[An L.A. native, L.A. Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com, follow him on Twitter and also check out his archives.]
Filipino-Americans are to turntablism what East Africans are to winning marathons or the Irish are to literature: a statistically small group that has contributed a preponderance of the art’s elite. From the Bay Area came the legendary DJ Qbert, Mix Master Mike, DJ Shortkut and DJ Apollo. In L.A., the Beat Junkies furnished DJ Babu, D-Styles and DJ Rhettmatic. Each ranks as an all-time great at making Technics turntables speak in tongues.
“Living in the Bay Area in the ’90s, you couldn’t help but be aware of the success of Filipino-American DJs,” says Oliver Wang, an associate sociology professor at Cal State Long Beach. His impressive new book, Legions of Boom: Filipino-American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area, traces the roots of the Northern California crews that produced dozens of pioneers.
“While interviewing DJs in the Bay, I started noticing that many started in these mobile crews,” says Wang, a San Gabriel Valley native, who received his undergraduate degree and Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. “Most people knew about their contributions in turntablism, but outside of one article published in 1998 by [hip-hop journalist] Davey D, the mobile crews were barely reported on at all.”
In the primordial soup of early-’80s Southern California hip-hop, the African-American World Class Wreckin’ Cru and Uncle Jamm’s Army reigned supreme among mobile crews. But their northern counterparts were often teenage Filipino-American prodigies such as Ultimate Creations, Unlimited Sounds and Spintronix, who ran a mammoth party archipelago stretching from San Francisco and the East Bay to San Jose and Stockton.
A decorated local journalist, DJ, podcaster and founder of the Soul Sides blog, Wang deftly toes the line between rigorous scholarship and highly readable prose. Chronicling a rich and largely unknown subculture within a subculture, his book supplies both firsthand history and deep context.
“The mainstream press had no idea these guys were even throwing these parties,” says Wang, currently a South Pasadena resident and regular contributor to NPR and KCET’s Artbound. “Filipinos just weren’t on the radar. Even speaking to Filipino journalists in the Bay, it didn’t occur to most that this was a big thing to write about. It speaks to the layers of invisibility they faced within the broader culture at large.”
Within the Bay Area, the geographic concentration and demographics helped foster an intimate sense of community. Close-knit family networks and church groups spread the word and offered a support system for getting gigs. Before earning fame in the national hip-hop world, many mobile disco DJs had already built large local followings.
“These were the most visible guys out there,” Wang says. “Their names were on the flyers, people talked about them in high schools. If you were Filipino and wanted some shine, DJing became the way to do it. It propelled the next generation to get involved, and that contributed to scratching becoming huge.”
Wang invokes a telling quote from DJ Babu in the seminal turntablism documentary Scratch: “Outside of our parents, DJ Qbert was the only Filipino role model we had.” And as the mobile crews built the foundation for the ascent of Qbert and others, DJing became a cultural touchstone for an often marginalized immigrant group.
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“If you create the right conditions and incentives, young people can do amazing things. That’s the story of hip-hop and lots of incredible cultural scenes,” Wang says. “Even though this is a very particular story in terms of geography, culture and ethnic specificity, it transcends that. It’s about the power of creativity and inspiration — how a community can support a phenomenon.”