“The Brazilian Jay Z” Speaks Up On Hip-Hop, Politics, and Finding the Soul of São Paulo.
Going from a little kid drawing comic books in the graffiti-laden outskirts of São Paulo to a local battle champion and eventually, the young monarch of Brazil’s rising rap scene, Emicida has a lot to feel good about. Through a combination of skilled flows, grassroots hustle and internet savvy, Emicida has risen to top of the pack to become one of the artists pulling Brazilian hip-hop out of the underground, where it’s lived for decades, and into the national limelight.
In 2011, Emicida rocked the stage at Brazil’s prestigious Rock in Rio festival, and made an appearance at Coachella as well, under the auspices of Vice’s Creator’s Project. This year, it was announced that Emicida would be a major contributor to the soundtrack for the Max Payne 3 video game, which is set in his hometown of São Paulo.
We caught up with Emicida over the phone and talked about the Brazilian hiphop scene, life in São Paulo’s favelas, and why he’s the only rapper that doesn’t smoke weed.
So – how did you get involved with rap to begin with?
Well, and in Brazil in the late 80s it was very common in São Paulo to have street parties. My father was a DJ, and he was the head of one of these street dances, so I grew up listening to his records. At that time, I heard some of the classic, truly historic, Brazilian rappers. Pepeu, Racionais MCs — people from here. At the same time I was also listening to Public Enemy and Soul Sonic Force. And that was how the door opened.
Was rap something important in the neighborhood where you grew up?
Yes. The music of São Paulo is rap. It shares a space with [baile] funk, but rap is really São Paulo’s official music. And so everyone in the outskirts, in the favelas of São Paulo, has a respect, an admiration, and a lot of love for rap and the hip-hop culture.
It’s interesting to me, because that’s not the case in other regions of Brazil – in Rio or in the Northeast, is it?
Well, rap is urban music and it has to do with what goes on in the city. I think São Paulo is very similar to New York and that shared city element drives people towards rap. Culture travels here quickly and people are always hooked up to what’s new.
Was it only rap and DJ-ing or were the other elements of hip hop – graffiti, breakdance – also important in your neighborhood?
In truth, all of the four elements are heavily present. At the street parties you would always see b-boys dancing and graffiti was always painted in the ‘hood. We have something called “pinchação” [tagging] which is a different type of graffiti than what you have there. It is from São Paulo specifically, with only letters and it dominates the whole city. It brings color to the city.
When did you learn that you had a talent for rap battles?
The first writing I did was for comic books, I would create my own stories and drawings. Then I started improvising rhymes, messing with my friends at parties or at school, dissing them. Eventually we started to go to the b-boy parties at Santa Cruz, which always had separate periods for dancing and for freestyle battles. At first we didn’t have cash to get in, and we just battled outside the door of the club. It was at those clubs that I started winning and my name started growing.
From what I’ve read, the internet was a big part of your career taking off, didn’t it?
Yes, but that was later. I got a computer in 2006, and it was then that I began to step in and see how it could work with my music. Then I started distributing my music through Orkut, MySpace, MSN Messenger, all those social networks that were really popular, and so things started spreading. When YouTube exploded in Brazil, my career really started picking up because people started sharing the battle videos.
Before that how did you distribute music?
Before that it was with CDs in my backpack, and I would just follow people around the place, saying “Hey, check out my sound,” or “Hey, I’m playing at whatever party!” I’d play for the neighborhood dances, over in the Zona Norte near my house. I got some visibility that way in the neighborhood, but I needed bigger things, so the internet was really positive for me in that sense.
Did you think you would eventually make a living off rap?
No, I didn’t have that ambition. It’s very hard to make a living in music in Brazil. I studied graphic design, and wanted to work in something else. Then along the way, thank God, music started taking up more time and paying off.
What is your most popular song, and what’s the story behind it?
Id’ say it’s “Triunfo” (“Triumph”). It’s a song that talks about coming up from below, about being in the ghetto but keeping your head up, about being an outcast and bring a good fighter. It’s what I would say to all the brothers who are out here on the street, whatever the reason they got there.
What kinds of themes do you most like to tackle in your lyrics?
I like to write songs that are reflective. Sometimes I get into philosophical questions. I can’t escape political themes, that’s always present in my music, whether they are explicit or not. But I like to have life as the main theme, as the main composition. I like to go out on the street , and when you hear one of my songs you can say this or that neighbor or someone nearby saw or lived it.
Rap in São Paulo is known for having a political edge, right?
Yes, Brazilian rap is socio-political, we’re very intense about that and it’s something we’re very proud of. It’s been difficult to bring that into hip-hop as entertainment. There are a lot of people who say you can’t be political and be on television. But right now, I think we are seeing a really great moment, because authentic hip-hop from the streets is getting bigger and now has wider circulation in Brazil. And that is clutch. I think the US hip-hop scene serves as a great example for us, we can follow in some ways but also learn from your mistakes.
That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you about – how did you it get to this moment where you and Criolo and various Brazilian rappers are suddenly getting more visibility?
I see myself as a trailblazer within the scene, opening up paths in tons of places with the music of this generation. In 2003 we had a very sad episode when the biggest rapper in Brazil, Sabotage, was murdered. His death really shook up the hip-hop movement all over Brazil, and I think we were in a collective depression. We started to lift out of that a little bit in 2008 when “Triunfo” came out.
Who are some other rappers from the scene you would recommend?
São Paulo – for those that don’t know the city well – what makes it an interesting place in your opinion? What inspires you about the city?
Many people think São Paulo is just a dense, sad city where nobody talks to each other because it’s such a large metropolis. But I think São Paulo also has a really welcoming side. For people visiting São Paulo, I would recommend visiting the outskirts, where it’s full of color and life, very different from the grey of downtown. People should go see Samba da Vela, to see the roots of samba and have a ‘caldinho de feijão’ (bean broth) in a family atmosphere. You could go see the battles at Santa Cruz where all the MCs freestyle in the street, or you could go hear poetry. These lovely things are here in São Paulo, but people don’t share that, instead they only talk about how São Paulo is polluted and congested.
So for you is it true that “Não Existe Amor em SP,” as the Criolo song goes? (That there’s no such thing as love in São Paulo)?
No, I don’t agree, I don’t sign off on that phrase, because the music itself shows that love exists here, you know, and there are people who seek to spread that and sing about that search for love. I think it’s a great song, but I don’t agree that there’s no love in São Paulo, I’m proof of that, even Criolo is a proof of that.
I read that you’re going to work on the soundtrack for the Max Payne 3 video game, which takes place in São Paulo. I think it’s really cool that they decided to set the game in urban Brazil.
Yeah, it takes place completely in São Paulo, and tons of people, many of my friends, added their voices to it, so there are personalities that speak Portuguese in the game – it will be awesome!
How did you become involved in this project?
Rockstar Games was researching Brazilian music, and they were looking for an artist who could personify and show the city through music. Coincidentally I was working in New York, so we scheduled a meeting, and it was settled. I’ll be contributing a bunch of songs, but only one is unreleased and made exclusively for the game. It’s called “Nove Circulos” (“Nine Circles”).
What was the experience of performing at Coachella like?
Imagine what it is to be making music for your friends, in a little corner of the world here, completely unknown, and all of a sudden they call you from another part of the world with this invitation. For us it was magical. In the end we had some unpleasant issues with immigration, but it was a great experience overall.
I’ve read as well that you don’t drink or smoke, is this true? Never? I don’t meet too many musicians who make that choice…
It is true. I’ve drunk and I’ve smoked, but I kicked those habits. I don’t have vices. That is, I have vices, but I don’t want those to be my vices. I want to be flawed in better ways.
Check out Emicida’s video for the song “Zica Vai La” below: