It’s rather unclear how I first met Chile’s Imaabs, but it was two years ago and definitely thanks to the internet, which is the way it usually goes with the talented people I’ve had the fortune of meeting every now and then because of this job thingy.
Mixing elements of hip hop and reggaeton with British-influenced electronic music under the Imaabs moniker since 2007, Cristo Gavras is also the founder of netlabel Modismo and A&R for Diamante Records. In his own words, what he does is simple: “dance music, music meant for the club with different refinements.”
I never really got the opportunity to talk to Cristo until this past summer in DF, where he recently played live and officially joined the “peripheral rhythms” of electronic collective NAAFI for the launch of his upcoming release — but his connection to Mexico dates back to 2012 when he released his I Know You Don’t Love Me EP through netlabel NWLA. Imaabs’ “musical ideals were in tune with NWLA’s,” as he recalls, and so was meeting NAAFI’s Zutzut and Lao, both of whom were commissioned remixers for the EP’s eponymous single, along with Branko collaborator Ezekiel.
Cut to Remezcla’s summer showcase for Festival Antes, where we finally had the chance to meet face to face. He seemed like the quiet type at first, but I quickly disabused myself of that notion after talking to him a few times at Bahía Bar, where the epic, DIY ten-day festival insiders call “El Antes” took place. 2014 was a big year for the obscure festival, and it also served as Imaabs’ introduction to Mexico City audiences during the NAAFI showcase.
In the darkened bar, which could very well be at home in Bushwick, I asked Imaabs what he thought about DF’s nightlife. He replied immediately: “It’s very intense. Actually, overall, Mexico is very intense. From the moment you get through aduana you never really stop. The only moment that I was able to relax was the moment I was preparing my set, which was barely two hours before going on. But it has to do with how Mexicans are, you know?”
I’m still not sure what he meant by that, but I figured he was visiting Mexico during a hectic time. When I finally had the chance to interview him properly at NAAFI’s HQs, located in the heart of Colonia Juárez, downtown México, he explained to me that he felt that Mexico’s reception of his work was really, really upbeat. “I’m really impressed,” he insisted. “Even the NAAFI guys are. They actually told me that I played like a local. I think they were just worried that I would feel intimidated or that I would maybe throw deep dark undanceable tracks. But I didn’t. Same goes for the Nasty Beats people from San Luis Potosí and Zutzut in Monterrey.”
This made me wonder how different Chile’s nightlife actually is in comparison to Mexico’s. So, of course, I went ahead and interrupted his fresh, foreigner amusement and asked him how things were back home. “To me it’s work,” he said. “Aside from DJing, I rent gear in Santiago from Wednesday to Sunday, so this has obviously helped me get to know all of Santiago’s underground circuit, since most of them have had to rent my stuff. As a musician or DJ, I’m kind of omnipresent within the scene, but what goes on in Santiago isn’t really consistent. One way or another, everybody knows that what I do has certain global perspectives.” I ask him what he’s concretely referring to as I quietly stare at the huge map of Mexico City hanging on a wall, and he explains: “For example, right now, I’m about to release some stuff via Fool and Rushmore’s label Trax Couture in England, which is exactly what happens with NAAFI in Mexico. So, what I do is mostly going on outside of Chile, and that makes me like the weird bug.”
“The last two years I’ve had to adapt myself to playing techno and house music because it’s become dominant.” I make my truest ‘I Feel You, Bro’ face as he remembers, “Actually, the other day I was talking with Tomás Urquieta —who is an excellent producer from Santiago and is now my production partner— about how this institutionalization of techno and house exists in Chile.” Why does this happen, I ask. “It has to do with a cultural question, I mean, we ARE Latin in terms of feelings; Chile has always emphasized that separation, you know… With the Peruvians, Bolivians, and even with the Argentines —who are very European—, there’s a relationship between us, yeah, but a very hostile one. So the logic of our British and German influence is very present. It’s not like we want to be German, there’s just a lot of Germans in Chile.”
I ask him if this whole techno deal can be attributed to Chile’s German influence and without pondering the question he flatly says: “Yes and no, It’s not a direct influence, but there is a certain admiration.” Time to make sure my iPhone is recording. Ahem. “You have to understand that the Chilean army —which encompasses the history of Chile in many different moments— is absolutely Prussian, and it’s something that influences us culturally. In what sense? There’s the dictatorship on one side, but then there’s the respect that we have for them on the other side, so there’s a complexity. Also, there’s the British music, which is highly visible in Chile. And of course, there’s reggaeton and cumbia, but that has to do with the fact that it’s the most popular and danceable music. There’s even rancheras, it’s very curious that this happens in the south and central areas of Chile, where farmers just love Mexican music, you know? But when it comes to the creation of music, our eyes are always set on England and Germany. Chile is very institutional, and I’m not talking about formal institutions like police, hospitals or schools. Rather, Chile has a cultural history of creating rigid and authoritarian institutions, which is why I believe it exists in Chile’s electronic music also.”
Here in Mexico [people take] any type of drug and everybody will be like ‘¡Afuera, afuera, afuera!,’ while Chile is more like ‘¡Adentro, adentro, adentro!’
“There are those who are more into the hype,” he proceeds, “like Cómeme or MKRNI; they sort of flirt with the Latin influence but, one way or another, they’re still very German. Chile is kind of like a mix, a really organized mixture. Unlike Mexico, where everything is mixed and disordered. There really is top notch pop music. Very flawless. The electronic music is also great, very tidy. Which has more to do with a matter of sound rather than a structural thing. It’s more introspective than expressive. It is very rigid music and that rigid logic generates different aspects, as well as the consumption of certain drugs.”
Finally the drugs have come up. I don’t hesitate to ask him about Santiago’s preferred substances. “There’s a lot of Molly lately. And of course I know that it’s a really sensitive subject, but it really has more to do with being stuck there, feeling the continuous boom-boom-boom-boom. So, obviously anyone can go crazy with techno’s classic 4×4 on Molly, even more so if you add a 303 to that. People are definitely going to scream! I really think it’s like that. I like it, but that’s not what I do.” We both agree and he goes on. “Here in Mexico it can be any type of drug and everybody will be like ‘¡Afuera, afuera, afuera!’ while Chile is more like ‘¡Adentro, adentro, adentro!’ So, yeah, that’s pretty much how it goes.” We both laugh, not because it’s funny, but because it’s true.
As we continue discussing Chile and Mexico’s youngest music scenes extensively, I pause to bring NAAFI back to the table because by this point I still don’t know how the collaboration happened. He explains, “Well, I’m not saying this because I want to seem nice or anything, but it all comes down to my link with NWLA. And because of Lao and Zutzut, all the relationships come from here.” I smile proudly, being a part of NWLA as well as close friends with them. “What happened was that the circle closed when I finally met the NAAFI crew. There was Paul Marmota, who I knew from Chile, but we never really met in person until DF,” he laughs because these days we’re all meeting online. “I had yet to meet Fausto Bahía and Mexican Jihad [the masterminds behind NAAFI]. But in the end, Paul Marmota was always the one paying attention to what I had been doing all of this time, and he eventually said to me: ‘Hey, we want you in NAAFI. Are you interested in doing anything with us?’ And that conversation went on for three or four more months with Tomás [Fausto Bahía] and Alberto [Mexican Jihad] too. So, of course, I went ahead with their proposal and began studying the NAAFI sound; I like being respectful in that sense, when it comes to record labels.”
I tell him it sounds like he didn’t see all this coming and he agrees. “No! I didn’t have anything prepared. I started researching. Just like I did for my Trax Couture EP. I had this whole research thing going on. I got new software and began working in line with a certain sound. The same happened with NAAFI, I feel like I have more freedom with them, because I can make something more hip hop, more dark, or even danceable. I have the ability to take it wherever I want to to. I think that NAAFI plays with these elements very well. They are very dark, but their darkness is very danceable.”
This is it, let’s call it a day, I think in silence. So, I ask Cristo the rhetorical question: What’s next for Imaabs, bro? “Return to Santiago and try to regenerate the kind of movement that NAAFI is involved with. It’s something that actually used to happen there around 2011, and then was forgotten. I mean like Young Nast who used to play more tribal music, and even things from labels like Fade To Mind or bass tracks, now he just plays trap. And people like me, on the other hand, have had to adapt themselves to playing house and techno.”
This is when I sense Cristo has some more beef with the Chilean electronic music scene he needs to get off his chest, so we stay on the subject, because, well, Imaabs just isn’t done yet. “It’s a delicate situation. Something like NAAFI in Chile is unthinkable. Un-think-able. When people or media claim that NAAFI are the punks of the electronic music scene [in Mexico], I find it very funny, because in Chile, having something like NAAFI is impossible; it would be derided as “slummer“ music. We have that problem here, all these prejudices, mostly due to the fact that making music used to be really expensive, especially in the 80s and 90s. Even more so when it comes to electronic music, considered to be only for those with money, leaving out other layers of society. Either way, I believe I am part of a generation that distances ourselves from this, but the prejudice continues.”
“The scene back in 2011, and more importantly our label and crew from Diamante, had heterogeneity in their sound; club music, ghetto-tech, house and techno, but that faded away. The hegemony of techno and house was later installed, and all the budding potential was shattered. Still, there are great DJs who are playing in a more classic way, in terms of electronic music, such as Matías Rivera, Inti Kunza, Diegors, and Andrea Paz, who was invited to Boiler Room and is more into the Cómeme sound, just like Diegors. There’s also people like Vaskular from Discos Pegaos, and his mate, Vale Montalvo who is also a great DJ. To me, they’re the ones who continue taking risks but also experimenting with a sound that is closer and more attached to electronic dance music. There are scenes that I’d rather not mention because I consider them quite empty, and that has to do directly with the post-dictatorship, social climbing and consumerism, which are all the leftovers of the dictatorship. Electronic music is incapable of contributing socially or even culturally to Chile.
“Matías Rivera, Inti Kunza and I decided to create a sub-label off Diamante called Cordón Industrial in memory of the blue collar members of the Popular Unity, which used to be a base organization for workers; as well as their usage of machines, their relationship to great industry, and with mankind. Our idea is to overturn this prejudice, considering that dictatorship in Chile went from trova and Latin American canto popular to political hip hop. Machines have never passed through a political and popular moment here, not until now, I believe. For example, punk in Europe went directly from guitars to machines, with that sociopolitical weight always present. This doesn’t imply that there wasn’t Chilean electronic music back then, we can’t ignore Los Prisioneros’ Corazones, for example, or Carlos Cabezas’ work with Electrodomésticos.
“All of the underground movements we care to talk about right now emerge after the year 2000, and even more from 2004-2005, which is where I come from; with people that come directly from hip hop, a more unconventional hip hop, that is. Some of the people who witnessed the turnover from those times were Geoslide, Dementira, Tonossepia, DJ Pharuk, and more than one that I can’t recall just now; even so, electronic music in Chile is strongly determined by all of the above, especially by those scenes that were once led by Luciano and Ricardo Villalobos, and that are evidently attached to minimal, tech house and a certain type of deep house that chases this idea of electronic music solely for consumption, as a mere parvenu product.”
We could have kept talking about this whole generic techno and house meets class and consumption deal forever, so eventually I had to call it a day. But one thing is for sure, now we know that Imaabs does not identify with or take pride in Chile’s orthodox old school, one that is more inclined to embrace the traditionalist anglo-influenced music scene instead of Latin America’s musical and sociocultural uniqueness.
Just at the moment I was going to switch the recorder off, Imaabs face turned serious and he added: “I really think that scene is bullshit because it imposes all of these prejudiced systems in which electronic music is seen as something empty and without any sociopolitical implications; without the ambition to change reality as it we know it.”
They say the personal is political. For Imaabs, so is the party.