There's no simple way of describing the music Príncipe releases. Kuduro, a style of Angolan music and dance that began in the early '90s and became widely popular in Portugal, is an integral component, but Príncipe's style also includes batida, kizomba, funaná, house, afro house and tarraxinha, genres mostly (but not exclusively) rooted in Angola, Cape Verde and São Tomé E Príncipe. Príncipe has now released five records, and has received lots of interest from press and promoters outside of Portugal. DJ Marfox and DJ Nigga Fox, one of Príncipe's other signings, have both played parties on the European electronic music circuit, including CTM festival in Berlin and Unsound in Poland. After their set at Unsound, RP Boo, one of the festival's other bookings, approached the pair. "I don't know where you guys came from, I don't know what this is… but this is some of the best music I've heard in my life," he said.
Príncipe's Facebook page says it's "dedicated to releasing 100% real contemporary dance music coming out of this city, its suburbs, projects & slums." It's a decent summary, but in a broader sense the label's role goes far beyond putting out records. "This very influential journalist from Portugal did a cover piece for the main arts/culture supplement in the country on us," says Pedro Gomes, one of Príncipe's founders. "And one of the things he said was that Príncipe is more influential than a thousand political rallies." In establishing their label and parties, the guys behind Príncipe needed to create a cross-cultural platform where a dialogue between them, from the inner city, and artists from Lisbon's heavily isolated ghettos could exist.
Several days before the party, I met with three of the four Príncipe founders at one of Lisbon's oldest dive bars, in the Bairro Alto neighbourhood. Pedro Gomes, who speaks eloquent English with a voice softened by Marlboro Reds, was a natural spokesperson for the group. Nelson Gomes and Márcio Matos drank bagaço, a Portuguese equivalent of grappa that's referred to locally as "fire water." Pedro explained that he met Nelson ten years ago, when they were working on an Animal Collective show in Lisbon. In 2007, they started Filho Único, an independent cultural association that has brought acts like Hype Williams, Ariel Pink and R Stevie Moore to the city. Márcio, meanwhile, worked at Flur, a record shop run by José Moura, who is the fourth core member of Príncipe.
Nelson, who has the longest involvement with club music out of the group, had become disillusioned with the style. He grew up in Vila Chã, an area with a large Angolan and Cape Verdean community, and he would actively seek out music of African origin. In 2007, Marta Pina, a social outreach worker in the projects and Nelson's girlfriend, told him about a performance at Nove Bairros Novos Sons (Nine Neighbourhoods New Sounds), an initiative where bands from different neighbourhoods shared a stage. The act was Kotalume, who sang over funaná, an up-tempo, celebratory type of Cape Verdean music. Nelson was blown away by the show and urged Pedro to come see a repeat of the performance the next day. It turned out that the beat that caught their ear was written by DJ Marfox, who insisted on being on stage with Kotalume to take credit for his track, pretending to operate a turntable to show his involvement. (The group all laughed as they told the story.)
"What do these guys want?" says Marfox, remembering Nelson and Pedro approaching him after the show. "Do they want to take advantage of me? Do they want to get something out of me? I wasn't used to dealing with those kinds of people. It was very confusing for me in the first 24 hours. Do they want to work with me?"
Over the following months, the group slowly got to know one another, gradually building each other's trust. As they began their research, Pedro and Nelson confirmed a shared suspicion that electronic, club-focussed versions of kuduro and funaná were being produced in Lisbon. Pedro started recognising Marfox beats blaring from cars in the city centre. Nelson and Pedro got talking with Márcio and José, and decided that, with Marfox and other local acts like Photonz and Niagara on board, they would start a label that presented Lisbon club music to the world. "Let's work together and change things," Nelson says of their proposal to Marfox. "Let's make your music work in the city, and expose the amazing things you do to everybody."
Marfox was 19 when he met Pedro and Nelson, and was already a DJing icon in African communities throughout Portugal and Europe. He travelled the continent for gigs, but wasn't known for—and couldn't play—the tougher, fresher style of kuduro and funaná he was producing. The crowds in African clubs (a term Portuguese people use to describe venues where African immigrants go to party) wanted accessible and, moreover, aspirational styles of music—not the raw, "ghetto" style Marfox was making.
I met Marfox on a drizzly afternoon in Quinta do Mocho, a housing project about a 30-minute drive from the centre of Lisbon. The project is a grid of beige and yellow buildings, with palm trees (a Portuguese obsession, Pedro told me) lining the streets. Marfox's apartment was buzzing when we arrived. Gathered in the bedroom where Marfox makes his music were DJ Nervoso, DJ Firmeza and DJ Liofox, who are all now signed to Príncipe, along with other friends and Édi, Nervoso's young son. Everyone in the room lived locally.
Marfox, whose real name is Marlon Silva, grew up in Quinta da Vitória, about ten minutes away from Quinta do Mocho. His family is from the island of São Tomé e Príncipe, a former Portuguese colony in the Gulf of Guinea. He listened to kizomba, samba and kuduro as a kid, and was exposed to jazz and Brazilian pop through his father. Inspired by his cousin, who was a local DJ, Marfox started mixing music with old tape decks when he was seven. In 2004, he attended a party in his neighbourhood where DJ Nervoso was performing. Among other styles, Nervoso was playing his own attempts at tarraxinha—a type of slowed-down Angolan dance music that was pioneered by a producer called Znobia over ten years ago. "I wanted to be like him," Marfox said through Pedro, who was translating for us. "I decided he was like a model for me."
Nervoso, who is also from São Tomé e Príncipe, is seen as a godfather figure for the scene. A shy man (hence his name) of 30, who now lives in Morocco where he works in construction, he spoke to me on Marfox's couch with Édi on his lap. Nervoso began making music as a teenager, and later incorporated his productions into the DJ sets he played around his neighbourhood and in African nightclubs. He told me about the "loops" of his early music that would make people feel "out their minds" and would turn the party "into chaos." Pedro later said that these moments are considered to be the ground zero for the Lisbon scene.
"DJ Nervoso's style was always an inspiration to everybody," says DJ Lilocox, a fellow Príncipe artist, "and everybody was listening to it. I wouldn't even be thinking about making my own music if it wasn't for people like him—I probably wouldn't even make music at all."
Without exception, everyone I spoke with in Lisbon cited a compilation called DJ's Do Guetto Vol.1, which was released digitally in 2006 (and later re-released by Príncipe), as a pivotal moment for the scene. By this time Marfox, working under the tutelage of Nervoso, was starting to make his name as a producer. The compilation was the product of a shaky alliance between crews from different neighbourhoods. It featured music by DJ Pausas, DJ Fofuxo (both of whom belonged to the Máquinas do Kuduro group), DJ N.K, DJ Jesse, DJ Nervoso and DJ Marfox. They coincided the release with the first day of a new school year. "All the youth loved it, everybody was listening to it," says Marfox.
"They were important because they were one of the first crews who rose to become well known or respected doing this style," says DJ Kolt. "You could hear them in several neighbourhoods and it spread out." The group didn't stay together long—Marfox mentioned in-fighting and egos—but the impact of the compilation is still being felt today. "Everybody still asks: what happened to DJ's Do Guetto?" Marfox says. DJ Firmeza and DJ Liofox, who I also met at Marfox's apartment, named their crew, Piquenos (little) DJs Do Guetto, in honour of the group.
In explaining the three-year gap between their initial contact with Marfox and Príncipe releasing its first record, Marfox's Eu Sei Quem Sou, Pedro referred me to London's grime scene. "Dizzee Rascal got a record deal," he says. "Wiley got a record deal—both great records—and then Kano got a record deal. I saw what happened after Kano got a record deal. The 500 MCs who were much more respected than him got pissed off. This music was coming from impoverished roots. And it was basically mauled and violated by unconscious, not very serious record labels, who were making decisions, very serious decisions, on what was basically community music, which had its own communitarian hierarchy and order and logics, which were totally overlooked. And so because I saw that… I saw how tragic that was… I didn't want us to repeat the same mistake. It took us a very long time to understand who was who. Who did what first? Why is it important? Why is it more important than that?"
Pedro, Nelson and Márcio spoke of complex negotiations and periods of trust building with producers, a process Pedro described as "inter-cultural equalising." Príncipe's fifth release, a compilation that included tracks from the Blacksea Não Maya and Piquenos DJs Do Guetto crews, took over a year to execute. "It took us a long time, for us to get these people's confidence, and vice versa," Pedro says. "We don't do shit unless it's transparent. And we wanted them to understand and know that what we wanted to present was what they do... We didn't want watered-down versions for Western consumption."
"The general feeling was that we thought they were really weird," says DJ Kolt, of Blacksea Não Maya.
I visited Blacksea Não Maya, a crew that also includes DJs Perigoso and Noronha, at their cousin's house in the Cucena project, about 30 minutes south of the city centre. In a small side bedroom, Blacksea Não Maya explained how DJ Joker, who founded their crew but no longer lives in Portugal, was initially suspicious of Príncipe's motives, and tried to stop the group from working with the label. But DJ Kolt, who was inspired by a video he'd seen of Piquenos DJs Do Ghetto playing at a Príncipe party, wanted to be involved. He met with Márcio at a Príncipe party at Musicbox to make an agreement. Nelson and Márcio had earlier told me about a meeting with the crew's family (Perigoso and Noronha are brothers; Kolt is a distant cousin), describing them as being suspicious of Príncipe's intentions.
Lisbon's topography is the best place to start in understanding its cultural divide. The city, which is Portugal's capital, has an urban population of just over half a million people (on a land area of 84 km2) and a metropolitan population of over three million people (on a land area of 2,957 km2). After Portugal's 1974 revolution, when it again became a democracy, an influx of immigrants from former colonies like Angola created a large-scale need for housing. Urban planners used land deep into Lisbon's peripheries, but didn't put in place the transport links required to connect these newly formed communities to the city. "The level of separation was extreme," says Pedro. "We didn't do ghettos the way New York City did ghettos, the way London did council houses. We put these people in the middle of fucking nowhere, sometimes with no roads to connect them to civilisation. Far fucking away. And 40 years after the revolution these people are still isolated. And the level of distrust that they have with us is totally justified."
"There are a lot of projects around Lisbon," says DJ Lilocox, "and in Lisbon there are tourists, there are lots of people, stuff is going on—but tourists don't come out here, people don't come out here, because they are afraid of getting robbed. In some places that can happen, in other places that can happen, but that can also happen in Lisbon. It's just the fine that these places get because they're projects."
"Whatever your age, skin color, sexual orientation, money in the wallet, clothes on: Noite Príncipe is for all who come to dance... forgetting the outside world."
The most important diplomatic tool Príncipe have is their party. The first event took place at Musicbox in February 2012, and featured sets from DJ Marfox and Photonz. (Photonz, AKA Marco Rodrigues and Miguel Evaristo, were part of the Príncipe setup at the beginning. They released the label's second record, WEO / Chunk Hiss, but later left to start a label, One Eyed Jacks.) Márcio estimates that 20 of Marfox's friends from the projects attended, but overall the event was busy. But by the sixth or seventh monthly party, word spread about Noite Príncipe outside the city centre. "We started bringing a few kids from other projects down, and after a while Marfox started inviting so many friends," says Nelson. Videos circulated online showing performances from an increasingly wide range of DJs playing to an increasingly mixed crowd.
"To this day," says Pedro, "if a kid from the projects comes to a party of ours for the first time, his reaction would be [makes shocked expression]. They won't believe that white people are into ghetto music." At the anniversary party, I was dancing behind a white guy and a black girl from the projects, who were making out. Pedro snuck up behind me and whispered in my ear: "That would never have happened a year and a half ago."
"Every month it gets more and more plural," he earlier said. "More and more heterogeneous, white kids dancing with white kids, black kids dancing with black kids, white kids with black kids. You know? Everybody's dancing together. People are getting laid. People are enjoying themselves, enjoying each other. Sometimes it's palpable how happy everyone is."
"I really appreciate it," says DJ Lilocox. "All these people I've never seen in my life being together and just moving to the music. It's something I really enjoy witnessing."
"It's the first time I've ever seen white people dancing to African music," says Nigga Fox.
At Marfox's apartment, Firmeza showed me a large tattoo he'd recently had done on his arm. Below the name of his crew, P.D.D.G., were a pair of dice, which signified Musicbox, and a crown, which signified Príncipe.
Firmeza was the anniversary party's opening act, and he played one of the night's best sets. He followed a brief warm-up from Nelson and Márcio, who dropped rhythmically complex, 90 BPM tarraxinha tracks from a gantry above the dance floor. Firmeza is 19, and he has a growing reputation as a DJ. (He's been know to mix with his teeth.) His style is light on melodies and heavy on drums. In places his music felt like a new mutation of afro-house and in others influenced by soca. Firmeza enhanced the music's impact by skilfully working the faders and filters. As he played, the increasingly exuberant crowd formed dance circles and shouted "hey!" in unison.
One of the night's other highlights was DJ Nigga Fox, who, along with Marfox, is the most widely known name outside of Lisbon. His set explored more extreme electronic sounds, which, in tandem with his scattered rhythms, created a pleasing seasick feeling. His O Meu Estilo (My Style) EP, Príncipe's fourth release, was a far-out hybrid of kuduro, afro-house, tarraxinha and myriad other genres. Even in a scene that values new forms and experimentation, Nigga Fox's peculiar style makes him an outlier.
I met Nigga Fox (Rogério Brandão) near his home in Ameixoeira, a suburb to the north of the city. Tall, well built with chin-length dreads, he cuts an imposing figure, which is at odds with his shy demeanour. He was born in Luanda, and moved to Lisbon when he was four to escape Angola's civil war. As well as kuduro, pop and reggae, he grew up listening to music from Congo, which is where his father is from. He got into production through his older brother, and later became involved with Lisbon's ghetto music through Marfox, who he met at school. Last year, Marfox showed the guys from Príncipe Nigga Fox's music, and they signed him immediately.
Niagara also stand apart on Príncipe's roster, but for different reasons. The trio, made up of brothers Alberto and António, who are from Lisbon, and Sara, who is from America, produce house music. Their style—a colourful, improvised take on four-four—was showcased on Ouro Oeste, Principe's third release. "They have a Lisbon brightness that is pretty unique," says Nelson. "If you came here in summer it would sound like Niagara."
Niagara were scheduled to go last at the Príncipe party, and the venue's late decision to extend its opening hours to 7 AM meant they played to a near-empty dance floor. The trio often perform live, but tonight they were DJing. They played only their own music, most of which the guys from Príncipe had never heard. At times, their set was like a club-focussed version of Actress, with a bit more buoyancy. Their tracks were much slower than the music earlier in the night, but it made sense given the open-ended feel of the party. "There is a shared basis with Príncipe that consists in trying to find a way to express ideas that isn't simply choosing a style," they said. "But of course, the differences are much more interesting, and we really appreciate each other's music."
This isolation has allowed the Afro-Portuguese scene in Lisbon to develop its own set of customs and rubrics. The most obvious example is DJ names ending with "fox." Liofox, Nigga Fox, Dadifox etc are essentially showing their respect to Marfox; Lilocox is a riff on the word. All of the DJs play on laptops, using software such as Virtual DJ and PCDJ. Marfox and Nigga Fox, who use Traktor, are the exceptions. At Príncipe parties the DJs play for 90 minutes, but at neighbourhood events it's usually 30. Almost without exception, DJs play only their own productions or music from their crew or neighbourhood. No one says "producer," instead using "DJ" as a collective term for someone who makes and plays music. DJs mix extremely quickly, so productions can be as little as 60 seconds long. The music is produced using Fruity Loops, and many Príncipe artists told me this was due to its simplicity.
With the exception of Lilocox, who said he blends house with kuduro, none of the artists I spoke to would describe their music. They discussed it in vague terms, avoided the question, or said it wasn't up to them to describe it. They weren't being difficult, though—the scene is merely unconcerned with genre. Instead, individuality is the currency. "People will stop talking to someone just because a song he did is imitating too much someone else's style," says Lilocox. "My own style has been imitated a bunch of times, but I'm not the kind of person to get mad about it."
When I asked Blacksea Não Maya about the importance of uniqueness, Kolt simply said: "It's more than important. This is what sets us apart."
Percussion was a central theme at the Príncipe party, but the mood and textures of each act differed greatly. Blacksea Não Maya, who followed Firmeza and Liofox, used lots of 16th note drum patterns in their kuduro-heavy set. "Decaléé," a track Príncipe released from the group's Perigoso, who's been producing since he was 12, was indicative of the intensity level they hit. Maboku and Lilocox, who both come from the Cacém project, favoured subtler, trippier tones. Their set was noticeable for its afro-house influences, but it also featured refined interpretations of kuduro.
Comparatively speaking, Marfox and Nervoso, the two elder DJs, had a much straighter style. They mostly played four-to-the-floor kuduro, but its tempo—somewhere in the region of 145 BPM—and percussive density gave it a killer syncopated bounce. Nervoso in particular messed with high-intensity loops, which often felt like a two-beat phrase on repeat. During the set, a group of young gentlemen summed up the madness by linking arms and shouting "bah!" in time with the beats.
"This music has something that most music in the West does not have," Pedro said before the party. "It has a truly profound inter-continental appeal. This can work in Africa. This can work in all of Latin and North America, in Asia and, of course, in Europe. This music has been brewing for centuries, through the slave trade, through immigration, and now through digital technology. Fruity Loops is a miracle for this secular brewing process, because finally you get this pristine percussive complexity translated directly to digital and then onto the vinyl. Now you can finally translate all these centuries of rhythmic advancement. Because it has that kind of richness to it, it can work. Because it's been brewing for so long, it can work anywhere. But it's not populist. It's not global in the sense of United Colours Of Benetton bullshit. It just works. People just react to it."
Outside of Lisbon, the sound of Príncipe has been presented in a few different contexts. At Dance Tunnel, Marfox played with grime DJs Visionist and Youngstar, and was billed for the cancelled Just Jam event at the Barbican in London (the lineup featured RP Boo, JME, SOPHIE and Mount Kimbie). At CTM festival in Berlin, he performed next to Shackleton and the Senegalese band Jeri-Jeri. Nigga Fox's most recent gig, meanwhile, was with Kode9, at Chesters in Berlin. "The right fit for it is any fit," Pedro says. "But the very best fit for it is if you contextualise it for what it is. I would be sad to see some promoter trying to mutilate this into what it's not. This is not techno, this is not house, this is not dubstep, this is not grime—this is this, it's not anything else, so if you want this, and luckily more and more people want this, present this for what it is."
Most people I spoke to said that locally, the music connected to Príncipe was becoming increasing popular. Príncipe has been covered extensively in print and has appeared on television. Marfox is a minor celebrity in his neighbourhood, although this has been the case for some time (a man shouted "DJ crew!" at us while we were taking photos in Quinta do Mocho). "Whenever I put up a track on SoundCloud people always come up to me in the street and pat me on the back and say, 'It's so good that you're doing your own thing. It gives us strength to keep on,'" Marfox says. Perigoso said that people at school now know his name because of his music, and his teacher saw him on TV.
"When we were first going to Príncipe parties," says Noronha, "we would take six friends who were not really familiar with what we were doing. But now our guestlist isn't big enough—we try to get 20 or 30 people in and it's totally different."
The music of Lisbon's ghettos reveals a difficult paradox. The backdrop for many of its producers is one of tough conditions—social and physical isolation, Europe's third-highest youth unemployment rate—but like hip-hop, house, grime and many other genres before it, this environment can fuel artistic endeavour. "I'd never view this specific type of social and structural isolation as a positive thing per se," Pedro said in the car on the way to the Príncipe party, "as the formation and urban 'planning' of the greater Lisbon ghettos was a very neo-colonialistic way of dealing with post-colonialism. But any community founded on simple, basic, humane principles or organisation—even in very complex and difficult circumstances, such as in this case—obviously has some luminous aspects about it. It's not so much that this type of isolation is beneficial in an absolute manner—not at all—but I think that this set of circumstances, when compared to how un-communitarian the big metropolises have become, especially in this period where merciless gentrification is ensuing in pretty much every major capital of the West, it does have its positive side, as most music and arts in the most expensive and overpopulated cities have become more and more speculative, and geared towards a global abstract community, whose dialogues are not face-to-face, quotidian ones.
"If you are a musician, artist, producer, DJ making dance music—and it doesn't get much more communal than that—and you can ask your next door neighbour for an honest opinion on a track you just finished, and he can feel at home enough with you to be critical with you and your work, and if you can take that and appreciate it, then that's clearly a constructive creative environment for music."
We arrived at Musicbox a little later that evening. Food had been laid out on a table in the middle of the room. Most of the artists and people connected to Príncipe had gathered to hang out before the show. As we ate pasta and drank beer, I noticed that a divide had naturally formed: people from the projects on one side of the room, everyone else on the other. When we'd finished eating, I spoke to Marfox backstage, who had also noticed this dynamic. "When I arrived just now, none of the other kids were eating," he said.
Pedro interrupted: "I said to them, 'Come on, food is here, eat!"
"But why weren't they eating?" Marfox shot back. "They weren't eating because they were afraid, they're shy, they won't ever have an argument with you. What's important here is their posture and the way they position themselves to you: it's of this huge respect for somebody, even though you invest in them and work with them. They still look at you from a status that they cannot reach, so they can't look you in the eye the same way I look you in the eye, for now, so it's important to break that."
He thought for a moment. "Once this music rids itself of these kinds of stereotypes it will be even more incredible."
Several hours later, the party was kicking. Marfox slunk around the room, playing host, overseeing things, getting on the mic to hype the crowd. Lilocox greeted a friend with an elaborate handshake, and later tried his luck with a couple of girls. After his set, Nigga Fox threw rave shapes. At the night's mid-point, everyone from the label gathered to sing happy birthday and cut a cake. I watched from the side of the stage. As the music restarted, I looked down at the dance floor. Under the darkness and the club's lights, it was hard to tell who was who.