JOLO, Jazze, and Mary rock the crowd at Battle of the Beats (Photo credit: Rica Phonics)Battle of the Beats seeks competition and cooperation to reignite hip hop
Philippine Hip Hop’s Golden Age?
By Mark V.
“I’m a-I’m a Filipino til I die, til I die,” the “bad” voice repeats as Genius Ears of Paro Paro Beats steps away from the controls and stomps hard at the front of the stage. He dangles his arms and head at the lull of the beat and flexes his neck at the snare in a krump gesture. Children unclasp tiny grips on mothers to commence dance floor bouncing.
At this moment, Genius is the preacher and the audience the eager congregation. On the opposite side of the Battle of the Beats stage, B-Roc with baseball cap low grins and exchanges daps with Genius as the beat flourishes and annunciates like an inspiring sermon.
But tonight is not really a battle. Tonight is a jubilant communion of the faithful.
The Battle of the Beats showcase at Teatrino in Greenhills, Metro Manila on July 15th is intended to exhibit a certain standard of sound, but instead of listening like passive spectators, the crowd hollers out for Genius Ears in his moment of ecstasy.
B-Roc and Genius Ears catch the spirit
According to Battle of the Beats organizers Chill and Sam Rhansum of the event production group Red Alert Entertainment, the salvo—a showcase of twelve top-notch Philippine-based beat producers—represents a turning point for Philippine hip hop, which is often seen as dead to the ears of the Philippine public. Tonight, Filipino hip hop believers testify with hands raised.
When he arrived in the Philippines, Sam Rhansum could not believe it. It is common to hear music echoing in public areas around the islands, but the hip hop music blaring from a corner store had special meaning for Rhansum because he produced the beat and spits the last verse. “From the Far East to the ATL” rings the chorus in the club banger “The Shining” by the Filipino megacrew The Renaissance. As he listened to the knock, Atlanta-based Rhansum—who has made music for BET and MTV—knew the Philippines had a unique place in the continuing story of hip hop.
“The Philippines has a very musical culture,” Rhansum reflects as we chat together with Chill at a café in one of Metro Manila’s ubiquitous shopping malls. His shaved head, tinted shades, white tee, and dangling chain marks a certain American Southern hip hop style, but his white skin marks his seemingly “outsider” status within the fabric of the Philippines’ social landscape. Nonetheless, he expresses his faith in a Philippine musical turn-around of which he wishes to contribute. He gleams excitedly: “The Philippines has the potential to blow up with hip hop.”
For Chill, the Philippines’ musical soundscape does not come as a surprise. As a pioneer in the hip hop movement in the Philippines in the 1990s, she already knows the impressive reach of a Filipino hip hop audience. As a teenager, she signed with Sony Music and demonstrated her dynamism by producing her own beats. Chill collaborated with popular Philippine artists such as the hip hop group Sun Valley Crew. At a time when hip hop and rock were seen as musical enemies in the Philippines, she performed alongside big rock acts such as Wolfgang, Razorback, Eraserheads, Greyhoundz, RiverMaya, and Sandwich to name a few. Filipino hip hoppers will know her feel-good anthems, such as “Party All Night.”
For Chill, hip hop has seen brighter days. After a hiatus of which included fashion school in the United States, she is back in Manila with a mission to reignite Philippine hip hop’s popularity. “We want to put the eye back on the ‘urban scene’ once again,” she describes the purpose of Red Alert.
Wiser with experience and willing to take risks, Chill understands the changes that have occurred since the 1990s. For one, hip hop never disappeared completely but actually blossomed into a serious, disciplined craft for many Filipino performers in the “underground.” Different regions of Metro Manila—from the South in Las Pinas to the North in Quezon City and all places in between and beyond—have developed their own hip hop musical “sounds.” Other regions of the Philippines outside of Metro Manila now boast their own crucibles of hip hop.
The biggest change, it seems, is that hip hop artists no longer monetize like they used to. Without industry support—especially from record companies and live show venues—hip hop has lost material capital. “If there is no place for hip hop, make one. You need to show and prove,” Chill states defiantly.
As a teenager, she proved how defiance can produce results. When skeptical industry heads would not sign her, she did what any smart businesswoman would do: she gathered the type of rappers that appealed to record labels, made their beats, and signed them to the same labels that rejected her. This arrangement proved lucrative as these acts soon blew up and garnered a steady audience. She produced their live shows, where she performed a quick set of her own. “The industry people saw I had my own following at these shows, so they signed me.” Sony Music released her first album Chill in 1997.
Hip Hop Cosmopolitan, Hip Hop Jologs
But 2011 isn’t 1997. The notorious “jologs” stigma that has always been attached to hip hop in the Philippines since the genre emerged in the country has morphed into different—often contradictory—forms. In the 1990s when hip hop monetized, “jologs”—which roughly translates as “ghetto,” uncultured, or kitsch—was complemented by hip hop’s newness and cosmopolitan flair.
In the early 1990s, MTV had arrived in the Philippines in the guise of MTV Asia and access to hip hop became easier than ever before. Franchesca Casauay, director of the Akei Popular Music Working Group at the University of the Philippines and radio personality at Sari-Sari Sounds Radio, remembers when hip hop popularized: “I used to stay up until 3:00 am everyday and tuned into MTV and watched videos and discovered new artists and music genres.”
Many Filipino American expatriates to the “motherland” benefited from hip hop’s cosmopolitan qualities. MastaPlann made it big in the Philippine music industry after signing with Universal Records. After migrating to the Philippines in 1992 from California, the crew soon became one of the most successful hip hop groups in the country, partly due to their English-speaking lyrics that remains associated with a more cosmopolitan crowd.
At the same time, record producers demanded a brand of hip hop “jologs” in Tagalog they believed would sell among the larger lower class in the country.
But this harmony would not last. When rock bands became the golden staple of the music industry and Philippine hip hop became strongly connoted with the much-maligned “jologs” stigma, the metaphoric “eye” turned away from Philippine hip hop artists. Industry stakeholders withdrew their faith in the capitalizing power of hip hop and invested in “safer” live band acts.
As capital’s fickle affection committed itself to rock bands, MastaPlann decided to leave the Philippine music scene only to return last year—thirteen years later—for a reunion concert where they were celebrated as living legends of Philippine hip hop.
If one counts the early influences of Francis M and other Filipino hip hop pioneers in the 1980s, the Philippines has more than two decades of hip hop culture pulsating through its veins. Given the Philippines’ tortuous relationship to the culture, is the country ready to put the “eye” on hip hop once again?
Iron Sharpens Iron
Red Alert Entertainment hopes to recapture the industry’s attention. Dotting the crowd at the July 15th event were representatives from Viva Records, MCA/Universal, Audio Clef, and Hit Productions, just to name a few. These special guests were treated to some of the Philippines’ finest acts. Accompanying the quality sound of Metro Manila’s premiere beat makers were rap and R&B performances by Q-York, Mike Kosa, and The Renaissance (JOLO, Mary, Jazze, Pikaso, Rhansum, Ron Thug and Gene Roca) to top off the “standard” of hip hop music Red Alert Entertainment seeks to set.
With the mostly English-speaking emcees and singers and a cohort of Fil Ams among the beat makers (Pikaso, who is originally from California, says he represents “Philafornia”), it appears Red Alert is formulating a “standard” that leans more towards a once successful cosmopolitan hip hop sound.
With the stage now set, Rhansum believes hungry producers will be urged to pump out more quality beats, which Red Alert considers to be the backbone of hip hop. To be clear, Battle of the Beats is not limited to just one night. The showcase “battlers” of July 15th will serve as judges for the bona fide battles that are programmed twice a month for the next six months. “Competition breeds quality,” recites Rhansum.
Chill and Sam Rhansum (Photo credit: Jon Morgan)
Sam Rhansum and Chill share a laugh during our interview
The winner of the entire tournament will receive a complete set of professional studio equipment and an official introduction to networks within the Philippine music industry. “Instead of fighting over crumbs, we can all work together to make cake,” Rhansum comments on the way Philippine hip hop artists have been scrounging for compensation for the past decade. Battle of the Beats aspires to be a powerful medium to bring the best together to become better together. “Iron sharpens iron.”
“Labels aren’t slighting artists because they are hip hop. It’s because they are not making money,” Chill remarks. “Red Alert seeks to conglomerize artists. We have a phrase in the Philippines, ‘kami-kami lang’ (only our small group). But, there is strength in numbers.” “Instead of having artists separated, we are trying to build recognition through numbers and have the industry come to us,” seconds Rhansum.
What Rhansum calls a “swapmeet for beats and emcees,” Battle of the Beats aims to be a forum to bring together music agents from record labels, TV, radio, and cinema together with hip hop artists. Chill states, “We want the same kind of mentality for hip hop artists as for rock bands. We want people to pay for a hip hop show like they do for rock bands. We want people to pay hip hop artists.”
But Red Alert is about more than simply monetizing artists, according to Rhansum. Artist education and professionalization is key, with compensation as the bi-product. “We want to provide a community to teach artists how to perform at lives shows and to know about licensing their work.”
To demonstrate the group’s commitment to the “masa” (everyday people), Red Alert is programming Battle of the Beats amateurs’ edition at SM Mall, where an aspiring producer who may not have the resources can create a beat using software and equipment supplied by the mall. The “diamond in the rough” winner will then have a chance to compete in the bigger Battle of the Beats series. “In hip hop, it’s the hustle mentality I admire,” Chill reflects.
MastaPlann’s reunion concert last year convinced Sam Rhansum to settle in the Philippines. He performed a set at the concert and received so much love from the Filipino audience. With an obvious mass of “underground” hip hop enthusiasts hungry for more music from its Philippine-based artists, Battle of the Beats became more and more realistic. In the early 1990s, MastaPlann opened a space for a captive hip hop audience; the group now inspires dreams of reigniting hip hop’s glory days. “I think hip hop’s golden age is now,” Rhansum declares passionately.
B-Roc raises it up (Photo credit: Rica Phonics)
The Philippines in the 1990s had a hip hop scene few Filipino Americans know about. While Fil Ams in the Bay Area were big on Freestyle and R&B music (think Kai, Jocelyn Enriquez, or Buffy), their kindred in the Philippines were making major moves in the hip hop industry. Fil Am emcees may have risen in popularity in the mid-2000s (think Blue Scholars, Native Guns, Deep Foundation, or Rocky Rivera), but Filipinos in the Philippines a decade prior have proven that Filipino emcees could magnetize a paying audience.
Today, despite a lack of monetary compensation, hip hop is alive in the Philippines, with patches of hip hop scenes dotting the archipelago caught up in the hustle over scarce resources. The culture survives despite the hunger, but the future of its artists remains uncertain.
Battle of the Beats was a congregation of some of Philippine hip hop’s most devoted. But filling the choir seats is not enough to celebrate mass. “Kami-kami lang” has no place in Red Alert’s vision for hip hop in the Philippines. Perhaps Battle of the Beats is a beginning for bigger things to come, where hip hop unbelievers and apostles, the lay and the anointed can worship at the alter of quality music, and celebrate hip hop together.
Special thanks to Chill, Sam Rhansum, Megan Villanueva, Franchesca Casauay, and Justin Gabriel.