“Growing up you don’t want to listen to the same music as your parents,” laughs rapper and producer Baloji. “You don’t even want to understand it, you just think that it’s not cool to listen to the same records as your parents.” Funnily enough, it was the hip hop he grew up on as a kid in Belgium that helped him find his way to the Congolese music of his roots.
“It took me years to understand but rap was really for me the key to go to American funk, soul, jazz and psychedelic music. Then there was a moment that A Tribe Called Quest starting sampling Fela Kuti,” he recalls. “And from Fela I started to listen to some highlife because it was close to the funk, soul, James Brown vibe. I listened to a guy called Manu Dibango and I found out he worked with a lot of Congolese musicians - and that bring me back to Congolese music. And then I listened to all this late 60s/early 70s music and I thought it was amazing.”
Having started his music career as part of acclaimed Belgium hip hop crew Starflam, Baloji went solo in 2007 with his debut album ‘Hotel Impala’. A deeply personal album, it addressed his relationship with his Congolese mother and his journey toward feeling at home with both his African and European identity. Understandably, it struck a chord. “I received a lot of letters from people saying I’m also from a different background, from another diaspora, and I’m here in Europe and it’s good that you talk about that,” he says. “I was a little bit scared because I was naked but you have to do that; that’s the only moment you can be honest with yourself.”
With his second album ‘Kinshasa Succursale’ he took a radically different approach, traveling to Kinshasa in Congo to record the album with a group of local musicians in just six days. “I had this idea with a really small interview that I saw with The Black Keys before they became really famous: they said that soul music lost it the moment that people started doing overdubs. I was like, that’s it! That’s the thing. Don’t try to be perfect, just do it. So we decide to give the skeleton of the tracks to a group of musicians, work on it two hours and do maximum five or six takes. That’s the way we worked on this record - it was really tense, it was really fast. That’s a kind of special way to record an album because everybody is just there looking at you like: Bring it, because I’m ready!”
While Baloji is passionate about that experience, he’s an artist that never stands still. For his next record he’s taken a more electronic route, with synths, samples and collaborations with Cape Town’s Petite Noir and Olu from UK band Metronomy amongst others. “I’m about ideas and trying to push myself,” he says. Those ideas extend to the silver screen. As well recently winning his first acting role, he’s also making a feature film loosely inspired by his name which means ‘sorcerer’.
Ultimately it seems Baloji is happiest on the move: “I like being on the road, I like the mood that it brings you. Every day is a new experience, a new audience. From Brazilian audience to Congolese audience to California audience or to London - so different! Every audience is different, the way they approach the clapping, the way they show they like a song. There are no rules, it’s just about you and the audience.”