Konrad Dantas emerges from a row of squat houses with a tall black gate and no sign out front. The buildings are tucked down a side street in Tatuapé, a tough, working-class suburb on the outskirts of São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil. It’s as unlikely a spot as any to find the headquarters of KondZilla, the most popular YouTube channel in Brazil -- and one of the top 10 in the world.
It was here that Dantas, the son of a construction worker and a city employee, set up his studio in 2012 and launched a YouTube channel featuring music videos he shot and produced, starring brash young singers from São Paulo’s marginalized slums, known as favelas. Although millions of Brazilians live in favelas -- including an estimated 11% of the 12 million people who call São Paulo home, according to the Center for Metropolitan Studies -- back then, Brazil’s music industry largely stuck its nose up at the songs coming out of them, favoring the danceable funk carioca of Rio de Janeiro. With his soft-spoken charm and natural talent behind the camera, however, Dantas won over São Paulo artists -- and set about trying to make them superstars.
“For a long time, everything that came from the periphery, from the favelas, was looked down on,” observes Dantas, 30. “We’re changing that.”
In just seven years, KondZilla has grown to a 200-person operation and has amassed more than 50 million subscribers. The KondZilla brand also includes Kondzilla.com, a home for videos as well as a wealth of written fashion and lifestyle content, and KondZilla Records, which boasts a roster of 59 artists. Dantas also has served as something of a talent scout for new acts, many of whom have gone on to sign with traditional labels. After launching the career of Brazilian singer Kevinho, for example, KondZilla now jointly manages his career with Warner. “I didn’t go to university and study to become an entrepreneur -- I had to turn myself into one,” says Dantas. “But no one wants to know about your sad story. It’s a jungle, and you have to be prepared for that.”
Before KondZilla, “nobody talked about São Paulo funk,” says Sandra Jimenez, head of music for YouTube in Latin America. (In Brazil, the music known as funk varies from city to city, but it has little in common with American funk -- it’s basically the country’s answer to hip-hop, with booming bass rhythms and lots of booty-shaking.) “KondZilla gave a voice to a movement that existed but wasn’t allowed access to radio or TV. [Dantas] used the only platform available and turned it into what it is today.”
Dantas has a favorite slogan -- a favela venceu (“the favela has won”) -- and it’s emblematic not only of his own success but of the impact that YouTube, which launched in Brazil in 2006, has had on the country’s music industry. Other streaming apps like Deezer, Napster and Spotify only began rolling out services there in 2013. “Brazil is unique,” says Zach Fuller, a senior analyst at MIDiA Research. “In Brazil, 79% [of people] watch music videos on YouTube. That’s more than [those who] listen to the radio or stream music.”
Dantas’ insistence on being the starmaker, rather than the star, has largely kept him off the global radar -- even though KondZilla productions made up half of YouTube’s top 10 music videos in Brazil last year. But now that funk music and the favela perspective have practically become mainstream in Brazil, Dantas is trying to turn KondZilla into a multimedia empire. He’s the creator-director of Sintonia, a drama about three friends from São Paulo’s favelas navigating a world of drug gangs and music, which will debut on Netflix later this year. He launched another channel, Portal KondZilla, that, once it attracts 1 million subscribers, will roll out mini-documentaries about real people from the city’s gritty suburbs -- “a kind of Brazilian VICE,” says Dantas, who also spends two days a week taking classes for an MBA.
Ascending to moguldom hasn’t come without challenges though. As São Paulo funk gains traction internationally, Dantas also faces more competition at home as he works to transform what was once a niche musical phenomenon into a mass-appeal brand. KondZilla’s growth has slowed in recent months, since the channel pulled in 2 million subscribers and 1.1 billion views a month in early 2018 -- a feat that was largely unsustainable, according to Joshua Cohen, founder-CEO of Tubefilter, a publication covering the online video industry.
But Dantas doesn’t plan on going anywhere. He’s currently overseeing the construction of KondZilla’s new headquarters, which will feature upgraded studios, live performance spaces and glass-walled offices but, crucially, is only a few blocks away from the old home base.
“Just because I have money doesn’t mean I have to leave the ’hood,” he says. “This is where the talent is and where we need to be.”
On this sunny morning, a steady flow of visitors hover outside the KondZilla offices as Dantas, dressed in a white velour Louis Vuitton jacket and LV sneakers, offers to drive me to the site of the company’s future home. When he steps onto the street, he’s bombarded by both employees and fans. In person, Dantas is quiet and reserved, and he prefers to keep a low profile: He drives himself to meetings and classes in a discreet Honda instead of hiring a chauffeur, and he devotes weekends to his wife and barbecuing with close friends. But he comes out of his shell as he high-fives employees, many of whom he hired from the neighborhood, and greets aspiring artists awaiting an audience. He smiles when a stranger shouts, “Kond!” -- pronounced “Kondjee” -- and asks to take a selfie. “You’re a fighter; you’re my inspiration!” the man says.
“There are still very few people or companies that want to represent the periphery. There’s a lot of prejudice,” Dantas tells me. “I want to be the vehicle giving people a voice, making them feel represented and respected.”
Growing up in a favela in the coastal city of Guarujá, about 50 miles from São Paulo, Dantas dreamed of becoming a rapper, “but I wasn’t very good,” he says. His mother died when he was 21, and he decided to use the ensuing social security payments he received to move to the big city and take classes in video postproduction.
That was in 2009, when everyone Dantas met was streaming music on YouTube. Funk ostentação (ostentation funk) -- which often features frenetic percussion paired with horn samples and beatboxing -- was all the rage in São Paulo’s poor suburbs. Yet with major labels mostly ignoring music from the slums, those artists turned to the platform to reach the masses. “It’s not that funk discovered YouTube before the rest of the world,” explains Dantas. “It’s that YouTube was the only tool funk had.”
The videos’ production values were often low, however. Songs were typically accompanied by crude slideshows of motorcycles and women in short skirts. Dantas saw an opportunity. In 2011, he bought a Canon 5D camera and an Apple laptop on credit installments, pirated editing software and started making videos. He launched KondZilla the following year.
It wasn’t just his technical know-how that attracted artists; Dantas also had an insider’s understanding of favela culture that helped him translate their visions. Ostentation funk emerged at a time when Brazil’s left-leaning Workers’ Party was in power and implementing subsidized social programs that lifted millions out of poverty. Banks were extending credit to the new working class. “There was this false illusion that everyone had access to everything,” says Dantas. “It was a time of celebration and conquest and all these material goods, and people wanted to flaunt them.”
Some of Dantas’ early videos show MC Guimê rapping about Nikes at the wheel of a black Camaro or the duo MC Samuka e Nego showing off fistfuls of cash. It wasn’t an unusual sight to see funk artists filming themselves chugging Absolut vodka on a curb or driving imported Honda Fireblades, the most coveted motorcycle among São Paulo youths. “It was kind of a shock for me, this hillbilly from a small city,” says Dantas with a laugh. “To this day, you won’t find a Fireblade in my favela. [But] in São Paulo, every favela has at least 60.”
Initially, Dantas made the clips cheaply, but he also got to keep all of the advertising revenue YouTube passed along after taking its cut. Back then, artists saw the videos as little more than publicity for their lucrative live shows. As Dantas’ operation has grown, deals have become more traditional: Although each contract is different, artists now get a share of the ad revenue. Both Dantas and YouTube declined to reveal how much KondZilla generates, but with more than 1 billion views a month, Leo Morel, director of market intelligence for the distribution platform iMusics, estimates that monthly revenue for KondZilla is between $1 million and $1.6 million. (Analysts suspect there have been multiple offers to buy Dantas out, though he declines to comment on potential deals.)
KondZilla has given artists more than just profits -- it also has earned them a seat at the table of Brazil’s mainstream. “KondZilla gave visibility to the periphery of São Paulo by speaking the same language and showing the lifestyle, the music, the aesthetics,” says Pedro Tourinho, one of Brazil’s biggest music publicists. “This was a population that was finally seeing itself reflected on the screen.”
Earlier in the day, during a tour of the KondZilla offices, dozens of employees decked out in black KondZilla T-shirts edit videos, prepare social media posts and maneuver artists through the recording studios and postproduction rooms. KondZilla puts out an average of 40 videos a month and has produced more than 1,000 to date, but the atmosphere is hardly factory-like. One of Dantas’ artists, MC Kekel, hangs out at the studios a couple of times a week, smoking a hookah and playing video games with others on the roster. “I get to share ideas and chill,” he says as he gathers his bleached braids into a hair tie. “And it’s close to home.”
These days, the conditions that allowed São Paulo funk to rise have changed. Brazil, which elected a far-right populist as president last year, is still reeling from a deep recession that wiped out most of the financial gains that the country’s poorest made in the mid-2000s. As a result, funk romântico (romantic funk) and funk dançante (danceable funk) have largely replaced ostentation funk on KondZilla. “Now the songs are about dreams and love -- people even sing a lot about their moms,” says Dantas. “It’s not the gratuitous display of material goods. If you’ve got something, you worked hard. It’s something you deserve.”
In response, KondZilla’s creative output has become more inclusive. There are more female singers on his channel, and Dantas has discouraged his artists from using profanity and denigrating women. The video for last year’s bubbly love song “O Bebê” (“The Baby”), a collaboration between MC Kekel and Kevinho, broke new ground by celebrating people with disabilities.
All of that helps KondZilla reach new audiences. Six years ago, says Dantas, the company’s audience was 30% female; today, women make up 54% of viewers. And what once was largely a local Brazilian phenomenon now draws 29% of its viewers from outside the country.
Politics aren’t the only thing forcing Dantas to adapt his business: Competitors are nipping at KondZilla’s heels. Production companies like GR6 have moved into the edgy space that Dantas once solely occupied, signing up promising funk artists and building their own YouTube channels. (GR6’s already has 24 million subscribers.)
KondZilla’s growth exploded largely because it zeroed in on an untapped market and quickly created reams of content. But the channel also leaned heavily on the local audience, with 73% of views coming from Brazil and 3% from the United States, according to Allison Stern, the co-founder of Tubular Labs, a video analytics company. By contrast, T-Series, an Indian music label and movie studio that was the most-viewed channel in May, pulls nearly 15% of its audience from the United States and 5% from the United Kingdom. And K-pop sensation Blackpink draws 15% of its YouTube audience from the United States and nearly 13% from the Philippines, with South Korea not appearing in the top five at all, says Stern.
So, with KondZilla views down by 44% over the past year, analysts say, Dantas is pushing artists like MC Kekel to diversify their sound and think globally. Three years ago, MC Kekel exploded onto the funk scene with his breakout hit, “Meiota,” whose video featured some usual tropes of the genre: motorcycles, drinking, twerking women. But on Dantas’ advice, he branched out with last year’s romantic duet “Amor de Verdade” (“True Love”) -- which not only topped the Brazilian charts but also was a No. 1 Spotify hit in Portugal -- and recorded some songs in the style of sertanejo, a wildly popular kind of country music in Brazil.
“Kond told me it was time to try different paths, to get out of my comfort zone,” says MC Kekel. “That’s why today Kekel is an artist, not just a funk singer.” Recently, Brazilian rock band Charlie Brown Jr. and hip-hop veterans Racionais MC’s also have sought out Dantas to make videos and work on other projects.
At a time when hip-hop has become music’s dominant cultural force and Brazilian stars like pop singer Anitta are finding unprecedented success outside their home country, Dantas believes there never have been more opportunities for the music of the favelas -- and for KondZilla.
“I want [my artists] to reach a new public that doesn’t know funk but consumes urban music,” says Dantas, who has been talking to international stars like Major Lazer about collaborations. “It’s urban music’s moment: reggaetón, kizomba, kuduro, hip-hop. All around the world, we are the base of the pyramid. That’s a lot of people.”
Additional reporting by Micah Singleton.