Monday, January 21, 2013

Hip Hop and Rap: Is it for Filipinos?

Note: This is a breakaway from my usual weekly Filipino achievers tribute. I have no reason... i just feel like writing this. 

image by: Kanade-Chizuru

J-Nick, Repablikan, Loonie, Zaito, Target, Dello, Breezy Girlz and the opposite gender’s counterpart, Breezy Boyz are the biggest names in Philippine Rap industry nowadays. Most of them made their way to the top through “street rapping battles” called Flip-Top. It’s where rappers come together to battle each other. Each city or town can organize their own battles and work their way up to the national championship.

One of their videos has more than 9.1 million hits on youtube and that’s not counting the hits of others who reposted the original video. However, none of them are signed to any major label. They release their songs on YouTube and their social networking sites. The support from their fans is pretty unbelievable. Their fans create their own music videos for their songs. There is one song that had more than 20 user generated music videos, all that for a song that never saw our radio airwaves. Take that Eminem!

So why are they still unsigned? There is hardly a chance the labels haven’t heard of them yet. Three of them are, in fact, in the show Bubble Gang. There is only one reason a label wouldn’t sign an artist, if they don’t see a viable business. Most of their supporters come from the Lower C and D. People from these classes wouldn’t exactly put CDs as their financial priority.

The question now is why are they still underground? We know there is a market out there for rap. The late Francis Magalona created that. Andrew E. and Michael V. capitalized on that. Was it a fad for us Pinoys? Is it a genre we can truly embrace?

For us to answer this question, we need to go back to the roots of rap. Understanding its beginning will allow us to understand the very essence of the genre and how it fits to our culture.

First, let us define the terms. There are three basic assumptions:
  1. Rap is talking in rhyme to the rhythm of a beat
  2. Hip-hop, on the other hand, is a culture. It is a way of life who identify, love, and cherish rap, break dancing, DJing, and graffiti
  3. Rap is a musical genre born from hip-hop[i]

Paving the Way for the Entrance of Culture

Steven Harver, in his book “Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music and Graffiti”, indicated three major events that paved the way for Rap Music:
  1. in 1959 Parks Commissioner Rober Moses began building an expressway through the heart of the Bronx which relocated the middle class Italian, German, Irish, and Jewish neighbourhoods, businesses and factories;
  2. whatever was left of that neighbourhood would be completely wiped out when Moses completed a 15,382 unit co-op apartment complex on the northern edge of the Bronx near an expressway. This turned off the middle class. The mass exodus resulted to skyrocketing vacancy rates. Reputable landlords began selling out to professional slumlords;
  3. a group of seven teenage boys who began “terrorizing” the vicinity around the Bronxdale Project on Bruckner Boulevard in the southeast Bronx. This may not seem important, but this group of teenagers laid the groundwork for a surge of street gang activities that would overwhelm the Bronx for the next six years. This group at first called itself the Savage Seven, but as more members joined, the group changed its name to the Black Spades.[ii]

The Conception of Rap

Rap is widely acknowledged to have originated from the streets of Bronx. This is half the truth. Jamaicans had as much to do with rap as the African-Americans. While Commissioner Moses was unconsciously building a haven of slumlords, Jamaicans were getting toasted. No, I don’t mean cannabis. I mean Jamaican Disc Jocks talking over the music they played which is called ‘toasting’.

This developed at the ghettos of Jamaica during dances that took place in large halls or open spaces called “blues dances”.  African America R&B records were introduced by black American sailors stationed on the island and by American radio stations.[iii] Since no one in Jamaica can play the songs live, they resorted to recorded versions of the song. A DJ would play it using ‘sound systems’ large enough for people to hear the bass. At first, DJs would ‘toast’ with simple slogans to encourage the dancers. Some of these simple slogans were “Work it, Work it” and “Move it up”. As ‘toasting’ became more popular so did the lengths of the toasts. Another technique which developed along side ‘toasting’ was called ‘dubs’. ‘Dubbing’ was when the record engineers would cut back and forth between the vocal and instrumental tracks while adjusting the bass and the treble.

DJ Battles in Jamaica were all about who had the loudest system and the most original records and technique. It was not uncommon for things to get out of hand and for fighting to erupt during these DJ battles at the Jamaican “blues dances” once the crowds got caught up in this frenzy. [iv]

The Meeting of the Culture and The Sound

Fast forward to 1967, a young Jamaican would immigrate to the Bronx bringing with him his knowledge of the Jamaican ‘sound system’ scene and Jamaican ‘toasting’ style. His name was Clive Campbell. He would later be known as Kool Herc in the Bronx.

Kool Herc began to DJ in 1973 once he had amassed a great sound system. Kool Herc seldom played an entire song. He knew which part of the record sent his audience into a frenzy. It was usually a 30 second “break” section in which the drums, bass, and rhythm guitar stripped the beat to its barest essence. Herc would buy two copies of the same record and play his favoured parts alternately to lengthen the danceable part. This technique became known as “beats” or “break-beats”.

As the mixing in the “breaks” between the two turntables required more concentration, Herc became the first DJ to create MC-Dance team. MC stands for Master of Ceremony. They are in-charged of getting the crowd to dance by toasting. He also had dancers which would later be known as B-Boys and then breakdancers.

Herc catered to the Bronx crowd. Remember that disco music was the craze that infiltrated the world over and Herc’s crew was the rebels who refuse to buy it.[v] They were also the rebels who couldn’t afford to pay to enter middleclass discos. Toasting slowly became more than just rhymes to get the party started, it became rhymes to protest the disco music and the social divide. Toasting also started to become a separate discipline from DJing.

As Herc’s popularity rose underground, Pete DJ Jones emulated him but he catered to the black disco crowd.  Another important DJ is DJ Hollywood. He was the first rhythmic disco rapper and cut across all classes. He DJed downtown, midtown, and throughout the five boroughs of New York City.

These DJs hated each other. Herc felt that Pete DJ and DJ Hollywood sold out to the very cause he and his crew were fighting, commercialism and the social divide. The hatred was about to reach its peak when Afrika Bambaataa entered the picture. Bam took the role of a leader in the ‘Hip Hop’ culture. In 1975 Bam founded an organization known as the Zulu Nation. The major function of this organization was to replace gang rumbles and drugs with rap, dance, and the ‘Hip Hop’ style.

The succeeding events are not important to us Pinoys anymore. You just need to know that it wasn’t long until the first rap record hit the charts. It was 1979 to be exact. The song is called “Rapper’s Delight” released by the Sugar Hill Gang. The rest, as they say is history.

Why Let Their Pants Hang Below Their Asses

A huge part of rap is fashion, the bling, the lose clothing, and the wearing of pants below their asses. Each has a different origin but each is entrenched deeply in the African American history.

First, the loose clothing. As most African-American families were poor, the clothes they buy for their children would always be several sizes bigger so that their children would not outgrow their clothes quickly and force them to buy new ones. As the children grew up, they grew accustomed to wearing loose clothing especially when they started breakdancing. They needed loose clothing to execute the moves.

As for the pants hanging below their asses, it was a trend that started in prison. There was a high percentage of young minorities that are incarcerated. Prison officials removed inmates’ belts to avoid it from turning into a murder weapon. And since their clothes are several sizes bigger (see above), inmates would walk around with their pants around their hips. That stayed with them even outside of prison.

Now, the bling. We have already established that toasting, and eventually rapping, was used to protest music capitalism and social divide. Early popular rappers were all about angst and protest. A guy name Sean Combs (later Puff Daddy, much later P. Daddy, even more later P.Diddy) knew he needed to rise above the clutter. Instead of portraying poverty, he went north… err, West in their case. He portrayed the glitz and glamour of LA to counter the Bronx. He wore suits… white suits. He wore gold and diamonds so big, he could have paid off the debt of the Philippines. That began the East Coast vs. West Coast rift.

How that progressed is not important to us. It is important to note, though, that although 2Pac is the biggest rapper of all time with 37.5 million albums sold, he is followed closely by a white guy, Eminem. You may have heard of him. He has 33 million albums sold.[vi] Remember, though, that 2Pac released 11 albums. Yes, he became more active in the music scene from the grave like many other greats. Eminem has five and is very much alive.

Finally, Rap’s Arrival in the Philippines

Almost 1,800 words into this article, we finally reach the arrival of the rap in the Philippines.

Once upon a time, a portion of the US was located in the Philippines courtesy of the U.S. Military Base in Clark. African-American soldiers brought the music to the Philippines. Bars and restaurants where these uniformed men hanged started playing rap music. Add to this, Filipinos living in the US who brought the music to their relatives here in the Philippines either by sending tapes or by exposing visiting relatives to the sound.

Although rap was slowly creeping into the society, it was still strange to the mainstream Pinoys. A 20-year old genre is still considered an infant. As you know, we aren’t exactly the most accommodating society when it comes to new trends or new forms of art especially when we feel it will affect our core values.

Make ‘Em Laugh, Yo!

Rap was highly identified with gang wars. No way will we welcome it with open arms. Luckily, we have something in our culture that serves as an escort to anything or anyone that aims to settle, humour. That is exactly how the first mainstream rap recording made its way to our airwaves.

Dyords Javier rcorded "Na Onseng Delight" (which copied the style of Sugarhill Gang's "Rappers Delight") and Vincent Dafalong came out with "Nunal" both in the 80s.

During this time, rap was nothing but a novelty to Pinoys and the performers didn’t help change that with their image. Both were and are known to be comedians.

Enter Francis M.

That changed with the entrance of Francis Magalona in the rap industry in the 90s. Pia Magalona, Francis’ wife, said that they regularly visited Subic for Francis to battle other rappers, Americans and Pinoys alike.[vii]

He released the album called Yo! which became the first rap album in The Philippines. "Mga Kababayan" became the first rap track recognized by mainstream Pinoys. The album had tracks that featured politically conscious and thought-provoking rhymes in both English and Filipino.

During this time, Pinoy rock was in its golden ages with bands like Eraserheads, Yano, Rivermaya, and others dominating the Philippine atmosphere. However, very few bands talked about social issues. Bands dealt with personal issues like love, first love, lost love, true love, unrequited love, and other versions of it. 

Rap, oddly enough, took the job. Francis M.’s first album included tracks that called for patriotism which effectively reignited and modernized the values of EDSA long lost. His other single “Man From Manila” solidified his status as the pioneer for nationalistic rap.

Further, he helped put Hip Hop in Philippine Mainstream when he ushered in breakdancing in the Philippines and graffiti with his album covers. He even influenced fashion. Tribal printed shirts and pants became a fad. Yo! became every other person’s favourite expression.

In 1992, he released Rap Is FrancisM. With tracks addressing the various cultural and social problems that plagued his country such as drug addiction in "Mga Praning" (Paranoids), political instability in "Halalan" (Elections) as well as the detrimental effects of a colonial mentality in "Tayo'y Mga Pinoy" (We Are Pinoys). This album helped tag Magalona as one of the most politically conscious voices of his generation.

But We Want To Laugh

Andrew E., then a DJ in a popular disco in Makati, released an album called Humanap Ka Ng Panget challenging Francis M.'s dominance in Pinoy Rap. [viii] He challenged Francis M. the same way P.Diddy, or whatever he is called now, challenged the West Coast. If he flaunted diamonds and gold, Andrew E. brought back humour.

Michael V. seconded the move with Maganda Ang Piliin which is a song intended to counter Andrew E.’s first single. Rap seems headed the humour path with another rapper called Denmark releasing the song Luninging. Even the first female rapper to release an album hinged on humour. Lady Diane's song "SA-SA-Saddam" became an instant hit.

Fighting The Novelty

Francis’ third album, Meron akong ano! in 1993 marked the beginning of Magalona's experimentation with the merging of Pinoy rock and Pinoy Hip Hop. He collaborated with other OPM luminaries such as Joey Ayala, Heber Bartolome of Banyuhay, Kieran Yangot, Ryan Cayabyab, Mike Hanopol, and the band Eraserheads.

He later released Freeman with tracks like "Three Stars & A Sun", "Kabataan Para Sa Kinabukasan", "Suckin' on Helium/Kaleidoscope World". Those songs became the defining touch-points in Magalona's body of work. Also interesting to note that even before Will.I.Am fused the actual speech of Obama to a song, Francis M. already did it with a track titled "Intellectual Property Rights". It sampled a speech by then-president Fidel V. Ramos on the same subject.

Death of the Leader

This article is by no means a tribute to Francis M. even if it starting to sound like one. It is only important to mention his body of work and his death in 2009 because rap seemed to have followed his life. Pinoy Hip Hop lost its leader and everyone seems to be going their own direction in that confusing way rather than diversified way.

Gloc9, the guy I believe to have the fastest mouth in Philippine music history, appears to be carrying the tradition of Francis M. He collaborates with many artists and most his songs talk about social and political statements like Upuan, Martilyo and Sikat na si Pepe. However, even with the support of other big names like Parokya Ni Edgar, he still doesn’t enjoy the same level of commercial success Francis M. had.

Andrew E.’s last legitimate hit was Akala Ko in 1995, a duet with Sharon Cuneta. Michael V. has shifted to comedy TV and movies.

Just last year, the First Filipino Rap Battle League happened on Grain Assault event Quantum Cafe, Makati City, Philippines, Feb. 6, 2010. The brain behind the FlipTop Battle League is 22 year-old Aric Yuson. Aric has always been a fan of the battling aspect of hip-hop and watches different battle leagues online such as America’s Grind Time Now and Canada’s King of The Dot. He wanted to apply it to Philippine culture and is attempting to do so with FlipTop.[ix]

Unlike the rappers that came before them, FlipTop battles consist mainly of rappers insulting each other. The competitions seem friendly. Not a single riot has been reported. Other rappers that are more rhythmic in nature like Repablikan and J-Nick are surfacing too.

Marketability of Rap

It has been done before. Rap sold millions and we can’t argue with numbers. There is a market for rap in the Philippines. ‘Where did the market go?’ is a bigger question. Economy and technology may be the biggest contributors to the problem. Take note that these problems prevail in the whole world. International economy took a nose dive and left many industries dead and mutilated on its way down. Music is one of them.

Why buy songs that we can download for free? A few people buying the album can always mas re-produce the songs via torrent, other forms of peer-to-peer file sharing, and pirated cds. Even when you can’t get the song for free, food, water, shelter and education are more important than songs.

It is not unfair to say that rap’s growth in the Philippines was spoiled by technology and economy.

Same Trajectory as the Ghettos of New York

FlipTop rappers and supporters are mostly from the ghettos of Manila, the same way DJ Herc started in the ghettos of New York. They were looked down on, insulted and discriminated. Let’s admit it, many are discriminating these rappers. For many, they are ‘jejemons’ and can never be an authority when it comes to what is an acceptable form of art.

But look at hip hop now. Half of Hollywood is trying to be black in music, dance moves, language and fashion. If the origin of rap is any indication, we should learn from the mistakes of mainstream America. Don’t be so quick to count them out, we just might find ourselves trying to be ‘jejemons’.

All they may need is time.

That’s It

Not quite.

There are still artists who sell. Maybe not as much as they used to but there are some artists who are fighting through the technological and economic destruction, balladeers particularly. They may not be making much money through album sales but they find other ways to monetize their music and their popularity. They sell ringtones, royalties for their songs that are being used for movies, tv and commercials soundtracks and live shows.

Unfortunately, rappers aren’t one of them. Obviously, mainstream market isn’t feeling the same affinity with rap as they do with ballad.

Rap’s origin is traced through the African-American’s battle against racism. It is so entrenched in their history, culture and genes, whites who are attempting to copy their moves are never safe from becoming a punchline, serious or otherwise.

Breakdancing were created with the natural movements embedded in the genes of African-Americans. Graffitti was an expression necessary due to the lack of freedom granted to African-Americans in the 60s.

We don’t have those history and we certainly don’t have their genes. We can never move the way they do and will never feel the same angst they felt after hundreds of years of slavery. We didn’t have to drop to the floor whenever Whites screamed. We never had to bow whenever Whites pass by. We only had each other to hate and we are quite good at doing it but that’s a different story.

Since art, which is what rap is, is largely born out of emotions, we can never truly embody what rap is. For as long as we can’t turn back time, that will never change. We are foreign to rap and rap is foreign to us.

That is why many people still don’t get it. It was never a part of our history. It is still not.

I remember watching a rapper from India on TV and laughing at him. I only stopped when my father said we “may” look just as silly to other people when we rap so I better cut it and I realized he may be right. We are singing someone else’s sound. It is foreign to us the same way rap is foreign to Indians, Chinese and other races.

The African-Americans themselves don’t seem to mind others singing to their genre. They have welcomed white rappers like the Beastie Boys and this other guy you may have heard of, Eminem. [x] The one thing these guys have going for them is that, at least, they are Americans. Their race came from the same country where rap was born. They played a part in the history of African-Americans which means they played a part in the history of Hip-Hop and rap.

[ii] Steven, Harver. Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music and Graffiti
[iv] Rhodes, H. A., The Evolution of Rap Music in the United States,
[vii] Interview with Pia Magalona (put the date)
[x] Lamarr, Mark, 5&12 April 2003, A BRIEF HISTORY OF RAP,

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