A New Generation of Filipino Hip-Hop Builds On a Deep Bay Area Legacy

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Guapdad 4000 attends the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards at STAPLES Center on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. ( Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

Guapdad 4000 isn’t like anyone you’ve met. For starters, the West Oakland rapper is part of the Marvel Universe’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings soundtrack, something he’s proud about as a comic head.

“I’m a huge Marvel fan and it was the first Asian American movie. I knew they was finna go crazy,” he says. “I was juiced. Especially to champion my Filipino side as a part of that. And it takes place in the Bay? Not even Thanos could snap me out of that.”

If you don’t know Guap, he’s an essential player in the Bay Area’s latest wave of Filipino American artists who’ve taken over the scene with their eclectic, unparalleled and hella vibrant contributions. You can’t talk about Bay Area music in 2021 without mentioning him or the “same squad, same squad” of Fil Ams here, including H.E.R, Ruby Ibarra, Rocky Rivera, P-Lo, Kuya Beats and Saweetie. 

Saweetie has two chart-topping singles and a McDonald’s meal with her name on it. P-Lo produced “About That Time,” the most-streamed song from this summer’s Space Jam: A New Legacy soundtrack, featuring verses from NBA All Star Damian Lillard, G-Eazy and White Dave. H.E.R won four Grammys and launched the Lights On Festival, with nearly 6 million followers on Instagram. Rivera added “author” to her resume with the publication of her debut book. Ibarra is literally a scientist and co-founded the Pinays Rising Scholarship Program. And I’m only talking about the past few months.

The list doesn’t even include the unquantifiable amount of genuine community work, activism and representation each artist has provided throughout Northern California and beyond over their careers and lifetimes. It also doesn’t mention those Pinoys and Pinays who paved the path for this ascendance to happen. 

H.E.R. performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)

A-Side: Chicken Adobo

“My mother’s side is Filipino. My grandma is a short, 5’3” lady from Zambales in the Philippines. My grandfather is Black and was a merchant marine out there on a military base. They met and decided to move to Oakland and that’s how my roots started in the Bay,” Guap says.

It’s a relatable truth for many Bay Area generations, who’ve grown up here with mixed backgrounds and a fluid sense of self. Alongside his Fil Am peers, Guap is voicing this in his idiosyncratic, hyphy-melodic way, narrating where he’s from and his journey navigating the world as a Black Pinoy.

With his popular single “Chicken Adobo” (a love song inspired by his lola’s cooking) and his feature on Thundercat’s “Dragonball Durag” (a tribute to the classic anime), Guap is constantly dropping hints about his Asian American upbringing and identity—though, most people admittedly don’t perceive him as Filipino upon initially seeing him.

“My direct portion is one-fourth Filipino,” he says. “I don’t use that mindstate though. I’m equal Black and Filipino. My lola raised me in a biracial household, cooking and speaking both languages. I went to an all-Filipino church for 15 years. I was immersed in the culture. Hella [stuff] in my upbringing comes straight from my Filipino side.”

Guap’s style and albums are reflective of his modern Filipino experience in the Bay Area—which is to say, it’s not singularly definitive. It’s multidimensional, it’s authentic, it’s unapologetic, it’s mixed. And it’s helping to put Filipino Americans back on the map.

But he’s not alone. He just happens to be one Alpha in this group of trendsetters. 

Saweetie performs at Rolling Loud 2018 in Oakland.
Saweetie performs at Rolling Loud 2018 in Oakland. (Estefany Gonzalez)

Filipinos have always been present in Bay Area hip-hop. Ever since the artform emerged as a vehicle for social justice and cultural empowerment, they've been among the most active participants in DJing, breakdancing, graffiti and MCing—from Daly City to Vallejo and back down to San Jose. Like many multicultural, biracial and immigrant folks who serendipitously arrive in the Golden State, Fil Ams have long been a true staple in our neighborhoods, and their role in hip-hop is a reflection of that shared transcendence.

“If you look at every pillar in hip-hop that exists, all of ’em, it’s gonna be at least one Filipino in there that’s a legend,” Guapdad says. “Chad Hugo [from The Neptunes]. H.E.R. Qbert. Jabbawockeez. Over the years Filipinos have found ways to integrate themselves seamlessly. It’s global but it’s also bringing that back to a local scale.”

In other words, they got roots.

B-Side: Origins and Migrations

With over 310,000 Filipino residents, the San Francisco Bay Area boasts the second-largest population of the diaspora in the United States. Per capita, it’s among the most densely populated Filipino areas outside of the Philippines. It’s no surprise then that there was once a Manilatown in San Francisco, which blossomed from the 1920s through the 1970s until it was systematically dismantled and cannibalized as part of the “Manhattanization” of downtown’s Financial District. Starting in the 1950s, low-income Filipinos were evicted to make room for “a Wall Street of the West.” The story is just one chapter of the ongoing battle to maintain affordable housing in one of the world’s most expensive cities. 

Still, Filipinos have thrived along the Bay Area’s shorelines, allowing for many artists, activists and changemakers to emerge and collaboratively grow here—especially through the rebellion of hip-hop.

“We were raised by brown immigrants in America, but immigrants who were educated in American colonial systems,” says Barbara Jane Reyes, a Manila-born poet and professor at University of San Francisco who grew up in the East Bay. “Our parents’ aesthetic preferences were rooted in colonial whiteness. So seeing brown kids having a good time while listening to what we were told was the music of Black people seemed scary to them.”

By adopting hip-hop as a form of self expression, many Filipinos during the 1980s were able to create a sense of selfhood that might’ve otherwise felt trampled on or neglected by previous generations and institutional ideologies.

But how exactly did so many Filipinos like Reyes and her family end up migrating to the San Francisco Bay Area—where they’ve been able to directly participate in hip-hop’s growth—to begin with? 

The story spans centuries, but Reyes tells me there was a turning point in 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the The Immigration and Nationality Act. In an effort to attract skilled labor, the law abolished discriminatory quotas that once prevented Asians and Pacific Islanders from entering the country after World War II. The decision might’ve been the most influential factor in allowing Filipino families to spread across California, forever changing the demographics of coastal North America.

“We had migrant laborers who came to the territory of Hawai’i in 1905. Then laborers who came to the continental West Coast in the ’20s and ’30s,” says Professor Reyes. “Then World War II happened and there’s another wave of migration with [Filipino] Americans who enlist in the military, go to the Philippines to fight, and come back with war brides to the States and raise their families here. It wasn’t until ’65 til that all opened up more. And we’ve been here ever since.” 

Importantly, the 1965 Act was largely a result of monumental liberation efforts made during the Civil Rights, Chicano and United Farmworkers Movements. That unity among multi-ethnic, working-class communities foreshadowed an allyship that would eventually coalesce organically into hip-hop.

“It wasn’t about popular entertainment but had something to do with making cultural and political statements,” says Reyes. “Listening to hip-hop, I realized something else was happening that made me have to look at my parents’ colonial education and love for whiteness. Going to rap was part of that exploration of asking, ‘Why do you love whiteness so much and why is Blackness so scary to you?’ How do we find kinship in those communities?”

By the late 1980s, Filipinos had fully integrated themselves into Bay Area shipyards and city centers as military personnel and blue-collar workers. They also moved into suburbs and middle-class areas with access to college and professional careers in health, education and other fields. Their proliferation led to more intersectional involvement in Americanized cultures, such as freestyle and R&B of the ’90s

With a visible community already established, and clearly growing, conditions led to the formation of tightly-connected enclaves in places like Fremont, Vallejo and, most famously, Daly City.

C-Side: Spinning Records, Breaking Barriers

“My aunt, DJ Lady Ames, was one of the first Pinay DJs to come out of San Francisco. She went to Balboa High during the ’80s while the mobile DJing scene was happening, and she started a crew with her friends,” says Delrokz.

Delrokz in his Hayward record shop, The Stacks. (Alan Chazaro)

Del is a DJ and b-boy who has lived all over the Yay, but is currently in downtown Hayward, where he owns his new record shop, The Stacks.

“To be Filipina and have a whole crew of DJs, that was revolutionary at its time in the early ’80s,” he says. “They were an all Pinay group, The GoGos. There really weren’t that many women DJs getting attention back then. But I grew up around her and my uncles and that whole culture. It’s part of who I am.”

Del is the founder and organizer of Break the Bay, an annual five-on-five breakdance competition that spins on principles of community, fun and “healthy competition.”

It’s yet another manifestation of how Filipino homies have not only been a part of the culture, but have pioneered spaces for others to be a part of the culture, too—regardless of gender, age or ethnicity.

Del emphasizes that he is a second-generation Fil Am, whose mom immigrated from the islands at a very early age, and whose dad was born here. It’s an important detail to distinguish.

“My parents listened to hip-hop,” he explains. “I had a different experience than someone who’s parents immigrated here directly. Hip-hop culture is so deep within the Filipino Bay Area because it’s been passed for so long. We also just have a lot of parties, so having good DJs makes a lot of sense for us.”

To say Bay Area Filipinos make good DJs is an understatement. 

Widely credited as the most innovative turntablists in modern hip-hop history, the Invisibl Skratch Piklz symbolize everything that Bay Area Filipinos have meant to the world of DJing. Their members—DJ QBert, Mixmaster Mike, DJ Apollo, Shortkut and D-Styles, to name some—have been dominant in global competitions such as the International Turntablist Federation battles since the ’80s. At one point, they received so many awards that other crews didn’t even show up to compete.

Underground hip-hip historian Laurent Fintoni—the author of Bedroom Beats & B-Sides: Instrumental Hip-Hop and Electronic Music at the Turn of the Century—lauded the Piklz as the original group who “invented the concept of a DJ band, elevated the turntablist art form to new technical and creative heights and helped drive technological innovation.”

Connecting five turntables to scratch, mix and fade all at once, live on stage? Yup. These Filipino DJs are known for popularizing that. Their craft went on to birth future groups in the genre of turntablism, such as The X-Ecutioners from New York City.

Between the Piklz, DJ Lady Ames, Delrokz and so many other Filipino Americans from this time and place, DJing went from inside the garages of Daly City’s battling crews to a globally revolutionized way of life.

DJ QBert. (Courtesy of the artist)

D-Side: Underground Legends

If you’ve ever seen TDK tagged on any Bay Area surface, then you’ve likely seen the work of Vogue and the late Mike Dream Francisco. They are—in the opinion of every Bay Area graffiti artist I know—two of the most iconic dudes to ever wield cans of aerosol. 

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that they’re Filipinos. 

Here are a few more Pinoy names you may or may not have heard about who have helped to shape, or are currently shaping, Bay Area culture: Rey Resurrection, Bambu, Celskiii, Deeandroid, DJ Bitesize, and the Knuckle Neck Tribe.

And who can forget one of the most influential sound architects of the entire hyphy movement?

Dustin “Nump” Perfetto is a 707 product who has been inside studios with everyone’s favorite musicians, from E-40 to Green Day. He operated as the recording engineer on countless albums from that glorious era in Bay Area music history, including Rick Rock Presents Federation: The Album, which features the timeless anthem, “Hyphy.”

“Filipinos play a major part behind the scenes but it hasn’t always been as popular for us to be mainstream,” Perfetto says. “I won’t stop ’til we get that respect.”

Ruby Ibarra in an East Bay park.
Ruby Ibarra. (Estefany Gonzalez)

By promoting his pride in launching his own clothing line, Gorillapino, and collaborating with former and current Fil Am artists (including Ruby Ibarra on her incisive 2017 album, CIRCA91, which includes extensive verses in Tagalog) Perfetto personifies the undying grit and collective strength of the Fil Am hip hop community that has always been “Going Off” for the Bay.

Lapulapu is the original Filipino warrior who cut off Magellan's head when they tried to conquer us,” Perfetto says. “That’s the energy I move with. That’s who we are.”

Translation: Filipinos stand united for anything they believe in. And local history underscores how they’ve always utilized the powers of music and community for good.

Perfetto and the rest of these artists making waves out here can definitely wreck microphones, but they can just as easily build across communities to reach audiences of any background. More than anything, they represent how the Bay is a land of innovation and solidarity—how we’re all building towards communal celebration.

“We have a lot of similarities with other cultures,” Guapdad reminds me. “It’s just something we need to celebrate more.”

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