Words by Max Mertens
It was August 2014, and DJ Marfox, real name Marlon Silva, was thousands of miles from home. The Portuguese producer was performing in Queens, New York at MoMA PS1’s summer concert series Warm Up. Silva had already built a name for himself back in Europe, but he wasn’t sure how his frenetic batida—high-tempo Afro-Portuguese electronic music originating out of the immigrant-heavy suburbs of Lisbon—would be received by North American audiences. He was surprised to learn his reputation preceded him.
“People were coming up to me saying things like, ‘Man, I know your music, I have your MP3s,'” he tells me over a choppy Skype connection from his home in Quinto do Mocho, Lisbon. Silva, now 27, is speaking in Portuguese—our conversation is translated by his manager, André Ferreira—but the DJ’s larger-than-life personality shines through the language barrier. You can hear it in the enthusiasm in his voice when he describes the moment he knows he’s nailed a track: “I have a notion when a song’s going to be immediate,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “It’s a beautiful feeling.”
In the early 2000s, a teenaged Silva caught tarraxinha artist DJ Nervoso spinning at a party, and decided to try his hand at making tracks. “I experienced for the first time a true synchronization between the music and the people on the dancefloor, in such a total wholesomeness and communion,” he recalls of Nervoso’s deft take on the percussion-heavy Angolese genre. “If I hadn’t witnessed that, perhaps I wouldn’t be here today.”
Silva grew up in a family of 12 siblings in Quinta da Vitoria, one of the poorest bairros, or neighborhoods, on the outskirts of Lisbon. His mother was a pastry cook, and his father was an apontador, or construction worker; both had immigrated from Principe, an island off the east coast of Africa. While the family lived humbly, the producer says his parents encouraged him creatively from a young age. As a child, he would watch his father and older cousin setting up for block parties, where the latter would DJ before a crowd of neighbors and friends, mixing Luso-African semba and kizomba with whatever Western music was popular at the time. Often competitive dance crews would show up, so the higher the BPMs, the better.
Silva adopted the moniker DJ Marfox—a reference to his favorite Nintendo 64 sci-fi shoot-em-up game Star Fox 64—learned FruityLoops, and joined forces with fellow high-schoolers DJ Fofuxo and DJ Pausas, who were doing mixes for local dance group Máquinas do Kuduro at the time. United under the banner DJs Do Ghetto, the trio started throwing parties at ad hoc venues throughout the city, then released a self-titled compilation in 2006 with a handful of other artists from around town. Most came from working class backgrounds, used cheaply accessible software, and mined their own divergent strains of Afro-Portuguese batida, which literally translates to “beat” but is understood to mean something more like “my crew’s of beats.” “On the same street, you may have two or three different producers and each one has their own identity,” Silva explains. “They take pleasure from being different from one another.”
“On the same street, you may have two or three different producers and each one has their own identity. They take pleasure from being different from one another.”—DJ Marfox
Uploaded to YouTube and now-forgotten file-sharing sites like eMule, Marfox’s knotty, bedroom-produced beats soon earned him enough of a cult following to play non-stop shows and festival dates across the country and Europe. Silva’s 2011 debut EP Eu Sei Quem Sou, which he recorded for fledgling Lisbon-based DIY label Principe Discos, was a self-assured hybrid of Anglo-Portuguese styles and house and techno; appropriately, its title translates to “I Know Who I Am.” A string of other releases followed, including the explosive 2014 EP Lucky Punch on J-Cush’s New York-based imprint Lit City Trax, and remixes for indie favourites like Animal Collective’s Panda Bear and tUnE-yArDs (with Brazilian rap trio Pearls Negras).
Silva’s latest offering, April’s Chapa Quente, sees him not only returning to Principe, but to the music that soundtracked his youth. From the cascading flute melody coursing through “2685” to the clangorous drums of “Unsound,” the EP draws on everything from polyrhythmic African kizomba and kuduro; to Indian folk music; to his father’s collection of Western jazz and Brazilian pop records. Its myriad influences harken back to the cultural melting pot where he grew up, with the addition of metallic jags and sci-fi dissonance that feel uniquely Marfox—attention-jogging touches the producer calls “left hooks.”
“For me, the most important quality of this music is that it allows me to go and drink from other sound sources and integrate what I want,” he says. “You can influence yourself and draw upon other strains of music and use what you see fit. I think that’s the most fantastic and admirable quality.”
Over the past few years, Silva has emerged as the unofficial ambassador for a scene which has been percolating on the Portuguese underground for the better part of a decade, but only recently appears to breaking through worldwide. Last year, Warp Records released the Cargaa series (“cargaa” is a slang term for “hot” or “heavy”), a trio of compilations featuring a diverse slew of rising Portuguese producers, including Marfox protégé DJ Nigga Fox, whose adoption of the “fox” suffix is an overt nod to Silva’s influence; fellow Lisbon resident DJ Firmeza, who was recently featured on a London edition of Boiler Room; and Portugal-born, Bordeaux-based 19-year-old Nidia Minaj, whose moniker is a nod to her favorite American hip-hop star.
While he’s thrilled that Batida has found an audience outside bairro borders, Silva insists little has changed in Quinto do Mocho, the mainly lower and working class neighborhood of approximately 5,000 residents he calls home today. “People here seem to live in their own universe in terms of daily living,” he says. This isolation extends to Lisbon’s artists, which perhaps explains why Marfox and co.’s music has retained a grittiness and abstraction that keeps it from being duplicated by outsiders.
“I think there’s a political side to this, because we’re talking about a minority of artists who have little resources but happen to be talked about internationally because of the fantastic music they make,” says Silva. “This is music that could only happen here.”