Music producers play a crucial role in cultivating an artist's sound even though they're rarely in the spotlight themselves. In this five-part series, KQED Arts contributor Adrian Spinelli goes behind the scenes with the Bay Area's most innovative and influential up-and-coming hip-hop producers. Read the previous installments here.
Two days after returning from a press trip through Asia, P-Lo is filled with a renewed sense of purpose. He’s wearing a green hoodie and Giants hat; his gold cross necklace and gold nugget earrings flicker in the light of Emeryville’s Public Market. Later in the week, he'll be throwing out the first pitch at the Oakland A's Filipino Heritage Night. Despite the lingering jet lag from crossing the globe, he seems fresh and thankful.
“I shot a video out in the Philippines,” he says. “I bought the whole neighborhood ice cream. There were kids singing 'Never Goin’ Broke' [by HBK Gang] and it felt like I gave 'em hope when I was there. I was really absorbing that. I mean, my dad was one of those kids once.”
As one of the Bay Area's more established young producers, P-Lo has worked with chart-toppers like Wiz Khalifa and Yo Gotti as well as G-Eazy, Sage the Gemini, Kehlani, IAMSU and other big-name locals. Although he's had an impressive roster of collaborators, P-Lo recently shifted his focus from behind-the-scenes work to rapping. During his press trip to Asia, he was pushing More Than Anything, his first LP as a solo artist. Though he released two previous mixtapes and an EP, More Than Anything represents a new direction for P-Lo.
“Me being a producer first, I'm able to see a song differently and have a clear direction,” he says, contemplating his different roles. “But I have a higher purpose too. I've got a big responsibility and I wanted to do more.”
P-Lo, who is now 26 years old, co-founded the locally-renowned hip-hop collective HBK Gang with his brother Kuya Beats, IAMSU and several other classmates from Pinole Valley High School in eastern Contra Costa County. When thinking of the post-hyphy hip-hop generation in the Bay, HBK artists -- who also include Kool John, Dave Steezy and Skipper -- are the clear-cut leaders, and their work is catching on outside of Bay Area.
HBK Gang features black, Asian, and Latino artists and has been praised for mirroring the Bay Area's diversity. As one of the more prominent members of the group, P-Lo has become a beacon for young Filipino-American hip-hop fans in the Bay. “People overlook that diversity is the most important thing in the Bay,” P-Lo says. “For people to accept this Filipino dude and rock with it, that’s what the world should be. And I didn’t have anybody to identify with that looked like me when I was growing up. So it’s important to become that.”
It’s harder to be the face of a cultural movement if you’re behind the decks or in the studio; on stage, spitting bars on the mic was always where P-Lo always wanted to be. He says he really “felt it” two or three years ago when he signed on as a songwriter and got a publishing deal with Artist Publishing Group, a division of Warner/Chappell.
“I always told him that I knew he had it in him,” says IAMSU. “For somebody to give a whole culture swag and someone to look up to like that. I see so many people that look like P-Lo at my shows or just out and about. He’s created a lane for that group of people and that’s awesome.”
On More Than Anything, P-Lo shared production duties with Mikos Da Gawd, Cal-A, Reece Beats and others. His signature big, bass-heavy party anthems -- which have an unmistakably Bay Area knock -- are everywhere on the record, but there’s a newfound lyrical confidence throughout. Notably, on the self-produced “Put Me On Somethin'” featuring E-40, P-Lo drops the hammer from the start with: “If they hatin’ got a price to pay / California on my license plate / Last year they ain’t even like the Bay.” The loaded verse captures the essence of Bay Area hip-hop’s underdog mentality.
“The Bay Area just brings so much to music," he says. "Style, uniqueness and slang -- we always bring that. But we need more people on that front line of the industry and be like, 'This is Bay Area shit.' People don’t get to see that.”
Since August, P-Lo has been splitting his time between the Bay and Los Angeles. But today, he’s as comfortable as ever at the Public Market. He runs into fellow HBK rapper-producer Jay Ant and the two friends laugh about the grind of the Bay-to-L.A. commute. Later, P-Lo chats with his manager about which photographer they should bring for the first pitch at Filipino Heritage Night at the Coliseum that Friday.
“I'm a Bay Area kid that just wants to show who I am and show the world what it can be: Culturally diverse and accepting," he says as he adjusts his shiny golden grill. "That’s one of my jobs, to keep that conversation moving, and I wanna inspire as many people as I can while I'm doing this. I always knew I was gonna be an artist. I knew I had something unique. I represented something bigger than me.”
Adrian Spinelli is a Brazilian-born, San Francisco-based freelance writer, editor and host of the Noise Pop Podcast. Follow him on Twitter here.
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