wasn’t just about one mixtape. A lot of similar rumblings were underfoot in 2005: dancehall was filtering into the mainstream through Sean Paul’s album The Trinity, and Damian Marley’s mega-record Welcome To Jamrock would drop in September. Reggaeton had recently hit big and taken over Latin radio. Eugene Hutz from Gogol Bordello was throwing a popular Balkan party at New York’s Bulgarian Bar, getting cool kids to wild out to gypsy brass music. At The Fader, Knox Robinson was putting it all in the magazine. “I’m black and from Brooklyn, I was well traveled. It was my personal politics about connection with the developing world, the non-London-NYC-LA axis,” explains Robinson. “I was about global hood shit.”
Then, with the elegance of a mathematical solution, arrived MIA. “There was the promise of all of it wrapped up in a bow – articulate, brilliant, a talented writer and rapper and music maker,” says Robinson. Diplo and MIA were falling in love and making music together, and the tracks that came out synthesized all of that “global hood shit” with fierce anti-colonial politics and an ineffable sense of dopeness. The tracks combined hip-hop and dancehall and baile funk, the energy was loud and weird. It sounded like the future. “MIA’s Arular showed us that music from all over the world can be hip, urban, fresh, modern and real as fuck,” says Mexican producer Toy Selectah.
Arular captured an energy that was in the ether. For the scattered DJs who were doing similar things with international sounds, it provided encouragement. But there are alternate histories and other currents. In 1997, DJ Rekha started her influential bhangra party, Basement Bhangra, in New York. In 2001, veteran hip-hop producer Toy Selectah made a dubbed-out cumbia track with Monterrey legend Celso Piña for his album Barrio Bravo, kicking off a new phase of electronic-traditional mash-ups in Latin America. In 2005, the same year Diplo went to Brazil, Daniel Haaksman started his record label Man Recordings in Germany and released a baile funk 12-inch in Europe, “Popozuda Rock N’ Roll.” In 2006, a group of progressive producers in Argentina inspired by the dark-vibed cumbia villera coming out of the slums threw their first ZZK party in Buenos Aires’ San Telmo neighborhood. And so on.
To do a thorough history of everything that happened in global bass in this space would be near impossible, so I’m going to speed through the next part. In the late ’00s, blogs dedicated to unearthing, sharing, and talking about international digital music began to flourish. One in particular, the personal blog of Cambridge-based ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall became a kind of public square for conversations about new global music. In New York, London, San Fancisco, Montreal, parties dedicated to playing worldwide club jams sprung up: Que Bajo, Secousse, Tormenta Tropical, Masalacism.
Then the internet happened, in a way it hadn’t before. The late aughts saw a huge growth in internet penetration and home computer use in the developing world. That meant, among other things, that heaps of new electronic music was making its way online from all over. In 2005, Diplo had to take a trip to Brazil to learn about baile funk. Just a few years later in 2010, a seemingly endless supply of tracks was available on YouTube.
A constellation of global genres excavated from internet and CD-Rs purchased at markets emerged one by on the blogs and at the parties. The spare, driving beats of Angolan kuduro, the shifting snares of Ivorian coupe decale, all the beautiful forms of cumbia coming from all over Latin America all came into fashion. Later, it would be Brazilian technobrega, Mexican tribal guarachero, Colombian champeta, Bollywood jams, and so on. DJs made new remixes and mash-ups sampling old tracks or based on these rhythms. If they have anything in common, the genres are usually electronic, often of a working-class origin, usually from the Southern hemisphere, and always bass-centric. It was compelling, in part, because it’s music that is in conversation with everything that was going on in the world, made by often far-away producers who consumed hip-hop and club music and refashioning them for their own aesthetic purposes.
Throughout this process, different terminologies for talking about the emerging global scene would emerge, then die down again. “Global ghettotech,” cosmopolitan bass,” and “transnational bass” all gained currency at one time or another. “Tropical bass” became the most popular moniker terminology for a while. Nobody I spoke to could tell me for certain when “global bass” became the term of choice, or when it was thought up. Uproot Andy was able to find a flyer of his with the term in 2009. The earliest mention on Generation Bass, one of the most prolific sites in the genre (if not the most rigorous), was in August 2010, quoting the promo text for an unremarkable compilation from Urban World Records titled Global Bass Vol. 1, writing, “Now the boundaries are truly breaking down at last. World music is dead. Long live the new age of Global Bass!”
Fast-forward a few years to today, and global bass has graduated from the blogosphere. Diplo’s worldly beats bang daily on the radio behind major stars. Toy Selectah has transformed tribal group 3ball MTY into one of the hottest Latin pop acts in the world today. A Korean electropop song has become the most viewed video on YouTube in history. The average human is evermore attuned to a wider world of music.
Meanwhile on the dancefloor, DJ Geko Jones estimates there are somewhere around 100 parties around the world today that could be described as global bass parties. Many of them are the big metropolises of North America and Europe, but not exclusively. Brazil’s Avalanche Tropical crew throws a zany global bass party in São Paulo. There are regular global bass events in Colombia, Mexico and Argentina, and at least one in Hong Kong. They differ in focus, varying with a country’s own particular immigration patterns. Many of the biggest US parties like Que Bajo or Peligrosa, for example, tilt towards Latin American music. French global bass parties are more often focused on African music.
Despite global bass’ very real impact, the scene remains extremely tight knit. Most cities are home to a few DJ-evangelists pushing the sound, who have all become friends through the internet and travelling, and a dedicated cadre of regular partygoers. “It’s a family thing,” says Isa GT. “We’re all creating at the same time, and all really like each other and respect each other.”
On the downside of that intimacy, many of the global bass DJs I spoke with expressed frustration about the difficulty of promoting parties. “It’s unfamiliar to people. You can have a party and everybody comes and has a great time, but they don’t come back because they just don’t know what it is,” says DJ Zhao, a Chinese-born DJ who lives in Berlin and focuses on playing African electronic music (Think about that last sentence for a moment: it pretty much describes a lot of what the scene is about).
Part of the difficulty of selling the idea of global bass to the general public is that the scene’s DJs themselves are often hesitant to sign on to global bass as a concept. “I consider myself a club DJ who plays African diaspora music,” says Chief Boima, a New York-based writer and DJ of Sierra Leonean descent. Boima says he associated the term “global bass” more with watered-down remixes that draw on international sounds rather than the source music itself. “I’ve actually had trouble with some gigs because I don’t really play ‘kuduro remixed’ or ‘dancehall remixed.’ I just play kuduro and dancehall, which isn’t necessarily tailored to big Western club’s systems. Does it count as a global bass party when I played dancehall or kuduro at a posh club in Dakar? And at that point isn’t every party then a global bass party in the world?”
That hard-to-pin-down nature of “what the hell is global bass anyway” makes it tricky for the music to gain traction, agrees Uproot Andy. “It’s hindered a movement because it’s not something I can say, this is global bass, this is how it sounds,” says Uproot Andy. “It doesn’t sound any way, that’s the point!”
“Global bass is really a marketing term,” offers Wayne Marshall. “In some ways, it’s not so different from the term ‘world music’” What Marshall is referring to is this: In 1987 record companies held an infamous meeting to help come up with a term to help market and sell music from all over the place that had no bin to call its own in record stores. They decided on the generic title of “world.” As some see it, global bass is nothing but “world music 2.0” — the same exoticism set to a new beat.
But step into the world of global bass and you’ll quickly see that many (though not all) of its practitioners are dedicated to undoing world music’s extorification. “To me, it’s a reawakening from this Eurocentric view of the world that we’ve inherited from not only ‘world music 1.0’ but from the entire history of colonialism and the worldview it has implemented all over the world,” says DJ Zhao. “In reality, Western dance music is just the small tiny branches of the huge, 100,000 year-old oak that is African music traditions.”
DJ UMB, a British DJ of Kashmiri decent who runs Generation Bass, the most visited global bass site on web, says his mission is to bring international music closer to the mainstream. “We want to tell people: don’t be afraid of it. If you can make this music appear to be as normal as R&B or pop, then our mission is accomplished, because it brings people together, makes people less xenophobic.”
But for DJ Ripley, global bass is not about smoothing out the differences between music and peoples, but celebrating them. “When they’re doing the best thing they do, these events are places where people can get together with people from very different backgrounds and share a moment of shared pleasure and respect, not from the fact that people are the same, but respecting people’s difference,” she says.
Without a doubt, the identity politics of global bass are delicate – after all, the scene includes everything from white guys running an indie record labels that sell music from the developing world to crews like A Tribe Called Red, whose “electric powwow” music samples their own cultural heritage. Issues of power and authenticity are often bubbling just below the surface.
Almost everyone I spoke to for this article hinted at the existence of a shadowy “other side” of global bass, made up of people who were exploitative or morally dubious in some way, or whose approach to DJing was disrespectful. However, nobody could give me any names, whether for social reasons or because they weren’t sure who those other people were. Except for, of course, Diplo, who has developed quite a complicated reputation as a cultural middleman within the global bass community.
“Oftentimes when I hear who are the faces of the global bass movement I’m like, ‘OK,’” says Mothersheister, a Washington DC-based Kenyan-American educator and DJ who forms part of the Anthology of Booty crew. “But I think Diplo is just a symbol of how in general, in the entertainment industry, the people who tend to get valued are white men. Which is too bad. But that doesn’t mean it’s the representation of what’s really going on.”
It’s hard to say where global bass will go from here. Most of the blogs have stopped posting. The rise of Soundcloud has changed the game – more and more producers from all over the world are throwing up mixes and tracks, and music from everywhere is exponentially more accessible thanit was a few years ago.
In a recent email exchange published on his Tumblr, Chief Boima notes that many media outlets that used to support their releases, such as Fader – the very publication that helped break kickstart the global bass scene – have stopped covering international stuff, moving on to American regional styles like trap and juke.
At the same time, sounds circulated in global bass networks have popped up in all sorts of odd places in recent years. Tecnobrega was the inspiration for The Strokes’ recent “One Way Trigger.” Diplo is rumored to be working on a tribal inspired track for Beyoncé. And most bizarrely of all, Paul McCartney is reported to be making a moombahton-inspired album.
DJ UMB of Generation Bass thinks it’s inevitable that all this stuff will eventually find its way to the mainstream. “That’s what’s going to happen because the standard dance band will become boring. More and more successful artists are going to be working with people experimenting with these sounds, because there’s only so much rock, pop and jazz that people can stomach.”
“It is potentially going to get sort of big, but it’s a double-sided thing,” says DJ Ripley. “It could be really great. There’s a lot of people in the scene who are good about being ethical. But it could go horribly, exploitatively commercial with a few names mining the cultural resources of marginalized people and making bank.”
Maybe we will get Beatles moombahton and Beyoncé guarachero – who knows. Regardless, it’s likely that the existence of an idea called global bass is probably going to seem quaint not long from now, a hiccup in a world caught in the middle of globalizing. The networks are only going to continue to multiply; the world’s music will no doubt become more and more interlaced. The world seems small in 2013, but boy, it could get a whole lot smaller.