Leo Justi lives in Rio de Janeiro’s South Zone, in Laranjeiras, the elegant, traditionally upper-middle-class neighborhood where the 32-year-old producer and DJ has spent most of his life, and where he makes the music he christened heavy baile.
“My sound has always been aggressive and heavy,” Justi says during a phone call from Rio. He first used the tag “heavy baile” on mashups he uploaded to Soundcloud; he thought the name seemed right for his at once raw and meticulously constructed iteration of the funk carioca he first heard on the streets when he was in grade school.
“It was everywhere,” he said. “I just absorbed it.” Justi is also a guitarist, who listened to Smashing Pumpkins and Metallica as a kid and played in rock bands from age 10 to 17. “I kind of denied baile funk,” he recalls. “Then I started realizing the spirit of the music, which was having fun.” The son of a symphony oboist and a piano teacher, he’s also been influenced by jazz and bossa nova.
By 2012, after his music caught M.I.A.’s ear — he went to India to record with her — Justi was setting out to make heavy baile “a movement to unite people around my music.”
Justi started working with MC Tchelinho, a community-minded freestylist from one of Rio’s favelas, and other musical collaborators, and a group of urban dancers – “the faces of heavy baile.” Monthly heavy baile parties with Justi as DJ have led to gigs for the collective around Brazil.
“I live here, the culture is around me, and that’s what drives me,” says Justi, who describes the local underground music scene as ‘hyper-productive.’
“I think it’s like an inheritance of a time when globalization wasn’t so aggressive and easy,” Justi says of the funk that began as a liberating cry from the favelas. “If Brazil was a country that began in the seventies, it would be a copy of the United States, but the samba and the African influences here were very strong for hundreds of years. Samba and African influences was what kept baile funk something Brazilian. Although it began copying beats from the U.S., in the end the African roots spoke louder.”
He adds that although the sound of baile funk has long since transcended Rio’s favelas, its spirit of rebellion remains – and has been newly charged under extreme right President Jair Bolsonaro whose recent election has increased the threat of repression and persecution of artists. (“In a way I’m on the frontlines of a war,” Justi says.)
“On other side of the hill from where I live is the favela,” Justi says. “Everywhere in Rio, if you get away and walk a little you will find yourself in the favela. That is why we are always in touch with favela culture.”
While Justi’s music is charged by a local scene that he has worked to power, its repercussions have been international. Through his label, Waxploitation, he’s become a favorite of international music supervisors, with placements including ads for Nike, Apple and Playstation, and the soundtracks of Homeland and other popular shows.
“We’ve licensed about 20 different songs from him,” reports Waxploitation’s Jeff Antebi, noting that Justi has grossed some $300,000 from sync licensing this year.
“The songs that made the most syncs were songs that I made strictly thinking about the dance floor and what I would like to hear on the dance floor,” Justi says. “And they ended up being what [music supervisors] wanted. That’s the lesson learned.”
Antebi, who calls Justi “a creative force,” says the interest from music supervisors and directors has come from “his innate instinct to make music that pulls you out of your distraction.
“There is so much competition for people’s attention now,” Antebi explains. “They have the TV on or the internet streaming, but they are doing all these other things. The great supervisors can hear when a particular song is going to have people stop what they are doing and lift there head up and focus on that sound.”
Waxploitation, which will release a Future Sounds of Rio compilation in 2019 featuring 40 Brazilian MCs, is also planning to take Justi on the road. Antebi is setting up DJ dates and studio collaborations for him in early 2019 in Miami, New York and Los Angeles, as well as London and Paris.
Justi, who speaks English, Italian and German, is more reticent about working outside of Brazil. “The things that work in Brazil are different from the things that work in America and Europe,” he says.
Antebi has no such doubts. “Leo will end up being an extraordinary international talent.”