Music: "Heaven, via Shanghai", exploring the soundsystem culture rocking China's biggest city
It was pretty obvious to anyone arriving at the club who Biggaton was. Standing outside in the smoking area was a Rastafarian guy, dreadlocks tied into a massive red green and yellow hat, dressed entirely in white. Later that evening, he jumped down from the DJ booth, strode into the middle of the dancefloor and grabbed a small Chinese girl from the audience. "Baby, tell me where you're from," he said, in his thick Jamaican accent. "Hangzhou," she responded.
"I don't know Hangzhou, but me, I'm from Jamaica, and there, the galdem see me and they say, 'oh Biggaton! Why you all in white, are you an angel?' and I say 'no baby, I'm no angel, but I can take you to heaven!'"
Biggaton—a dancehall star from Mandeville, Jamaica—put on a great show, but in reality I'd come that night to see Skinny Brown, the DJ who'd brought him over from the Caribbean. For the last five years Skinny has been running a night called Popasuda. It's the kind of night where you'll hear songs made in a basement in India played back to back with tracks from Ethiopia, with afrobeats from Nigeria, Azonto from Ghana, and Brazillian baille funk all thrown into the mix.
Oh, and it takes place in a sweaty warehouse in Shanghai.
Dada, Popasuda's home, is tucked away between nondescript buildings at the intersection of Xing Fu Lu—which translates from Mandarin as the "road of happiness." Situated down an alley, Dada is a graffiti-covered space, with a small chain link fence hanging down from one wall upon which a revolving Popasuda logo is projected. It sways every time someone dances into it.
"What I love about Popasuda," said Skinny Brown when we sat down to talk a few days before his show with Biggaton, "is that I have the Cameroonians in one corner, the Senegalese and the Jamaicans in another, the South Africans, the Brazilians, the Germans and the British all scattered around. Then when you play a track and they know it they come running up to the decks."
Shanghai, despite being fundamentally international, is a city in which stratification can take place incredibly quickly. On any given night you might stumble into a club that feels wholly the preserve of French expats, or others playing Mando-pop where the only foreign faces are the Russian "models" paid 300 RMB to dance on the tables with high rollers. Popasuda, on the other hand, brings as mixed a crowd as you're likely to see anywhere in the world. I've seen the head of one of Shanghai's trendiest art spaces—Shanghainese through and through—his button-down shirt wrapped around his waist, his vest soaked through with sweat clinging to his paunch, swaying, while behind him a group of Indian exchange students lose their shit over a piece of Urdu ephemera.
Skinny Brown is the embodiment of this audience. Raised in Toronto, he speaks six languages—Japanese, Hindi, Portuguese, Mandarin, English and Urdu. He drifted through college and ended up DJing in Tokyo and living in Yokohama. Having left Japan after his visa expired, Skinny found himself soaking up the sound of baille funk in Rio. From Brazil it was on to Pakistan where he spent time with a cousin in Karachi. His excursion to Shanghai came about by accident. "I had one of those 72 hour visas, for transit," he told me "but I guess that was ten years ago..."
A decade on and he's trying something different. "I want to build a soundsystem here, with dubplates, and clashes. The real thing." When I asked him if he felt that Shanghai was a reggae city, he shook his head. "No, not really, but it's coming up." His current method is beginning with a dubplate intro to his set, and then throwing dancehall in later. "It's easy to cross over into dancehall, future dancehall and trappy stuff at 160bpm. A lot of it is driven by that, that BPM and the need to find something that is slightly different."