Alok
Dance

How Alok Became South America's Biggest EDM Star

Brazilian DJs have had a tough time breaking into the top tier of the music business. One artist broke the mold -- and others are now following.

NEW YORK -- Brazilian Day, an annual Labor Day weekend smorgasbord of barbecue smoke, local beer and hundreds of thousands of people jamming a dozen streets in Midtown Manhattan, also features a star-studded musical lineup. This year some of the biggest acts in sertanejo (Brazil’s version of pop-country music) hit the stage. But with a performance peppered with confetti cannons and lots of hands in the air, it was Alok Petrillo, the DJ known as Alok -- Brazil’s biggest-ever electronic music act -- that closed out the festival.

After the global success of “Hear Me Now,” his 2016 song with Bruno Martini and Zeeba -- the first track from Brazil to break 100 million streams on Spotify -- Alok hit international paydirt. Tiësto called wanting to collaborate in a sub-genre Alok smartly gave a name to, Brazilian Bass. Offers rolled in to play in Ibiza, China and the World Stage at Rock in Rio, previously reserved for global stars like David Guetta. Even Mick Jagger tapped him -- at a party where a monkey pulled a llama by a leash -- to remix one of his tracks.

But it was an unlikely partnership with Marcos Araújo, the owner of Villa Mix, the Brazilian promoter that organized Brazilian Day’s lineup, that catapulted Alok to a $100,000-per-show level, rivaled among his countrymen only by Latin sensation Anitta and sertanejo duo Jorge & Mateus. On a continent where local DJs have mostly remained in the underground, Alok, 28, became the first EDM artist from South America to break into the global pop mainstream, proving to other skeptical promoters that an EDM pop star there could be as big as any act in any other genre.

“You really have to be an electronic artist breaking through to pop to make it in Brazil,” says Alok. “What Calvin Harris and David Guetta did, that’s what I am trying to do.”

Still, for Alok the pull from the underground was always strong. As he made the transition to pop, he faced harsh judgement from Brazil’s traditional electronic music community, some of which branded him a sell-out. Over coffee in a chandelier-laden lounge at the Baccarat Hotel the day after Brazilian Day -- and a few hours after spinning at a pool party in Atlantic City -- a weary Alok explained that he sympathized with the critics.

“Beforehand, I was judging electronic DJs that became pop, or that became cheesy, like he’s selling his soul,” Alok said, scratching his goatee. “When I started to become pop, I thought the world would judge me, because that’s the way I saw the world.”

Born in Goiânia, in Brazil’s agricultural heartland, Alok is the son of psytrance DJs who co-founded Universo Paralello, a week-long rave that is set to take place again Dec. 27 to Jan. 3 on a remote beach in Bahia. As a child, he lived for a time in Amsterdam with his twin brother Bhaskar (who is also a DJ-producer) and his mother, Ekanta Jake, a.k.a. Ekanta. Without legal papers, the family moved nine times in three years, often squatting in friends’ houses when they left town. They finally settled in a large abandoned building, sharing space with a community of DJs and other artists. It was there that Ekanta says she was introduced to psytrance and learned to spin.

Back in Brazil, Alok’s father, Juarez Petrillo, aka Swarup, threw a New Year’s party in 2000 for 300 people in the beach town of Trancoso. It was the first Universo Paralello in Bahia state, and a tradition was born. Alok and Bhaskar spent vacations at the festival. By age 10 they had learned how to spin on CD-Js and soon moved on to producing music. “They always had a more modern sound than us,” Ekanta says. “But they got tired of that underground world, of that hippie world.”

Courtesy of the Petrillo family.
Alok (right) and his brother Bhaskar spinning with their father, DJ Swarup.

Alok dropped out of college to focus on DJing in 2012, when the global EDM craze was in full swing and by 2015 -- aided by his parents’ contacts in the industry -- he was debuting at Rock in Rio and EDC Brasil.

Since crossing over three years ago, Alok has released a slew of pop songs, always with co-producers, though he's yet to drop a studio album. His most recent track, “On & On,” with Lithuanian producer Dynoro, hit 1 million streams in its first weekend in November. Netflix is filming a documentary about his life, and he has a project in the works with singer Luis Fonsi (“Despacito”), his team tells Billboard.

A strong social media push has also helped. With 15.1 million Instagram followers, Alok trails only Marshmello (28M) and Martin Garrix (17M) in the dance-music realm, and he is gaining more than 500,000 a month, says Wilame Morais, his marketing director. On Instagram, Alok cultivates an image as a brand ambassador with male model looks: He sometimes poses shirtless, showing off a large tattoo of a tiger, and offers a peek into his life with his (now-pregnant) doctor wife, Romana Novais.

Alok doesn’t do drugs and rarely drinks -- in part, he says, because of his parents’ own issues with substances. Rather, he’s a fitness buff who at times seems maniacal. “He’ll start a [producing] session at 4 p.m. and go until 3 a.m., and then be like, ‘Dude, let’s go work out!’” says Kevin Brauer, the Brazil-based producer known as Sevenn, one of Alok’s regular collaborators.

For the past five years, Alok has also trekked regularly to Mozambique for a project building schools and hospitals. It helps him to cope with sporadic depression. “I felt such an emptiness inside me, it was a huge black hole,” he says. “I can never do what I do if I don’t do this.”

He felt "born again" in May of 2018 when his private plane crashed into a ravine upon takeoff -- but no one was hurt. “I realized I didn’t want to change anything in my life,” Alok says, “but just to make it more intense.”

From the Underground to Villa Mix

Until Alok, Brazil’s best-known dance music artist was Gui Boratto, who tasted global fame with 2009’s “No Turning Back.” But Boratto never embraced the pop-EDM path, he tells Billboard. When Alok made a public appeal to Boratto in 2015 wanting to co-produce a track, he turned down the young DJ. “He’s a pretty talented kid,” Boratto says. But “the sound he was going for was really far from my universe.”

Around that time, Araújo, the promoter, began to take note of Alok, when he was hunting for a DJ to diversify his Villa Mix lineup of country music-dominant festivals. Before he became the king of sertanejo, launching the career of Jorge & Mateus and pushing his festivals into 27 Brazilian cities, Araújo, 45, had been a DJ and dance promoter.

When he realized that Alok’s parents had once spun at one of his parties, he approached the young DJ. At first, Alok thought the idea seemed ludicrous. A DJ at a conservative country music show?

Their initial collaboration, in Goiânia in 2016, didn’t go well. “It was horrible,” Alok says. “He was trembling, scared to death to be facing 50,000 fans that were there just for sertanejo,” says Araújo. But Alok gutted it out and did another show the next month, and soon became a regular part of the Villa Mix lineup. Within a year, he became a headliner.

“He was the first DJ [from Brazil] to spin for 50,000 to 60,000 people almost every month,” Araújo says. “And that started to draw attention from abroad.”

Can You “Hear Me Now”?

The Villa Mix exposure helped push Alok’s asking fee in Brazil to between $100,000 and $150,000, Araújo says. But to drive those fees -- more than 10 times what he had been making -- Alok also needed hits. In 2016 he found one, with “Hear Me Now.”

As Alok tells it, early that year, after the trio finished the song but before its release, he still felt insecure about it. “I went to Tomorrowland Brasil and didn’t play the song at all,” he says. “I was afraid of people judging me, because it was too pop.”

Then the song went viral overseas, becoming the first Brazilian track to land on Spotify’s global charts. It’s the third-most-streamed track in Brazil on Spotify, after Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and Jorge & Mateus’ “Propaganda (Ao Vivo).” Roberta Pate, Spotify’s head of artist and label marketing for Latin America, attributes Alok’s success to timing. He made the crossover to pop “exactly when Spotify and the streaming services were growing in the world,” she says.

Suddenly, a number of big artists, including Tiësto, Armin van Buuren and Steve Aoki, wanted to work with Alok. It also helped that at Tomorrowland Brasil he dubbed his stage “Brazilian Bass,” branding a new super-heavy bass sound that had been bubbling up in Brazil for more than a year.

“At the time, there was not really a clear trend in dance music,” says Jorn Heringa, head of A&R for Spinnin’ Records, which released “Hear Me Now” and then signed two more Brazilian artists, including Vintage Culture. “This was new and fresh.”

Alexei Barrionuevo
Alok with fans after his set.

Heading into 2020, Araújo is encouraging Alok to do more shows abroad, especially in Asia and Las Vegas. In 2018 he played 244 out of 263 shows in Brazil.

Alok’s biggest paydays outside the country have been in China, where he has pushed his asking price up to $150,000 for festivals, Araújo says. In 2017, the DJ toured China for 45 days.

It was China that became a topic of discussion between Alok and Mick Jagger at a house party in São Paulo in late 2017. When Alok arrived, he saw a monkey leading a llama by a leash, with an exotic bird walking beside them. Soon Alok was showing Jagger videos on his phone from his tour in China. Jagger suggested they work on a track together, which led to a remix of the rock legend's solo single “Gotta Get a Grip.”

Even with his anti-drug stance, it still felt like a trip. “I thought I had just taken acid,” Alok says. “I came here and saw a goat, a llama and a monkey and now Mick Jagger is asking to do a song. What is going on?”

*           *           *

Back in New York, there was no rest for the weary. Two days after Brazilian Day, Alok flew to festivals in Japan, Italy and Portugal.

Last week, he made a final swing through Southeast Asia, and then circled back to Brazil for a dozen more shows to close out 2019. Then it’s off to Universo Paralello, which has blossomed into a Burning Man-like gathering of 20,000 people. He met his wife there, and he has his own stage -- it was shaped like a giant Indian head in 2018 -- but he knows better than to play his pop tracks at the festival.

“If I did, they would surely complain,” he says. “It’s really underground there.”

Even his mother, as proud as she is of Alok and his brother’s success, wouldn’t risk it. “I don’t play my sons’ songs,” Ekanta says. “Only psytrance, going on 20 years.”

No matter. Alok has come to terms with being Alok, the pop star and child of the underground. “When I stopped judging, I became free to be whatever I want to,” he says. “When people ask, ‘What’s your style, Alok?’ I say, ‘I’m a free spirit.’”