A smash-up of Brazilian and Brooklyn rhythms in name and in sound: BROOKZILL! recently released their debut album, Throwback to the Future. Indie-Life caught up with the crew after a show at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia.
Hip-hop went global in the 1980s, but it was a one-way commercial street for at least a decade, until an international audience started shipping back their own brand of worldly rap. Today, American hip-hop is increasingly tinged with international music: island sounds have become part of a standard hit recipe, British grime inflects the way American emcees deliver their raps, a Canadian runs the charts.
But international collaborations don’t often come as natural—or ambitious—as BROOKZILL!, a Brazilian-American hip-hop crew comprising a cast of legends. The group, which released its first album this past fall, is helmed by Prince Paul, the iconic producer of De La Soul and Gravediggaz fame; on the mic is another ‘90s hip-hop legend: Ladybug Mecca, one third of the alternative hip-hop group Digable Planets. She shares the stage with Rodrigo Brandao, a well-established Brazilian emcee, while Don Newkirk, a longtime Prince Paul collaborator, operates as a behind-the-scenes producer.
When Indie-Life speaks with the crew after a recent show in Philadelphia, they frame the collaboration as an organic intersection of mutual friends and collaborators. “We went to Brazil and Rodrigo had these amazing musicians in this really dope studio and, you know, we went up in there and it was cool because there’s no language barrier with music,” Prince Paul explains. “Those dudes spoke Portuguese and I spoke music and they did too…and that’s what you’re hearing man. Total vibe, total live fire.”
Paul is quiet but slinks confidently into his role as the de facto frontman. By contrast, Brandao, the sole Brazilian national on the squad, bubbles like an excited fan in conversation. “Paul was like the foundation, you know like he’s the drum beat,” Brandao says. “He’s the guy that’s been doing that since it was a hip-hop party. Right? So he’s the hip-hop Highlander man.”
“Don is the melody maker,” Brandao continues. And Ladybug Mecca? “The Queen, man, she’s the Queen you know. She’s one of those persons. If you realize, Mecca barely talks on stage because she transmits through her beauty, to her energy you know? Since I’m not a beauty, I’m the guy who talks.” Paul interjects reassuringly: “Somebody gotta do that man!”
Mecca, born in the States to Brazilian parents, shares a mutual admiration with Brandao. “I mean you see his energy,” she says. “What a pleasure it just is to be around him. He’s talking about all of us but he’s just as powerful, important, pure and it’s just an honor to be in this group with everyone…Even if you don’t understand the language like you can feel it and that’s what I love so much about it.” Newkirk chimes in on the pair’s vocal compatibility: “They complement each other so well. It’s like, yo, it’s obvious. We heard the verses back and forth and it was like, ‘Oh ok this is what that is.’”
Listening through the album, Newkirk’s revelation holds: Brandao and Mecca are an unexpectedly organic pair. Both emcees sound relaxed and in-the-pocket, like natural party rockers throwing a bash.
For Rodrigo Brandao, a kid growing up obsessed with 90s hip-hop in Brazil, this collaboration feels almost like fantasy rap camp. He almost seems to pinch himself as he marvels, “I always joke to them, but it’s real, like to watch a show was like my biggest dream,” Brandao remembers. “Because back [then] when Digable played [in Brazil] in ‘94 it was like, ‘Oh my God!’ It was a long time until [you’d] see another act…The Digable show in ‘94 was like a game changer for us, you know? I can’t believe [that] I’m going on stage once again with these people! Every time might be the last one.”
The collaborations on BROOKZILL!’s debut expand past the core group, cleverly weaving other Brazilian and American artists into the mix. “They are dope and they are friends, but they are also like heavyweights on the scene,” Brandao says of the Brazilian musicians featured. “The Sao Bento joint, that one is kind of like about the birthplace of hip-hop in Sao Paulo which is the birthplace of hip-hop in Brazil. So I was like let me get a dope MC from each different generation and then [Mecca] brought Kid Koala to scratch over too. You know so that’s the [Del the Funky Homosapien] connection…There is nobody on this album that there is no relationship [that’s] organic to at least one person. [It’s] grassroots for real in that sense.”
As for the outfit’s next move, each member seems to hint excitedly at more music, more shows, and maybe even a more crowded stage. “As time goes we want to—you know, like turn into [a] Duke Ellington big band,” Brandao says. The metaphor is apt. Like the jazz legend, BROOKZILL! combines energy and skill in their live performances, with a sound that expands and embraces voices from all over the map.
Interview by Rasheed Rafik Abdellah
Words by Jay Balfour
Visuals by Tim Blackwell