ALOK connects the Amazon forest and his music with “Controversia”
ALOK is a bonafide dance music superstar, holding the title of the second biggest Instagram following of any electronic artist globally, with over 26 million fans and 20 million monthly listeners making him the most listened to Brazilian artist in the world. In 2021, he was named the 4th Best DJ in the world, according to the prestigious DJ Mag Top 100 DJ Poll.
In 2019, ALOK also launched his own label “Controversia”, a project to give voice to the unheard. Taking time out from his busy schedule we spoke to the man himself ahead of his sold out London debut at Ministry of Sound a couple of weeks ago.
Number 4 DJ in the world. How did you get to this point?
My dad was a guitarist of rock bands. And my mom, she just loved art. And then my mom moved to Amsterdam. I also moved with my twin brother Tasmin. My mom started to work at this side trans nightclub in Amsterdam called "Transputer". This club used to play side trance songs. That was the first connection that she had with the kind of electronic music, this kind of sound design. My dad and my mom were divorced but he used to come visit us and he also enjoyed music a lot. He had a very good friend who had a label, and from him, he was getting vinyls to bring back to Brazil. He was a pioneer. Let's say my mom and dad kind of delivered the electronic side trance movement in Brazil and South America, because they had the content right? We didn't have DSPs in the past, so I was kind of raised into this scene, I was with my mom in the clubs. And when they were playing in festivals, they had no one to leave me with. So I was always following them. They started to create festivals, and I was always there looking at them. My parents never really wanted me to become a DJ because I think they just wanted me to study at the university, you know, to have a little bit more consistency in not living really in the informal way. Because living through art is very hard. And I realise now, that your kids won't do anything you tell them to do but they will do everything you do. You tell them not to play the phone and you're using the phone? They will do it. They told me not to become a DJ but they were playing.
That's when I thought I was going to do it as well. Because it's repetitive, And I always saw the DJs. My dad also started to produce a festival called Universo Paralello, which is like 8 days of non stop partying in Brazil, one of the biggest in South America. 30,000 people every two years. Okay. And that was kind of the place where I always look at DJs, like, I want to be there. When I was nine years old, I started to play and when I was 11 years old some friends of my parents started to teach me. And then at 12 years old, I was already performing. However, for me, the game changed when I started to produce my own stuff when I was 12. I'm kind of native of those kinds of templates. I remember I was using Logic 5. It was a very old version but that was my video game. My brother and I started to produce songs for everyone. So it was kind of so natural that it was inside my ecosystem.
There was a moment in my life when I went to university and I just didn't want to play anymore. I moved to London and went back to Brazil because many things didn't work as expected. And then my dad told me "Hey, if I had your talent, I would be flying. You're just crazy.You have a talent". I really started to dedicate my time and two years later I had to quit university because I couldn't handle it. It was so much going on the music side. So, even though I tried to go in a different direction it was inside. There was still some kind of destiny probably that was leading me to, like, to sit down here with you today .Becoming the fourth in the world: there's so much work I've done, you don't wake up to be one of the best DJs in the world, I've been producing and working for the last 18 years. Sometimes people just say, "Congratulations for your early success!" Early? It's been 18 years.
Do you feel like like the pressure of being the 4th most influential and biggest DJ in the world?
Of course it brings the responsibility. But at the same moment, I come from a country where it's so hard to imagine that we're going to get the international respect or that we're going to perform well, internationally, we always had the concept in the mind that everything that's good is from outside, we have to import everything, we don't export. And when we have some national kind of people going well, we put them as heroes, like Neymar, Pelé, all those guys are amazing. And we kind of feel so proud because I feel that as a country we suffer for so many reasons and being respected internationally brings back a bit more than perspective. One of the problems that we Brazilians have is the mindset that we are inferior. So, when we see Brazilians breaking through, it make us very proud. Yeah, it has a lot of responsibility and pressure to be one of the best DJs in the world but at the same moment has so much support which I am so proud and grateful. I feel so much energy that makes it very worth it.
You've collaborated with so many artists. Is there one you'll always feel proud of?
There are definitely many! I was walking around the streets of New York, I saw a guy
singing in tube station and I thought "Wow, I love his voice. Let's do some together". We did three songs that went very well. But I think the most iconic was the true collaboration I did with Mick Jagger, from the Rolling Stones, because the way it happened. I met him at a secret party that he was doing in Sao Paolo. And then we started to talk. I played for him a few songs at his party, and then he invited me to do a song that I was like "What's going on?" My dad is a huge Rolling Stones fan, he's even got a tattoo in his hand of Rolling Stones. And the name of the band of my dad was "The First Stone". So he wanted me to remix one of his songs. I had to do six versions until he got the final approval. Then at the beginning of the pandemic, he called me said: "I'm releasing a song called Ghost Town, because of the moment that we're leaving. So do you want to do the remix" and obviously I accepted. I had to do 10 versions until he approved it. He was never happy with it, he would always call me, out of the blue. Sometimes he would call me four times, he wanted to dive in the production. He wanted to get involved. He wants to change all the time. And then I remember the I sent him the 10th version and I said: "This is the last one".
Now I understand why he did that, so I could get no satisfaction, you should never be satisfied, you should always push yourself to the limit. I told my dad about the second project, he obviously couldn't believe it, he said, "you're fucked. You can't get a track like that and do a remix. What are you going to do? How are you going to do it? You need to do a good job, this is a different generation. This is a legend, he is art so be careful." And he was happy with the final project and so was I and that's amazing.
In the new track "Under The Full Moon” you try to experiment with Korean sounds. Why Korea?
Each market has its own kind of singularity. There are some markets that do not really relate with the global market, mainstream market. For example, if you go to Brazil, 93% of the songs that are streaming are local songs and only 7% are international, English or Spanish which means that the market share for the revenue is so low. The Top 50 Global on Spotify did not really affect top 50 Brazil which is different of The Top 50 USA which directly reaches the UK or Germany a lot. These markets communicate a lot. But there are others that don't, for example, Korea and China but also Brazil. You need to work specifically for those territories and if we want to get there in a genuine way you break a very big record on a global level which becomes a huge success that you need to go there. However, I remember that one of my biggest songs "Here Me Now" people in China didn't even know about it, but they knew another of my songs that wasn't so big, but the channel was huge.
So, I was invited to do this collaboration also to go to South Korean television as a judge on a programme. And the winner of this programme would do a remix with international artists, which at this point it was me. And what I felt was the connection between what they want to put the traditional songs in connection with the occidental international world. It was very interesting to see their music mix with my modal sound. I went there with no expectations but I got to collaborate with Sonnet and Junsu Kim, it was fantastic.
Side Effect with AU/RA. What is the song about?
I am not just a DJ, I think I'm sort of a pop artist too. I don't limit myself only to the electronic segment. In the past, I used to be very not open minded at all. I used to play side trance, as I told you, and I used to look different at kinds of sounds and for example, DJs going on the table on the booth with a microphone and think "How cheesy is this?", that's the way you judge the world, but also you expect the world to judge you. One day, I was on stage in the booth speaking to the microphone and I expected everyone to think that I was cheesy.
I stopped the judgement, I kind of released myself from my own vision, all this judgement was putting me inside a box inside. So as soon as I stopped thinking about this I could be free. Whatever it feels like in my creativity, my creativity cannot be limited. It's like, sometimes I just like to do trap, sometimes I like to do electronics, I just want to do stuff because I want to get out of that box. I don't control it. It's what comes. But it's just like inside me, I have to put it out, I have to release it.
But of course, I have to maintain my connection with the 20 crowds in a very consistent way. And that's why I opened "Controversia". When you become a very pop artist, for example, you're a marshmello, you're a Calvin Harris, you're The Chainsmokers, you break records, they're not club, you're electronic, but how do you maintain the connection with the electronic crowd? so I opened my label for that reason. And the label connects traits, the communication with this kind of sound design, which connects well.
"Side Effect" is exactly this bridge between me and that exact connection. But I know that it's focused for this area and not for the pop world. You know what I mean? It's not a song that I would probably go and national television and play it. Because it's a bit edgy. It's a bit more complex than the pop songs. So you know, it's kind of a different strategy.
Back to you coming from Brazil. What do you want the world to know about Brazil? That nobody knows?
I don't know what nobody knows. I don't know. But I can say what I want people to realize about Brazil.
I'm going to be the most objective possible. Last year, I was thinking about the future, and how the future would be. And we always have the mindset of our collective imagination that the future is very apocalyptic. It's cities, neon cities with flying cars, and that's the apocalypse at the end of the day. There's no nature anymore. Why cannot the future be indigenous in small boats in the middle of the Amazon forest, with very sophisticated phones. People there would see the birds, they would track the
birds, and help scientists build that link between nature and of course, the scientists to bring solutions for the military to enforce nature and then we're in 2060. Why can't it be like that? We'll have to try the thing that maybe the solution is there the answer is probably there. And the point is the way we're doing it's the opposite.
Why can't we change the mindset to preserve the forest, and nature and to listen to what they have to say right, and the best way to listen, what nature has to say, in my opinion, is to listen to indigenous, because their songs are really the translation of nature. They live there, they're there. I started to work with indigenous people and I did some songs, because I wanted to spread their word, because you don't have to understand indigenous language to feel it. And that's what I'm trying to do. To make people think in a different way about how the future can be, you know, and if there's something in Brazil, that's very valuable for the world. And we have to see it as a great opportunity for a potential resource. For everyone, Brazilian people included, the forest is not worth it. So we have to destroy it. How can someone in Europe complain about us if they destroyed everything?
The point is, if I want something for Brazil to be recognised, and also for the Brazilians, and for the world, to change that Amazon could be, we could be the greatest potential great power. It's the biggest forest in the world, the lungs of the world. We need to take care of the Amazon forest.
Other than playing more shows, what is next for Alok and your label Controversia?
With the label, it's really much about connecting with the electronic world. However, I know that we can break up barriers with electronic sounds and become pop for example with "Hear Me Now", "Fuego", they're electronic songs but everyone knows them. Like with "Piece Of Your Heart" from Medusa, it's an electronic track but everyone knows it. So it can happen. However,when it happens, it's very good for me. Because I'll give an example" If I release a reggaeton with J Balwin and it blows up, how am I going to perform it?
What am I going to do next? Another reggaeton to keep following that same kind of path? If I blow up with electronic song, that's part of my
choice. So here's the "Controversia" for sure. It is my biggest priority to achieve in my career. I'm very much excited with this album that I'm doing, which I'm calling "The Future Is Ancestral" with the indigenous people.
I also did a performance at Global Citizen with three songs off the album. It was funny because it was BTS, myself and Elton John. And I never had such a big opportunity to be in such an event. If it was only four DJs, I would've had another spot. And it was very cool because I saw the Brazilians surprised, they didn't know it. So they were like looking at BTS. Wow, I remember it was like, huge audience. It was a live streaming broadcast, so they were showing South Korea on the map and then suddenly the map went into Brazil, the Amazon forest. People felt very proud.
I feel that this album has such great potential. And I'm not really worried about the streams, I want to give a voice to whoever doesn't have it. They scream, but they
never listen. But maybe through the music they can be. And it's more about respecting people. I honestly think that people in Brazil don't respect indigenous and this kind of culture, as I said, because it's something that people even think doesn't even exist. It's like it belongs in the past. They think that if they see indigenous people wearing normal clothes, they're not indigenous anymore and it's not like that.
Now, that I remember - very off topic here - I also want people to know about Brazil that açai is the best thing on the planet. The best thing. It's delicious.
As we await Alok’s return to the UK for more shows, Alok is currently playing at his Hï Ibiza's residency. He is the first Brazilian to ever hold residency within the main room at one of Ibiza’s renowned super-clubs.
Follow ALOK’s journey on @alok.
Images Credit: Gil Inoue