This essay was originally delivered as a talk at the 9th Biennial Filipino American National Historical Society Conference in Los Angeles on July 27, 2002.
The global popularity of rap music has shed light on the role of Filipino Americans as a significant force in the urban based culture of hip hop. This is particularly the case in the art of DJ-ing, one of the original four elements of hip hop along with rap, graffiti and breakdancing. The role of Filipino Americans in shaping and reproducing hip hop culture is most evident in their prominence as world renown DJs, including Rhettmatic and Babu of the Los Angeles turntablist crew the Beat Junkies, the Bay Area DJs of the now defunct Invisible Scratch Pickles, and female DJs like DJ Symphony from L.A. and Kuttin Kandy from the straight out of Brooklyn posse 5th Platoon. In California, where according to the 2000 census Filipinos make up the largest segment of Asian Americans, hip hop culture is as much a product of Filipino Americans as it is of any other group in this diverse state. In fact it may be argued that if it wasn't for Filipinos' support and practice of hip hop's various elements, hip hop might have never exploded and gained the momentum that it did in the 1990s.
...Filipinos were often considered the best dancers and flyest dressers in the taxi dancehalls of the early 20th century, at the time just beginning to rock to the new tunes of swing and jazz.
I will talk more about the major contribution of Filipino Americans to the formation of hip hop below but first I would like to note that Filipinos have been at the forefront of California urban culture throughout the 20th century. Although legalized segregation and police surveillance served and continues to serve, to circumscribe their movement, Filipino Americans have joined with Mexican Americans and African Americans in California in creating their own cultural worlds, in the process contributing to the formation of a Filipino American identity that emerges as much from the dynamics of the multi-racial environment as it does from their own cultural heritage.
As the historian Linda Espana-Maram has noted, Filipinos were often considered the best dancers and flyest dressers in the taxi dancehalls of the early 20th century, at the time just beginning to rock to the new tunes of swing and jazz. This proclivity to move to the music among Filipino Americans is, of course, historical since for centuries dance has formed an integral part of Filipino religious culture in the archipelago. In the 1920s Filipino workers in Los Angeles mixed with working class Blacks and Mexican Americans in the taxi dancehalls, the forerunners to the nightclub in downtown L.A. These dancehalls emerged as part of the growth of the American leisure industry in the early 20th century and they offered one of the few social institutions in the city that was not restricted to people of color. In the early 20th century, Filipinos, Blacks, Mexicans and Jews were legally segregated into the "colored" neighborhoods of South Central and East Los Angeles. Real estate agents, government officials, and the Los Angeles Police Department actively enforced the color lines throughout the city. Yet Filipinos and other communities of color responded to their segregation and the denigration of people of color in general by creating their own spaces of pleasure and mixture. Moreover, in helping popularize dance clubs and swing music, youth of color helped provide a valuable space and market for the development of rock and roll in the 1940s and 1950s.
Rather than hide, however, Filipino, Mexican, and African American youth flaunted their marginality by wearing zoot suits or drape shapes-wide-brimmed hats, broad-shouldered long coats, high-waisted peg-legged trousers and long dangling chains...
Filipinos, African Americans and Mexican Americans were at the forefront of this emerging rock and roll movement in Los Angeles. Although Filipinos were restricted for a time in the 1930s due to Anglo nativism motivated by the Great Depression, thousands of immigrants from the Philippines came to California during WWII, along with several thousand immigrants from Mexico and African American migrants from the southern United States. These groups were recruited to help fill the shortage of labor in the area due to the war. Filipinos settled in downtown and the Harbor area where they shared the same spaces of work and leisure with African Americans and Mexican Americans. These communities of color were heavily surveilled by the police, who contained their movement by raiding the integrated spaces where they gathered. Rather than hide, however, Filipino, Mexican, and African American youth flaunted their marginality by wearing zoot suits or drape shapes-wide-brimmed hats, broad-shouldered long coats, high-waisted peg-legged trousers and long dangling chains, while dancing in the segregated black-and-tan cabarets of the city. The visibility of the Other was not taken lightly by whites in the city. In 1943, Anglo sailors and vigilantes rioted in East L.A. and downtown in an attempt to forcefully silence these zoot suited youth, and although Mexican Americans were mostly beaten, African American and Filipino youth were also targeted. As the historian Carey McWilliams reported at the time, "Marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a mob of several thousand soldiers, sailors, and civilians, proceeded to beat up every zoot-suiter they could find
Streetcars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked out of their seats, pushed into the streets and beaten with sadistic frenzy." In the aftermath of the riots, the LAPD ignored the Anglo rioters and arrested the zoot suiters while the Los Angeles Times applauded the sailors' patriotism on the front pages of the newspaper. Local community activism and organizing, however, raised awareness and money for the defense of the arrested zoot suiters, resulting in their release and their eventual acquittal. Yet zoot suiters had done more than just dress fashionably; they had provided a glimpse into an alternative world where cultural difference was something to be nurtured and celebrated, rather than hidden. Using their bodies and each other as resources, Filipino, Mexican, and African American zoot suiters carved a cultural space for themselves and challenged their own subordination through a politics of zoot style that utilized their own bodies as a critical site of opposition.
...Filipino Americans have fueled America's most recent cultural explosion, hip hop, and are currently a major force in the branching off of hip hop...
Filipinos were a relatively small population in California and the United States in the first half of the 20th century, yet they had been important participants in the major urban cultural formations of that era. In the last two decades of the 20th century, however, Filipino Americans have fueled America's most recent cultural explosion, hip hop, and are currently a major force in the branching off of hip hop into both turntablism, in which a DJ uses the turntables as a musical instrument, and the burgeoning and politically engaged spoken word movement. Unlike New York City, where hip hop culture emerged among Blacks and Puerto Ricans in the housing projects and asphalt playgrounds of the South Bronx, hip hop culture in California erupted in the backyards and driveways of African American, Latino and Filipino American neighborhoods throughout the state. While Filipino Americans lived in many of the places where hip hop would take hold in southern California, such as Central L.A or Southeast San Diego, the impact of Filipinos in the early development of west coast hip hop has been especially vibrant in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area.
Large waves of Filipino immigrants came to the United States during the 1970s as a consequence of the 1965 Immigration Act, which opened the door to immigration from Asia and Latin America in unprecedented numbers. This wave of immigrants transformed the working class suburb of Daly City into the largest Filipino community outside Manila. In the 1980s the children of these immigrants were the driving force in the development of DJ culture in San Francisco. Although not all the DJs were Filipino American, many were. Large mobile DJ crews, such as Imperial Sounds, Dynamic Sounds, and others would throw backyard dance parties throughout South San Francisco. DJs often competed with one another, eventually making scratching a major factor in deciding whom the better DJ was. Initially these DJ crews played and mixed electro funk and "Latin freestyle", a high-energy dance music related to disco. As rap records became more available[,] hip hop music came to dominate the DJ scene on into the present. The most well known Filipino American DJ crew to emerge from this era was the all-Filipino Invisible Scratch Pickles, including DJ Qbert, Shortcut, DJ Apollo, and Mix Master Mike, the current DJ for the Beastie Boys. Filipino American DJs not only helped introduce hip hop music and culture to the Bay but they have also become the major innovators of a musical revolution, "turntablism," creating new techniques and styles in manipulating turntables to great effect.
In the Bay Area, Filipino Americans have contributed to the formation of a distinctly west coast hip hop culture... institutionalizing DJ culture through the creation of the International Turntable Federation...
The popularity of DJ culture among Filipino Americans has not only contributed to a wealth of young DJs but has also helped support the growth of hip hop music in California via the music's consumption and popularization. In the Bay Area, Filipino Americans have contributed to the formation of a distinctly west coast hip hop culture, including organizing websites, like Alex Aquino's Hip Hop.com, institutionalizing DJ culture through the creation of the International Turntable Federation, by forming break-dancing collectives such as the Bay Area chapter of the Rock Steady Crew, and through the development of graffiti art.
Mike Dream, a Filipino American from Oakland who was killed in 2000, was one of the major pioneers of graffiti on the West Coast. Indeed, Dream was invited to Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum for a historical event in which all the pioneers of hip hop were gathered to document the history of hip hop culture. Dream spoke on an international panel with graffiti legends Case 2, Daze, Vulcan, Lady Pink, Mode 2, Erni, and Phase 2. Mike Dream's art was visually striking and profoundly expressive of his urban environment. Dream used his art to celebrate, express, and learn from his own Filipino American background in order to relate to, not separate from, others. As Spie, one of his graffiti partners described it, "Dream pieces connected with and raised the sights of a broad community voice, unifying people from vastly different backgrounds
MD preserved that culture of resistance by urging others to recapture their past and be conscious minded in their lives. With a firm pride in his Pinoy roots, Dream embraced other cultures as well."
As Filipinos living in America had done throughout the 20th century Mike Dream used culture as a resource against his own marginalization. As Dream himself put it, "I went through a consciousness phase in the writing, realizing that 'art for art's sake' was weak and that there was power in the message. I began to understand the roots of my own culture. My Filipino heritage taught me about the struggles and sacrifices of my people for equality in this country, opening my eyes to the racism that surrounds our lives, and all of our brothers and sisters of color. My pieces started to have more content and substance, and each piece meant more than bombing (which is a fundamental part of this writing culture), but had more of a message. My writing has become a part of mental liberation, focusing on issues such as police brutality, national liberation, racism, and rebellion. But, ultimately, it is the style of the letters, the words, that keep me writing, because to stay in the game, you need to stay on top of your style and ride that sh
." Dream found a larger meaning to his art through his identity as a Pinoy living in urban America. At the same time, by drawing on his Filipino roots Dream was able to make connections to others in the city and find his place in the collective and on-going struggle against racism and injustice. And he did it with style.
© Victor Hugo Viesca
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