Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tastemakers of the Metro? Philippine hip hop DJs shape hip hop's "soul"

DJ Arbie Won diggin in the crates at his record store
Creative Control

A flourish of guitar strings, the clap of crisp snares, and the boom of kick drums drive the beat as a vocalist croons a sultry melody. This musical ambiance accompanies the decor of DJ Arbie Won's record shop, which stands as a testament to a particular hip hop sensibility.  Iconic hip hop imagery such as Run DMC posters decorate the walls, stacked crates of rare vinyl hug the sides of the room, a photo of an Egyptian pyramid dangles below the air conditioner unit, and a number of turntables and beat machines lay around. A customer "digs" in a crate of soul records.

As we chat, samples of Arbie Won's upcoming album United Freestyles 3 plays in the background. The music can easily pass as "state-side" independent hip hop except for the occasional Tagalog rap performed by local emcees, some veteran and some up-and-coming. Arbie's beats sound smooth and refined, almost like 70s soul with a hip hop snap.

He explains that United Freestyles 3 is the third edition of his famed United Freestyles series, the first which was a rough and rugged "one take" freestyle cipher with thirty emcees. This fabled album, recorded at the height of Philippine hip hop in 1999, was followed by the second edition in 2005, which received the First Annual Philippine Hip Hop Music Award album of the year. (Click here to hear "Taken In" from this album).

In a music-oriented nation with an array of genres, DJ Arbie Won's particular hip hop taste is shared by many Filipino music fans. As seen by the collection of emcees featured in the United Freestyles series and the growing independent hip hop scene in the Philippines, hip hop culture boasts fierce creative circles, where both original Pilipino hip hop and state-side knocks are celebrated. 

Groove Blocked

But according to some DJs, this type of music would probably not be heard in typical Metro Manila dance clubs.

"People are close-minded with music here," DJ Thea says. She believes many club promoters misunderstand hip hop, usually dismissing it as "yelling music." This negative attitude towards hip hop by promoters is reflective of the treatment of hip hop on a larger (national) scale.
Thea (aka DJ Teaze), who is credited with being the "first Filipina hip hop DJ," is a resident DJ for the Metro's biggest clubs such as Republiq and Prive and shares some of Arbie Won's musical hip hop preference. Hailing from Baguio, which was founded as an American city and celebrated its centennial in 2009, Thea attended an international school. She would receive state-side hip hop music from her black and white American friends who made frequent trips to the States.

Even though she is a sought-after club DJ, the type of music at clubs she spins for are at odds with her musical upbringing. "Promoters prefer 'open-format' music," she explains as we chat at a cafe. "Open-format" is a generic term used to describe a mash-up of house and popular American radio music. "They want music that's above 128 beats per minute," Thea points out.   

Hip hop, as "slower" music, seems to have no home in the Metro's clubbing scene. "Knowledge of hip hop has nothing to do with professional DJing in clubs," she says. Thea, who associates hip hop's sound to a jazz tradition, mentions that in some clubs if there is "too much dancing," then the bouncers will kick you out.  I saw this practice for myself at Republiq a few years ago. When party-goers get into a groove and gain attention, the bouncers will intervene.

As a resident DJ of Prince of Jaipur club from 2005-2008, she witnessed the rise of the so-called "era of the superclubs." The infamous Embassy superclub, located next to Jaipur, opened in 2005. "I played hip hop and people had fun. There was no dress code and we had a faithful following of hip hop fans and dancers."

But when Jaipur began to emulate Embassy in 2008 by instilling a dress code and a "superclub feel," the regular Jaipur clientele stopped going. "Some people were blocked because they were wearing 'hip hop clothes,'" Thea remarks. "Dancing for fun stopped."

DJ Thea (aka DJ Teaze) chatting at a cafe

Despite the seeming twilight of the kind of hip hop Thea and her Jaipur audience enjoy, DJ Jena, Thea's "4X2" turntablism partner, has a more optimistic vision of hip hop's trajectory in the Philippines. The duo, who perform beat juggling on four turntables, has toured in Singapore and Qatar for sold out audiences.
"I'm not exactly against it," Jena says about superclubs' peculiar musical choices.  "I like making money. And I love seeing people have a good-ass time. Are superclubs and hip hop in direct opposition? No. Are superclubs and that old golden era of hip hop in direct opposition? Yes. It is what it is."

Sure, the "golden era of hip hop" (which could either mean state-side jams or original Pilipino hip hop that had its hayday and payday in the 1990s for Filipino artists seeking mainstream deals) is a thing of the past, but does that mean Philippine party-goers have abandoned it forever in exchange for "open-format?" As I have written in a prior entry, some hip hop advocates in the Philippines believe right now is the "golden era of hip hop" in the Philippines because of the enormity of creative production happening today.
But, as the DJs will tell you, you won't hear anything "golden" in the club.  But that might be ok. "Hip hop music might not sound exactly the same as it did in the past. But it does sound new. I like new," Jena admits. 

Playlist Operators?

Certainly, the music has changed since the 1990s, but how much control do DJs have in shaping the reception of new music, especially when much of the music being produced by Philippine artists are not even getting much love by Filipinos? If "open-format" cannot accommodate hip hop (at least at this point), even more does it fail to promote original Pilipino hip hop.

Philippine DJs are in a constant struggle to be a part of this changing musical soundscape, which does not always sound the way they'd like. But they spin anyway. And as fans first, their profession is rooted in a passion for hip hop.

DJ Arbie Won's moniker "The Beat Traveler" serves him well.  His musical journey began in 1991 in San Francisco where he used to carry crates for his uncle's mobile DJ business.  He moved to Manila a few years later and brought all his records. Because he owned the latest music, he would make mixtapes for artists who were interlocked with the brewing Philippine hip hop scene. Soon enough, he was invited to join the hip hop crew Urban Flow, got signed to a label, and things took off from there.

DJ Jena on deck at B-Side. Photo credit: B-Side

DJ Jena's journey was similar. Of a younger generation, Jena grew up in the Los Angeles and Seattle where she immersed herself with hip hop. She became a DJ after attending college in Manila. Now she has become a staple in the sonic world of the Metro. 

Without a "state-side" background, as mentioned earlier DJ Thea was exposed to hip hop via her American friends in Baguio. After moving to the Metro in 1999 and before becoming a professional DJ, she performed as a "hype" dancer at clubs with a crew of girls, some of who would eventually become members of the world champion Philippine All Stars hip hop dance group. Starting off as a dancer prepped her ears for playing good dance music. Today, she is a member of the Styles Team, a group of DJs and emcees (or more accurately hype men) hired to rock parties across the Metro.

Love of hip hop for these DJs was born and bred in various ways, and they have different views about the current state of hip hop. But their strategies of inserting hip hop into a "open-format" Philippine party scenes are similar.  

Arbie Won, who also spins at big clubs, sometimes sneaks in two or three hip hop songs, a risky move he thinks few DJs attempt because of the unsure reaction of the crowd and the promoters. Thea plays this subversive game as well, often playing tried and true hip hop anthems at the end of the night (think Arrested Development, SWV, Tribe Called Quest, Naughty By Nature, etc.) when the crowd is thinner, the people are drunk, and a few hip hop fans stick around. 

Their professional expertise as musical performers is called into question in the era of superclubs.  According to Thea, DJs are often treated as employees--not as creative performers--who are paid to play what people want, like someone who operates a playlist from an iPod.

Arbie, Thea, and Jena spin at Boom Bap Friday at B-Side, where hip hop is loved and promoted in The Metro

Arbie Won has a more hopeful outlook at the state of hip hop at clubs. Aside from the occasional "sneaking in" of hip hop in the bigger clubs, he plays hip hop at smaller venues, such as Alfonso's in Ortigas or at the Distillery in Makati, that cater to a niche audience. "I can play hip hop not for a big crowd like at superclubs, but for sixty people who allow you to take them on a journey."

Will a Philippine party crowd in 2012 allow a hip hop DJ to be the captain of their party?
In a country that for the most part tends to disparage hip hop, the hip hop DJ continues to confront an uphill challenge. Arbie laments, “It's sad because Philippines should be leading in hip hop. Other countries support their artists. It’s not about money so much as ignorance of record industry and promoters.”

The Philippine Difference

Regardless of an unreceptive clubbing audience, Philippine DJs and artists are spinning and creating hip hop in their own ways, and with small but passionate hip hop circles there's no sign of it slowing down.

Given the more frequent appearances of Philippine hip hop artists on daytime shows and in marketing campaigns, it may not be a question of if hip hop will become embraced by the mainstream Philippine populace, but how mainstream Philippine hip hop will sound/look like.  Will it be "indigenized" and sound more "foreign" than the American-style of hip hop cherished by many hip hop enthusiasts? Or will it sound like the hip hop of Arbie Won's United Freestyles series? Or will it be a balance of both sensibilities?

Whatever the case, the Filipino/a hip hop DJ plays a key role in popularizing and celebrating the rise of Philippine hip hop. On the crowded dance floor, the DJ has a special opportunity to be the captain, and accompany Philippine hip hop on its journey.

Special thanks: Thea, Arbie, Jena, Chesca, Justin Breathes, Jerome Smooth, Leo, Teishan, and Vince.