8 years ago, I embraced the bootleg mp3 disc when I committed myself to learning about the gritty street music I heard blasting from every colmado and cantina in the suburbs of Santo Domingo. I didn’t know it then, but by doing this I was largely setting the trajectory of my nascent career as a deejay.
My objective was simple: buy as many digital “haystacks” as I could and distill from them the “needles” that accosted me; the street themes I heard rinsed over and over in the public sphere. In particular, I was eager to find the origin of what I would later learn to be the Hot This Year riddim, the ever-present 11-note refrain of heavy bass that seemed as fundamental to the Dominican daily experience as the concrete and asphalt of the barrios and urbanizaciones from which it sprang.
Tracks like Me Tienen Dema (Golo Golo) and Oye Que Bobo are among the probably thousands of dembow tracks that sample the Hot This Year riddim. And when it comes to finding them, unless you’re able to simply Google the lyrics, the bootleg market is often your only option.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, our relationship with music has been tied to recorded media. Unless you were lucky enough to live where it was being performed and reproduced live, any foreign sound that reached your ears arrived via some kind of spinning plastic. From records, to cassettes, to CDs, the fate of anyone committed to hearing things from outside their local environment was mediated by a complex blend of market forces and availability.
Until the last couple of decades, depending on where you lived, you could be aware something existed, but have little hope of ever getting to hear it. My first confrontation with this frustrating reality came in the form of the amen break when I was in high school. Before I knew what to call it, all I knew was that it was the refined substance of cool for me and it could be found in fleeting moments of tracks on the compilation CDs I bought at the Borders in Lake Oswego. CDs with titles like Elektronika II and Ninja Cuts: Funkungfusion.
It wouldn’t be until years later that I discovered that what I had been searching for was actually something called ragga jungle, a style of electronic dance music that blended West Indies ragamuffin vocals with the jungle music of the UK and New York. I can’t help wondering how things may have been different had I grown up in the age of the mp3 CD.
During my junior year of high school, I was fortunate to have access to an unrestricted computer with high speed internet on a university campus. Youtube, soundcloud, and the like did not yet exist, but the media was losing its mind over something called Napster which they said was on track to destroy the recording industry. The problem with Napster was that, for the most part, all it did was proliferate the distribution of the same boring music that I could just as easily hear by turning on a radio. You had to know what you were looking for was called, and I only knew what it sounded like.
This didn’t stop me from trying. After years of combing the 5-dollar bins and in-store demos and recycling the releases I could part with for store credit at Ozone Records and Everyday Music, I was suddenly able to hear the treasures hidden within many of the 25- and 30-dollar import CDs that had always enticed me but could never justify substituting for 3 or 4 used discs. More importantly, there were tunes I never knew existed. Tunes I wouldn’t have access to buy even if I wanted to. Rips of limited-edition vinyl already sold out worldwide. Recordings of British pirate radio.
Encoding at 128 kilobits per second, the standard in the era of dial-up, you can fit about 150 mp3s on a 700 MB CD at about 4 minutes per track. Compared to a traditional audio CD, that’s a 1000% increase in capacity at no additional cost. And if you’re dealing in these discs, you can charge more since the customer is arguably getting more value (setting aside obvious concerns about the differential in sound quality). In countries where informal markets for music are actually viable, it must have been a game changer.
I remember one time I found myself in a market in Santa Cruz Del Quiché, Guatemala at a vendor’s stall containing a couple of mp3-enabled boomboxes, a dusty beige HP Pavilion, and scores of binders containing CD after Sharpie-inscribed CD. You could browse and preview the merchant’s inventory, build your order, and for a nominal fee, he would burn you a CD right then and there.
This was 4 and half long hours from the capital, and even further from nearest town of any size across the border in Mexico. Very much on the last copper mile. The fastest lines available were 8 Megabit ADSL, which could only be found at the local branches of corporations, Banrural, Western Union, etc. Nobody was going home after work and downloading an mp3 in a few seconds.
Buying one of these CDs you are almost certain to get at least some files with bad id3 tags or no tags at all. Anybody who has dug into one of these beauties knows the experience of browsing the thing and finding some proportion of the files named after one or two words from the chorus, often misspelled, and containing tags for artist, title, comment, and so on set to something like somosdelbarrio.com or alofokemusic.net. Sometimes there are skips or pops in the playback, or files encoded at 64kpbs, a level of quality that is comparable to AM radio.
The curation of bootleg mp3 CDs is idiosyncratic to say the least. The evident haste with which they are compiled tends to lead to duplicates and versions with “drops” from the website that released them. You might get a series of folders that contain fifteen-track albums with tracks 3 and 7 mysteriously missing. Alphanumeric sorting may have irreversibly obscured the provenance of the files relative to one-another, with every track 1 appearing next each other, followed by every track 2, and so on. Never mind the fact that a file starting with “23” comes before one that starts with “2” for the same reason that “Amy” would come before “Charlie”. Someone just opened bunch of folders and dumped in their contents without a thought for preserving their structure.
It is both in spite of this, and yet because of it that the mp3 CD is in some way the ultimate enticement for a crate digger such as myself. An individual has limited time and effort he or she can invest when it comes to culling something of value from the vastness of the internet or a collection of CDs which themselves were produced by ripping and re-ordering collections of CDs, going back farther than anyone knows. The promise of the bootleg mp3 CD is that, in buying it, you are no longer left to this undertaking alone. Instead, you are outsourcing the process to someone else (or an army of someone-elses) for a small cost in hopes that they’ve produced something of value to you. Curation by proxy.
And so, we are left to study the apocryphal tracklistings founding on the paper sleeve that holds the thing, hand over our pesos, or quetzales, or rupees, or rand, and go home to study the outcome of our transaction. For someone as addicted as I am to the thrill of exploring the unknown, it is simply intoxicating. Whenever I hear from someone that they’re going travelling in a developing country, I can’t resist the urge to give them $50 and ask them to buy as many mp3s as they can off the street.
And that is exactly how the story of Batida Sem Parar Vol 1 began. My friend Stephen (theincrediblekid.com) is a fellow crate digger. He’s been doing it for longer, and in better places than I have. Mumbai, New York, San Francisco. He also spends a lot of time researching online. As a result he’s gone down some of the same rabbit holes that I have and developed some the same white whales. So when his friend told him she was going to Angola to make a documentary, he did what I would have in the same situation. He gave her some money and asked her to buy as much kuduro as she could with it.
Kuduro (literally “hard ass” in Angolan slang) is a tenacious urban genre of music featuring, aggressive breakbeat rhythms, aimless melodic improvisation, and rhymes barked at high intensity almost nonstop for the duration of a 4- to 6-minute track, often incorporating call and response and repetitive refrains. In virtually every example I can find the vocals sound lightly dubbed and processed with effects to sound like they were recorded in some kind of tunnel. It’s not uncommon for various elements of a track to feature the tell-tale “blown speaker” sound that indicates that there was more signal than the mixer or microphone could handle. In many cases, it’s unclear whether the recording ever existed as any file of higher quality than a 128kpbs mp3.
The production is similar in its ecumenical character to reggaeton and dancehall. It’s not uncommon to find musical motifs making clear reference to Eurodance groups like Vengaboys or samples of farts and belches. Tracks can cover subjects such as the Afrobasket basketball tournament or the ravages of the Marburg virus. Another example tells about a notorious Angolan prison.
Like Dominican dembow, kuduro is a genre that came of age in the digital era and as such it appears to have spread more via informal distribution than by the above-ground channels of marketing, promotion, and sales that were once necessary for the spread of physical media and have been slow to transform to their digital counterparts. Despite their often-prolific output, many kuduro artists somehow come short of offering a legitimate means of purchasing their music online.
A Google search for one of the genre’s foremost voices, Noite Dia, returns the inevitable YouTube results along with an Instagram account before the start of a parade of pirate mp3 sites that goes on for page after page. There’s no “click here to buy” in the description for the YouTube video of her latest single and no other apparent effort to get you down the funnel from discovery to purchase. Searching for her on Amazon music, we are left to comb through 53 pages of mostly irrelevant search results, even when clicking her artist name in all of its variants (Noite&Dia, Noite Dia, Noite e Dia) on the pages of her mp3 singles. There is no back catalog or discography available anywhere to browse.
If this is the situation in 2019, I can’t imagine it was any better between 2001 and 2008, when it appears that most of the tracks on Batida Sem Parar Vol 1 were produced. As I would eventually discover, many of the tracks in Stephen’s kuduro collection had been impossible to find online for about a decade. This of course is not true for every track. After 40-plus hours of reconciling the broken track listings with the files found on the discs, eliminating duplicates and bad files, correcting spelling, and painstakingly fixing tags by hand, I found that some of the tracks turned out to be “monetized” when uploaded to YouTube.
Since then I’ve watched as the YouTube collection amassed tens of thousands of views, hundreds of followers, and dozens of comments reminiscing about the memories the tracks evoke, proclaiming their authenticity, correcting my artist and/or title listing, and enquiring about ones I don’t have. Commenters remarked on the artists’ lives, their careers, their untimely deaths. After seeing this outpouring of response to my effort up to this point, I decided all that was left to do was to make a mix.
For a title, I wanted something that suggests authenticity and speaks to insiders. In the early days or reggaeton, before legislators led by Velda González were declaring that genre a public nuisance, and music stores were being raided to take its “obscene” cassettes off the racks, the artists rallied under the banner of “underground” as a name for what they had created. In similarly vague fashion, the nascent Angolan genre that would one day be called “kuduro” (after the style of dance it inspired) was originally known a batida, a word that means, simply, “beat”. In a nod to the bootleggers of the world whose compilations’ titles often pitch their products as ready-made dance parties, I called the thing Nonstop Batida, or in Portuguese, Batida Sem Parar.