Once you hear "yadidahmean" coming out of the mouths of TV newscasters as if they've been saying it all along, it may be time to move on or at least, zoom out to a wide-angle view of Bay Area hip-hop. Though you might've forgotten in your rush to put your stunna shades on, there's more than one sound in town. Multicultural hip-hop is crackin' as proven by three promising new local releases: Native Guns' Barrel Men, Rico Pabon's Louder Than Fiction, and Deuce Eclipse's The Radio Plantation.
All three have their own flavor and idiosyncratic nuances, but share bilingual vocals and soulful spirituality. They represent a break not only from the conventions of the hyphy sound, but an aesthetic that's more about freedom of expression than conformity.
Representing the Philippines, Barrel Men may be the best rap album by Pinoy gang members turned conscious MCs you've ever heard. Okay, it may be the only such album you've ever heard, but it's bangin' nonetheless, filled with militant-but-not-gangsta sentiments, crucial reggae and hip-hop mashdowns, outspoken social commentary, and introspective self-reflection.
Pabon's long-awaited solo joint may be the tightest rap album by a Bay Area boriqua you've ever heard (okay, it's probably the only one of its type, too) but it also delivers the musical and lyrical goods, with rapid-fire flows equally adaptable to salsa, reggaeton, or hip-hop rhythms.
Last but not least, Zion-I crew member Deuce Eclipse goes solo with the hottest rap album by a Nicaraguan-American MC living in Contra Costa County that ... well, you get the idea. Deuce's unpredictable style finds him switching up cadences and vocal deliveries at will, and though the album might stretch your idea of what hip-hop can be, it's never boring or clichéd.
C2tE recently sat down with these urban multiculturalistas at Sofrito (Pabon's Puerto Rican restaurant in Oakland's Fruitvale District) to discuss diversity in hip-hop. Pabon, Deuce, and Native Guns' Kiwi all have different backgrounds yet share a formal mentor. Pabon grew up in a family of musicians and was raised in both the South Bronx and the East Bay, Deuce is a SF native originally from the Mission, and Kiwi hails from Los Angeles' Koreatown. But all three started as B-boys before becoming rappers, and were coincidentally all inspired by KRS-One.
Hip-hop felt like a natural part of their cultural identity it inspired them to express themselves as individuals within the context of American society. "I had never heard of a Puerto Rican being referred to as African" until hearing KRS, Pabon relates, adding that because of his family's musical background, "my style tends to be rhythmic I use my voice as an instrument."
Kiwi notes that the antiviolence anthem "Self-Destruction" made him reconsider the gang lifestyle he was involved in. He'd been rapping since a young age, but says "I had no direction in my style, until I started getting involved in organizing" and learned about the history of the Philippines and the effects of US colonialism.
Deuce says he was "raised using my voice, singing with my dad," and racism was something he was keenly aware of as a youth. After hearing the Blastmaster's edutainment-oriented rhymes, "I dove into that style of always trying to say something." He adds that while Spanish is his first language, and he's always "tried to have that indigenous thought," it was hip-hop that "showed me how to think and be for myself."
Hip-hop, Pabon explains, "is like an immigrant." Its chameleonlike flexibility makes it adaptable to the experience of not only black people in America, but any marginalized group. "To me, it's universal because, if you look at the inner cities, look who's there," Deuce says. He identifies the drum as hip-hop's most ubiquitous element it's the thing that connects it to indigenous musical traditions, such as "the culture of the Latino."
For Kiwi, rap is a way for him to express the culture of the Pinoy and to counteract the "colonial mentality" he says is still embedded among Filipino Americans: "I'm not invisible," he insists. "My voice is powerful."
Pabon, Deuce, and Kiwi also frequently delve into socioeconomic and political topics, in addition to festive or celebratory songs. Kiwi notes that a "barrel man" is a somewhat demeaning novelty item sold in his homeland (similar to Negro pickaninny dolls) that became a metaphor for Native Guns "coming out of the box that society puts around Filipino men." One of Barrel Men's best songs, "Work It," flips the script on mindless consumerism to address the reality of sweatshop labor in developing nations. "It was important to make that connection," Kiwi says, noting that because of the Native Guns' consciousness, "the politics was gonna come out."
Similarly, Pabon remarks that since "Puerto Rico is still a colony, I don't have the luxury to just talk party rhymes," adding that he titled his album Louder Than Fiction to separate it from "all the crap strictly for entertainment." Deuce called his album The Radio Plantation "to remind us to get off the plantation and have your own land."
Neocolonialism in the music industry may limit boriquas to thugged-out club tunes (like Fat Joe), restrict Latinos to being cholos (like Cypress Hill), or attempt to force Asians into a prefabricated mold that borrows heavily from African-American stereotypes (like Jin), yet for these artists, being true to themselves is more important than mass appeal. For now, they've carved out a niche in the bay's underground scene, yet their multiculturalism may well present them with a huge upside: the potential to appeal to population segments outside of American hip-hop's commercial demographic, as well as international audiences.
In a world that's becoming more globalized daily, bilingualism is a plus, especially since lyrical skills speak for themselves; as Deuce says, "I know flow when I hear it, in any language."
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