As Thursday turns into Friday, a van glides through the streets of São Paulo. The interior is as dark as the night outside it. Speakers vibrate as they deliver hip-hop beats, and the small air outlet in the roof does nothing to eliminate the thick fog of smoke that fills the inside. A designer watch glows through the darkness, showing exactly 1am. Time for Brazilian funk superstar MC Guimê and his friends to go clubbing.
With nearly 12 million inhabitants, São Paulo is Brazil’s largest city. It’s also Latin America’s wealthiest. The result is a smorgasbord of musical offerings that can be sampled at any time of day or night. “There’s entertainment for every taste, any time, with different crowds and tribes,” says the heavily tattooed funkeiro Guimê.
“You can party to electronic beats inside a world-class club or listen to live samba and drink a beer on a boardwalk wearing board shorts and no shirt. There’s a party for every kind of person with lots of urban energy.” And few know their way through the dizzying array of options better than this true Paulistano.
Born and bred in the scruffy suburbs of São Paulo, Guimê’s a Brazilian A-lister despite being just 22. He’s the first name in the city’s Ostentatious Funk scene, an offshoot of Brazilian funk’s frenetic mix of rap and dance music, but known for luxurious lifestyles surrounded by the best cars, jewels, liquor, women and parties.
Having started out in his small neighbourhood of Tatuapé, he’s amassed a Facebook following of eight million, has had one of his hits covered by Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and counts global football star Neymar as a mate.
Last year he released País do Futebol (The Country of Football), an anthem for the FIFA World Cup hosted by Brazil. “I knew Neymar would like the song,” says Guimê as we speed along the city streets. “I played it to him before it was finished. He loved it. We got to know each other better after that. He’s a down-to-Earth dude.” With a schedule that includes 40 shows a month, an evening off is a rarity for Guimê.
But tonight, his agenda has been cleared in favour of fun. The van is headed to the centre of the city, known as Downtown, and one of the best hip-hop nights that São Paulo has to offer. The van draws up outside Lions Nightclub. It’s situated on the first floor of an old building overlooking the São Paulo See Metropolitan Cathedral, right in the heart of the city. The club’s a monument in its own right – to the revitalisation of a nightlife scene in a region that only five years ago was badly run down.
Today, Downtown São Paulo is inhabited by a diverse mix of artists, cultural agitators and investors, and has become a place that people want to head to after dark.
This interest is in large part down to Lions owner and entrepreneur Facundo Guerra, who also owns several other nightclubs and music halls here in Downtown. Guerra’s become something of a local celebrity – an affable bearded hipster whose trademark casual T-shirt belies his substantial success.
“As well as electronic, rock and hip-hop nightlife in São Paulo, there’s a scene very rich in local music such as pagode, axé and sertanejo,” says Guerra. “São Paulo has some of the least commercial nightlife in the world. A lot of clubs in London, Ibiza, Madrid or Paris depend on tourists to survive. Tourism in São Paulo is mainly related to business, so the city’s clubs can really cater to its residents.”
When the van door slides open, Guimê and his six friends step out and enter the club. Downtown’s rise in fortunes mirror’s Guimê’s own: Lion’s was the venue that marked the start the area’s upturn, and it’s played its own part in his success. “I played Lions when I started my career,” he says. “I even recorded my video Na Pista Eu Arraso here.” The title means something like ‘I break the dancefloor’, and with more than 50 million hits, it’s one of the MC’s most popular creations.
Inside, two bottles of vodka, an ice bucket and Red Bulls arrive at Guimê’s table as if by magic. The VIP lounge is in the corner of the main hall, which features a dancefloor and a round bar in the centre. The lounge extends to a large balcony with views of the Downtown skyline and the chaotic dancefloor, which burns with LED lights and 3D effects.
Thursday is rap and hip-hop night Groovelicious, and the music is rib-janglingly loud. Glass in one hand, Guimê swings his other arm from side to side, up and down, and sways in time to the heavy beat. Around him, guys throw their hands in the air while women wind and wiggle. Two of them approach Guimê and his crew to dance, while their friends head to the bar for caipirinhas, a cocktail made with Brazil’s favourite spirit, cachaça.
The DJ spots Guimê and chooses a couple of tracks to his musical taste. The rap is loose and the dancefloor continues to fill with bodies, but despite the bespoke soundtrack, the crew has another plan for the end of the night: to head over to Casa 92. It’s a club they haven’t tested yet, and is located in the Pinheiros district in the higher-rent western area of São Paulo – a contrast to edgy Downtown.
So it’s back into the dark van, with its pulsating bass and more smoke. The grey, sleeping city flits past the windows. “Are the ice and drinks on the table?” asks one of Guimê’s friends on his mobile phone.
As they arrive, Blister in the Sun by Violent Femmes plays over one of the club’s four dancefloors. It’s 3.40am, but the crowd is just starting to peak. Girls in colourful figure-hugging dresses weave through the throng; one of them spots Guimê and runs to hug him without missing a beat.
Though the city has several distinct areas, each with its own sounds and styles, Guimê is a star in all of them. He climbs the stairs to an open-air yard, where a psychedelic video is projected onto the outer wall, so he can party with a little more exclusivity.
“São Paulo’s nightlife is top quality,” he says, sitting on a couch. “The city has its problems, but it’s also where everything happens. When I’m away, I miss the city where I learned to be who I am – this crazy mix of cultures, this beautiful mess. São Paulo will be always side-by-side with me.”
In the central garden, the sound of people’s voices and the distant bass from one of the dancefloors seep through the door. Girls ask to take a selfie with Guimê. James Brown fills the air and a guy starts dancing as if he’s in a 1970s discotheque.
“That’s what clubbing is all about,” says Guimê, “taking time out to forget about your problems. This city is unique, like being in another country.” But this night, like Guimê, is unmistakably São Paulo.