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Pinoy hip-hop poetry

Hardly known among OPM (Original Pilipino Music) adherents was the fact that YouTube Asia officials from Singapore came over sometime last May to award a number of Pinoys trophies and certificates for gaining the most number of online hits for their musical handiwork.

One of these was FlipTop, a group established in 2010 to pioneer the particular hip-hop genre known as battle rap. The first Filipino battle rap league took off in national popularity, despite its somewhat “underground” character.

Battle rap is distinct from commercial hip-hop, and can be particularly offensive to conservative ears for the proliferation of expletives that can make “DuDirty” sound gentlemanly.

On special gig nights, which FlipTop began to arrange on a nearly monthly basis, contestants “battled” one another with punitive words, trading insults with rhyming lines characterized by an often breathless beat. Rappers may be said to be geniuses at applying awesome memory that kept these extended lines at heart, pulling out the phrases and clauses they have piled up in a storehouse of the metaphorically inclined mind.

Of course there’s the contrived notion that “rap” originally stood for “Revolutionize American Poetry” — helping underground versifiers gain superstardom a la Eminem and the like. Among Pinoy youngsters and millennials, the application of Tagalog or Filipino proved a natural for the genre, given the language’s predilection for easy rhymes. And of course it was soon rather simplistically likened to our traditional Balagtasan. 

FlipTop’s founder Anygma (MC names as nommes de guerre are another regular feature) chose large venues to accommodate crowds that trooped into Manila from Cavite and other nearby provinces, with each fan paying for tickets as the events were announced online.

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Sports stadiums like San Juan’s and cockpits from Marikina to Masinag in Antipolo served as battlegrounds, together with other popular venues such as B-Side in Makati. Videos of the battles were released weeks after, heightening the suspense for those who couldn’t attend the live events.

By 2014, FlipTop was drawing more than a million hits, trumping other battle rap groups abroad and leading to invitations for international participation. Anygma and Protegé have done battle numerous times in Toronto, Sydney and Los Angeles. Both use English, albeit most of FlipTop legends use Filipino.

FlipTop has also since expanded nationally, with Davao and Cebu turning into regular rap battlegrounds. Last month, the Performatura spoken word festival organized at the CCP by Filipino poet Vim Nadera featured battle rappers associated with FlipTop: Illustrado and BLKD x UMPH.

Now FlipTop has also initiated CD album production. Uprising Records Philippines is the new independent hiphop label and collective founded by Ryan “Jus Rye” Armamento and Anygma a.k.a. Alaric Yuson. It has a Facebook page where all albums, merchandise, and schedules can be checked out. Most of the guys involved in Uprising either work or are involved with FlipTop as well.

Released a few weeks back were three CD albums featuring the most popular rapper/MCs: BLKD x UMPH, Zaito and KJAH, with Anygma as executive producer. An upcoming album will feature Illustrado, while releases for 2016 will include English-language Pinoy hip-hop such as Anygma’s own, along with Protegé’s That World, with live performance footage, produced by Protegé with scratches by Supreme Fist Shot.

The new CDs are led off by Zaito’s debut album “Ganti ng Patay,” which is available on iTunes, Spotify, Bandcamp.com, and soon in Team Manila Stores, where it will sell for P350. A veteran of rap contests and freestyle battles, Zaito is a rap battle legend, racking up over 70 million views on his FlipTop battles, plus innumerable views on his old songs that have unfortunately been subject to piracy.

Then there’s “Gatilyo,” also a debut album, by BLKD (rapper/emcee) and UMPH (dj/producer). It’s also on iTunes, Spotify, Bandcamp.com, and will sell for P250 in Team Manila Stores. BLKD (pronounced as “Balakid”) is one of the more influential battle rappers of FlipTop, where UMPH is Anygma’s partner as well as prime cinematographer. BLKD was an Isabuhay Tournament Finalist on FlipTop and is also well-known for his activism. He has performed before lumad communities in Mindanao.

The third release is KJAH’s 4th album, “Ang Gantimpalang Idinaan sa Wika (AGIW),” selling for P250 at Uprising gigs/events, and for shipping from their www.facebook.com/uprising.ph. Also still available, at P150, is KJAH’s 3rd album, “Sa Gitna ng Prusisyon,” a 2013 release.

I’ve listened to these three new releases, and despite finding some of the beats understandably repetitive, I must say that each of the artists manifests a distinctive style and flavor, especially with their more experimental or innovative cuts. Noteworthy are the metaphorical applications, on which basis alone these rap lyrics can unquestionably be identified as verbal poetry.

There is anger, there is the constant cry against social injustice, there is the revelatory cognizance of irony and assorted ills in the “Philippine condition.” The inherent power of some lines is downright remarkable, and may well lead to further enrichment of Filipino versification.

BLKD/UMPH’s title cut Gatilyo, for instance, has the following fragments: “… Tayo ay henerasyong nilululon sa luho… isip mo’y kinukulong… tayo ay inaaliw sa pagsasamantala… wag mag-alala, mga kapatid… lugod na lugod silang nagbabait-baitan,  maledukado, tayo, tayo ang gatilyo…”

On the other hand, the cut Mayaman is lyrically upbeat, however still suffused with irony and sarcasm: “Ako ang perlas ng silangan (3x)/ Ako ay paraiso sa timog silangang Asya/ puno ng grasya/… Ako’y kumikinang sa ilalim ng dilim/… Malawak ang aking mga karagatan …  Sari-saring hayop, sari-saring halaman… Alaga kong bakuran… Sapat ang likas na kayamanan… sapat ang aking lawak, lalim/ Panong nagkaganyan?/ Sa yaman ng Pinas, hirap ang sambayanan (4x)/ Ako ang perlas ng silangan… Mayaman sa kahirapan/ Ako’y kumikinang sa ilalim ng dumi (8x).” 

In Zaito’s Ganti ng Patay are similarly rich fragments and lines: “… Lubos maunawaan… sistema ng lipunan bawat bagay pag-usapan/ sanhi ay kapangyarihan/… ang gera ng pinoy/ kailan mararanasan/ mga satanas sa lupa…” The third cut, Makatang Ligaw ang Diwa, is backed by a jauntily tinkling piano, yet remains ironically instructive: “…Wag ipilit ang tugma mo/ kung inuuod ang bunganga/… Ligaw ang diwa… Kahit gaano kagaling ay merong katapat/… Kulturang pinasukan… Dugo’t pawis pinuna/ Wag hambog/ Tignan muna  ang gawa bago siraan ang iba/ Wag hambog kung di alam ang puno’t-dulo ng lahat…”

For his part, KJAH illumines the abstractions of romance while not forsaking commentary on social conditions. He can turn motormouth with his extended lines, but retains the pungency of a truly sardonic poet. The cut Tayo, Laban sa Lahat has these standout lines:

“Kahit ano pa ang mangyari / Alam ninyo, pagsasama natin ay katumbas ng kapangyaihan ng hari, hari/ Wag mo nang itatanong kapag wagas ang pag-ibig/ Napakahirap idetalye…  nakasandal sa pader/ Hawak ko nang iyong kamay/ Di natin kailangan ang parke/… Sa dulo ng bahaghari, hari… Walang pipigil sa amin/ Kahit ano pang mangyari/ Kami ang dahilan kung bakit nagkaron ng salitang walanghiya/… Sumunod ka sa sasabihin ko kung ayaw mong mabigla/… Alam nila ang pagsasama natin/ Katumbas nitong 78 balang ipalalamon sayo/ Pakiusap ko sayo/ Di natin kailangan ang parke…”

It’s a complex suite that goes every which way, eschewing the usual rhyming forms with its extended lines paying a curtsey to the stream of consciousness mode. His imagery is on point as a native: “… Parang mga paa ng higad/ Sinong kutong-lupang ito?...” The same is true of the narrative ballad Jeane with its cutesy if naughty echolalia backed by changing rhythms: “Gasta ka ng gasta… America… balita ko… hayaan kang lumabas kasama mong iyong magulang… Pwede, pwede, pwede bang pasilip, pasilip/ Alam mo naman/ Kanina pa ko naiinip… Di makapaniwalang mayaman lang ang maaring humiga… Hinalikan mo kong bigla… Simpleng simple ang trabaho ko/ Gustong malaman ng buong bansa/ Pwede, pwede, pwede pasilip, pasilip/ Kanina pa ko naiinip…”

Long complex lines have no seeming relation to the titles, while clever uptakes characterize most of KJAH’s cuts: “… Hindi biro, ilang beses na kong nagtagumpay… Di kailangain tindagan… dinadaan-daanan… empacho sayong salita… Salamat sa suporta mo, sup sup sup sup sup supo!… Di ka basta iba… prusisyon singunggaban ako… galing ng konserto mo/ Di pa ko makakapunta… salamat sa gabi-gabi… bakit pagdating sa bisyo, di biro/ Salamat sa suporta mo, sup sup sup sup sup supo!…”

Indeed, these young people max out on our native language — rhyme, rhythm, rubric and all. And their CD albums can make for rather unique Christmas gifts.

Hail Pinoy hip-hop poetry!

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