All about the esoteric lore and enduring lure of the Argentinian dance label from one of its founders
Over the last six years, ZZK has grown from being an underground digital cumbia dance party in Buenos Aires to being a world famous dance party that’s also a record label. (These days, though, the label is the focus.) Once a wandering musicology student, American co-founder Grant C. Dull has grown along with it. Today, he manages the ZZK label, home to such genre-benders as Chancha Via Circuito and La Yegros and travels the world as a DJ/cultural ambassador, using the name El G and bringing his label’s weirdly seductive sounds to a club near you.
Recently, El G played BPM Studio in Brooklyn where the appreciative crowd danced to a set that included ZZK cuts, but also Bomba Estereo’s classic “Fuego” and, memorably, a slowed down cumbia remix of J-popper Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s “Pon Pon Pon.” But, before he did that, he stopped by MTV Iggy HQ to look back on the past few years and tell us what’s happening now. He told us everything, but we’ve broken it down to just the highlights.
How it started:
ZZK was just an evolution of my love for music, my love for travel and, eventually, I started a website in Buenos Aires in 2004 called What’s Up Buenos Aires. That was all about connecting emerging artists and culture in Buenos Aires to the rest of the world. Buenos Aires was kind of coming up and exploding and there was this whole amazing underground that I was kind of already connected with because I had lived there three other times. So, I was in a good position to be the guy that connected it online to travelers, anyone, locals. I wanted to build bridges culturally. The site is bilingual so whatever language your browser is set in you go in and look at all the information in English or all the information in Spanish.
That eventually led me to be a party and an event curator, promoter and producer. I just moved my online promotion to real life promotion. If I was really into an artist, I would do a piece about him and then, inevitably, down the line, producing an event, I would get that same artist to perform. And that grew into three years of producing events, promoting events and working with all these artists. Then DJ Nim, who I just started working with at the time, who was running a reggaeton and dancehall night, approached me and said we should start a club night together and that’s how Zizek was born. He’s one of my two partners at the label. It’s Nim and Villa Diamante.
The story is, we created the name out of three quick meetings. Nobody could come up with a good name. Villa Diamante is a film student, a philosophy student and he came in one day and said, “I got it, Zizek.” It’s a reference to the Slovenian philosopher [Slavoj Žižek]. And that night Nim and I Googled him, because I had never heard of him, and were like “This guy’s great. Sure.”
And [Žižek], actually, on Charlie Rose last year was asked the question about the nightclub named after him. And he gave a very funny answer. You’ll have to find it on YouTube, but he said something about how he’s never danced in his life and dancing is the obscenity of gestures and he kind of just went on this Zizekian rant, which is awesome.
ZZK TV has actually picked up some Argentine representation, so we might be expanding to different markets around the world, maybe get it online or get it on TV or get it picked up. And also there’s two more episodes that need to come out from the European tour from last year. And it’s morphing into a documentary.
We’re still fleshing that out. It’s going to be a full-length documentary. It’s going to tell the story of the artists. It’s going to tell the story of ZZK. It’s going to tell the story of the collective, not just musically but visually, because ZZK’s always had a strong visual element.
The ZZK visual aesthetic:
It comes down to me, Nim and Villa Diamante who are all working in parties and websites and promotion and mixtapes and cover art, and just already doing things with graphics and illustration and web art. When the party came around we decided to, every month, commission, or invite a different artist to interpret the month’s party. We gave them free rein and they did some really amazing stuff.
The whole street art movement, and the whole graphic design movement and the whole illustration movement has really blown up in the last ten years in Argentina and ZZK is kind of on par with that musically. We just wanted some amazing visual artists who we were already friends with to give our party some sort of life.
I don’t remember a show that people didn’t dance. If our mission is to get people to dance to our music, I think almost all the time, if not all the time, it’s worked. It’s just a very fun, sexy, different, exotic, experimental, eclectic rhythm that we bring to the table and sometimes it’s a bit more punk rock and other times it’s more world music-y, but I think all the acts on the label have connected with audiences, pretty much.
On creating a space for experimentation:
Every week we were inviting people who were doing to cool things with music to come and try their wares at our club. It created this atmosphere of “okay, I’m going to get to work. I got a show coming up.” That pushed these producers to step their game up.
We saw El Remolón play for people at the first show and it was kind of like “okay, this is fun, this is dubby” and then the next time he came he was ten times better, and then the next time he played he was even better and then we took him on tour. We’ve seen these artists grow in the space we’ve provided them, both in Buenos Aires and on the road.
The development of the sound:
There’s a couple different phases of cumbia in Argentina. The most recent is this kind of ghetto cumbia called cumbia villera, which was born out of the slums of Buenos Aires right around the time of the crisis. It was kind of like this gangster cumbia, this kind of social reaction to what was going on in the country, which was very synthy and psychedelic and just kind of hard.
And then the second one was this scene called experimental cumbia or cumbia experimental. That was kind of all these art-house kids from the other side of the tracks, not the ghettos but people who studied computer science, or were math nerds, or were making techno before and they were starting to experiment with cumbia.
On international electro cumbia:
The label started with a compilation from Buenos Aires feature sixteen producers from Buenos Aires that were all experiment with cumbia in 2008 and we monikered it digital cumbia. ZZK Sound Vol. 1: Digital Cumbia. ZZK Sound Vol. 2 was more international because it happened to come out at a time when there were all these kids experimenting with cumbia from around the world. So, we had tracks from New York we had tracks from Holland, we had tracks from Chile. that has certainly grown and gotten bigger over the years.
The Elvis of cumbia in Argentina is this guy named Pablo Lescano. He’s known to be the creator of cumbia villera and he’s been at our club, he’s collaborated with one of our artists, he’s asked to come up and jam on a DJ set, he’s played at our club twice and in the press he calls us “those freaks doing things with cumbia,” which is actually a real compliment coming from him.
There’s a big social stigma to cumbia in Argentina. Unfortunately, that’s something that we haven’t really one hundred percent been able to shed. That being said, we’ve certainly done a lot in the last few years in Argentina to have it be accepted among our peers and among the middle class and among the hipper kids or whatever you want to call it. Now any given night of the week there are five cumbia parties that are all on the side of town where six years ago there were no cumbia parties. Some of them are massive, some of them are super artsy and some are very ZZK and ravey.