Rough upbringings feed Filipino group’s hip-hop music

Author: Todd R. Brown
Source:
East Bay Times
Publisher:
Bay Area News Group
Year:
2006
Link: https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2006/04/02/rough-upbringings-feed-filipino-groups-hip-hop-music/

[The following is the full article from publication listed above]

In the cluttered garage of a ground-floor apartment on E Street overlooking the BART line in Colma, five young Filipino men stand in a loose semi-circle facing the wall.

“The boxes are our audience,” says George “Geez” White, pointing to a stack of cardboard containers with his practice microphone, a screwdriver. “We’ve got Sunkist in the house.”

Two more young Filipinos, DJs Daniel “Daniel-sun” Caceres and Anton “Ant-1” Ayson, cue up some records, and a booming beat by J Dilla fills the air. One by one, the rappers of Elemnop switch on a dime from casual chit-chat to spitting hot verses from their song “Still Water.”

As the DJs cut from one disc to another, morphing rhythms from funk to reggae, classic rock to hip-hop, the five MCs roll right with the changes, delivering solo flows and joining voices for an uplifting chorus of “Get’em up high, high.”

“I’m sorry it’s not good,” White says after the Wednesday rehearsal. “It will be by Saturday.”

There’s no need to apologize, though. Even during a casual run-through of the group’s show, the voices are passionate, the lyrics pointed and compelling, the stage presence fierce and commanding. All of it will be on polished display at the “Bay Flavour” hip-hop showcase at 10 tonight in StudioZ, 314 11th St., in San Francisco.

‘From the Ground Up’

The group formed in 1997 at South San Francisco’s El Camino High School. As Elemnop (pronounced either Eh-Lem-Nopp or L-m-n-o-p), Colma’s Charles “Ceerock” Ubungen, South San Francisco’s Vince “Tiki” Cruz and Dexter “Element XP” Paulino, and San Francisco’s Eric “E-massin” Subido and White say they create “conscious rap for real people.”

Elemnop cut its first mixtape, “Groundwork Radio,” in 2002 and opened for hip-hop stars Obie Trice in 2003 and Method Man in 2004, both at the Fillmore. Other local gigs have been in clubs in the Mission district and Berkeley.

Up to now, the rappers have made music for their own pleasure and to make a name for themselves. Their songs are available at http://www.elemnop.com as free MP3s, but Ubungen said the group is getting ready to shop for a record label to put out its first commercial CD about being first-generation Americans on the Peninsula’s meaner streets.

“There’s so many things you could get caught up in,” said Subido, 24, who plans to graduate from San Francisco State University in May with a degree in child adolescent development. “Our environments provide us with nothing but unhealthy stuff.”

Subido, whose mom was born in Manila, Philippines, and whose dad is from San Francisco, listed alcoholism, drug use, plentiful junk food, poor schools and American materialism as some of the woes among the Filipino community. But he said it isn’t easy to discuss those problems with strangers.

“We’re kind of subconsciously trained not to talk about it and not let other people know,” he said. “We don’t want to be perceived as oppressed.”

When Subido steps to the mike as E-massin, though, it’s another story.

“With my lyrics, I’m totally spilling it out there,” he said. “I don’t hold back at all.”

Case in point, the rapper’s a capella intro to “City” from Elemnop’s latest self-produced mixtape, “From the Ground Up”:

Them planes flying by, you can’t hear a person talk
Them pathways between Greendale where all the tenants walk
Them two 7-11s that was built on one block
South’Sco, how you think I got the flow that I rock?
Chicanos and Chinese and there’s Filipinos mob
From Gellert Boulevard to the Hillside fog
The only place in U.S.A. where the FOBs call shots
Daly City, where you think I got the flow that I rock?

Several of Elemnop’s members described hardships growing up and making ends meet. White, 25, an account executive for Nextel in South City, said his father died when he was 9, and his mother, who emigrated from the Pangasinan province, worked as a live-in home nurse, checking on her children once or twice a week and giving them money.

“I had pretty much a rough upbringing ’cause I had no parent at the house at all,” he said. A tall, lean man today, White said having to feed himself made him overweight during his youth: “There’s a McDonald’s across the street.”

Cruz, 23, the sole West Coast rep for a Swiss biotech company, also was raised by a single mother. He enlisted in the Marines right after high school, rising to sergeant and spending a year in Okinawa, Japan, then eight weeks in Iraq, a few miles west of Fallujah. He extended his four-year commitment for six months to bring home extra money for his wife.

Cruz said the group’s parents by and large support Elemnop’s music, even if they don’t relate easily to the American idiom, because it’s what their children love doing — and keeps them out of trouble.

“We didn’t turn to selling drugs,” he said. “Even though we were on the street, we were doing something more productive. We’re making people surround us not for crack … but to fiend for music. They fed off of our music instead of violence or whatnot.

“It was a pretty positive thing for our parents because none of us were really the greatest students in the world, but here we come — just five ordinary Joes came together and actually did something productive.”

Gaining respect

Ubungen, 23, who lived for a time in Daly City and does office work in Foster City, operates the group’s recording studio out of his parents’ garage, one of Elemnop’s rehearsal spaces. He said his mom, from Ramos in the Tarlac province, and his dad, from San Juan in Launion, didn’t really take his music seriously until he started buying recording equipment in 2001 and built a sound booth out of particle board and MDF wood next to his PC-based mixing setup.

“They’re not really in tune to the hip-hop culture, but they see how my cousins react to it,” he said. Ubungen figured he’s spent about $5,000 to $6,000 on turntables, a Roland keyboard, CDJs that let DJs “scratch” CD tracks, Sony ACID Pro software for digital music editing and other gear.

Ubungen said the group is at the point where it wants to put out a commercial CD and get radio play besides on college stations at Santa Clara and San Jose State universities, and to boost its profile among its peers.

“All we have is respect for each other, and we just want to gain respect,” Subido said. “That’s all you have when you come from where we come from.”

That’s hard enough to do for poor people in dense cities, but it’s doubly tough for an all-Filipino group in a genre that is considered at its core to be black culture — even in San Mateo County, with the greatest concentration of Filipinos outside Manila.

“The game that we’re playing is really dominated by African-American music,” said Paulino, 24.

Catch Elemnop’s next show at the “Bay Flavour” hip-hop showcase at 10 tonight at StudioZ, 314 11th St., at Folsom Street in San Francisco, (415) 252-7100 or http://www.studioz.tv. Download Elemnop songs from http://www.elemnop.com.

Hip-hop includes some Filipino stars, but they are typically members of a group or behind-the-scenes producers. Among them are Chad Hugo of The Neptunes, who produced hits for Snoop Dogg, and Apl, who sings with the Black Eyed Peas. And Bay Area producer and rapper Nump scored the recent radio hit “I Got Grapes” with East Bay superstar E-40 and appeared last month in MTV’s hyphy music documentary “My Block: The Bay.”

Essentially, though, hip-hop is perceived as black music, even though most of its audience is white, and people of all ethnicities rap, from Chinese-American Jin to Puerto Rico’s Daddy Yankee.

While it is within living memory that signs in Stockton read “No Filipinos allowed,” the distinction between black hardships and the obstacles faced by Filipinos in America just don’t compare, Subido said. That distinction means his group winds up taking a backseat in the hip-hop scene.

“It’s not our culture,” Subido said. “It’s part of the street culture, but it’s not my culture as a Filipino. I was born into it and acculturated into it.”

Underground to mainstream?

Whether hip-hop has enough room at the top for a newer, smaller minority group such as Filipinos to share their story is up for debate.

“Hip-hop to me is a diversity now, it’s everybody,” said Cruz, who injects Tagalog into his lyrics. “I tell you how my life is and I won’t be afraid of my background and how I express my music. I don’t cling to talking about big wheels and bling-bling and this and that.”

That’s another strike against Elemnop’s chance for success: The group does conscious or “backpack” rap, socially aware songs that talk about poverty, politics and the shortcomings of the American Dream for those at the bottom of the economy.

Although hip-hop began with thoughtful lyrics about life in the ghetto, today it is dominated commercially by gangsta rappers who glorify violence for the sake of material gain rather than ponder why the odds are stacked against the poor and minorities.

“Before, rappers made gangsta rap, but now gangsta rap is making rappers,” Subido said. “The industry capitalizes on it.”

And middle-class white fans eat it up.

“They love to hear the insight of black culture’s struggle, that raw feeling that they get. I think that they’re amazed and fascinated by the whole culture,” Subido said. “Once someone who is privileged has a taste of that, it makes them feel alive.”

Hip-hop comes out of the black experience of forming a new culture in the belly of an unfamiliar beast, and it evolved out of black music, from jazz to rhythm and blues to funk to rap. Even though Elemnop’s members have the same outward signifiers as their mainstream hip-hop brethren — NFL jerseys, backward baseball caps, flashy piercings — they stand apart, bringing with them a unique experience that for now is part of the music’s “underground.”

“Sometimes we’re working so hard and reality hits — OK, we’re Filipino, we may not make it for that fact,” Subido said.

Cruz seemed to think Elemnop could go either way with its fans.

“A lot won’t necessarily say that we’re under-underground, and a lot of people won’t say that we’re mainstream-mainstream,” he said. “We’re somewhere in between because we appreciate both sides of the art.”

Paulino said he looks at the group’s shot at success with plenty of optimism.

“Our music is original,” he said, adding that having a crew of five Filipino MCs in the rap game is a fresh dose of culture shock. “We made a new sound. That’s why it’s not nationwide yet, because the market’s not ready.”

Not yet.

Catch Elemnop’s next show at the “Bay Flavour” hip-hop showcase at 10 tonight at StudioZ, 314 11th St., at Folsom Street in San Francisco, (415) 252-7100, or http://www.studioz.tv. Download Elemnop songs from http://www.elemnop.com.