Viceland’s Noisey shows how music is a natural resource in danger

In Viceland’s music documentary show Noisey music is a natural, renewable resource. It’s accessible to the wealthiest of people, but also a vehicle of economic mobility for the impoverished. But gun powder is also made from natural resources — and music has been manipulated to incite, justify, and profit from violence, happiness, and at times a blurred mix of both.

Former Vice on HBO production assistant Zach Goldbaum hosts Noisey and travels to São Paulo, Miami, and Compton, California, to speak with those connected with the area’s music scene. Whether it’s a multi-platinum rapper returning to the hometown that birthed his career or the shop owner who gets a spike in sales when dance parties erupts in the streets, their voices are the music.

Bompton

“Bompton” isn’t on any ordinary map you’ll find of California. But after international rap superstar Kendrick Lamar’s recent success, it’s on THE map.

Bompton is a section of Compton, California, with a very high concentration of members of the street gang Bloods. Out of the three episodes, “Bompton” spends the most time exploring the society as much as the music. You find out a “California zipper” describes stitches that run down the side of someone’s body, usually from a violent assault. The show travels to Campanella Park, where residents casually state the area is dangerous because it borders territories owned by rival gang the Crips.

It centers on an interview with Lamar that takes place in a Bompton backyard with the musician’s friends, many wearing gang affiliations on their sleeve, hanging in the background. It feels as though this group of friends are overseers of Kendrick and Bompton as a whole, ensuring their territory and its crown jewel stays unsullied.

Early in the episode, Noisey films a band practicing at Lamar’s old grade school as a fight between students broke out. Jazzy trumpets continue to blare throughout the next 80 seconds, while Lamar and a former teacher of his separately describe the violence that permeated the school. This sort of filmmaking makes the inextricable nature of the culture and the music obvious.

At moments the show feels like it’s trying to artificially create suspense. At one point while strolling through an alley known for being dangerous,  Kendrick’s childhood friend, the rapper Lil L, wishes he could show Goldbaum graffiti on the walls in a gated area outside the camera shot. Goldbaum agrees to climb the gate to see the graffiti, and we come to see a barrier so short and non-threatening that the neighborhood kids likely don’t think twice about scaling it. Did the exchange add to the scene? It’s inclusion, instead of simply cutting to them walking by the graffiti, felt frustratingly fake.

But outside of these minor immersion deterrents, which are few and far between, “Bompton” is an excellent adventure through an area often spoken about in rap songs but rarely explored as complexly.

São Paulo

The São Paulo episode is the one that truly displays the visceral, sublime storytelling that propelled Vice from relatively new digital media company to its own TV channel in under a decade. It centers on the frenetic mix of hip hop, dance, and house known as “baile funk” that permeates the Brazilian city. Following popular baile funk artists MC Bin Laden, MC Brinquedo, and an assortment of others, we learn the in’s and outs of the music scene.

As an American who has enjoyed Brazil only via World Cup telecasts and supermodels, seeing dancing bodies fill the streets of Heliopolis — the most populous shanty town in São Paulo — reminded me of Friday nights in Brooklyn’s East New York, when car trunks pop open along with beer bottles and the good times flow over booming beats. Each parked car and house in Heliopolis played its own music, making for an unusual sight: a party unified by music, even if it’s not the same music.

The episode is engrossing — and the best of the series by a large margin.

Yet an ominous cloud hung over every smile that flashed on camera, as a number of prominent baile artists were recently murdered and linked to the PCC, Brazil’s largest criminal organization. During the last 7 minutes of the episode, Noisey goes from spring break to Making a Murderer. A masked man related to one of the slain baile funk MCs and connected to the law enforcement chose to hide his identity, because he feared “retaliation from the military police,” as he informed Zach.

In São Paulo there is a militia known as “Ninjas,” the masked man alleges, off-duty military police who coordinate assassinations on those who sing baile funk. Off-duty officers park police cars equipped with GPS trackers, change clothing, kill a target, return to the car, and ultimately respond to the call about the very crime they just committed. The killings come as retaliation for criminals murdering other police officers, he claims, even if the baile funk artist had nothing to do with the crimes.

The allegations are insidious, if correct, and cast a dark shadow over the happiness of the episode’s opening party. But the episode is engrossing — and the best of the series by a large margin.

Miami

“Miami is a playground. You just can’t play with all the toys,” explains Scott Storch in the “Miami” episode of Noisey.

This installment of the series centers around Miami’s duality as both a fantasy land of opulence and a nightmare. But the music is not the center of the episode. Despite a few minutes in the studio with artists like Pouya, a proud misogynist, there are no organic, spontaneous street concerts as in São Paulo or Bompton-style discussions with locals besides those featured. A half-hour into the documentary, Noisey introduces a rapper with stitches and the word “cocaine” tattooed on his face who goes by the name Stitches; here is the true goal of the “Miami” episode. This is not about the music, but the products of the music: the artists.

Gato de Bato, a Haitian-born rapper who immigrated to Miami in 1993, stutters and explained how music helped him communicate with people when he first arrived, even with a speech impediment. “They would say, ‘five minutes ago you could barely do a sentence and now you’re actually rapping and you don’t stutter,'” Gato told Zach as they strolled through Little Haiti in one of the few moments exploring the outskirts of Miami.

Then there is Pouya, a young wavy-haired rapper whose music is rooted in disrespect to women. At one point he argues with a young female porn actress named Charlotte O’Ryan in a recording studio. Pouya says she enjoys being called a whore. After a brief argument, she concedes that she’s “proud of it,” but does not revel in the title. The camera later shows people eating pizza off O’Ryan’s bare butt before Pouya’s voiceover states “you going to see the savage shit, because that’s what people want to see, whether they admit it or not.”

Quick transitions and the glam of celebrity often overshadowed insight into what music has created, and the show doesn’t help by expounding on them. Rick Ross, who grew up in the ghettos of Carol City in Miami, is the most famous rapper from the city this decade. Yet his entire interview, including reminiscing about his home in Carol City, was done in one of his Wingstop restaurants at an unspecified location. This creates a disconnect that impedes the heart racing immersion that “Bompton” and “Sao Paulo” delivered. The viewer ends up watching Miami instead of learning about it.

Scott Storch is a music producer who once amassed an immense $30 million fortune — and blew it in  six months on admittedly cocaine-fueled purchases. He’s emblematic of Miami’s constant fluctuations between the haves and have-nots; the town’s decadence is almost literally built upon decades of cocaine sales. There are barely three minutes dedicated to Storch in the 45-minute episode.

Overall, Viceland’s Noisey has done a wonderful job mining pockets of the world and excavating the pure, unfiltered music at the root of police corruption, street festivals, death, love, and everything that plays in between. It’s well worth your time.

New episodes of Noisey air every Tuesday at 10 PM EST/9PM CT on Viceland. You can watch the first three episodes and keep up with the show on Viceland.com with a cable subscription.

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