[Skinny Brown and his son Nesta, who was born on Bob Marley's birthday]
Undercurrents is an ongoing column on SmartShanghai in which we profile Shanghai-based promoters and music makers living and putting on music events in this city, specifically within the context of the larger cultural, economic, and arts landscape in Shanghai. These are your manufacturers of cultural capital, Shanghai. This is the business of art and music.
Skinny Brown is the DJ and promoter who started the Popasuda dance parties at Dada Shanghai back in 2011. Popasuda means "booty" in Portuguese, one of many languages you'll hear at the night. You won't hear any English lyrics though. Skinny Brown strictly plays "global bass" jams coming from cheap computers in the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, Indian, and beyond. He has the cred to do a night like this too – dude's background is more mixed than the tunes, he speaks seven languages, and has lived everywhere from Canada and Pakistan to Jamaica and Japan.
Friday at Dada, after working all day as a reporter for Shanghai's international TV station ICS, he's playing another seven-hour set. Each song only gets played for a minute, with plenty of mic chat and spinbacks. That's like 300-400 songs in one night, almost all of which you've never heard before. There's no other party like this in China.
Ahead of that, SmartShanghai talked to Skinny Brown about the night, the music, and Shanghai. Throw on this mixtape first to get an idea of what the night sounds like...
Skinny Brown: Popasuda is all about music that's good for your soul. Essentially I'm trying to compile tracks from around the world that source cultural rhythms to produce dance music. You've got me on the decks for seven hours playing a blend of Third World genres like Cwaito, Dancehall, Kuduro, Bachata, Samba, Reggae, Socca, Chutney, Azonto, Kizomba and ton of other shit, alongside more traditional club sounds like House, Trap, Twerk, and Bass that all contain distinct cultural elements.
I love all sorts of music, and when you come to Popasuda, I want to remind you that music is something wired in each and every one of us. Rhythm is part of the human experience, and I hope Popasuda is a place where you can truly discover that.
[Popasuda at Dada Shanghai]
Skinny Brown: Searching for new and original music is never easy. I had friends in Brazil, India, and Jamaica I had grown up with who were of enormous help in the beginning. They're still sending me quite a bit of stuff. I was in Brazil for a bit back in 2003 and established a pretty firm base down there. I still use that network today, and get a lot of my Samba remixes, Baile Bass, and Portuguese dubplates from Brazil.
A lot of the Third World genres I didn't even know existed. I had a vague idea about some of the traditional African sounds like Makosa out of Kenya or traditional Shona music from West Africa, so I just started searching shit like "Shona Bass Remix", or "Kuduro remix". After three years of extensive research, I began to short-list producers who made shit that suited Popasuda. I'd hit them up on Soundcloud, tell them what I'm up to here in Shanghai, express my heartfelt appreciation for their sound, and ask for music.
I asked about 70 people a month, and at least 10 or 15 people would get back to me. When someone sends me a link or a track, I always respond. I've been forced to do much of my correspondence over email, which is more personal and helps to establish a much stronger relationship. And to be honest, the big names almost never get back to me – it's the 18 year old kids in their bedroom, making music on Fruity Loops in Senegal.
I literally scour the web in Hindi, Portuguese, Spanish, French, and whatever else, to put me in touch with local scenes. Kasi is one website based out of South Africa that's helping me discover a lot of dope African producers and sounds like Kwaito, Kuduro, Asonto, and most recently GQOM. Straight up, Africa is the future! It won't be long until these genres are deeply influencing poppier sounds the same way Dancehall and Baile Funk did. If you don't believe me, check out the new Major Lazer mixtape Africa is the Future.
And honestly, I look for new music every single day.
Skinny Brown: It depends what you play. If you play house – mix. If you're just dropping house tunes, fuck you go home. But I enjoy the tradition of reggae, in which you mix AND drop. I like the way that you can chat on the mic and talk to your crowd and communicate, because that's what being a DJ is all about – that personal connection. When you drop tunes you leave space and readjust the body's natural rhythm. And sometimes the beginning of a track is dope and you don't wanna lose that.
If you're playing different genres they might not mix well, and there's nothing worse than forcing a mix. Dropping is a skill. Mixing vs. dropping, one should never just do one or the other. There's nothing worse than hearing the same tempo for 20 minutes. Respect our crowd – give them something else. Can you imagine six hours of fucking house music? Maybe they are happy hearing that, but that's not to say they wouldn't be happier if you switched it up a bit.
Skinny Brown: Just to make it more tropical, like zebras and shit. You know zebras sound like lazers? They're like nature's lazers. What I wanna start doing now is just start saying the words "lazers and horns!" and playing that.
Skinny Brown: Man, you know…unfortunately not. There's Busy Gang doing that trap stuff, and I like that. One of the problems is, all these other places like Africa and the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, these places have had their own percussive rhythms for centuries. You don't have that percussive element as much in China. I just don't think locals really care about reinventing their classic sound, and if they do it's done in a really cheesy, jazzy, adult contemporary way.
You need young producers in China to start saying "we wanna stop looking to the West and Japan and Korea" and start looking internally, and saying "our own sounds are really dope, why aren't we putting our own sounds in the club?"
[Skinny Brown at Popasuda with frequent guest DJ Cavia]
Skinny Brown: It’s too internal. The major crews generally stick to themselves, and there’s very little collaboration between them. We often feel an overwhelming sense of competition, whereas we should instead feel a greater sense of community. I’m guilty of it too. In fact, if anyone reading this thinks they can do a Popasuda set feel free to hit me up.
The other thing with Shanghai nightlife is, it can get kind of boring. I’m not seeing a lot of the older guys out anymore. A lot of us just tired of hearing a single genre all night or obnoxious wobble bass and electro bass-lines. I’m not really up for hearing hours of house or trap or whatever, and it’s seldom I’m hearing something truly unique. That not to say some of the crew aren’t doing cool stuff, because they most certainly are, but when you compare the dope shit against the generic four-four stuff, we really see a lack of originality. But you know what, that’s probably everywhere.
Skinny Brown: They definitely go later and party harder. It's a much rowdier crowd. They don't get it all the time, so when they do they really appreciate it. Everytime I was out for bathroom breaks people were running up like "do you have t-shirts/mixes/website"? People applauding dubplates…it's such a classic thing to do. They were an awesome crowd. One of the crazy things in Beijing is, there's a bouncer that sits by the decks. We don't have that in Shanghai cause it's not that rowdy, but man, those dudes get fucked up.
[Skinny Brown bringing the Popasuda sounds to the beer festival last year]
Skinny Brown: Cambodia definitely embodied the spirit of Popasuda, just cause it was so third world. The subs were made out of empty paint cans, and the whole speaker setup had this really dope old-school soundsystem feel. You don't see that too often, and I really appreciated the whole DIY thing. The equipment was so ghetto. I ended up playing on one of the first DJ controllers ever made, rusted out, connected to a PC they had bought at a used electronic market the day of.
It was incredibly difficult to play on, but it didn’t matter, I was just happy to be there. I play fast, so I just ended up dropping tunes, cause mixing was outta of the question. But that's cool too, cause it had this old school reggae feel to it; just drop, drop, drop, and chat on the mic. And the crowd was wicked, they were just happy to hear the music. A really excited, happy crowd. And that's what it's all about.
Skinny Brown: 2015! It’s all about go big or go bust. As of now Popasuda's hitting Tokyo on May 8th, and hopefully I’ll land a few other dates for the same weekend. I’m also planning to play a music festival in Marseille in August, and trying to secure a few more dates in France while I’m down. That’s my biggest thing for 2015, just getting Popasuda outta China, and spreading the sound. Popasuda Man! Get on it!
Upcoming dates for Popasuda include this Friday, Jan 30 at Dada Bar. More details.
Black and white photos by Stephane Gormand. Other photos provided by Skinny Brown