The Expat: Grant C. Dull

Grant C. Dull
From: Big Spring, Texas
Profession: Producer and owner of ZZK Records, owner of WhatsUpBuenosAires
Education: Interdisciplinary Humanities with a minor in Business Administration, University of San Diego
Currently reading: War by Sebastian Junger
Last film: New Jack City
Gadget: BlackBerry

When did you first visit Argentina?
Back in 1999 after finishing college. I stayed for 11 months and that was my falling in love with Buenos Aires as I was diving into the city, making friends and learning the language. I was getting my bearings. In that first year I was able to establish and integrate myself to feel part of society, or part of the culture. I got a job, a CUIT tax number, a girlfriend.
I then returned for nine months in 2000 and that led to my first stab at a personal project. I started an eight-page, not-for-profit, black-and-white newspaper called Just Another View. And that’s essentially all it was but it was my musings on living in Buenos Aires and touched on society, art and culture and politics. I was young and naive, and writing a lot of poetry back then. Page seven was a glossary of all the funny, twisted Spanish words I had used, for example. That went from having one writer to eight contributors in five editions. But that died when I left for Spain at the end of that year. We held a final jazz and poetry gathering at a place called The Lock-In in Palermo before it became Palermo as it is.

Have you lived here ever since?
No, I spent time in Spain, China, New York and a summer in Africa, as well as travelling to other places in between, then I came back in 2002, and I haven’t left the South American continent since then. Mind you, in 2003 I did move to Brazil for a year and loved it, but I’ve been in Buenos Aires since 2004.

What lured you here?
A series of incidences appeared into my life back then. I was reading and listening to a lot of music and my Buddhism professor at college — the only class I liked and got an A in — told me to read Borges. So I bought one in my last semester, and it was about seven lectures he’d given at UBA university so I got to know a bit about Borges and about Buenos Aires and I was fascinated by both.
Four months later I was in San Francisco and heard an amazing, long, dramatic composition and it was Astor Piazzolla. And that was the nail that added all that up to be the place I wanted to go. I was only 22 and didn’t give it much thought and saw some English teaching jobs here, so I bought a ticket and came.

What are your memories of those early days?
I was staying in a hotel in San Martín and Paraguay and then after four days I moved to a pension for three months. I then met a guy in an ice-cream shop who offered me an apartment on Marcelo T. Alvear and Pellgrini. That was the grandiose 9-de-Julio-view-of-the-Obelisk apartment which everybody who is fascinated with Buenos Aires dreams about having.
The guy was a bit crazy — he turned out not only to be a crook but also dangerous, I found out. It was an eighth storey place and was beautiful — super crazy during the week but super mellow at the weekend but close to the budding Microcentro scene which was beginning to emerge at the time.

What did you get up to?
I taught English full-time, more than 40 hours a week, so I was making a decent living and could save some money. I met a girl, made friends, both expat and Argentine, and became so enthralled with the city that first year that I didn’t use a visa I had for Thailand and came back here.

What convinced you to return?
I’d never lived in a big city before although I’d experienced San Francisco and New York, but I’d caught the big-city bug, but until I came to Buenos Aires I’d never lived in one. I grew up in the suburbs and went to school on the beach in San Diego but had never lived in a huge metropolitan city.
So first, it was a “city”. And second, it was Buenos Aires, and everything it offered as a city, from meeting a lot of people, going out all the time, and I really liked the cultural aspect. I liked the fact that every Argentine knew more about American literature than myself. I not only discovered tango but also bossa nova and a lot of African music. I had always connected with the cultured downtown, jazz, late-night, coffee, intellectual, porteño scene but on a San Francisco-New York level. It was a combination of living and breathing in the big city alongside the cultural sophistication Buenos Aires is known for, and is.

What happened to the newspaper you set up?
It eventually folded but it made way for a website I still run. In the back of my head, I’d always wanted to write and had journalist aspirations. I even went through a radio phase, doing audio recordings, and when I started the WhatsUpBuenosAires website in 2004, there was a lot of content gathering. But now I just write super short emails!

How did you set up a record label?
The website went through various phases, such as tourism and events production, which were all about establishing growth for it. One of the first things we did for it was throw a party — at the time I was the VJ and my partner the DJ — so we were a little production unit which meant we could organize and participate in parties. We would throw an event such as a fundraiser for another expat organization or a cocktail as part of Bafici (film festival).
I then met DJ Nim who ran a record label and I started to promote some of his artists on the website. I started listening to the music he was giving me, and booked him for an event at a mansion in Recoleta. Then Nim approached me about throwing a new party on a Wednesday night, another DJ called Villa Diamante got involved, and that was how we created ZZK Records. The idea was to promote local sounds, local artists and local producers and expose the sound that was emerging in Buenos Aires at that time, to the rest of the world. In fact our mission statement was “Put Buenos Aires on the map of global urban sounds.” And essentially, five years later, that’s what we’ve done.

What was the scene about?
At the time it was a really cool, experimental cumbia scene bubbling out, a hybrid folklore-dub scene, and there was a group of friends and producers who didn’t have anywhere to play. So we thought we’d hold a weekly party, and it had a huge buzz. We rode that enthusiasm and energy into creating a record label 18 months later in March 2008. That was when we put out our first compilation with sounds from all the producers playing the weekly nights.
Other cumbia compilations were out but none were as good or as experimental, in my opinion, as what we had put out.

How has the label developed?
In these three years, we’ve undertaken lots of tours, played more than 60 cities around the world and are about to sign a management deal with a company in Los Angeles. International tours are expensive, as you can imagine! We’ve played loads of great festivals and done some fundraisers to make it work. There’s been a lot of ambition to get this label out there. Then finally, this year, Río Arriba by Chancha via circuito, broke through the “cool-kid” circles and is now attractive to a more cultural crowd.

Is that who you want to appeal to?
All I care about is that our music travels and gets into people’s ears. I don’t care how it does it but I just want to do it. You can’t live in the underground. Anything that is so good but doesn’t have proper distribution or an audience but always exists in a niche, needs to grow.
Last year was about growing or dying. We couldn’t sustain touring and making records. It was super fun, we all had a blast, seeing the world and eating exotic foods, but it wasn’t sustainable. Now we have a partner, I’m excited to see how ZZK is going to grow because if we’ve gotten this far just on sweat, grit and tears, I’m anxious to see how much further we can get.

How have you financed the label to date?
I’ve been the main investor, and so have the boys (the other DJs) and everything that has come in we’ve put right back into the pot. But now there will be a real company. It’s exciting. Instead of just aiming for the underground, we can now aim for the global underground.

Tell me about the practicalities of running a label, or making a CD?
I’d be nothing without my Argentine partners. They do all the “dirty” work in Argentina and if I had to do that day to day, I’d pull my hair out. There are layers and layers of difficulties.

What cultural changes have you seen in the past three years?
Buenos Aires has started to embrace what we are doing and from the beginning, a lot of locals, people really in the know, supported us. But they were our peers. It‘s taken a while for the mainstream institutions to get behind us.
But now it’s starting to break. (Digital-folk trio) Tremor have just played La trastienda, the government is flying us to Paris in September and we are being considered for bigger, government-run projects.
So the scene is growing and I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

What is the Paris trip about?
It’s being doubly curated by the cities of Buenos Aires and Paris, and the latter asked for us. Paris came to see us play, and met with me, then they talked to Buenos Aires about it. The buzz we have internationally hopefully means we are on people’s shortlists when it comes to what is popping in Buenos Aires.

Did you ever imagine all those years ago that this would be happening?
No, never. I‘d romantically wanted to do something on a large scale, romantically from reading about so many cultural movements, writers and musicians. I’d always wanted to leave my mark.
In the big picture it makes sense that a traveller who came to Buenos Aires for music and culture 10 years later is travelling around the world with music and culture. Someone who always wanted to be involved in a big cultural project is now involved in exactly that. In retrospect, it makes sense but I never thought it would happen.

First published in the Buenos Aires Herald on July 24, 2011.
Photo courtesy of Pedro Quintans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *