ZZK Records

ZZK Records
This is DIY — Huck meets El G, founder of revered Argentine DIY label ZZK records.

4am, Niceto Club, Buenos Aires. Peruvian duo Dengue Dengue Dengue are currently on the decks and they’ve just dropped a remix of the Circle of Life (yes, the Lion King) which sounds like Chicago footwork dragged through the Amazon and spat out into the metropolis of Buenos Aires. This is one of the many sounds of ZZK Records. Taking the traditional Latin American sound of cumbia, artists on ZZK have been twisting it through the influences of hip-hop, dub and all strands of EDM to produce a sound that has echoed around the world since the label was born out of a weekly party that began in 2006.

The following day, lounging in the label’s Buenos Aires HQ, head honcho Grant Dull (El G) explains, “I was making it up as I went along, which is pretty much what I’m still doing now.”

It doesn’t show. ZZK is now a cultural powerhouse with some of the most innovative producers on the continent on its books, a legendary night in the BA scene and even a film on the way. ZZK’s rise and rise is a true 21st century tale: from its early days, the close connection between their club night and What’s Up Buenos Aires, the website that El G set up in 2004, was essential to their ability to take their sound to new ears on distant shores. Sets from experimental cumbia producers such as King Coya, El Remolón and Villa Diamante were recorded from the San Telmo club where the nights took off and uploaded onto the blog just hours after the club’s doors had shut.

“Those were the early days of file sharing when MySpace was a big deal,” EL G recalls. “The internet was always fundamental for us in getting the sound out. While we built a strong community here, the whole idea was international, I wanted to show the rest of the world what’s going on in BA.”

Soon, the rest of the world began to listen up, with tastemakers XLR8R, The Wire and Diplo’s Mad Decent quickly getting in on the ZZK action. A US tour followed with stops at Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York and SXSW. The release of the first compilation, ZZK Sound Vol.1, consolidated ZZK’s growth, reinforcing the diverse nature of the new digital cumbia sound.

“On the early compilations a lot of the artists weren’t actually cumbia kids, they were coming from different backgrounds like minimal, IDM, dub, dubstep, sounds that they’d heard through the internet,” he says. “They were then taking these foundations and applying them to the cumbia sound and experimenting with something new. On top of that, a lot of them were actually making these tunes using illegally downloaded software and sample packs, so the internet is actually tied into the whole process. We call our sound digital cumbia and its clear where that comes from.”

2008 saw the first full album release from Fauna – “the hardest, most tripped-out, psychedelic, ridiculous beats” – and since then ZZK has produced a stream of quality compilations and LPs. Their latest release, El Remolón’s Selva, is currently gaining critical appraisal on both sides of the Atlantic.

Relentless touring has ensured that the ZZK name is growing fast in Europe. Shoreditch’s Cargo was the scene of a raucous digital cumbia fiesta last year, while Paris has been especially receptive to one of the label’s shining stars, La Yegros. “La Yegros is a new one for us,” El G explains. “The first woman on the label and also our first singer, but we knew as soon as we heard her that she had something special.”

A recent European tour with sold out dates in France and a rapturous homecoming gig in BA last month confirm El G’s hunch. La Yegros’ infectious melodies and singer Mariana’s entrancing stage presence are a joy to behold. The rest of the crew are smashing it on stage as well. El Remolón and his band took over BA’s botanical gardens for a one-of-a-kind album launch in March, while King Coya is crossing cultural boundaries, DJing at the cavernous, government run Usina Del Arte on the same bill as orchestra-accompanied silent films.

“I’m really proud of the King Coya gig because it’s a sign of acceptance from Argentine public beyond the underground,” he muses. “Cumbia is often seen as ghetto music for the poor, it’s seen as something without artistic or cultural merit and I think now that’s changing a bit.”

Not that El G is disassociating ZZK from its sonic predecessors. “Pablo Lescano of Damas Gratis [legends of Cumbia Villera, the music most strongly associated with the slums of Buenos Aires] recently called us freaks!” EL G recollects, with a smile breaking across his face. “To be acknowledged by Pablo Lescano at all is one thing, but for him to call us freaks was awesome!” The aptly named Frikstailers certainly adhere to Lescano’s description; check out the neon wigs and light up glasses they flaunted for their Boiler Room set and you’ll see why.

With a Chancha Via Circuito tune featured on Breaking Bad, a documentary about new talent from across Latin America in the pipeline and a string of new releases lined up, ZZK are certainly not looking to slow down any time soon. Yet despite the relentless hype, El G’s clan of freaks remain a tight group.

“It hasn’t got so big that everyone’s an asshole,” he chuckles. “Most of us have been with ZZK since the beginning, we’ve all toured together, shared backstage together and so we’ve managed to keep it from becoming this egotistical, money grabbing thing. There’s a lot of camaraderie among us and I feel very lucky to have found great people and very talented people.”

As for the future of the ZZK sound, he’s confident, to say the least. “Cumbia is hundreds of years old, it’s not going to fade out. It’s only going to get stronger. There are cumbia parties all over the world now, there are six in Paris! But cumbia has always been hot, it’s just in the twenty-first century we’ve been able to light another fire… a digital fire.”

Check out ZZK Records.

Latest on Huck

Sign up to our newsletter

Issue 80: The Ziwe issue

Buy it now