Diplo’s love affair with Brazilian Baile funk music is long standing and well documented. The producer and DJ is largely credited with bringing the sound to the underground clubs of Philadelphia, where it spread to clubs across the country. The style of music, known for its hard-edged beats and booming bass rhythms, was born in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and serves no other purpose than to make people go fucking bonkers. In Diplo’s years-in-the-making documentary Favela on Blast (named after a 2004 mixtape he put out), he follows several heavyweights of the scene in and around the favelas, providing a glimpse of the kind of tropical DIY parties the music inspires. There’s a lot of booty shaking. Here is the producer-turned-filmmaker on the making of the documentary and the culture that inspired it.
I would imagine when you had the idea for the documentary, not many people here knew about the baile music scene. That was something that definitely instigated me to make the film. I was like, why do you people not know about this? This is weird and awesome and crazy and bizarre.
What took so long to finish the movie? There’s a lot of red tape when you work in Brazil. We never really had a budget for the film. I did all the funding myself, just from DJing. My main concern wasn’t finishing the film, it was finishing the M.I.A. record or a Mad Decent project or whatever it was, so this kind of went on the backburner. And we had to go through so many legislative parts of Brazil to release the film properly and have people’s rights exonerated. We tried to go really by the book. When we first started, I was thinking of making like a West Coast-style slam DVD, or like a hip-hop DVD that you’d find at a record store or something. I didn’t imagine making a complete film and having a screenplay and character sketches and development. It was kind of like a monster that we just kept feeding, and it kept getting bigger and bigger.
How do you develop characters for a documentary? Just building relationships with people, and having the idea of who we could follow. How we were going to make this make sense. I didn’t really speak Portuguese, but I knew about the culture and the music, and I knew what was exciting for me, and that it would cross over really well to people outside of Brazil. So we always were having discussions about what to include and how to include it. I think we wrote the screenplay about four or five times before we made sense of the footage we had. You’re only watching an hour and fifteen minutes, but we had 80 hours-worth. We went a year and a half with only one character, a young girl who was trying to be a funk hero, and then she went missing. It was like, our film’s gone. So then we started over. It was really not the way you make a film, it’s very garage-y in that aspect. We just had to make do with everything we had because you can’t control anything in that situation. I could film anyone in America and pretty much count on them being around a year later, but in Brazil I wouldn’t be surprised if anything happened to me there or happened to our characters.
What’s it like going through the favelas with a camera? People do it. We weren’t going into the heart of favelas. Some of these favelas have like 200,000 people living there. They have their own banks, their own McDonalds, their own Chinese neighborhoods. They are as dynamic as a small town in America. It’s not a lockdown place you can’t visit, but we definitely knew we had our boundaries. We had a day shooting where we went on one of those favela safari rides, like where all the gringos go and take a bus to the top of the favelas. We were like, This is so ridiculous. We wanted to film these guys for day, and we went on this safari ride just to criticize and make fun of these people on the ride, and how fucked up it was. But then we found out how nice these people were and we couldn’t put them on film, we felt so bad about our motivation.
How much of this was a moviemaking learning experience? If I make a movie I’m not using my own money, and I’m going to know what the hell is going on. This is almost like a freestyle movie. We shoot some shit, and then at the end it’s like, here’s some shit we shot, let’s make something out of this.
How did the musicians you followed view you? Do they see you as an outsider or as one of them? Some people we just vibed with and they knew me from music or DJing. I was DJing in the favelas and in Rio and I knew some of the DJs, and we would trade music. Ee weren’t like a BBC film crew who had loads of money to spend. I was a musician who could appear to them on that level. That helped us get in a lot of places and earn people’s trust. We could actually go into people’s homes and learn what they do and how they do it. Sometimes, it will take you a year to build trust with one character, and we had like 30 characters.
Does Diplo have a name for himself in the favelas? I haven’t been there in two years and to be honest, those favela cultures move and move and move. I’d be surprised if anyone knows me. I know a lot of the DJs still know me. We went in like 2005 and M.I.A. played there and people did know her, because the videos were playing on the Brazilian MTV and also there’s a million people in Brazil and she never met one, so it was very unique for her to go there and do a show and stuff.
All the song lyrics in the film are subtitled. How important are lyrics to baile funk? It’s ghetto stuff, you know. It’s ghetto shit. There are some songs that are deep and meaningful, but not a lot of the them. Most of them are primal and dirty and disgusting and crazy.
And controversial? Really controversial. There’s gangster stuff in there. I’m talking about going and selling drugs and people killing police officers and naming names and talking about real gangster shit. This is a subculture that was built on it’s own demeanor. They didn’t have anyone telling them what was cool to do or what was commercial. They were doing shit they liked to do, and the people that were putting money into it were like the kingpins of the favela. It was raw. It was instinctive music and it’s its own sound and it’s own attitude with nobody’s help. It’s like if you give a preteen a bunch of money and put him in front of MTV, he’s going to probably buy a gun and be crazy and not have any parents around. There are no parents to punish them.
How is the whole subculture viewed outside of the favelas? Has it seeped into the mainstream the way gangsta rap has here? They’re a racist culture. You can see that when you arrive. The nature of how people treat each other. In America you can make it out of anywhere, you can be from the hood and still become the president of a company. That can really happen here. In Brazil, that doesn’t happen. People’s minds don’t think they can leave the favela. No one ever like thinks they can move out. There’s a lot of mental slavery in a lot of ways.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from these musicians? When I think about being a producer and learning how to do things better and have better equipment—there they have nothing. They put together these computers for like seven dollars, they don’t care about sound quality, they don’t care about anything besides a fucking big loud kick, a girl screaming something ridiculous that’s going to make everybody go, Oh yeah, that’s crazy. And then they have a record.