Reflecting on Principe, The Portuguese Record Label That Put Lisbon’s Ghetto Sound on the Map
The noises of a quiet revolution.
There's always been an element of future-shock syndrome within the music press. In a click-bait culture where micro-scenes give rise to think pieces and "beginner's guides" faster than their output can soundly resonate, it's hard to find a quiet revolution.
The sounds springing out of the Barrios surrounding the Portuguese capital were a new form of Afro-Porto energy when they started creeping into the consciousnesses of the masses at the start of the millennium. The rhythmic blueprints of Angolan styles like kuduro and tarraxinha torn up and haphazardly reassembled via pirated software by nameless kids on laptops. The economic links between Portugal and places like Angola had left a kind of sonic debris– influences as modern as kwaito house and kizomba left out as spare elements for kids in these highly isolated ghettos. There were no rules or recipes — just leftovers. For the best part of a decade, bedroom producers were being turfed out of African clubs for playing music that was too tough. They'd adopted the syncopations and beat patterns from the countries that came under colonisation but there was a troublemaking streak. Something untrained, something real.
Then came Principe. The story of their inception has been reeled off numerous times but here is a potted account. Four friends committed to the artistic progression and preservation of Lisbon decided to shine a light on this brand new, shapeshifting beast. Rather than keeping it restricted to the confines of Lisbon's suburbs, they wanted to present it — unchanged — to a bigger audience. They wanted to change the city through a philosophy rather than a plotted sonic redirection. Principe's mission statement was and still is a simple one; "PRÍNCIPE is a record label out of Lisbon, Portugal. It is fully dedicated to releasing 100% real contemporary dance music coming out of this city, its suburbs, projects & slums. New sounds, forms and structures with their own set of poetics and cultural identity. We want to make sure that the amazing work being produced here [...] will not remain unheard outside of our clubs, cellphones and homes anymore."
Their first widespread release arrived in 2012, I Know Who I Am by DJ Marfox — a producer who has since gone on to define the movement and inspire the next generation. There was something fantastically accessible about it considering it was so wholly new. It was like afro-beats with too much fuel, grime underwater or footwork with a staggered, clomping undercarriage. Journalists clambered to pin the movement down with handy buzzwords, but it was evolving faster than the think-pieces could be written. Photonz arrived weeks after Marfox; a duo dealing in a kind of warped, mutated techno that sounded more like an early, Sheffield-born Warp release than anything you'd find on the Honest Jon's shelves. The sound was constantly in a state of flux but not one bar deviated from the central ethos. This stuff was real, it was contemporary and it was being heard far further afield than Lisbon's clubs and cellphones.
Fast forward to summertime 2015. Lisbon is 37 degrees in the day and only slightly cooler when the sun goes down. Friday is just becoming Saturday and a queue is forming outside MusicBox — a venue in the Cais do Sodré neighborhood of Lisbon where Principe throw a monthly party. Tonight their showcase is being beamed right across the world via Boiler Room. Kids from the outer ghettos have traveled into the city and they file into the venue and clump together in small, overexcited groups. By the time Nidia Minaj steps up for 20 minutes of full-throttle ghetto funk reconstructions, the excitement has transformed into an energy similar to that of the music. Fans lean over the balcony behind the stage and swing their arms around. Maboku takes to the table — one of Principe's most talented and exciting prospects — and delivers a more stripped back percussive set, rumbling and thundering through the imposing masonry of MusicBox.
Through all the various tempos and gear changes, that philosophy felt present. When we left the venue we found ourselves talking about the reactions of the fans more than the music that cultivated the response. The origins of Principe have fostered something gritty, natural and transformative. Despite becoming the sweethearts of the world's electronic music press, this impact still feels local. One of the four founding members of Principe, José Moura, spoke to us about said impact, "Our most visible statements is the monthly club night at Musicbox, where boundaries really were shattered. The young and not so young ex-middle class clubbers, and people from the outer 'hoods are now partying together as it should be".
When explaining this cultural footprint via email, José linked me to an article by Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman where he spoke about the delusion of austerity. There is a genuine sociopolitical significance to what Principe have achieved. However humble they are, they have amplified the voices of those from an isolated area and immersed those voices with the inner-city populace. All this by just presenting a sound in its truest form. "With the label itself and its impact we were able to provide some attention to those neighbourhoods but it's tough to go beyond the hype and actually see some work done towards improving quality of living. Some cosmetic jobs were made (giant street art murals, for example) but more pressing issues remain to be solved. In any case, we are proud to have been able to provide some means, insignificant as they may seem, for the artists to live a better life."
Principe's unflinching commitment to their home locale hasn't exactly put the kibosh on international support. Warp have devoted an entire capsule series to showcasing the pounding sounds of Lisbon. Just last week a new series of London nights called Clock Strikes 13 (an offshoot from Hydra) announced a Principe takeover for the Dance Tunnel. The 4 founders have kept the operation small. This grateful attitude is even reflected when I stagger up to Marfox outside the smoking area of Corsica Studios. He'd just played before Pinch and Riko Dan and I explained to him – as clearly as I could – that I was working on a piece about Principe, and how I had loved my time I spent in Lisbon. He patted his friend on the shoulder and said "See! This guy knows about Lisbon!". After a couple of giddy hugs, he took my name down on his phone for Facebook.
While in Lisbon, I visited Flur — one of the best record stores in Europe, managed by José and fellow Principe founder Márcio Matos. While I managed to get a copy of the Actress x Nozinja remixes and a Ron Hardy remix of Patti Labelle's "Get Ready", the Principe section was empty besides a copy of Niagara's Ímpar which was promptly taken out of the wall display and put straight on the turntables by a super-stoked visitor. The store's owner glanced at the traveler's elation and got back to cataloguing.
To try and define Principe is — in some ways — to miss the point. When I ask José about his policy on demos (a release on Principe is now a potentially life-changing prospect), his response is simple. "We are committed to a family of producers whose trust we have been fortunate to receive and whose music totally excites us. And we work locally, with people we can look in the face".
The backstory and overarching energy of Lisbon's ghetto sound has led to many comparisons to grime. There are similarities. Grime mixed urban strife with the clashing energy of dancehall and bashment just like the ghettos of Lisbon blended their spiritedness with the sounds of Angola and Cape Verde. But just like grime, this movement needs breathing space. An article from the weekend paper supplement from the early 2000s explaining grime music to Sunday morning readers probably wouldn't account for 1 Sec by Novelist. All we have is the shift and the aftershock. As long as Principe stay closely in tune to that ethos of authenticity then we might never be able to put the "Principe sound" down on paper. That is what is worth celebrating and that is what other imprints could learn from. It's an exercise in focus as much as it is an exercise in curation. Even after years of releasing and a pioneering legacy, this quiet revolution might have only just begun.