Go abroad and find some local hip-hop. Africa, South America, Europe—it doesn’t much matter. You’ll quickly discover that even though the words are foreign to your ears, catching a vibe doesn’t demand that you understand all the lyrics. Enter BROOKZILL!, the supergroup collective made up of DJ-producer Prince Paul, Digable Planets MC Ladybug Mecca, producer Don Newkirk and Brazilian MC Rodrigo Brandão. Like Run-DMC literally smashing through a wall of genres in the “Walk This Way” video, the BROOKZILL! debut, Throwback to the Future, obliterates cultural barriers by freely blending Afro-Brazilian rhythms and the occasional Portuguese rhyme scheme with Brooklyn boom-bap.
Think back to Santana and Fela, or even a pop smash like “99 Luftballons.” Music as a universal language is cliché, but we know it’s true: we’ve all had experience with keying into the frequency of a “foreign” song without quite catching everything in the language. Throwback to the Future takes us there, assisted by Del the Funky Homosapien, Mr. Len, Kid Koala, Count Bass D and other guests. Powered by the bilingual lead single “Saudade Songbook,” BROOKZILL! rocked a set at New York City’s SOB’s last month, and the colorful quartet sat down with soulhead at Tommy Boy Records’ Manhattan office to talk hip-hop, Brazilian culture and musical universality.
soulhead: The idea for this band occurred to you 10 years ago in São Paulo. What brought you there?
Prince Paul: I wish it was that sexy where I was just like, “Let me go to São Paulo,” and just hop on a plane. [laughter] A friend of mine, Scotty Hard—who engineered De La Soul Is Dead, 6 Feet Deep, like a bunch of my stuff—he was working with Rodrigo. And he was like, “Hey, I’m going down to São Paulo to do some shows, I think I can get you to DJ while you’re down there.” I’m like, “You know what? I’ve never been to Brazil before. Yeah, let’s do that. I wanna go.” And that set off the first trip.
And the first trip was just like, oh my God. To me, it was like going back into the ’80s or late ’70s when I first started deejaying. Just the way people partied, it was just a funky vibe. Even the throwback equipment, the homemade speakers. People were just grooving to music to groove to music. And me being amped and in the moment, when I met Rodrigo, I was like, “Yo, we need to make a record together.” I was amped on the music. It was nuts.
soulhead: What equipment did you use? Did you carry vinyl, or Serato?
Prince Paul: Man, 10 years ago what was I using? Was Serato out 10 years ago? I mighta used CDJs because it was easier to carry. I wanted to take vinyl.
soulhead: What did you spin?
Prince Paul: Just classic hiphop, like breakbeats and stuff. Mind you, I’m limited to what I can play by whatever I had on CD at the time. So it wasn’t Serato, like go online and cheat. I stuck to my guns and made it work. When I left there, it was funny. When I went there I was playing one thing. When I left, that’s when I had a residency at APT. I remember immediately that night when I came back to do APT, I spun a whole reggae set and I was spinning all different types of stuff. They were like, “Yooo, what you doing with your set?!” Like, “What happened to you?” In a good way; I didn’t get dissed. But I rocked it. ’Cause I was in the vibe. But cats was like, “yo, what happened? This ain’t the Paul I know.”
soulhead: Mecca, your parents are Brazilian and you grew up bilingual. How’d that influence your flow as an MC?
Ladybug Mecca: When you formulate words in Portuguese, if you translate it exactly the way is, it’s not going to sound like an English sentence. So that directly affects the way I write sometimes. I think that’s probably the best way to explain it. When I worked on Digable [Planets] music, you can hear some Portuguese in there. I might have thrown a word in there.
soulhead: And where exactly are your parents from?
Ladybug Mecca: My mother’s from Rio de Janiero, and my father’s from Rio Grande do Sul, which is down south. I visited for the first time when I was 10, and then not until I was able to go over there and open up for James Brown with Digable.
Funny story: my mother won the lottery. She won $17,000! She had a lot of dreams of numbers. She would win pretty often, so she won $17,000. We would have never been able to afford to be able to go to Brazil. So, I got a new bike for Christmas, and I went to Brazil for like a month, through Christmas to January. And then I came back speaking Portuguese to my teachers as a matter of fact, still stuck in that over there. This was ’83. When we went over there, because the dollar was worth so much more, we were able to help my family with a lot.
soulhead: Do Brazilians in general feel like American hip-hop has lost its way?
Rodrigo Brandão: It’s kind of mixed. There’s people who definitely feels like that and there’s people that don’t understand a word, they just wanna dance to tunes that they feel. But more in a general sense, I would say that people who are directly related to hip-hop, they understand that nowadays when it comes to at least the more mainstream music, lyrics is really wack. And we have better lyrics. [laughter]
soulhead: Do you think American audiences are sophisticated enough to vibe off this music without understanding the words?
Don Newkirk: We would hope so, that people are sophisticated enough. But you never know. Some people get it. Some stuff I don’t get. Some stuff I do, you know? It all depends on what state of mind you’re in when you hear it, when you come across it. It’s very unfortunate that we live in such a disposable world right now. And by that, I mean that information is infinite, literally. We literally live in an information age, we are literally in Revelation if you’re into that type of information, ’cause everything is revealed. Life is one big scroll, whereas before, you had time to take an experience, one-on-one interaction, group interaction. But now it’s virtual group interactions. It’s more different. But BROOKZILL! plays in that dream too. The music, because it’s in Portuguese, it forces you to either feel it or not. But if you feel it, then you’re gonna go there with the music.
soulhead: How does the current state of the music industry affect the commercial expectations of a project like this?
Prince Paul: Well, it’s almost like a pro and a con in a lot of ways. One, because there’s so much crap that’s out, it’s kinda hard in some ways to filter out through that. But at the same time, it gives you the ability to experience a lot more. I think what’s lucky for us is that we all have established pasts as artists. And people want to check for us in that regard to see what the music is about. And the second part of it is too, for us to make something that people will like. And hopefully once they do check it out, they’ll go, “This is kinda hot, let me play it for a friend or let me kinda let other people check it out.”
I mean, a lot of it is gonna be word of mouth. The other obstacle we’re going through is, some of it is in Portuguese. Now you really have to sit and have to vibe on it. It’s a spiritual thing. You really have to listen to it and just vibe it and feel the melodies and kinda get into the sound. “Soul Makossa,” “99 Luftballons.” It’s a spiritual thing. Fela. That’s where we draw from. We’re hoping that there’s a kind of spiritual essence that draws you into it, and we’re hoping that people will take the time.
soulhead: You’re a natural collaborator. How do the challenges of collaborating with BROOKZILL! compare to your other collaborations (De La Soul, Chris Rock, etc.)?
Prince Paul: Well, the musical part of it is a snap. Because Mecca’s super talented and she gets it. Newkirk I’ve known since I was 14. We’ve been through junior high, high school together. I just look at him and he’ll go “bassline.” We don’t even have to go in any conversation ’cause I just know him like that. Rodrigo, professional guy, he’s like one of those guys that you could probably ask him any random hip-hop question—“What’s the third song on Top Quality?”—and “Oh, it’s such-and-such.” He’s that guy. And our common bond is just loving music.
Ladybug Mecca: And an amazing poet. If you could really hear and understand his lyrics, it’s very beautiful.
Prince Paul: That’s totally true. And so that’s the easy part. It’s distance. “Man, when can I get to São Paulo again? Rodrigo man, when are you coming back to the states?” And to Newkirk in Atlanta. “Mecca, you got time? Can you come in from Connecticut and go to São Paulo?” And, “How are we gonna get the musicians? Are we gonna go down to São Paulo and mix it in Brooklyn?” So that was probably the biggest part, but that the actual collaboration was like a breeze.
Me and Rodrigo, on the first meeting, when he came to my studio on Long Island, we literally made like 11, 12 songs in one session, in just sitting down. And it was all skeletons, but it’s what set off the album. Now if the rest of the record had went that quick… [laughter] But it was over time that we made what we made. And everything happens in its right and respectful time the way the universe works.
I would say this record and working with comedians are probably the easiest people to work with. Usually other rappers—and I won’t say no names—it’s like, “Yeah, we’re in the studio now.” “Word? It’s today?” “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be in. I’ll see if I could make it through.” And we’re there allll day, spending $200 an hour for the engineer, coming at the last hour. “Yo dog, I just looped the track.” And then there for another five hours writing to it. And then you’re like, man, that’s three grand we wasted on one day. [laughter]
soulhead: How much do you anticipate doing this music in Brazil? Are you doing that?
Prince Paul: Oh, without a doubt. That first show was just like the tip of the iceberg. It’s gonna get so much broader. Musicians, percussionists. When we get to traveling, it’s gonna be really interactive, a lot of fun. It’s gonna be real vibey. Good thing about making music like this [is], you can expand it so much naturally without it being stupid. We can naturally expand from beyond the DJ to, like, anything. We could hire, you remember that old dude from Arrested Development? He could come onstage and just run across and you’d be like, “aahhhh! He fits!” [laughter] We could bring Freedom Williams! “He fits!” [laughter]
LISTEN to Brookzill!’s Album Throwback to the Future
About the author:
Miles Marshall Lewis has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Ebony, Essence and many other publications. His work has appeared in Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, and elsewhere. He’s also the author of There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram. Check out some of his work for soulhead.