Composer, singer and producer Arthur Verocai just might be the best Brazilian artist you never heard — though if you’re a hip-hop fan, you probably already have: sampled by MF Doom, Ludacris, Common, Schoolboy Q, Your Old Droog, Little Brother, Action Bronson and many more, his self-titled 1972 album is a crate-digger’s paradise, full of irresistible and idiosyncratic melodies just waiting to be slapped beneath a blistering rap verse. “Those breaks that help to deliver a kind of emotion that you’re looking for just turn out to be the perfect find,” producer and composer Adrian Younge tells Variety.
“With Verocai, based on the fact that his music is based on parts and also there’s a darkness to the music, it is ripe for hip-hop.”
Younge, who cofounded the record label Jazz is Dead in 2017 with Andrew Lojero and A Tribe Called Quest member Ali Shaheed Muhammad precisely to spotlight often-sampled but underappreciated jazz and world musicians, is set to support Verocai, now 78, on his first-ever U.S. tour, which launches August 6 and 7 at Los Angeles’ Mayan Theater. It’s a full-circle moment for the multitalented Verocai, who languished for decades in obscurity after his debut flopped, to now for its combination of samba and soul, tropicalia and funk, to not only be hailed by TV on the Radio, Cut Chemist, Madlib and BadBadNotGood as a seminal influence, but to get to play his music in a country that inspired much of it.
“I am very grateful for the people who make beats because they promoted my record with their samples and made them grow in popularity and prestige,” says Verocai. “I love the United States and identify my music with American music, so to have the opportunity to play it live in a concert with orchestra is a gift to me.”
Born in 1945, Verocai studied studied to become a civil engineer before a chance encounter with a friend of his roommate led him towards music. “On February 15, 1969, I entered my room and my partner, [composer] Paulinho Tapajós, and Wilson Simonal, at that time the great singer of Brazil, was there,” he says. “I was feeling like a slave to the life of an engineer, and my friends were going to the beach or the home of another composer. They were changing culture and learning, and that was the life I wanted to follow.”
While absorbing the influences of everything from classical composers like Heitor Villa-Lobos and Maurice Ravel to jazz and pop artists like Wes Montgomery, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Beatles (“especially ‘The Long and Winding Road,’” he says), Verocai spent several years composing and arranging for Jorge Ben, Erasmo Carlos, Gal Costa, Célia and others before releasing an album under his own name. “My pleasure was making a new thing — a musical adventure,” he says.
Unfortunately, audiences weren’t ready at the time to embark on that adventure; the album’s failure prompted him to retreat from the spotlight — for three decades. Says Lojero, “It was a big blow to him, and it made him step back — not only from his own music, but from working with all those other artists as well. He just felt like, ‘the world doesn’t want my music, so I’m just going to make a living and make television and film advertisement music.’”
Around the time it was first reissued on LP in 2003 by Ubiquity Records, “Arthur Verocai” began to develop as an underground, if-you-know-you-know phenomenon, and while collectors sought vintage pressings for thousands of dollars apiece, artists like those above began sampling his eclectic compositions. “The love that he’s getting right now, if it wasn’t for hip-hop, it would not even happen,” Younge says. “That’s not to take anything away from Arthur, it’s just how circumstances allow certain cultures to galvanize behind somebody.”
“It really reminds me of Sugar Man’s story,” adds Lojero, referring to the 2012 documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” “He’s the [Sixto] Rodriguez of Brazil, that has an enduring fan base outside of where he’s from, and now it’s gotten to a point that he’s a star where he’s from.”
Younge suggests that it’s Verocai’s holistic approach to composing that distinguishes his sound from the Brazilian luminaries in whose company he came up. “He writes from an orchestral standpoint,” says Younge. “But when you think of orchestra as something that’s going to come first and everything goes around it, it changes the way you hear the music. There are so many things you have to do to ensure that the song is good before you even start writing charts. So if you make sure the chart’s good and you let everything support that chart, it’s digested differently.”
Verocai first played his album live in the U.S. with a 30-piece orchestra in 2009, chronicled in a chapter of the 2010 documentary series “Timeless: The Composer Arranger Series” produced by Lojero. At 29 minutes, a performance of “Arthur Verocai” isn’t quite long enough for a traditional concert, regardless how elaborately it’s staged, but indulging his own instincts as a crate-digger and researcher, the producer (and Jazz is Dead’s concert promoter) worked closely with Verocai to develop a set list that showcases a broader panorama of the artist’s work.
“I tried to get him to do a concert of all the songs he’s done for other people, whether that’s playing on those songs, arranging on those songs, conducting on the songs,” says Lojero. “At this point, he has a certain set of repertoires. So he’s playing every song from that record, but he’s also playing a few songs from other records on this show… it’s kind of leaving him to his devices to see what works.”
Beyond its ongoing concert series at the Lodge Room in Highland Park, California, where headliners have included legends like Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith, Milton Nascimento and late African drummer Tony Allen, Jazz is Dead is different in other ways from other contemporary labels that celebrate and champion this music. Rather than simply remastering and re-releasing the work of artists its founders love — a different but equally valuable service for collectors who can’t afford to spend $10,000 on an original copy, as was recently reported for Verocai’s debut — Younge, Lojero and Muhammad offer those artists the chance to record new music, and in the process to extend and burnish their legacies.
“Working with artists that, I don’t mean this in a negative way, but are ‘past their prime,’ we actually get them back in the studio and record them to remind them who they are,” says Younge. “We could reissue stuff, and that’s cool, but if you make a new compelling record that challenges the work they’ve done and shows that they still got something, it’s special.”
Verocai has returned more actively to recording since his revival — including a 2016 album “No Voo do Urbu;” “Talk Memory,” a collaboration with BadBadNotGood; and an arrangement of Tyler The Creator’s score for Virgil Abloh’s posthumous Paris Fashion Week show for Louis Vuitton. He says that the U.S. tour is continuing to kickstart his creativity. “Music is like a virus — it doesn’t leave my mind in peace,” he says. “I’ve been on my guitar and computer, making many arrangements for artists around the world. I don’t have much time to create a new album, but it will happen, sometime.”
Younge says that the tour, which will land in New York, Chicago and Berkeley, Calif., will channel and connect inspirations both old and new — and subvert which is which; many who attend will likely know songs from the last few decades that his work inspired better than the ones he originally created back in 1972. “We are seeing 18, 19-year-olds at these concerts, and they’re like rapping the MF Doom lyrics over Verocai’s song,” he says.
“The same thing would happen to me if I was that age, because I wasn’t musically intelligent enough to understand how great a lot of this original music was,” Younge adds. “Sometimes you need hip-hop to serve as a filter for people to accept shit that’s above their level.”