“Legions of Boom”: The Forgotten Era in West Coast Hip-Hop and Dance Music

Legions of Bloom is back! Catch it Friday, May 13th at Bindlestiff Studios!

Today, DJs are often associated with turntablism or the emerging EDM scene. Often overlooked are the mobile DJs who travel around with their portable sound systems and perform for a variety of events including wedding receptions, company parties, and high school dances. A scholar, journalist and DJ, Oliver Wang uncovers the hidden history of the Filipino American mobile DJ scene in his new book Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area, out now on Duke University Press and Amazon.com. Wang’s book reveals a fascinating glimpse into a culture and music scene that completely fell under the radar, yet served as the cradle for modern DJing. Wang has also contributed to CAAM as a writer.

Copies of the book will also be available at the official Legions of Boom book party on Saturday, September 19 at 9pm at BRIX 581 in Oakland.

I spoke with Wang about the phenomenon of the Bay Area Filipino American mobile DJ scene, the role of women in the scene, and the social factors that contributed to its unique rise and demise.

—Richie Menchavez

This is Traktivist Radio. This show is brought to you by TRAKTIVST.com in partnership with the Center for Asian American Media. My name is Richie and today we are honored to have as our guest, a person who is highly admired and respected in the academic and music community, Mr. Oliver Wang. Oliver is a music writer, scholar, audio blogger, and DJ. Oliver, thanks so much for being on the show.

Oh, it’s my pleasure, thank you so much for having me.

So one of the main reasons we wanted to chat with you today is because of the amazing book you recently released called Legions of Boom. Can you tell us what this book is all about?

Sure, Legions of Boom looks at the mobile DJ scene in the Filipino American community of primarily the 1980’s. And if you didn’t grow up in this scene, odds are, you probably never heard of it. But if you were young, if you were a Filipino American, you were growing up in the Bay Area in the 1980’s, you almost certainly knew about it. You knew about the parties, you went to the parties, either you yourself or your high school classmates or your cousins were all members of these crews or participated in this scene. It was basically, you know, a mass kind of cultural phenomenon that so many thousands of different Filipino American young people participated in, roughly from the late 1970’s up through the early 1990’s.

Being myself a Filipino American DJ from the Bay Area, the book resonated with me on so many different levels. And also back in the day I used to intern at Classified Records with one of the DJs who is actually interviewed, Kormann Roque, who was founder and president of that record label. So it’s pretty cool, to see those pictures that you included of them back in high school. But in general, why did you choose to write this story, the story about Filipino American mobile DJ crews?

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Photo by Eilon Paz for Dust and Grooves.

Well I first discovered the history of these crews when I was in the Bay Area in the 1990’s. I was a music journalist. I think this might have begun even before graduate school, around the same time. If you were in the Bay in the 90’s and you were DJing, especially if you happen to be like myself, Asian American, you knew about the Filipino American DJ’s like Qbert, like Shortkut, Mix Master Mike, Apollo, because these guys were the best in the world. And so as I got the opportunity as a journalist to begin asking them about how they got started, the one common origin story amongst all of them is that before they got involved in scratch DJing or turntablism, they were first members of different mobile crews. And so even though there had been, you know, a decent amount written about the history of scratch DJing, there was very, very little written about the mobile DJ scene. And as both a journalist and as a budding scholar, I had that little light bulb moment where I thought well this is a really good story no one’s really written about, you know, they should be the subject of my new research. It was really starting with the generation that came out of the mobile scene and that got me interested to roll the clock back to figure out, so what was that pre-generation of sorts? Where did the scratch DJs come from? Well, they came out of this mobile scene, which was as rich, as dynamic, as interesting as anything that has come, you know, before or after it.

For most of the DJs interviewed, you wrote in the book that there wasn’t a—and I’ll quote it here: “Transparent self-conscious relationship between the mobile scene and their identities as Filipino Americans.” In fact, many of the people that were interviewed, many of the DJs said something to the effect of, “I never thought of that until you pointed it out.” How surprising was that to you?

It was very surprising. I think as someone who myself grew up on hip-hop…identity, especially ethnic identity and racial identity, were at the forefront. This is speaking as someone who grew up during the so-called “Golden Age” where you had highly politicized hip-hop acts in which being Black, or being Latino or being Asian American, were always at the forefront of how they identify. I went in with the assumption that there was something similar operating with these mobile crews because the scene was so predominantly Filipino American. The crews themselves were made up of Filipino Americans, the people at the parties were Filipino. I just assumed that ethnic identity was a core part of how this scene organized and identified itself. And what I discovered was actually no, that for most of them, being Filipino was incidental. In other words, it’s not like they didn’t realize, “Oh yeah, everyone around us is Filipino,” it’s that it wasn’t a part of how this scene organized itself or how it identified itself. It was sort of a detail worth noting but…ethnic identity was not a core part of what they associated with the craft. The craft was about throwing parties, about being the best person at throwing the parties, about having the best live shows, the best mixing, the best music.

Cosmix Sounds in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Suzie Racho.
Cosmix Sounds in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Suzie Racho.

In the book, you also explore how DJ crews gave young men a chance to assert their masculinity and to also gain some sort of social status. But just as importantly, you discussed how critical women were to this scene even though, or despite not being, in many DJ crews. Could you elaborate on your findings in regards to the role that these women played in the DJ mobile scene?

So, on the one hand, there are not that many women DJs in the scene. There are certainly exceptions to the rule and in any given crew, you might find that they had, you know, for a period of time, one woman who happened to come through. I was able to find the existence of one, maybe two at most, all Pinay crews, the best of them being the GoGo’s, who were around for about a half a year. They competed in battles, they threw their own parties, they had some renown, but outside of them, maybe one other exception. You just don’t find other specifically female crews. Again, you can find female DJs, but they are certainly the exception, they are not the rule.

Now that said, women still play a very key part in the scene overall. I mean part of it is a lot of the people hiring these DJs, so for things like house parties, or garage parties, things like birthday parties, graduation parties, debut’s, etc., they are the clients, they are the ones who are hiring the DJs. And so from a business point of view, they are certainly in the central part of it. And then also the party scene itself even if the DJs are primarily male, they are still mixing to a dance floor in which the kind of musical and dancing desires of women hold far more sway. And this is something that I think any DJ really knows regardless of your sex, is that if you can’t keep the women on your dance floor happy, you’re not going to have much of a dance floor. And so women have this very powerful presence, maybe not behind the booth, but certainly in front of the booth as dancers, as clients, etc.

You also discussed in the book that unlike other DJ-oriented scenes, such as hip-hop or house, techno, and reggae, Filipino American mobile DJs never made a successful jump from record playing to record making. What did you learn as to why this scene was not able to transition successfully as did those other scenes?

So there were certainly attempts at doing this by the early mid 1990’s. You mentioned earlier Classified Records, which was started by Kormann Roque who was a key member of Spintronix, one of the big crews to come out of Daly City. Francisco Pardorla, who is one of my main respondents in the book. He was a key member of Velocity Records, which had Buffy. So this was another record label that came more or less out of the scene. It was run by Filipino Americans, they were signing acts like Buffy and Jocelyn Enriquez who were freestyle artists and freestyle was a huge genre amongst these DJs. So there were certainly attempts at this but unlike other kinds of DJ-led scenes—so I’m thinking here most obviously of hip-hop out of New York City, I’m thinking of house in Chicago, techno in Detroit—the Filipino American mobile scene never makes this jump from, as you pointed out, playing records to making records. In all these other histories, these other scenes that I just mentioned, that jump is absolutely essential to the long-term sort of viability of the scene because once you start making records that generates interests, it certainly generates income, and generates capital in a way that it allows a scene to grow and to flourish. You know, I think I suggest this in the book or elsewhere that if hip-hop had never had a “Rapper’s Delight” moment, if it never made that record, then hip-hop likely would have just died. It would have been this regional very kind of, you know, successful for a moment, South Bronx party scene that was mostly done in parks and in nightclubs but that would have been it, that would be the extent of its history. But “Rapper’s Delight” suddenly made people realize that there was a different way in which you could make money from this and that itself is what helped propel hip-hop to the global phenomenon that we know of it today.

With the Filipino American mobile scene, I think the part of the reason why it never was able to successfully make that jump was partially that there was not a lot of collective community knowledge around how to make records. People like, you know, I interviewed Kormann and Francisco about this, and I remembered something that Kormann told me was that when they founded Classified Records, they basically checked out books from the library on how to make records and how to run a record label. It wasn’t something that elders in their community had that knowledge that they could pass on or could mentor them. So they were really going about it alone and I think that that absence of more of a, you know, community level infrastructure really hampered their efforts. It also didn’t help that existing record labels and dance labels in the Bay Area like Megatone had no idea that these crews or that these DJs existed. And in other places, in other scenes, oftentimes dance labels will draw upon the local talent who are playing the records to remix, to produce and do other things, but I think partially because they were Filipino Americans, they were just invisible to the rest of the Bay Area community. People just had no idea that this scene existed underneath their noses and I do think race and ethnicity had something partly to do with that. And so for all those reasons the scene never makes that leap. I think that the last reason too is that when this scene started, most of the people involved with it were high school teenagers, none of them thought that this would become a life-long career or endeavor. It was something that was fun to do and it was enjoyable while they were still in high school, but once they graduated high school, a lot of them felt like, “Well, I need to go do something else now. I need to grow up,” so to say. And so pursuing a career in the music industry simply was not part of the ambition of the vast majority of the people who got involved back then.

We mentioned that you are a DJ, a respected DJ in the community, DJ O-Dub. How has this research and writing experience influenced you just as a DJ?

That’s a good question, I think most people usually ask the other way around which is, you know, being a DJ, “How did that help in approaching the book and the research?” but to flip the question around. I mean, I think part of it was it definitely made me think about the importance of how the DJ engages the audience. I think the thing with scratch DJing is that—and I write about this in the book—one of the fundamental sort of aesthetic divides, you could say, between mobile DJing and scratch DJing is that, scratch DJing by its very nature calls attention to itself. In other words, if you’re scratching and nobody is paying attention to what you’re doing technique-wise, then that sort of defeats the purpose.

With mobile DJing and basically party rocking, you want the audience not to be focused on you all the time, you want them to be dancing, you want to be enjoying yourself but you are not doing that in a way in which you’re trying to call their attention to yourself as a DJ. You’re trying to create a seamless experience for them and I think that in talking with all of these DJs for whom party rocking was the dominant motive for them, it really made me think as a DJ how can I be sort of present. In other words, I’m still guiding the experience for the people who are listening to me DJing but I’m trying to do it in a way where they are not really focused on me. They are really focused on the music and what I am playing and I think that’s a huge lesson to take from doing this research.

So before we let you go, for the listeners and readers that would like to learn more about this book and follow your work, and interests in general, where can they do that?

You can certainly go to the website legionsofboom.com which has information of the book itself, but also more importantly it has a link to the research repository which is full of different databases of the crews, of the high schools, and the neighborhoods that they came out of. I have a small collection of images in terms of flyers and business cards, links to DJ mixes that are related to the scene.

I also wanted to plug that you do run an audio blog which is super dope: Soul-Sides.com. And also with a podcast too. Oliver, thank you so much for doing this interview with us at Traktivist Radio and the Center for Asian American Media. We appreciate all the work you’ve done and continue to do. And we hope to catch up with you in the near future.

Well thank you for having me again, this is a real pleasure.

 

Legions of Bloom is back! Catch it Friday, May 13th at Bindlestiff Studios! 

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This is an edited version of the interview. Listen to the entire interview on the Traktivist podcast.

TRAKTIVIST is the premiere platform to discover, promote, and historically archive music made by Asian Americans. The website, Traktivist.com, features over 1,000 Asian American artists with an intention to unearth artists that go as far back as Asian history in America. Traktivist proudly hosts Traktivist Radio, an online Asian American radio show which features music made by Asian Americans, as well as interviews with artists, organizations, & businesses from the Asian American community.