The rise of Brazilian hip-hop

In the vast urban outskirts of São Paulo - the periferia  - colourful graffiti fights for space with the black runic letters of the local pichação across almost every edifice. A thumping electronic bass hangs in the air along with the distinct aroma of grilled picanha rising from the ubiquitous pavement churrascos. This is the home of Brazilian hip-hop - Latin America’s largest metropolis’s answer to the Bronx.

Brazilian hip-hop, and its associated graffiti counterculture, was born out of the 1980s favela street parties, where DJs span the freshest American funk and soul records to the mainly Afro-Brazilian crowds. When hip-hop emerged from the US, it swiftly made its way into the local rotation. Curiously, the genre immediately bifurcated and evolved very differently in the two major cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo - located less than 500km apart.

“When hip-hop arrived at those funk parties, Rio de Janeiro took the electro influence of Afrika Bambaataa, which led, eventually, to Miami bass and the baile funk scene,” explains Rodrigo Brandao, a former host and VJ of the Brazilian version of Yo! MTV Raps. “In São Paulo, people picked up on Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” and a rap scene was born.”

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Who's who?

Enter Nelson Triunfo: tall, thin and with an unmistakable afro hairstyle. A dance enthusiast, Nelson was born in the rural hinterland of Pernambuco in the poor north-east of Brazil, but eventually found his way to a favela on the eastern outskirts of São Paulo in the late 70s. He soon began breakdancing to funk and soul records in public spaces in downtown São Paulo and became a sensation. 

Nelson Triunfo

In the final years of the military dictatorship in the early 1980s, Nelsão - as he was affectionately known - and his b-boy troupe came to occupy the metro station of São Bento, which became a temple to the rise of hip-hop in Brazil. To aficionados, Nelsão is considered the father of Brazilian hip-hop. 

In 1988, the first Brazilian hip-hop compilation came out, called 'Hip hop, cultura de rua' (Hip Hop, street culture). Amongst others, it featured Thaide, one of São Paulo’s very first MCs, who collaborated with DJ Hum and dominated the nascent scene.

One of the first examples of a Brazilian rapping over an old-school samba was Rappin’ Hood’s black pride rap “Sou Negrão (more or less “I’m very Black”).

Hip-hop grew and grew on the fringes in Brazil, with top artists like Racionais MCs reportedly drawing crowds of 10,000 in the 90s while being all but ignored by the music and entertainment industries. Whereas Rio’s baile funk became known for its party lyrics, mostly waxing lyrical on the beauty of large asses, the hip-hop scene in São Paulo was fiercely political in nature, a tradition that continues to this day.

Racionais MCs are hands down the most famous hip-hop crew in Brazilian history. Members Mano Brown, Ice Blue, Edy Rock and DJ KL Jay came up in the late 80s, writing hard-edged raps about the struggles of favela life, often with a revolutionary message. 

Black Alien & Speed leveraged the Napster download era and hit it big when Fatboy Slim remixed a track for a famous Nissan advert filmed in São Paulo.

Sabotage, with his unique hairdo, grew up dealing drugs in São Paulo’s rough South Zone before becoming an overnight sensation with the release of his first and only album in 2000, titled 'Rap é Compromisso'. In 2003, he was shot four times on his way home from a club and died. His murder remains unexplained. 

Unlike many of the São Paulo MCs, carioca Marcelo D2 stayed away from street themes, rapping most often about samba and Brazilian culture since he rose to fame around 2000.

In February 11, 2001, the first U.S. reference to the music itself was made by Neil Strauss in the New York Times, recognising it as a distinct musical genre, and, along with Kwaito music in South Africa, one of the first new genres of electronic street/dance music to have become important outside North America and Europe.

Nelson Triunfo

Today, Emicida is arguably the most mainstream of Brazilian rappers - with a 2011 Coachella appearance under his belt and even supplying music for Playstation games like Max Payne 3. 

Criolo, now in his 40s, has been hustling in the underground for over twenty years – but only recently has he emerged as one of the most important musicians in Brazil. 

Gradually, the Rio de Janeiro hip-hop scene garnered more international exposure than its paulista cousin, with its aggressively polarising sound from it's favelas perched precariously on the city’s famous hillsides.

In the last two years, Rio's funk music has became notorious as the thudding theme tune for rolezinhos - or flashmobs - raging across Brazilian cities; a phenomenon of gatherings of predominantly, poor, black youths partying in malls usually occupied by mostly wealthy, white consumers. Depending on which way you look at it, rolezinhos are perceived as either an expression of liberty or as a public nuisance. 

Since 2013, some funk has risen above the ostentation to rap about politics and the waning of Brazil’s recent economic boom. From the brash lyrics of ‘funk ostentação’ (ostentatious funk) has emerged ‘funk consciente’ (conscientious funk) from rappers like MC Garden.

With Brazil going through the growing pains of becoming a major global power, there will be plenty to rap about.