You need to understand that, as an aspiring rapper, college is the easy hustle," UC Berkeley graduate and DJ Phatrick says to his after-school class of Oakland youth at the Bay Area Video Coalition. "Your nine-to-five is the easy hustle. It's your nine-to-five after the nine-to-five that's hard. It's all networking and not sleeping."
After five years of tight live shows and a well-received 2006 debut album, Barrel Men, the Filipino Native Guns trio fronted by MCs Kiwi and Bambu consolidates its gains this week while mustering the energy to soldier forth with its just-released Stray Bullets Mixtape Vol. II. Helping the group along that path is a free April 2 show at San Francisco's Elbo Room, where the trio won the headlining spot in a recent online battle royale.
MP3.com, the Web site once sued out of existence by Universal and rebuilt by CNET began a "Get Exposed" contest this winter to boost its fledgling online community. Native Guns won the top prize, including a free Zune music player for each member, airfare to the Bay (unneeded), and a show headlining atop the second-place band, Brooklyn's the Shapes.
In true user-generated fashion, a random fan entered Native Guns in the contest they ended up winning. The supporter created a band page on MP3.com, similar to a MySpace page with pictures and music and links, and signed the band up.
Kiwi didn't even know the Guns were in the running until MP3.com e-mailed them. "None of us thought much of it at first, but once I was looking at the contest rules I was like, "Wait a minute, we need to pump this up,'" he says. "I don't even know the guy who did it, but they were kind enough to give us the password so we could go ahead and add to the page. The guy just turned the thing over to me and we started telling people to vote."
With more than 151,000 MySpace page views and nearly 100,000 listens to their single "Champion" from Barrel Men, the Native Guns are already Web-savvy, but they had to kick it into overdrive to win the contest as other bands also pushed their fans to open MP3.com accounts and vote.
"We kind of made it a point that every few hours one of us would get on the Native Guns MySpace and do an HTML blast," Kiwi says. "We were winning, then there was a point where we slacked off on the bulletins and the Shapes caught up."
"Sorry, man," says Bambu, admitting to nearly costing the band first place.
But if the band nearly lost, it wasn't for laziness. The Native Guns define themselves by seventy-hours-a-week schedules including day jobs, community service, and nights of erudite rhymes inspired by A Tribe Called Quest, early De La Soul, and the Native Tongues clique, whose name they adapted. Kiwi grew up a self-confessed gangsta in South Central Los Angeles before discovering community theater and then live rap performance, where he's made a name for himself with gigs like the Stop the Killings tour against political murders in the Philippines. Bambu belonged to a rival gang in Los Angeles, and went in and out of juvenile facilities until his older cousin's murder as a teen changed him. "It looked like it hurt," he says.
A judge pointed Bambu toward the Marines, where he became a member of the Special Amphibious Recon team, then a Navy medic, then a private diver before getting into reality TV postproduction in Oakland. DJ Phatrick works a day job, teaches after-school classes at the nonprofit Bay Unity Music Project, and gigs several nights a week at parties such as the Asian American Film Festival.
Amid day jobs and community activism, the three developed a clear, concise lyrical style that eschews racism, sexism, classism, and materialism without sounding like watered-down PC bullshit. Their friends and reputation brought solo MCs Bambu and Kiwi together in 2002 on "Peaceful Pistols." They then heard of DJ Phatrick's organization skills as part of UC Berkeley's DeCal student-taught classes as well as a member of the Bay Area rap scene. "He's part engineer, part logistics man," Kiwi says. "He's real mindful about putting a good set together."
At the Elbo Room Monday night, expect a really tight set full of Barrel Men hits like "Champion," "Jumped In," "Work It," and "Treason," and new stuff from the new Stray Bullets mixtape with Ise Lyfe, Nump, and others. "We be saying shit that people need to hear," Phatrick says. "You won't see any commodification of women onstage, and you won't see any Kiwi and Bambu wildn' out inappropriately."
Kiwi adds, "It's the main way we sell CDs, so it's something we take a lot of pride in. We're prepared with a really diverse and complete set. There's a lot of peaks and valleys. Folks should be prepared to be entertained and educated."
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