Brazil is used to being the centre of attention. Bossa nova, the beaches, the beautiful game and the beautiful people. But even by those standards, these are halcyon days. Its political and economic upsurge have placed it at the forefront of emerging nations; both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics helped it become a major player in the world of sports.
So much for the tourist brochures. Brazil is also home to a music scene that’s as thrilling as can be, to some, terrifying. Baile funk, also known as funk carioca, was born in some of South America’s most over-populated, crime-ridden slums, beginning life as a Brazilian variant of the Miami bass sound – all earthquaking, booty-shaking 808 dance beats, though with lyrics that often looked beyond Miami’s sex-fixated raps, tackling the full spectrum of life in the favelas, from love to (with some sex-fixated raps thrown in). Around the turn of the millennium it spread beyond Brazil, cropping up in the more forward-looking European clubs.
Now comes ‘heavy baile’, a reinvention of the genre that owes its sudden prominence to the rise of one man – Leo Justi. Heavy baile is a more outward-looking take on its parent prototype, as much a product of the new ‘global jukebox’ approach to sound construction as of Rio’s city beat. Here you’ll stumble across influences from UK drum ‘n’ bass, Detroit’s ghettotech or Baltimore club. Even French dance icons Daft Punk are there in the mix. As you might expect from a sound with so much going on, this isn’t music for the faint of heart. Leo’s beats are rapid like gunfire, dark as shadows, loud enough to wake the dead.
Before even releasing a record of his own he caught the ear of Anglo-Sri Lankan star MIA, whose 2004 hit Bucky Done Gun did much to internationalise baile funk. “I sent her a tweet last year, she saw it, heard my Soundcloud and DMd me saying “let’s get to worrrrk”. I passed out and then woke up and got back at her,” he told MTV Iggy. She flew him out to India to collaborate, yielding a ferocious remix of the single Bad Girls. “Leo is beautiful” says MIA “he is a breath of fresh air, out there contributing to the side of good peoples.”
The rest of the world had to wait until when he debuted with the single Gaitero, complete with a video showing two young boys locked in a beachside dance-off under the watchful eye of a bikini-clad ref. So far, so Brazilian.
The second video was equally rooted in the local culture, if not so tourist-friendly. Shot by Julio Secchin and receiving its premiere on Vice, Sniper Queen [O Homem Mau] features a vigilante sniper policing the ghetto streets from the rooftops in between mouthfuls of rare steak. Bare-chested but for his fur coat, he’s a low-tech Batman, a blaxploitation Dirty Harry. Leo’s music is as dead-eyed as the Sniper’s aim, firing off gunshots over beats that ricochet between London, Baltimore and Rio.
Sniper Queen and Gaitero have put Leo Justi and his heavy baile sound on the lips of clubbers and tastemakers everywhere. Leo's HVY BL NSS PRR mixtape and EP, the video for “Larga o Aço” (which was featured in Nike’s 2018 World Cup commercial), a collaboration with Phantogram, and a Red Bull-backed Funk Proibidão show in New York have helped put him on the map. It won’t be long before the whole world knows about Brazil’s worst kept secret.