Before they perform at the Fete de la Musique “Not Bad Cypher Stage” this Saturday, Kartell’em and Original Flavor’s Jomattz sound off on the state of the scene.I n all my years spent interviewing and working with artists in the music industry, I barely made any effort to connect with the local hip-hop.
I probably thought I was too punk rock to listen to it at the time, or perhaps I just couldn’t picture myself living their views and lifestyle – you know, all the rapping about gang fights and breakdancing and wearing baggy jeans and bandanas on their faces or whatever stereotypical item of clothing you’d visualize them in. I was in the world of music. I’d spoken to a number of rock bands, helped in organizing events, written press releases for metal festivals and everything hardcore in between, yet I never pictured myself talking about a culture so complex and different from the scene that I grew up in. It was only last week that I got the opportunity to do that, to converse and learn more about the subject with the people involved with it.
The rendezvous was set at the El Chante in Poblacion, Makati, the venue of this year’s Fete de la Musique “Not Bad Cypher Stage.” Unofficially known as the “Hip-Hop Stage”, it will feature a mixed set of rap artists and dance crews to fully encapsulate the diversity and true essence of local “hip-hop.” Joining me at the meeting were its organizers, Kimi Buendia and Carlo Bernardino. Also present were the 13-piece rap group Kartell’em (easily one of the rising names in the scene) and Jomattz, a member of hip-hop dance crew Original Flavor. They are scheduled to perform on Saturday, but before El Chante sets the stage for them, they settled at one of its sparsely lit corners to shed light on the current state of local hip-hop.
H ip-hop, like many other genres, can be read and expressed in various ways. In the local scene, at least, there are four elements: DJing, or “turntabling”; rapping which also known as “MCing” or “rhyming,” graffiti painting (also known as “graf” or “writing”) and “B-boying,” which involves hip-hop dance, style, and norms. Hence, the genre is a multilayered culture that transcends way beyond its conventional, mainstream definition as mere “ghetto” music focusing on sex, substance use, and violence.
Hip-hop can be translated into fluid, calculated steps or elucidated as gigantic, multicolored frescoes of names, labels, icons, and ideologies on suburban walls. However, these other disciplines are usually foregone due to the dominance and immense popularity of rap music in the media.
In the Philippines, for example, hip-hop dance, an integral aspect of “B-boying,” only gained traction in 2006 when Filipino crews represented the country in the annual “Hip-Hop International” dance competition. Or at least that’s how Jomattz recounted it; after all, he’s been performing in the hip-hop dance scene for more than 10 years. These days, however, he is more optimistic as advances in technology and media provide greater access and extensive representation to aspiring crews. In addition to that, increasing collaborations between rap groups and dance crews contribute to a heightened community of rappers and dancers who support and promote each other’s passions.
The state of Pinoy rap music – or “Pinoy hip-hop”, as we generally know it – on the other hand, is an entirely different thing. Despite its relatively recent rise to mainstream prominence, Pinoy rap has been around for decades and had experienced sporadic successes throughout the years. Arguably, its most recognizable record is the chart-topping and karaoke staple, “Stupid Love” by Salbakuta. Seriously, who doesn’t know that song?
Still, in hindsight, it was virtually impossible for anyone growing up in the 80’s and 90’s to deny the fame and impact brought about by the new school of hip-hop burgeoning in the States. Even I was born and raised in that generation which produced radical and timeless “Golden Age of Hip Hop” music. Even I was listening to the likes of Ice Cube, Dre, Wu-Tang, Snoop, 2Pac, Jay-z, and Biggie rapping about partying and getting laid, and fighting the police in the ghettos on cassette tapes owned by a friendly kid neighbor’s oversized jeans-wearing, bars-spitting, cranky older brother. The local movement of that era, however, struggled to break through the mainstream and was dominated by very few names, most notable of them were Andrew E and Francis Magalona. At least that’s how I remember it. I was a kid back then, and when the rhymes got off the air in favor of conformist pop music, I just moved ahead.
Nonetheless, Kartell’em corroborates how this apparent lack of access to commercial success hindered Pinoy hip-hop’s reach and influence until the early 2000’s. Instead, it thrived and drove movements in the underground where young blood flowed and fresh minds followed the trends which would eventually transform the way music was made and disseminated. This paved the way for the evolution of a new scene and culture that now predominates the landscape.
Going back to a time when artists were still selling records to friends and playing at uncrowded bar gigs to be heard, local rap battle trademark “Fliptop” brought Pinoy hip-hop to unprecedented popularity and revolutionized the scene in ways never before imagined nor seen in its history. The contest popularized street-style, no-holds-barred freestyle rapping to the masses. With the help of Youtube and other forms of social media, it garnered a wide reach and gained fans by the thousands. Its basic setup, witty and oftentimes vitriol-driven “bars” between contestants, and the promise of easy fame made Fliptop and its subsequent movements household names. It came to a point when counterculture colloquialism made the label itself synonymous to words like “arguments” or “battles.” More importantly, its successful use of technology to produce content and market artists created a common ground for all of local hip-hop’s disciplines to converge and engage as a unified genre. This development created a lasting and promising impression on the new generation of talents. Now, they are keener for ambition and more technologically adept at producing music and creating a name and legacy of their own.
Fast forward to 2019 – more than 10 years after the first “Fliptop” battle debuted on Youtube – hip-hop groups mushroomed from every street and corner of the country. Born of this was a catalog of songs touching upon a wide array of subjects: from rolling blunts to falling in love to police brutality and social and economic inequality. They’ve also employed a concoction of styles–from as far back as mid-80’s “gangsta rap” and R&B to its modern incarnations of trap music and even “mumble rap”.
Kartell’em is part of this movement. Established two years ago by a group of friends, the collective seeks to use their MCing skills and carefree, skater lifestyle to motivate others and strive for “the greater good.” As a result, the men, based in Makati, have risen to relative mainstream popularity with their clever lyrics and catchy rhymes juxtaposed with otherwise controversial and provocative topics. You experience this in songs such as “Posse”, “Donat”, and “No Drugs in Heaven”.
“We just wanted to do something productive with our skills and have fun in the process,” said Waiian, one of the group’s members. The alternative, he added would’ve just involved them “lazing around all day with our skateboards and not affecting any changes.”
Since their debut, Kartell’em’s singles and music videos have already raked in close to a total million views on Youtube. They have also formed a network of devoted fans and followers eager to watch them at every chance. I asked them what their greatest asset was behind this success and to this, Waiian had a simple reply: “passion.”
“We have the heart for it and we pour our best efforts into this craft,” he said. “We don’t worry about trying to be unique and standing out of the crowd. We just write about the things that we want and the things that we do and hope for the best. Besides, we have the technology, we have the minds, we have the skills. We got everything we need.”
Jomattz too is fueled by passion. He’s been performing for more than a decade now and to this day, this keeps him in the scene.
“Passion for your work, passion for the culture,” he said. “It’s my passion for hip-hop that keeps me moving.”
W hen asked whether they are worried that hip-hop’s exponential success would lead to a saturated market of dumb songs and untalented coxcombs—among the byproduct of commercialism—they are unbothered.
“For us, if people want to write and listen to songs like that and call it ‘hip-hop’, then that is up to them,” Waiian said. “We cannot define what hip-hop is. People are entitled to their own taste. Nobody owns what hip-hop can and cannot be ‘cause this culture is non-discriminating and fluid.”
“It is evolving,” he added, “and we all have our own ways to express ourselves and interpret the art that we take. Hip-hop today is far different from what it was 20 years ago, albeit still built on the same foundations.”
Jomattz interjected that even in the hip-hop dance scene, any form of movement with roots to the genre should be taken in as a product of the culture’s constantly changing history.
“Even ‘twerking’ has its roots in dancehall,” he said. “Whether you like it or not, accept it or reject it, it is still a part of hip-hop.”
All things considered, Kartell’em is confident that hip-hop will outlive and rise above the possible input of commercialism.
“Fads will fade and what remains will be the people whose foundations in hip-hop are solid and truly have the heart for it,” Waian stated. “See, it’s just like the Internet. On the surface, you see a lot of the nuisance and pollution that plague our society, but delve deeper into its web and you’ll find underground groups and connections that you never thought existed.”
With all the new and promising talents, the improvements in technology and the strong sense of community in local hip hop, Kartell’em believes that it will be even greater than it was in the next 10 years.
“Who knows?” Waiian said. “In the future, we just might have a global scale hip-hop concert featuring a single stage and the genre’s biggest artists, and being streamed live for all people in the world to see?” Well, coming from someone who has been involved with concerts for years and personally witnessed this cultural evolution in motion, I agree.
For now, however, the next big concert for Kartell’em and Original Flavor would be on Saturday. Together with Al James, BLKD, Calix, Skin x Bones, and Bawal Clan, they will be performing at El Chante to prove that local hip-hop is “not bad” at all.