Go abroad and find some local hip-hop. Africa, South America, Europeit doesnt much matter. Youll quickly discover that even though the words are foreign to your ears, catching a vibe doesnt 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 its true: weve 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 Citys SOBs 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 Hardwho engineered De La Soul Is Dead, 6 Feet Deep, like a bunch of my stuffhe was working with Rodrigo. And he was like, Hey, Im going down to São Paulo to do some shows, I think I can get you to DJ while youre down there. Im like, You know what? Ive never been to Brazil before. Yeah, lets 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, Im limited to what I can play by whatever I had on CD at the time. So it wasnt 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, thats 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 didnt get dissed. But I rocked it. Cause I was in the vibe. But cats was like, yo, what happened? This aint the Paul I know.
soulhead: Mecca, your parents are Brazilian and you grew up bilingual. Howd that influence your flow as an MC?
Ladybug Mecca: When you formulate words in Portuguese, if you translate it exactly the way is, its not going to sound like an English sentence. So that directly affects the way I write sometimes. I think thats 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 mothers from Rio de Janiero, and my fathers 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: Its kind of mixed. Theres people who definitely feels like that and theres people that dont 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 dont get. Some stuff I do, you know? It all depends on what state of mind youre in when you hear it, when you come across it. Its 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 youre 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 its virtual group interactions. Its more different. But BROOKZILL! plays in that dream too. The music, because its in Portuguese, it forces you to either feel it or not. But if you feel it, then youre 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, its almost like a pro and a con in a lot of ways. One, because theres so much crap thats out, its 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 whats 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, theyll 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 were going through is, some of it is in Portuguese. Now you really have to sit and have to vibe on it. Its 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. Its a spiritual thing. Fela. Thats where we draw from. Were hoping that theres a kind of spiritual essence that draws you into it, and were hoping that people will take the time.
soulhead: Youre 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 Meccas super talented and she gets it. Newkirk Ive known since I was 14. Weve been through junior high, high school together. I just look at him and hell go bassline. We dont even have to go in any conversation cause I just know him like that. Rodrigo, professional guy, hes like one of those guys that you could probably ask him any random hip-hop questionWhats the third song on Top Quality?and Oh, its such-and-such. Hes 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, its very beautiful.
Prince Paul: Thats totally true. And so thats the easy part. Its 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 its 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 rappersand I wont say no namesits like, Yeah, were in the studio now. Word? Its today? Yeah, yeah, Ill be in. Ill see if I could make it through. And were 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 youre like, man, thats 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. Its gonna get so much broader. Musicians, percussionists. When we get to traveling, its gonna be really interactive, a lot of fun. Its 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 youd 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. Hes also the author of Theres 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.