In the final season of AMC’s Breaking Bad, a desperate Walter White drives a white van into the desert in New Mexico, where he buries barrel after barrel of money in the dirt, meticulously noting the GPS coordinates.
The song playing in the background is a remix of Argentine folk singer Jose Larralde’s version of “Quimey Neuquén” (Beautiful Neuquén). It was created by Pedro Canale, also known as Chancha Via Circuito, an Argentine artist who became a symbol of the “digital cumbia” genre that has defined ZZK Records, a Buenos Aires-based label.
The show’s use of Canale’s slow-rolling, tribal drum-infused track set off a behind-the-scenes struggle with Sony over music rights. But the remix also put then-struggling ZZK on the global music map — demonstrating that, in the digital age of streaming, a major synch can transform the fortunes of an indie label.
“All of a sudden Breaking Bad happened and Chancha became a star in Argentina, known for that scene [in the desert],” Grant Dull, the label’s founder, said recently in Rio de Janeiro. “For Chancha, it was a before and an after.”
The same could be said for ZZK, the label that Dull, a 42-year-old native of San Antonio, Texas, founded a decade ago in Argentina — and that he now plans to relocate to Los Angeles later this year.
The consummate wandering ex-pat, Dull started a bilingual website in Buenos Aires in 2004 called WhatsUpBuenosAires.com, a sort of Time Out for the arts and culture scene in the city. He leveraged the site into a Wednesday night party called Zizek (named after the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek), which, in typically vampiric Argentine fashion, started at 1 a.m. Local music artists mashed together Latin music, electronic music, urban music and more. The parties drew international attention from travelers and DJs from as far away as the Netherlands and San Francisco.
Canale got his start on those Wednesday nights, working the door and then at a table selling CDs. Slowly, he and others started spinning music at the parties, some of it their own experimental tracks, and Dull soon realized he had enough music to put together a compilation.
In doing so, he decided to focus on what local party-goers seemed to be enjoying the most: an electronic-infused version of cumbia, which he branded digital cumbia. It wasn’t the first such variant in Latin America. Versions of cumbia fusing synthesizers, electric guitars and samplers — including “electro-cumbia” and “tecnocumbia,” which was developed in Mexico and popularized by Selena, the Tex-Mex queen — have been around since the 1980s.
Canale’s more sophisticated version of cumbia has found a loyal niche following in Argentina and in music festivals around the world. “It was just a change in terminology, an idea we thought was going to have an impact,” Dull said.
In October 2007, Dull met the creative director of SXSW, who invited him to bring his cumbia artists to the annual festival in Austin. So Dull organized ZZK Records’ first tour around the 2008 iteration of SXSW. Money was so tight that only six artists who could afford to travel to the U.S. made it for the shows. But it paid off and, in Chicago, they landed their first U.S. distribution deal with Cross Talk. Three months later, the ZZK crew was back on tour, this time coast-to-coast.
Among the label’s first artists were Chancha, with his “slow-rolling, dubby, psychedelic” version of digital cumbia; and Fauna, two “raga-cumbia dance hall drum and bass guys” out of Mendoza, Argentina, who ladle rap over their cumbia beats, as Dull described them. For ZZK, touring became the label’s salvation. With no big-name artists, “We were making absolutely no money from digital sales,” Dull said.
That began to change in 2011, when Chancha put out his sophomore album, Rio Arriba. It received international acclaim, and was featured on NPR’s “First Listen.” In L.A. Jeff Antebi, who runs Waxploitation Records, was listening and fired off an email to Dull. The next day, Antebi flew to Chicago where the ZZK crew was holed up and offered Dull a management-publishing deal.
Dull credits Antebi for getting ZZK more than 20 synchs over the next three years, including cell phone and car commercials, as well as the most important synch of all.
In 2013, Antebi worked out a deal to get Chancha’s “Quimey” onto Breaking Bad. As Dull and Canale acknowledged, neither ZZK nor Canale ever held the rights to the music, and several samples Canale used in the remix further complicated matters.
“In the beginning it was a handshake deal,” Dull said. The remix was “basically ripped from a vinyl and put on an electronic beat … It was not our song, but it was magic.”
With Breaking Bad in the picture, Sony, which held the rights to the original version, wanted the song back. ZZK ended up giving them the remix. “We didn’t earn anything,” Dull said. “We actually had to hire a lawyer to smooth things over, so we lost on that deal in the end, financially.” (In the U.S., at least, the revenue generated by streams and downloads of the song was negligible, however.)
Canale, for his part, said he never saw “even one dollar” from the remix, which is no longer part of Rio Arriba. But because of the synch, “a lot of people fell in love with Jose Larralde’s voice and ended up discovering the rest of my music,” he said.
Suddenly, a lot of eyeballs fell on ZZK’s emerging scene from the bottom of the world. “Chancha got more bookings and ZZK got more exposure,” Dull said. “Lessons were learned, and we moved on, never to make the same mistake again.”
Today, with around 10 artists on the label and a deal with Kartel Music Group in London, ZZK no longer leans on Chancha, who has moved on to Wonderwheel Recordings. Ecuadorian artist Nicola Cruz is ZZK’s best-selling artist.
Cruz said ZZK’s secret is Dull’s adventurous spirit. “Sometimes he just appears in Quito and says, ‘I am going to stay here for a week,’ and ends up staying for two months, just exploring the country,” Cruz said. “He is hungry for culture and music.”
Dull, his wanderlust still untamed, is planning a move to Los Angeles this year, and to organize a ZZK festival there. He wants to be closer to Hollywood to pursue his side career making documentary films about Latin American music. “It’s the next step,” Dull said. “L.A. is the epicenter.”