RnB, ska, latin and forgotten European pop – Belgium popcorn is one of Europe’s most interesting and overlooked music scenes, but beware of calling it a subculture.
Popcorn – or popcorn oldies – has been Belgium most popular music scene since the 1970s, but little is known about it outside the country’s borders. The UK is a hotspot for subcultures, but there is a certain snobbery when it comes to foreign sounds and scenes.
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Listen to a freshly updated selection of Popcorn classics and rarities
“Popcorn is more a rhythm than a genre. It could be compared to house or Italo disco, all genres based on a same beat per minute.”
The great resource of popcorn is the absence of sound boundaries. Federico Voria, owner of RnB focused Turin-based record label Soulful Torino, says: “Popcorn is more a rhythm than a genre. It could be compared to house or Italo disco, all genres based on a same beat per minute.”
Popcorn records are characterised by an afterbeat which can be followed by snapping fingers when keeping the time. Federico says: “I call the popcorn rhythm the Fever rhythm, as the song. If you get this, you have a clear idea of how the majority of Popcorn records sound.”
Its simplicity and mass-public appeal make popcorn not fully understandable abroad as there are no similar phenomena in the UK. A parallel could be drawn with northern soul as a ‘70s popular and black music-based scene, but without all the posthumous ideals and glorification. Popcorn is just all about music, fun and beer.
Jazzman Records popcorn compilation well sums up the scene’s spirit on the album cover – “If you don’t like girls…if you don’t dance…if you don’t drink…stay away. But if you do…join us.”
The peculiarity of Popcorn is non-being a subculture despite having its own codes. As Italian DJ and record collector Alex Claretto, explains: “You’ll never see a popcorn DJ playing tunes at their right speed. They change the pitch- usually slowing it down- to make the record suitable for dancing.” Possibly only 2% of popcorn records are played at their original pitch.
“According to oral tales originally Popcorn was to be danced on one’s own at fast rhythms, but the high beer consumption brought dancers to ask for slower rhythms to be danced in couples as a form of mutual support.”
As other traditional European dances like Spanish flamenco or Italian liscio, popcorn is strictly danced in couples. Alex says: “According to oral tales originally popcorn was to be danced on one’s own at fast rhythms, but the high beer consumption brought dancers to ask for slower rhythms to be danced in couples as a form of mutual support.”
It can be said that in Popcorn were dancers who made the sound, persuading DJs to move from trendy funk to obscure RnB.
If in other European countries listening to obscure RnB is a niche thing, in Belgium this sound is popular to the point popcorn dance classes are held to audiences of middle-aged couples. As in the UK one could expect with rock’n roll classes. Actually, some moves are borrowed from 1950s jive and swing, but popcorn’s slower tempo permitted to create moves which are exclusive to Belgium.
How to dance to Popcorn?
Fundamental to popcorn are the differences between Flanders and Wallonia sounds. If in the Flandres 50s ballads are preferred, in Wallonia is mid-tempo RnB and 60s Motown soul to fill dancefloors. As Alex explains both regions “go out of their heads for Italian versions like [pop singer] Nicola Di Bari’s Ti Tendo Le Braccia, cover of Reach Out For Me by Burt Bacharach.”
Alex says: “Something both play is ska. Ska has a less elegant sound but it unleashes what is called ‘ambiance’, it helps to make people start moving.”
Although still popular, Popcorn nights fail to attract youths under 35, but this is not frustrating for a young DJ. Alex says: “It is hard to satisfy these elders as they want a classic sound but always demand for new records to be played. If they dance it means you are doing a good job.”
“It is hard to satisfy these elders as they want a classic sound but always demand for new records to be played. If they dance it means you are doing a good job.”
Years have passed since the glory days of The Popcorn, The Groove and Boum Boum, but the amusement spirit and passion for mid-tempo rhythms stay alive. Nowadays, you would not stumble into crowds of teenagers, but for sure by going to a popcorn night you would experience some of the finest and most sought-after black music on 7”.
Read more about Popcorn here:
- Do the Popcorn- How Belgium Saved Black Music Part 2: The Quest for Records
- Do the Popcorn- How Belgium Saved Black Music Part 3: The Style
- Popcorn Who’s Who- Past and Present Personalities in the Popcorn Scene