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How Bossa Nova Is Infiltrating Rap and R&B

The venerable Brazilian style, which enjoyed international popularity in the 1960s, has appeared in songs by Juice WRLD, Cuco, Kota the Friend and Hope Tala in the space of a few months

Juice Wrld performs in concert during his "Death Race for Love Tour" at The Skyline Stage at The Mann Center for the Performing Arts, in PhiladelphiaJuice Wrld In Concert - , Philadelphia, USA - 15 May 2019

Juice Wrld tucked a surprising bossa nova sample into the last track on 'Death Race for Love,' one of the most popular albums of 2019.

Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstockl

In March, the Brazilian style of music known as bossa nova made an unexpected appearance on one of the year’s biggest hip-hop albums: Juice WRLD’s Death Race for Love.

Thank Tommy Brown. During a recording session earlier this year with two other beat-makers, Boi-1da and Jahaan Sweet, Brown came across a striking bossa nova guitar sample. “I pulled up the loop and gave it to 1da,” recalls Brown, who also co-produced Ariana Grande’s juggernaut “7 Rings.” “[1da] put in drums; Jahaan started to add chords.” Juice WRLD, the 20-year-old wunderkind who merges overwrought guitar rock with rap, came into the studio soon after and freestyled lyrics about a cold-blooded romantic ambush: “She was gonna break my heart regardless/So I turned around and dumped her in the garbage.”

The resulting track, “Make Believe,” has been streamed more than 47 million times in the U.S. since coming out in March, bringing new recognition for its sample source, “Saudade Vem Correndo.” This 1963 bossa nova collaboration between Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfá has a lofty history in hip-hop: It was also sampled by J Dilla, one of rap’s most revered producers, for Pharcyde’s 1995 track “Runnin,” a major moment of fusion for Brazilian rhythms and American hip-hop.

Brown calls his homage “a what’s up to the culture.” It’s more than that: The latest nod to “Saudade Vem Correndo” also signals that, once again, young musicians with mainstream ambitions in hip-hop and R&B are turning towards bossa nova’s handsome guitars. Cuco, a 20-year-old artist signed to Interscope, used a bossa nova sample on “Bossa No Sé,” out last week. Lucky Daye, a young R&B singer signed to RCA, includes bossa nova guitar in the intro of “Call,” from his major-label debut album, also released last Friday. And two rising artists, the rapper Kota the Friend and the singer Hope Tala, both released arresting tracks built on bossa nova samples in the last six weeks.

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A well-chosen bossa nova sample can add both rhythmic and harmonic jolts to a track. “The bossa beat you can’t get anywhere else,” says David Buttle, co-founder of the English label Mr. Bongo, which specializes in international music. “The swing of the music is totally different” — especially when compared with the stern, hammering energy that characterizes much of modern commercial pop. In addition, “the bossa, the samba jazz are very layered harmonically, especially [the] vocals,” adds DJ Spinna, a veteran hip-hop producer who has released indispensable mixtapes of Brazilian music. Sure enough, Kota the Friend uses a lethal, lavish wave of harmonized backing vocals in “Hollywood.”

Béco Dranoff has been closely involved in Brazilian pop for more than three decades as a New York-based producer and co-founder of the label Ziriguiboom; he says Brazil’s influence abroad “is always there simmering.”

“It goes in phases, up and down,” he adds. “Now there’s a new thirst, an international focus on Brazilian music.”

In Dranoff’s view, the latest bossa fusion boom-let is an extension of a long-running dialog between musical hemispheres. “Bossa started in Rio in 1958, but the international boom was a big concert at Carnegie Hall here in 1962,” he says. “[Antônio Carlos] Jobim came; Joao Gilberto came. And after this Carnegie Hall night, this thing went humongous in America. It was the Beatles and bossa nova.” A stream of English-language performers, from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald, tried their hand at the style. Dranoff now dedicates an entire section of his extensive record collection to American bossa nova LPs, of which he says there are hundreds.

Rock — loud, messy, parent-scaring — eventually buried bossa nova in America, and its success also cemented the idea that any significant musical development had to be volatile and turbulent, appealing to youth at least in part by alienating the elders. Those qualities are rare in bossa nova, which is charming to a fault, rhythmically coy and melodically generous, appealing to cheerful babies, cantankerous septuagenarians and everyone in between.

As a result, bossa nova in the U.S. was partially cursed by its swaying beauty. “In the past this music has always been considered the kind of music that should be played in the background,” explains Jamal Hadaway, who produced Tala’s bossa-sampling “Lovestained.” “The chords don’t necessarily demand attention in the way that some of the pop chords do.” “A lot of [bossa nova] gets considered elevator music,” agrees DJ Spinna.

But many producers in DJ Spinna’s generation were rewarded for looking past these misperceptions. “There’s a groove to it,” DJ Spinna adds. “A lot of it is actually dancefloor worthy.” Plus, finding a rare cut gave producers and DJs a competitive edge in the studio or on the dancefloor. “In the late Eighties, everyone was on the same wavelength, looking for funk and jazz [to sample] through the lens of Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr,” DJ Spinna continues. “Then things started to get a little more experimental in the mid-Nineties.”

That’s when DJ Spinna bought his first Brazilian album, Joao Donato’s Quem É Quem. And that’s when he heard Dilla sample Getz and Bonfá’s beguiling collaboration. “I had that same record, but I never thought to use it,” DJ Spinna says. “We had never heard anything like that, to my knowledge, in hip hop before.”

As Spinna and Dilla dug for Brazilian records, they weren’t alone. “There was a massive wave [of interest in Brazilian music] in the 1990s and 2000s,” Dranoff says. Supply rose to meet demand as reissues or rare records hit the market. And Dranoff’s label, Ziriguiboom, capitalized with new releases from artists like Bebel Gilberto, daughter of bossa nova royalty Joao Gilberto. Her debut, Tanto Tempo, was full of sly hybrids that leaned towards house music; it went on to sell over a million copies.

Conditions today are right for another bossa nova wave. English-speaking listeners have never been more attuned to the music from other parts of the world then they are now, thanks in part to a streaming landscape that makes the popularity of other musical forms easily quantifiable for labels and managers. Streaming has aided the global success of Brazilian baile funk, reckless, hard-charging music that’s immensely popular on YouTube.

But right now the young American and English musicians turning towards Brazil are not embracing the baile funk sound; instead, they are interested in older, gentler exports. Buttle noticed a new level of enthusiasm for Brazilian rarities on a recent trip to the U.S. “We just did the WFMU [record fair] in New York and noticed that there’s a massive interest in the Brazilian stuff all of a sudden,” he says. “There’s always been an interest, but it’s been kind of sporadic. Now it seems more solid.”

The devilishly smooth qualities of bossa nova now work in its favor, because another notable characteristic of the current streaming-centric landscape has been the success of languid music. Singers like H.E.R. and Alina Baraz have amassed over a billion streams apiece by exploring the many micro-shades of chill. In this climate, bossa nova’s beautiful surfaces look more like a strength than a liability. “I feel now is the time where people will be really be able to appreciate it in a way that maybe ten years ago they just wouldn’t,” Hadaway says. “Back then they’d hear something like that and be like, ‘file under muzak.'”

Either way, a bossa nova sample can once again serve as a tonic for a Juice WRLD — putting a bossa sample on an album titled Death Race for Love is both hilarious and inspired — or a Hope Tala: “Lovestained” is a winning merger of bossa nova and hip-hop soul. “That vibe is still uncharted territory because you don’t really hear it that much,” DJ Spinna says. “We spent a long time with redundancy when it comes to production in hip-hop. We haven’t heard a lot of Brazilian influence the last 10 or 15 years” — though there have been occasional samples by Jay-Z, Kanye West and Kaytranada — “so it’s refreshing to go into that.”

And the good news: There are plenty of samples waiting to be discovered by other young producers interested in raiding the Brazilian vaults. “There’s still so much [Brazilian music] that hasn’t been used yet,” DJ Spinna adds. “I know — because I have it.”

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