Bala Club on Industrial Reggaeton’s Place in the London Club Scene

I’m not at Bala Club. The London collective is throwing a party tomorrow, but I only have a few days in Europe and a scheduling conflict, which sucks. But as co-founder Uli K tells me as we pass a large bottle of apple juice and a joint back and forth, we’re sitting in the real birthplace of the record label and party crew. No, not the Shoreditch neighborhood hotel where the crew had their stage dive-heavy first official event on New Year’s Day 2016. We’re in the cozy Brixton apartment where Uli and younger brother Kamixlo grew up, after their family moved to England for good from their hometown of Valparaiso, Chile.

“We both had a lot of issues,” Uli says, looking for the right words to describe his and Kami’s difficult adolescence. He’s multitasking, trying to direct an Uber to NON’s Argentine DJ Moro, who just arrived from the airport for his gig at tomorrow’s Bala Club party. I’m stoned and in love with the scrunchie holding back his fire truck red curls. “I don’t know, we never functioned well in the conditions of school and around kids our age,” he continues. “So, we didn’t go to school. We were our own company.”

At the end of the lived-in couch I’m sitting on is a mic stand. Their bedrooms were where Uli and Kami started making music to defeat their loneliness and lethargy. With few current cultural references to guide them, they somehow wound up creating emotionally heavy industrial reggaeton and bilingual sad boy electro-R&B that captured the attention of London’s club kids.

Kamixlo (left) and Uli K (right). Photo by Caitlin Donohue for Remezcla
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“In Chile we were really social,” Uli tells me. “But in London, Kami and me literally grew up isolated here in our house.” When Uli was eight, and Kami nine, their family stopped splitting their time between Valparaiso and London to move to Brixton full-time. The two developed their affinities in tandem. They were addicted to watching Japanese wrestling, for example. The name Bala Club is a Spanish version of Bullet Club, a devious squad of Japanese wrestlers who were portrayed as the evil foreigners. It’s a potent image in a country whose Brexit vote to leave the European Union happened just a few days before our interview and is already being blamed for triggering racially motivated hate crimes.

Kamixlo and Uli K’s industrial reggaeton and bilingual sad boy electro-R&B captured the attention of London’s club kids.

Growing up, Uli and Kami felt like outsiders, not unlike the experience of the Angulo brothers in the 2015 documentary The Wolfpack. Parts of the film explore the fruitful side of reclusion: the ability to focus completely on utterly unique projects and the opportunity it gives one to create outside the mainstream. Uli and Kami’s situation is quite different from that of the Angulos, whose father hid the key to their apartment from everyone including his wife. But like the documentary’s family, whose hobby was filming elaborate re-dos of their favorite movies, Uli and Kami created a wildly unique creative world from being alone.

“I started producing out of boredom,” Kami writes me in an email later. “There was a disk of the production software Reason 4 in my house – I don’t know why – and I asked Uli to install it for me. I didn’t really have any interest in producing before that. But I kinda got into it.” The two come from a musical family; their grandfather, a talented guitarist, taught them both how to play. From a young age, they started to make sounds, heavily influenced by a visit from a Chilean cousin who taught them primarily about U.S. nu-metal bands. In addition to blowing their minds with repeated viewings of The Matrix, this cousin slipped in Dr. Dre’s 2001 among the Slipknot, Korn, and Limp Bizkit, exposing Kami and Uli to radio bangers from a variety of genres. “We were obsessed with this crazy American culture of the late 90s,” Uli remembers. “It was insane to us. It’s all we wanted to associate with as kids.”

Flash forward and the pair have integrated that darkness and hip-hop sensibility into the reggaeton that you can hear on any summer street corner in Brixton. They spent years throwing one-off parties known as Calm and Myth, named after words that Kami and Uli sprinkled throughout their coded conversations with one another. Many of their eventual collaborators were members of the UK’s other Latino communities, like Ecuadorean MC Blaze Kidd and Manchester-based Colombian producer Florentino. They played at London’s genre-indifferent Endless, which often takes place at BYOB venues, and where the DJ setup sometimes situates performers’ backs to the clubgoers.

But then Uli and Kami banded with their friend Endgame – the warped dancehall, Angolan kizomba, and grime producer – to launch Bala Club (A “pilot episode” took place a few months before to celebrate the release of Kami’s debut EP). The eerie, electronic quality of their sets, coupled with Uli K’s emotional R&B and pop vocals set them apart from the city’s other offerings. Uli jokes that Kami’s motivation to DJ is to create equal parts fear and desire to dance in the audience. His own? “So that people can be sincere with their feelings. A lot of music, especially in London, is about characters and storytelling that isn’t really about your own experience. Facades and things.”

A 2011 report found that London’s Latino population had quadrupled over the previous decade, up to 13,500 people including second- and third-generation immigrants. A census from the same year declared that over 7,000 Chileans were living in the UK’s capital. The city’s Latin American community is located mainly in South London’s Lambeth, Stockwell, and Brixton neighborhoods and in northern areas like Southwark, Finsbury Park, Seven Sisters, and Holloway. It’s enough people to support a decent-sized music scene helmed by Latinos. Back in the late aughts, for example, mega club promoter DJ Jose Luis was pulling thousands to his La Bomba nights. Of course, dancehall has always been popular in London, thanks to its thriving Caribbean community and DJs who are known for throwing the genre into a variety of mixes, sometimes to the chagrin of POC DJs.

The Bala Club boys don’t see the relevance of any of this, of course. “I don’t care what the outside world wants to hear at all,” Kami writes. In real sibling fashion, he and Uli have developed complementary personalities; Uli is softspoken to Kami’s unapologetic candor. “We’re definitely not club kids,” continues Kami. “When we first [started] throwing parties it was only for our friends. Obviously now that things are bigger, we’ve moved to the club.”

“We’re definitely not club kids.”

Uli echoes the fact that Bala Club has little relation to London’s relatively conservative Latino communities. “It isn’t really as well accepted for us to be doing music, modeling, or any of these kinds of things,” he says. He says a few collaborators have dropped out of the game due to familial pressure. “It was like, ‘You should be working. You should be doing this’ – a lot more structured.”

One thing neither brother tolerates, however, is the uptick in London’s white grime DJs changing their aliases and switching to reggaeton, a phenomenon that has unfolded over the past six months. Uli says diplomatically: “There’s some [reggaeton collectives] that are weird because there’s no Latino people involved or anything…it’s a bit weird. That stuff is not that cool. Obviously I’m not trying to put anyone down or stop people from doing what they’re doing, but a lot of people don’t really consider – for them, it’s about that ‘I just think it sounds cool’ mentality. We’re not trying to be involved with that club scene, but it sucks for Latinos who are trying to do something in that scene and these guys that were doing techno and grime are doing this now. It’s a bit annoying.”

They may consider themselves separate from the club landscape, but Bala Club continues to receive big invites to play Stockholm, the Czech Republic, and South Korea. In June, the collective released Bala Comp I, a 10-track exploration of its universe of collaborators, not all of whom have made appearances at the Bala Club parties. It’s an impressive roster, from Washington, D.C.’s Rules and Lunarios to Swedish MC Yung Lean, Chicago’s Adamn Killa and Killavesi, plus Uli’s “favorite producer and DJ” Mechatok from Berlin, among a host of other yung innovators on the global electronic and hip-hop scenes.

The evening of our interview, Uli does eventually manage to get Moro and his luggage back to the apartment. Later, the Argentine producer lets me know how the gig went. “It was a really good experience, more than anything because they’re part of the young people who are out of the ordinary when it comes to the European scene.” Moro says he played all Latin music during his Bala Club set. “I think that the crowd tried to adapt to it, and they were able to enjoy it.”

“I don’t think there are any crowds like those from Latin America.”

But Moro’s excited for Bala Club to get a chance to play in their native country, as they are hoping to do by the end of the year as part of Bala Club’s first South American tour. “I don’t think there are any crowds like those from Latin America,” Moro told me. “Latinos are much more suelto y libre.” For their part, Bala Club is ready to return to their homeland. “It’d be a dream come true, doing a Bala Club party in Chile,” says Kami. Uli tells me he’s looking forward to speaking Spanish with their dad. Although he feels more confident singing in Spanish over English, he doesn’t get much chance to speak his first language these days, or to perform to crowds who can understand his lyrics.

I leave the apartment stoned, with the FOMO of missing their set slowly killing me.

I miss the party as planned, but on my last night in England, I’m walking down the high street in the Dalston neighborhood with a friend when Kami’s blue hair appears suddenly. Turns out he’s opening for grime artist Novelist a few steps away at Dance Tunnel. He’s nervous about whether the crowd is going to get into his set. Do we want to come with? An hour later, he’s dropping Plan B’s “Frikitona” and the crowd has surged to the dance floor. It’s the most high-energy point of the night thus far.

Uli K says Bala Club is pleasantly surprised by the resonance of their message, which was borne out of isolation. The accessibility, he thinks, speaks to the collective’s larger goals of fighting exclusion. “It’s to the point where the faces that we see at the party, we don’t recognize,” he says. “It’s sweet in a way, but we just didn’t see it going like that at all. It’s nice because if people can feel that same security and safety [and] have fun – the idea is to welcome anyone, that anyone can feel like they have a place there.”