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The Fil-Am Invasion

{mosimage} A pimpin’ young MC wearing a black hoodie and jeans hanging so low he could get a citation lies in wait just outside the door of Zentro Bistro, a homogenized faux-Parisian club and restaurant just across the street from the garish fete of multiethnic consumerism known as Los Cerritos Center. Big bass whumps shake the glass of the flossy suburban establishment in middle-class Cerritos, CA. Mixtape in pocket, the MC scans the throngs of Filipino-American hip-hoppers bottlenecked at the entrance.

Once you understand the history and geography of the movement, it makes sense for a young blood to prowl Zentro, where the elite old guard of Fil-Am hip-hop are known to gather. Just down the street is the mecca, Stacks the Vinyl Authority, owned and operated by one of the founding fathers: DJ Icy Ice.

The young man lying in wait is an upstart representing from Long Beach called Gee Cee. He fashions himself one of the new faces of the movement. The logo on his MySpace page — an interlocked G and C with the G backward — looks like the emblem for the House of Chanel. Gee Cee is a stalker. He’s waiting for a window of opportunity, which is about to open as DJ Rhettmatic — an OG on the scene who appears to have commandeered the chin whiskers of a Tibetan monk — emerges from Zentro. Gee Cee tentatively approaches Rhettmatic. Submissively shoe gazing until the moment is right, he then moves in for the kill and slips him the disc, which Rhettmatic semireluctantly pockets.

It’s a scenario almost as old as the Furious Five’s “The Message” itself.

{mosimage}A stone’s throw from Zentro Bistro in a nondescript strip mall, Stacks is a sort of unofficial hub of the scene. Everybody knows Stacks. Inside, kids flip through vintage vinyl and new releases in fresh fits (clothes). Turntables sit on a raised platform in front of a graf mural. Though the next generation of the scene may express itself in clubs in Hollywood on weekend nights, the spark of the flame is still burning in the stacks at Stacks, where demigod DJ and Stacks proprietor Icy Ice watches over his flock.

Like a lot of legendary underground, Fil-Am DJ types, Icy Ice, a.k.a. Isaiah Dacio, is an enterprising archivist, a historian and a hip-hop aficionado. He’s a serious 30-something operator in a graffiti T-shirt and jeans. Sidekick in one hand, mouse in the other, he sits in front of the computer, expediting. He picked Cerritos for Stacks back in the day because it was centrally located to Fil-Am hubs such as Carson and Long Beach. Before Stacks you had to drive to downtown Los Angeles to find a good record store.

Icy Ice breaks down the rise of Fil-Am hip-hop like this: As hip-hop migrated west in the ’80s, Filipinos in California already had a thriving funk- and R&B-based mobile-DJ scene going on. With infrastructure intact, the Fil-Am party scene moved out of the garage and into the clubs in L.A., San Francisco and Southern California, where the voice of disenfranchised ethnic America resonated with these first-generation Cali teens — who, though many in number, felt outside the American mainstream. The time was right for a full-scale teenage hip-hop revolt. Fil-Am DJ crews emerged all over Southern California.

{mosimage}Icy Ice has been around since the scene fomented at hotels in and around L.A. He was still a kid when emerging club promoters first began carving out a very specific niche in the already fertile Filipino party scene. Promoters with now infamous names like United Kingdom, Legend and Spectrum led the charge.

“The Hyatt Hotel in L.A. was the big spot where they threw the big Filipino parties,” Icy Ice remembers. “United Kingdom was the first to take it into the nightclubs. Legend was the first to take it multicity, from San Francisco to San Diego, doing live artists like Rodney O and Joe Cooley, and Yo Yo, when she came out with Ice Cube. We did [compilation label] Far Side when they were first fresh.”

The original core players were DJs from different crews who sometimes overlapped, with some in more than one crew. Only a true devotee would be familiar with the personalities and their respective allegiances, so the oral history is a bit of a mind-warping endeavor... but try to keep up:

“J Roc [from Orange County] and DJ Curse formed the Beat Junkies,” says Icy Ice, referring to one of the most visible DJ crews to date. “Beat Junkies spawned from the Filipino scene. [DJ] Curse and Dj “wHat?!” came from [DJ crew] Public Image. [DJ] Rhettmatic came from Double Platinum. Mellow D came from Modern Muzike. I came from Legend. J Roc and Babu came from their crews. Shortcut and D Styles came from crews in the Bay Area. Curse, Dj “wHat?!” and Rhettmatic all came from United Kingdom. In the Bay [Area] were the [Invisible] Scratch Piklz; they were huge. Smaller crews made their mark and then disappeared.

J Roc in action

“Hip-hop has been our platform,” he continues. “That’s the only area we have really shined in... that one area. We’re like Latinos in the ’70s. They really cracked into the industry in the ’80s... got on TV, got into their own TV shows and in the ’90s there was an explosion. The Ricky Martins and Jennifer Lopezes — they got mainstream. We had an affinity with the hip-hop movement because it was a struggle. It was underground.”

Fil-Ams made their mark in the underground with legendary DJs like the Piklz’ Q-Bert and mixed-blood (Filipino and German) Mix Master Mike, who’ve been on the grid since the ’80s. With the emergence of more high-profile music-biz players such as Chad Hugo (Grammy Award–winning producer and one half of the Neptunes), Apl.de.Ap of the Black Eyed Peas, and rappers like Roscoe Umali and 7S, they have entered the mainstream. Hip-hop helped put Filipino-American culture on the radar.

{mosimage}Throngs of Filipino kids line up outside the big venues on Hollywood Boulevard, where three predominantly Fil-Am clubs are happening simultaneously on any given weekend night.

Always in the cut, or at least haunting the periphery, Gee Cee is lurking on the sidewalk in front of Cinespace at Hollywood and Ivar on a recent Thursday at 10 p.m. He looks a little better than he did last week, when I ran into him around the corner at Forbidden City. The Fil-Am crowd there is a little older than the one at Cinespace. Promoter OZ from the original Legend Entertainment and Greg Ramos from Caged Monkeyz have managed to attract a good crowd for a while now. Tonight at Cinespace, they’re getting a little Ibizan rave circa ’98, with a company called Foamalicious sudsing up the back patio. A go-go dancer in glittery daisy dukes, who doubles as a model for Hot Import Night (as in import cars), tells me there’s spermicide in the foam just before mounting a speaker cabinet and executing a fanny-shaking spectacle that could easily incite an orgy.

It’s a crossover scene: The Asian-import car thing folds into the Fil-Am hip-hop scene, with some porn stars somewhere in the mix, but with all the foam flying around it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. Around midnight, when the guys’ shirts start coming off and the girls go wild, the spermicidal froth seems like it might actually be a good idea, though it could present a moral conflict for the notoriously Catholic Filipino crowd. But nobody seems to care right about now. These Fil-Am kids are serious about having a good time, and that’s about it. It’s cultural. It came from the islands. The celebratory communal music and dance go way back to tribal roots. The DJ is spinning hip-hop, of course.

“I quit smoking weed and drinking to focus on my career,” Gee Cee says and slips me a copy of his brand-new mixtape on the sidewalk in front of Cinespace. I congratulate him on his progress but neglect to mention that I saw him having a beef with security at Forbidden City last Thursday, when he tried to enter the club with an open can of beer in a paper bag, an expired ID and low-hanging pants with a colored bandanna that ran afoul of the dress code. Anyway, he looks revitalized tonight as he eyeballs the bodies sardine-canned in the line for Mindsex and Made Entertainment’s Thursday night at Cinespace.

Mark Neflas and Mark Tung approach me on the Walk of Fame from their office a few blocks away. As the impresarios behind Mindsex and Made Entertainment, respectively, they are the new dimension of the Fil-Am hip-hop scene — call it the marketing department. Clipboards under their arm, they look like they own the street... and they do tonight. Thursday at Cinespace is a madhouse of Fil-Am hip-hop.

{mosimage}“Back in the ’80s every race was doing their own thing. It was segregated. Now everyone’s collaborating. Now hip-hop is one race,” says Neflas, the 24-year-old half-Filipino, half-Japanese, six-packed, sleeved-up club promoter whose MySpace page reads like a who’s-who of go-go conquests. Mark’s been busy for sure, but I can’t imagine where he finds the time.

Either collaboratively or on their own, Mark and Mark do Wednesday at Ritual on Cahuenga and Hollywood, Thursday at Cinespace at Hollywood and Ivar, Friday at Garden of Eden on La Brea and Hollywood, Friday at Facade on Hollywood and Ivar, Saturday at the Highlands in Hollywood and Highland, Friday at Sugar on Cahuenga and Hollywood, and Saturday at Forbidden City. They’ve essentially created a Filipino hip-hop empire.

“What we did was take it to the next level. We took the underground parties and took it to mainstream Hollywood. Back in the day, the Filipino scene... you couldn’t get the best clubs, the best nights, best locations. Now we’re pretty much able to get whatever we want to with the Filipino scene,” says Neflas.

Mark Tung, his decidedly more understated 26-year-old sometime business partner, is a Chinese-American USC business grad. They’re also roommates. “Mindsex and Made are the parent companies,” Tung tells me as he fends off a mass of mostly Filipino and Asian club kids lined up down the street and around the corner. “Mindsex and Made Entertainment partner on events that have cornered the market on the 18-and-over and the 21-and-over.”

“He’s a business monster,” Neflas says about Tung.

The two employ an army of street teams: young Fil-Am and other Asian kids with a propensity for hip-hop who go by names like the Braveharts, Clubworks, Nekkid and Ace of Diamonds. The crews come up with concepts and bring in the throngs for a piece of the pie. Recent successful themes include booty-shorts night, short-skirts night, a booty-shaking contest and lingerie night. Apparently it’s been a very successful business model, this booty thing. Mark and Mark do the biggest nights at the best clubs.

The duo’s ascension is microcosmic of what’s happened to Fil-Am hip-hop. It’s become an integral part of a multiethnic experience. The uprise that gave birth to the original scene has integrated into a broader landscape, and it’s eating Hollywood Boulevard alive.

Meanwhile, Gee Cee is talking to a DJ with a Mohawk who’s decked out in what I can best describe as a hybrid of circa-’79 bondage gear and current hip-hop couture. Gee Cee says that someone gave him a VIP pass to a Thai beer festival in Pomona this Saturday, where he’d already planned to hook up with a manager named Derrick. He says it’s gonna be a big networking opportunity for him. Ultimately, Gee Cee is drawn to hip-hop for the same reasons as Icy Ice. Born in the Philippines, he sees himself as outside mainstream American culture, and his identity as an MC is a way to express those sentiments. He’s in a holding pattern somewhere between the new and the old. Gee Cee gives me a nod and catches a wave of tight-bodied young girls in booty shorts and guys in Phat Pharm, Ecko, 54 and Lacoste and disappears into Cinespace. I turn around to find myself face to face with one of the new wave of Fil-Am hip-hop.

{mosimage}Jep Martinez is a member of the Braveharts street team, serving Mindsex and Made. In a big, purple Ren and Stimpy T-shirt by Methods, some large PRP jeans, self-customized blood-red Nike Dunks, a tilted SF cap, gold-rimmed glasses with the lenses popped out, and a hound’s-tooth belt buckle, Jep embodies the evolution of Fil-Am hip-hop.

“Lupe Fiasco stole it from me,” he says of his trademark Casio calculator watch. Young Jep represents from Pasadena. He loves hip-hop and girls and says he doesn’t drink or smoke. His streetwear line, the Breadwinners Clothing Company, is having some success with its T-shirts. Emancipated from the cultural baggage of first-generation Filipinos like Icy Ice, Jeb has made the hip-hop movement all his own.

“Girls love me,” he says. “They call me the ‘cute boy.’” And apparently they do love him, because he brought about 30 of them to the club tonight.

Rising up isn’t part of his conversation. He comes fully risen, go-to-go.

“I’m thinking about doing something retro... a throwback, but in a new way,” he says about his idea for a line of urban tie-dye shirts. “Tie-dye will pop off if I start rocking it.”

I’m not sure if Jep is aware of Sugar Hill, or of his black and Nuyorican uprockin’ forefathers from the Bronx. One thing is for sure, he knows who Russell Simons is and has an aptitude for marketing through hip-hop. He’s the new guard of Fil-Am hip-hop. The culture... the music, the clothes, the lifestyle, the possibilities.

Though Brent Bolthouse doesn’t have to watch his back just yet, enterprising young scenester Jep is indicative of how big a wake entrepreneurs such as Neflas and Tung are creating along the Boulevard. Capitalism... it still works sometimes.

“Back in the day it wasn’t a very big market... now four or five parties in a night — all Filipino, all Asian,” says Tung. “By having so many different choices, there’s so many more people coming to the marketplace, trying to get a piece of the market. The market has grown so much. The people before us, when we were still young, were definitely the pioneers to get this going. But we created the new Hollywood aspect, putting it into the mainstream Hollywood level. Till you get to that level, people don’t really notice you. It’s underground. It’s hush-hush — secret society. But now we’re in the mainstream, everybody knows we’re here. We are closing a deal for a club. We’ll be the first Asian owners of a Hollywood club since who knows when... Let’s see how far you can take it.”

Hip-hop doesn’t mean what it used to. It’s come a long way from Public Enemy’s first gig at the World, in downtown Manhattan in the mid-’80s. Militant uniforms with berets referencing the Black Panthers. Melle Mel standing a few feet away trying to make sense of his presence in a room full of gender-challenged club kids and hip-hoppers as worlds collided. Jean-Michel Basquiat looming on the periphery like Gee Cee at Cinespace. Now, nobody controls the brand. It’s free market. Wide-open road.

In a recent conversation, with Chad Hugo he said, “When I look in the mirror I know I’m the Asian dude. I can’t imagine what I look like to other people doing what I do. It’s crazy.” That thought has never even occurred to Jep. Today, hip-hop is a form of assimilation — a way for anyone to show up in the USA and invent him or herself, to take the prevailing culture and add to it what they brought with them. God bless America. Everybody is a star, baby.

There's more: Get Your Scratch On  and Jep’s hit list of Fil-Am club nights you don’t want to miss by Sophia Kercher

DJ Rhettmatic

DJ Q-Bert


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