The pulse quickened, and the dusty, crackle-pop beat pounded with shouting coming both from the track and the teenage friends in front of me. We were wildin’ out in body and spirit, voices matching the chorus. “You best protect ya neck!”
It was ’93, the end of summer. Sam had just come back from NYC, and brought with him the first single from the Wu-Tang Clan. And as he blasted it at his house, we bobbed our heads and jumped up and down. Red and white Polo Sport over blue denim blurred as the music spoke to our souls. It was a force. An energy. What the ancient Romans would describe as animus, the spirit. The soul. What we did not, and could not have known then was that maybe this sound reminded us deep inside of a warrior blood and tradition that hundreds of years ago, and thousands of miles away. We were jungle brothers, connecting native tribes from the 1890’s Philippines with the Native Tongues and Tribe from 1990’s New York.
What the modern world now knows as The Philippines was not always this way. The modern construct of a country with political boundaries and national identity was once, and in some ways still very much is many hundreds of islands, with different tribes and languages and customs. And similar to their counterparts in Africa, these tribes were dark skinned. Painted. The Spanish initially described these tattooed people as pintados. Later they would be called Indios, with the term Filipino reserved only for the light skinned Spanish born in that colony. Close in community and fierce in their fighting. The rhythm of these tribes, birthed dances that would later disguise and mask their identities. It painted the soundscape to the fires that lit the night in the jungles and on the beaches. It drove the movements and arts that both men and women, and especially women to stand and move and fight fiercely to protect their homes. It gave birth to Kali.
Named tens, if not hundreds of different names across this land of tribes, the martial arts that evolved to protect these people used swords, spears, bows and arrows, blowguns. It was called estocada, pangamut, kuntaw and kali. Kali from kamut, the hand. And lihok, the movement. Kali referring to body movement, the body motion. The body rock.
Don’t you call this a regular jam
I’m gonna rock this land
I’m gonna take this itty-bitty world by storm
And I’m just gettin’ warm
Just like Muhammed Ali
- LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out”
Spain would conquer and colonize the Philippines for 377 years. And the white skinned Conquistadors destroyed those tribes’ foreign, Wild Style writing. They forbid their warrior practice. Made the natives wear clothing that could no longer conceal their blades. They cut their hair, covered the “pintados” (painted ones) skin and changed their names. They stripped their identities. But not completely. Hidden in the veins of these warrior women coursed the blood of a nation, the “dugo ng bansa” as Pamana Tuhon Sayoc would say. These tribes hid their fighting and movement in dances. Dances of stories and of Christians and of young lovers. Uprock footwork that moved between bamboo in the Tinikling dance. Pop locking handplay in the Baglalatik. It was the transformation of a proud tribal culture to a mythology of stories containing swords and blind princesses, leaving only the echo of Chief Lapu-Lapu’s defeat of Magellan on the shores of Mactan.
What I use in the battle for the mind
Hit it hard like it supposed
Pulling no blows to the nose.
- Chuck D, “Shut Em Down”
At the turn of the century, the Spaniards were replaced with American military as the Philippines became the US’s only colony in history. To help ease relations and build the trust of the natives, the United States Army tasked it’s soldiers with sharing and spreading American culture, through sports. And one of the biggest sports in the world at that time was boxing. It was the 8th and 9th Cavalry, along with the 24th and 25th Infantry, specifically African American units, “Buffalo Soldiers” that connected with Filipinos the most and started the unique relationship between natives from the Philippines and Black America. The soldiers introduced gloves and mitts to the natives, and the indigenous knife fighting of the jungle changed American boxing. It was from those times that the Philippines would birth it’s many world champion “Pinoy” boxers, who dominated the sport until the 1930’s. American, especially African American boxing would change too from the upright and stiff European “John L. Sullivan” style to the angled, head movement and hands up structure that characterizes American boxers like Sugar Ray Leonard, Roy Jones and even Floyd Mayweather today. These Filipinos, like the descendants of African slaves in America, shared a history of oppression. Of colonization. Of loss of identity. And a birth of a new one. With the proliferation of American servicemen in the Philippines, there were mixed children, of Pinoy or Pinay and White or Black or Latino heritage that grew in community in their mothers’ land, or acculturated into their fathers’ families in America.
As waves of Filipinos immigrated to the United States, they came in the 30’s and 40’s as migrant workers. In the 50’s and 60’s as veterans of WWII, and in the 70’s and 80’s as both enlisted Navy and as part of America’s “Brain Drain” recruitment of nurses, doctors and engineers. Through the years they came as pensionados, academics. They came as political refugees fleeing Marco’s dictatorship and martial law. And they found themselves in Northern California, eventually in Stockton and Daly City with the highest concentrations of Filipinos outside of the Philippines. In Southern California, where one Filipino stood amongst the 17 that founded Los Angeles. On the East Coast in Virginia’s Naval Bases. And New York City.
So it was almost exactly a hundred years from the US colonization of the Philippines (1898) to the tail end of the Golden Era of Hip Hop in 1993 where our paths continued. It wasn’t that Filipino immigrants were drawn to 90’s hip hop. It was a history and culture and spirit of a people that were kindred with those that created this culture and art form that synced with each other. In the 90’s there were literally tribes. Tribe. Native Tongues. Soul Brothers. Black Spades. Universal Zulu Nation. Rock Steady Crew. They were tribes that danced. That painted their skin and wrote their wild style on the walls, like Filipino tribesmen once scrawled Baybayin on bamboo in the jungle. They warred and fought. The Sayoc and Atienza Kali families emerged from a time and place of 80’s and 90’s Jamaica Queens, machete fighting in the concrete jungle like Filipinos had done hundreds of years prior halfway around the world. In the same way that in Astrology, the movement of the planets does not control a person, but rather peoples and the stars reflect a universal energy, Filipinos through time and space converged with Afro-Latino experiences stifled in 80’s conservative policies to find themselves in a musical, visual, movement and innovative world of Beat Street, Krush Groove and the unforgettable Last Dragon. Sho ‘nuff.
The Filipino Martial Art of Kali is characterized by creativity. By flow. By play. By improvisation with any tool or weapon. Breaking structures like Breakin’ Atoms. Like breaking boys, six stepping footwork to the breakdown echoing colonized folk dancers top rocking to the drumming between bamboo. Kali, like sayaw, like dancing is a blend of flowing and fluid complexity. Of expression. Of echo. And it was this spirit of the Philippines that Filipino Americans, Fil-Ams as they are sometimes referred to by those in the Philippines, that fueled and bound a history and culture and spirit to the new expression that reminded some of bebop, an evolution that cycled Bobby Brown amping like Michael. Or like the mandirigma, the warriors dancing by the fire. In circles. From dirt and sand to cardboard and linoleum. And the daughters and sons of Navy cooks, of veterans, of undocumented gangsters continued their fighting spirit as rebels. As creators. As crews. Sometimes even as thugs.
What you doin’ in LA, with Filipinos and ese’s.
- Jay-Z, “A Million & One Questions”
In the San Francisco Bay Area, mobile DJ crews as written about by Oliver Wang in 2015’s “Legions of Boom” dominated the scene and spawned modern turntablism as we know it. DJ Q-Bert, Shortcut and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz would spin down south to DJ Babu & The Beatjunkies in LA. The most notable Filipino American, or Pinoy rapper being Apl De Ap of then unknown Atban Klann (now known as the Black Eyed Peas). This noticeable presence was even detailed by Davey D in 1997’s “Filipinos in Hip Hop Culture.”
Yeah, what? You found Manuel Noreaga? In the Philippines?
- Noreaga (N.O.R.E.), “Superthug”
On the East Coast things were poppin’ with infamously half Pinay Foxy Brown, “lookin’ half black and Filipino, fakin’ no jacks” (Jay-Z, “Ain’t No Nigga”), and one half of the insanely successful Neptunes with Pharrell Williams, Filipino American Chad Hugo. Filipino Americans like us were draped in Polo Sport and butter leather Tims, the modern day equivalent to our native T’nalak (Dreamweaver) fabric and soldado (or soldado de cuera, leather protected Filipino soldiers under Spain) trappings. The classic elements of hip hop culture were direct reflections of a Filipino history once rich with tradition. Tinikling dancing and Kali footwork, to six stepping and uprocking. The improvised use of fire hardened rattan and stingray tails as weapons, to setting up mixers and turntables perfect for turntablism. Lyrical acrobatics born from Rakim and embodied in Nas, Biggie and Mobb Deep echoed the playful creativity of indigenous dialects, “Taglish” Tagalog English type of pidgeon speak, the Arabic and Sanskrit influenced Baybayin had its counterpart in graffiti Wild Style, throw ups and end-to-end burners.
Eyes low, lookin’ Philippine divide dough.
- Capone-n-Noreaga, “T.O.N.Y. (Top of New York)”
90’s hip hop blended late 80’s pro-blackness from Public Enemy and Ice Cube, with the revived G-Funk Death Row and ‘Pac West Coast gangster rap, and the street gully grittiness of Das Efx, Gravediggaz, Mobb Deep, Nas, Biggie and Wu. And hip hop continued to embrace and include more. Big Pun and Fat Joe built on what the Beatnuts. Ruff Rydaz signed Asian American Jin. And Eminem continued a legacy that Beastie Boys started and Vanilla Ice nearly ruined. More peoples were contributing to hip hop. Method Man talked about all the flavors of honeys in Ice Cream. And gangsta, thugged out shit was in. Capone-n-Noreaga’s War Report, Dog Pound and Mobb Deep brought that realness. And the Fil-Am sons and daughters of 70’s era disco dancers, 80’s People Power rebels, Barkada gangsters and elite academics found the spirit brother of another mother culture in hip hop. And just like the universal energy that moves both personalities and astrological positions, the spirit and body movement of peoples across time and space intersected Filipino Americans with 90’s hip hop. It wasn’t the only time for sure, in the past nor for the future. But it was a poignant time and crossroads for cultures and traditions, transitioning and constantly flowing. Not the past, but the future.