Meron akong kwento.
(I have a story to tell.)
The weekend after New Year’s, I came across an album stream link on Twitter that caught my attention. It was from a Filipino rapper whose set in Fête de la Musique Indie Stage I was interested in, distinctly recalling a song called “Narcotics” and a spoken word section right before he dove into his finale.
Curiously enough, the album title, Third Culture Kid, was highly suggestive. Ninno Rodriguez, who goes professionally by his mononym, NINNO, leader of the Logiclub artist collective and one of the two emcees of nerdcore rap group Shadow Moses, delivered a sterling debut with a smart, uninhibited, and largely cohesive material that until then, regrettably, was an alien concept for me in the matter of local hip-hop.
Ninno’s was the genesis of an exploration of the state of a music genre I am deeply impassioned about, but failed to fully extend from its continent of origin to our adapted version of it. In a sense, “third culture kid” seems like an appropriate term, with the synthetic guidance of MTV, the hotbed of all things relevant in music back then.
The groundwork of hip-hop in the country was laid upon by “TCKs” themselves, a wholly embraced foreign concept wherein artists tried to create and build their identity from. There is both an irony and inherence to which how we as a proud people when it comes to our individuality and distinction, are unable to escape the clutches of Western colonialism, constantly proving we are as good as they are, or even exceed them to a certain respect.
The Stars and the Sun
The Philippines' hip-hop scene has deep-seated connections with its American roots – like how old, surplus U.S. military jeeps from World War II were altered to become “jeepneys.” It became more pronounced when the Filipino Bay Area DJ scene flourished abroad in the 1980s, as they began to dabble and experiment on hip-hop, adding it to their growing jazz, funk, and blues catalog.
At the forefront was Cesar “8-Ball” Aldea Jr., turntable extraordinaire, who won the final round of the 1993 New Music Seminar's D.J. Battle for World Supremacy in New York. Breakdancing was the hot trend at the time, too, which was the by-product of popular hip-hop films prevalent in the U.S. at the time, such as Wild Style, Breakin’, and Kush Groove.
In the ‘80s, America was on the cusp of the Reagan administration’s incendiary policies, racial profiling, and police brutality that incited countless riots, followed by widely publicized cases of bigoted rulings.
As rap diversified, it moved from the streets and clubs of New York and reached audiences far and wide, birthing gangsta rap, West Coast and Southern hip-hop, which have prevailing themes that heavily portrayed the perceived radicalized and violent lifestyles of the American black youth. It inadvertently affected immigrants, and Filipino-Americans were not spared.
Rap groups like Southern California’s Native Guns and the Seattle-based Blue Scholars were among the first Fil-Am hip-hop acts abroad. Native Guns emcees Kiwi and Bambu demonstrated the oppressive effects of classism and capitalism in the working class that immigrants and their families can strongly identify with. Through gangsta rap, Native Guns reflected their own diaspora, uninhibited.
In one of their earlier songs, they lamented, “The ones who run the country look nothing like you and me / So they patrol the community, cage us into poverty / Feed you television so you'll know that you're an anomaly / That means you're different.”
Ang Mga Pangyayaring Nagaganap Sa Lupang Ipinangako
Back at home, the earliest accounts of hip-hop releases began in the early ‘80s: Dyords Javier and Vincent Dafalong released “Na-Onseng Delight” and “Mahiwagang Nunal,” respectively, the latter which samples Lipps, Inc.’s “Funkytown” (a discipline—poorly executed in several occasions—practised as early as this era). Both were of comedic intent and content, a trend that carried over the next decade, prominently by the likes of former b-boy (breakdancer)-slash-DJ Andrew E. and actor Michael V., who themselves subsequently created an excess of response singles and records from other rappers.
Their material was predominantly marked with levity, rapped in a storytelling manner, usually with a boombap or looped sampled beat, usually referred to as the “old school” sound (this was among the earliest techniques in hip-hop, when Bronx DJs will spin and/or scratch records for MCs to rap over for freestyles and cyphers, and later on, rap battles). Andrew E.’s biggest hits, “Humanap Ka Ng Panget” and “Binibini (Bini B. Rocha)” were some of the finest examples of how rap became widely accessible and appealing during that era, especially in an industry saturated with guitar-based bands, pop stars, and ballad recording artists.
These hits endured decades, spawning a string of comedy films well into the ‘90s and early 2000s based on these songs, while continuing to enjoy high streaming numbers as a part of the Pinoy Rap playlist on Spotify, making their way to a younger audience.
Francis “Kiko” Magalona, also a former breakdancer and an MTV VJ, broke into the mainstream with his seminal debut, Yo! in 1990, popularizing nationalistic/patriotic rap, spurning classic hits like “Mga Kababayan Ko,” “Don’t Make Me Over,” and “Loving You,” a duet with his wife Pia Arroyo, which marked the first time a woman rapped on record. His brand of rap centered on social commentary, emulating the afrocentric trend in the U.S. at the time.
The “Master Rapper” rapped both in Tagalog and English and infused several musical elements into his sound: soul, funk, and rock, which catapulted his stature as a rap pioneer. He expanded local hip-hop’s then-rigid sonic palette by collaborating with several artists from various genres, including Eraserheads frontman Ely Buendia and gangsta rap group Death Threat (who featured him on the track, “Private Diane”), and his band Hardware Syndrome, among others.
A mixture of Filipino and English records was being released, too. MastaPlann, with California-raised emcees Johnny Luna and Butch Velez, released The Way of the Plann, which went platinum and was distributed worldwide. Rapasia’s self-titled debut was rapped in English and a number of Filipino languages, including Chavacano.
Ushering the departure from the novelty fad, groups such as Death Threat and Pamilya Dimagiba both released rougher-sounding records, Gusto Kong Bumaet (regarded as the
“first gangsta rap album”) and the conscious rap Broke-N-Unsigned, respectively, with sharp lyrical commentary that lamented on societal and political woes.
Regarded as the “Golden Age” of hip-hop (coincidentally the same for the U.S. as well), the ‘90s became the catalyst for various styles and innovations in rapping techniques, lyrical themes, DJ-ing and beat production, as well as dancing, most notably in breakdancing and krumping. DJs started creating their own material (while still patterned after the trends abroad), like DJ Coki from Andrew E.’s Dongalo Wreckords, who moved on to become the resident DJ of Willie Revillame’s noontime variety shows, and DJ Kimosave, who worked closely with Francis M.
There’s also DJ Bigg Beats, who was on the deck for Sarah Geronimo’s short-lived evening musical show, Sarah G Live!, and was a front act in Pitbull’s Manila concert in 2013; and DJ Ace Ramos, who became a top-billed DJ in the local club scene and electronic music (EDM) festivals. Female emcees and DJs found themselves becoming increasingly recognized, too. Lady Diane, dubbed as “The First Lady of Rap” released a record in the ‘90s, featuring the single, “Sa-sa-sadaam” that features a shoddy sample of “The Streets of Cairo.”
It should be noted that the Filipino hip-hop industry wasn’t able to fully represent female talent, regrettably enough, though it wasn’t entirely left wanting. Most of them came at a later time, including rap group 4 East Flava, headed by Jug “Honeyluv” Ramos, a balikbayan based in New York; hip-hop DJ Jena, a sometime radio DJ and who also spins for Black Market’s Bad Decision Wednesdays; beatmakers Chill and Monique; Cebu’s MOBBSTARR’s Dice & K9; emcees from the Women’s Business Hip-Hop (where the two aforementioned were members as well), including Bebe Riz, who had a feature in the OST for the Vic Sotto-starrer My Little Bossings in 2013.
There were at least two known rap compilations that included several female emcees and rap duos: Rekognize: Loob @ Labas in 2000 and Bombazz’s Fo The Luv Of It, but only the former can be digitally purchased online. Releases are few and far between. At present, there’s Deng Garcia, who co-writes and provides back-up vocals for hip-hop group Assembly Generals, and emcees A Problem Like Maria and Karencitta who have churned out original material in the past few years, including full-length records.
All The Goods They’ve Done
The hip-hop scene burgeoned further into the 2000s, launching the careers of Andrew E.'s and Francis M.’s protégés, including Death Threat member Gloc-9 and Salbakuta—who engineered the cult radio hit, “S2pid Luv” (featuring Nasty Mac), rendering Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen” never to be heard the same way again. Gloc-9 went on to becoming a widely successful rap artist, notably for his chopper style of rapping. His songs are best known for being critical of the political climate (“Upuan”) and depicting the poverty situation (“Lando”) that plagues the country. Salbakuta’s first—and only notable—single, reinforced hiphop’s populist appeal, securing people’s interest in the genre, and made a lucrative career for themselves (at the time).
The early aughts also saw the formation of more rap groups with varying styles, as well as crews that extended their recruitment to not just emcees, but dancers, graffiti artists, producers, and DJs as well. Beatboxing became an entire movement then, becoming a staple performance in primetime TV talent shows (much later, Davaoeño Neil Ray beatboxed his way to Asia’s Got Talent in 2015, but was unable to place in the grand finals). Fliptop included a beatbox battle in their conference around 2012. Beatboxers showcased a wide array of technical styles, executing bass-heavy beats and dubstep. These styles begin to thrive, and were incorporated later on to beat productions of hip-hop tracks in the following years.
Filipino dance crews gained international recognition, spearheaded by the Philippine All Stars, who won the World Hip Hop Dance Competitions in 2006 and back to back in 2008 and 2009 (they also appeared in Q-York’s music video for the summer smash single, “Mainit”). Filipino crews consistently dominated the championships, C.I.D.G. in 2007, Armistice in 2011, The Crew in 2012, A-Team in 2014, and UPeepz in 2016. America’s Best Dance Crew champion Jabbawockeez, whose members comprise of Filipino-Americans, attained worldwide recognition as a premiere hip-hop dance crew, paving the way for many more Fil-Am crews to compete on the show.
Local hip-hop also began to reflect the urban youth’s lifestyle. At its onset is Team Manila, which began as a graphic design studio in 2001 and branched out to a clothing brand (Team Manila Lifestyle and Daily Grind) in 2005. THE Clothing was founded in 2007, featuring collections that embody street culture. Cubao X in Quezon City and B-Side, The Collective in Makati were touted as the bastions for local hip-hop events, with the latter housing Flip Top battles in 2012 and later.
Now on its full swing, the surge of hip-hop “players” from all over the country gave rise to underground rap as well—emcees and rap groups with styles and lyrical content that do not fit the radio format. (Another group who charted success through mainstream media was Dice & K9, with their single, “Itsumo”, which featured a Japanese hook. Notice this formula that worked time and again for popular hip-hop acts then.)
They were deemed too experimental-sounding, and often with violent, offensive, and sexually suggestive lyrics and with homophobic undertones that became causes of concern (it should be emphasized that some of Andrew E.’s songs like “Pink Palaka” and “Banyo Queen” went out to be hits anyway, but prompted him to mock his critics who hit him for his “lewd” lyrics by releasing an album called “Bastos 1990-2000” in 2002, which included the song “Bastos Daw” where he sang, “Andaming naiinggit / Kaya ako minamalign / Hindi daw ako wholesome / Ang music ko daw porno”).
It was also during this period that underground crews in Manila and those coming from the South began producing shows for themselves, some of who were unsigned went out to self-fund and produce their own mixtapes.
Notable, and most of which are still active, of these are AMPON (including Anygma, Caliph8, Archonz Akeenz, Epical, and CRECON), Audible, Stick Figgas, Sun Valley Crew, Legit Misfitz (with MC Dash), Madd Poets, Dirty Room Productions (which includes producer Pino G, who produced songs for P.A.R.D, a singing group comprised of Bubble Gang comedians), Miscellaneous (including DJ UMPH), Head On Productions (who freewheeled as event promoters for Blow Up Da Spot and The Bridge gigs, which lasted until the mid-2000s.
Associated acts included Pasta Groove), and Locked Down Entertainment (which later on became a management company, including hip-hop acts like Assembly Generals, Miscellaneous, and Syke in its roster). They are some of the underground rap figures that offered what was considered as left-field hiphop that catered not to pop pleasures, but served as a petri dish to acts that experimented with radical, genre-pushing styles that hip-hop championed for in the first place.
They Battle, They Rattle
I would like to believe that the massive success of FlipTop is not due to its gained credential as a modern form of “balagtasan” (the league shied away from this despite being branded by the press as such. But then again, FlipTop has not been devoid of controversy as well. It has been decried by some spectators, concerning its offensive (and often vulgar) nature and content. More so, that it goes against our culture’s value of respect. Considering the main rapping style used in battles, which is freestyling, it becomes a catch-all medium.
This is why it may be easy to tout it, its Filipino conference specifically, as an incarnation of “balagtasan” – but balagtasan is a debate which confines FlipTop to a selected subject, which is not what free-form rapping is all about. What I think its most profound legacy in the country is that it denounced the stereotype that rap is simply for thugs and jokesters, but to see it as a raw and unapologetic display of hip-hop as a, first and foremost, proud music.
This is a definitive characteristic of hip-hop that is often overlooked, when it can simply be learned by understanding its origins from the South Bronx in the ‘70s. It relishes on triumphs and strengths, even at the expense of decorum (which virtually doesn’t exist). “Fuck being polite,” or so a hip-hop song said. It is hip-hop’s boon and bane, the hefty price of little to no censorship. Centuries of oppression in all ways and forms were always to be fraught with disaster in the end, and hip-hop, akin to punk’s subversive nature, was founded on the emboldened desire to speak and fight back. And each victory is reveled in the face of the opponent.
The oppressed are often those perceived as weak, and there they found resourcefulness, using words. And words have edges sharper than swords and structures mightier than fortresses – and one need only to aim them at the ego. FlipTop functions essentially as a battle form of rap in the way it puts a premium on outwitting your opponent by how best you can make him topple on his words and fold. When Anygma (real name Alaric Yuson) founded FlipTop, he knew what battle rap leagues were founded on.
“As a race, the Filipino is known to be non-confrontational, [if] you know what I mean,” he was quoted in an interview. How does one answer to hand-wringing? That was its biggest challenge, one that FlipTop conquered. It also exceeded in shifting the platform where fans and enthusiasts can indulge themselves in. FlipTop’s main demographic, the youth, turned to laptop and mobile screens instead of the TV and radio. The Internet became hiphop’s new playground. As a result, UPRISING was founded independently, signing a well-rounded roster of hip-hop acts and producers, including DJ UMPH, Supreme Fist, Sloj and Rye, as well as the visual artist Redrum.
Abra, BLKD, Bassilyo, Loonie, Protégé, Dello, Skarm, and Zaito are only few of FlipTop’s alumni that entered the rap game. Abra released his self-titled album under a major label, while his work with his group, Lyrically Deranged Poets (LDP), engaged in a more experimental sound; Skarm released the Ill Primitivo and DJ Fresh Lee-produced The Pharmer’s Guide To Higher Ground with fellow emcees Liquid, Lloyd, and Flexx, an underground rap project, complete with skits and East Coast bravado; and BLKD’s Gatilyo was lauded by critics for its gripping commentary, with the release of its single, “Taksil,” offering a compelling visual accompaniment.
…In The Street, Looking For A Brighter Day
Strange, yet exciting these times are. For the first time, I found myself impressed by the talent (ones I personally keep on my radar): RH Xanders, BLKD, Protégé, Ninno, Curtismith, Shadow Moses, Skarm, OJ River, Pasta Groove, similarobjects, crwn, Ryoku, skinxbones, Den Sy Ty, Calix, and Knife. Hip-hop remains largely as a pop outlaw, still frowned upon.
The proliferation of new subsections in rap (drill, trap, grime, cloud rap, industrial rap, noise, and countless others), the disinterest in crossing over (a relative success), and its penchant for being highly critical of itself do not make it the glossy packaged material ready for mass consumption.
Hip-hop was not historically an easy-listening, lighthearted genre (still doesn’t and probably never will), but even at its roughest points, it does not wallow completely in self-pity (that thing I said about pride). It would never betray itself.
Maybe that’s why—it refuses to yield but doesn’t resist change. But change for what? We must know first. There’s a reason songs like “Fuck tha Police” (N.W.A), “Cop Killer” (Ice-T), “Reagan” (Killer Mike) and “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” (YG) exist. “Our art reflects our reality,” Ice Cube’s character said in Straight Outta Compton. And our reality is flawed, even agonizing. We got as far as “Eleksyon” (Francis M.), “Upuan” (Gloc-9), “Kontrabida” (Assembly Generals), “Taksil” (BLKD), and “Cult Leaders” (Ninno).
“We aren’t there yet. It’s still getting there,” says Chyrho of Shadow Moses and AMPON. A fair observation: The Philippines was the first country to have a hip-hop scene in Asia. And yet it feels like we are on the trenches compared to our neighbors: Keith Ape just put South Korea in the map (re: US market) and Ghostface Killah just said on record that he’ll hop on Rich Chigga’s “Dat $tick” remix.
The Neptunes’ Chad Hugo and Black Eyed Peas’s apl.d.ap, although full-blooded Filipinos who achieved international success through hip-hop, feels like a forced association, like we’re eking out recognition (#PinoyPride). In many ways, it feels like we fell short somewhere. At the same time though, one can look at it as a huge leap from all the novelty.
I also recalled how I didn’t feel very different about it myself just a year ago, when I know Western hip-hop more than my own country’s entire music history. I, too, felt the palpable “yet”. I don’t feel we really are there yet. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise. But I do think that it is wise to put my faith in “still getting there”.
Urban Jam, the Philippines' biggest hip-hop festival is happening on August 27, Saturday at Bridgetowne Open Grounds. Get your tickets here.