Article by Christopher Alley
"Now if it wasn't for the Bronx, this rap shit probably would be never goin' on - so tell me where you from?"
-Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz, "Uptown Baby"
Two words: "Gangnam Style." Psy was inescapable in 2012, but amidst all the talk show appearances and think pieces on YouTube culture and Korea, there was little discussion about South Korean hip-hop:, the scene from which Psy originated. That may be because "Gangnam Style" was, in essence, a novelty dance song with rapping, rather than a South Korean hip-hop track proper. It's hard to imagine South Korean boom-bap or trap blowing up in the States, since our level of interest is often measured by how much something makes us dance or laugh. It's why dancehall and reggaeton crossed over and grime didn't, and why Die Antwoord remains a phenomenon but Lady Sovereign was dead on arrival. Art requires a kind of utility to make an impact; it needs to accentuate someone's lifestyle or give them shareable content. It's a rare person whose passion has them scouring the web for the hottest Mauritanian hip-hop;, those people are vital to building our understanding of the world, especially what another culture's interpretation of our own says about ourselves and human nature. Our subjects - ZEPS, Lucas Alvarado-Farrar, and Simone Varano – are those kinds of people- artists who thought outside borders and followed their wanderlust, embedding themselves in the local hip-hop scenes of Norway and the Philippines, respectively. We spoke to each about their excursions abroad and how it shaped their work and worldview
ZEPS is a chef, MC, outspoken “Nuyorican”, and occasional battle rapper from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. He's been featured on CBS and the Opie and Anthony show, and documents his extensive hip-hop travels on his site, http://boombapacrossthemap.com/.
Athens: How long have you been emceeing?
ZEPS: Since high school, so about 17 years.
Z: Since Abuela trusted me to stir the beans around age 10.
A: How would you describe your music?
Z: Fun. Hardcore. Personal. Clever. Unique. But at the end of the day... FUN!
A: You've been a regular fixture at L.E.S's End of the Weak open mic for a while. What can you tell people who are unfamiliar about EODUB and the MC Challenge?
Z: That's my rap college. I'm EOW Alumni. I went there as a 19-year-old hooligan and was mentored by some incredible and humble MCs like Poison Pen, Breeze Evahflowin, Big Zoo and more. It's the best place to hone your skills in NYC and the MC Challenge is one of the best rap contests in the galaxy. End of the Weak is worldwide.
A: Over the years EOW expanded to 15 different countries, including Uganda, Sweden, and Brazil. You participated in the MC Challenge and were selected to represent the US against other MC Challenge winners. What was your experience at other EOW franchises/competing in the MC Challenge internationally?
Z: Amazing. One year I was living in Norway and got to perform in Berlin. The year I won the Challenge of Champs, I was already booked in Oslo and couldn't attend. Always a blast participating.
A: What inspired you to move to Oslo?
Z: I went on a lucky trip in 2007 with my good friend and MC J-Hon. Due to a crazy chain of events, I ended up going to Norway, on an all expenses paid tour sponsored by McDonald's. It took 2 years but I knew if I moved there, I would stick out as the only Puerto Rican from Brooklyn. I was tired of New York. I lived there most of the year from 2010- – 2012.; I'm back in Brooklyn now.
A: How familiar with Norway were you beforehand?
Z: Jack shit. Vikings, skiing, salmon... the dumb American stereotypes.
A: Was there a culture shock?
Z: Absolutely. Things are a bit calmer and slower in Norway. I'm from NYC so I was born grinding. Lots of music ideas I had were not accepted at first. People told me, "That's weird. Don’t do that. They won't like that." I said, "Fuck that I'm def doing it now."
A: How do most Americans react when you tell them you lived in Oslo?
Z: They think I'm crazy and don't understand why I would do hip-hop in Scandinavia.
A: What were the interactions like?
Z: Standoffish, at first. A lot of "Hey, man, that's weird don't do that." But when you're talented, they love you, and I've never felt like more of an artist. If you got skills they enjoy it and they let you know.
A: Does Norway have a Latino community?
Z: Hell yeah. Mad Chileans, some Argentinian, Colombian... It’s really dope and they got some sick Latino Norwegian MCs..
A: How was the Norwegian-Latino expression of Hispanic culture different?
Z: It seems Latinos are proud of their heritage no matter where they grow up. In Norway, Latino culture is represented in many ways like salsa dance nights, Caribbean and South American culture festivals, and many of the Hispanic MCs here rap in Spanish. The one thing that's missing is the food... Every block there's a nasty kebab spot and sushi, but nowhere to buy a quick empanada or some rice and beans.
A: What kind of doors did moving to Norway open for you?
Z: European doors. Got to perform and record in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, London, Amsterdam, Switzerland... Boom bap across the map!
A: Do you think you could have had the same opportunities if you had stayed in Brooklyn?
Z: No. Who knows what would have happened but I finally got to see the world.
A: In your bio, you describe yourself as "versatile" in terms of your emceeing and cooking. What skills have you picked up or lessons have you learned from your travels?
Z: Learning how to be a proper MC. I host street dance festivals, poetry festivals, corporate events and more. I went to a Norway a rapper, and came back a Master of Ceremony.
A: Who are some dope MCs from that scene that you can recommend to our readers?
Z: Too many to name but I'll stick with boom bap and heads I directly work with: Dekstra Large, Son of Light, Phats, DRM, Pats One, Nils M Skils, Zawadi, Erik de Torres, Breaknecks, Palabras, Salvador Sanchez, Diaz, Phats ... the list goes on! And also some SICK producers
Images source of Lucas and Simone.
Lucas Alvarado-Farrar is a photographer and videographer from New York and proprietor of the site farfetchedlife.com. His work has been featured in a wide variety of publications, including the New Yorker, Ebony, and The Washington Post.
Simone Varano is a videographer and documentarian from Virginia, and owner of the site hxhour.com. Her documentary on fledgling artists, entitled "The Struggle is Real,", screened in 2014 and can be viewed on hxhour.com
Athens: What sparked your interest in going to the Philippines, and how aware of the rap scene were you beforehand?
Lucas Alvarado-Farrar: [Laughs]. Right, well the simplest thing is one of my best friends growing up was Filipino, and it was something where it was a culture that I always had a relationship with, and I had a lot of friends in my life who were Filipino, so when it came to, "Where do I wanna go in the world?", that was always the spot that I was interested in visiting. There's also because the history is very similar to Latin America; it was ruled by the Spanish for three hundred years, and the Americans came in and did their imperial power thing for about 70 years, so it felt very familiar, the territory felt very familiar – obviously not like Latin America – but there's still Spanish, like, every tenth word is like a straight-up Spanish word, and how the people act and look, and Catholicism, and all these things feel very similar to Latin America, so there is something that I was personally interested in seeing. The most literal answer is that the tickets were really fucking cheap [laughs].
There are other cities that we could've gone to with this airline deal: Mumbai, Johannesburg, Abu Dhabi, but the Philippines is the one that was the most interesting to me.
A: You recently did a documentary on the Filipino rap scene called "How We Live"...
LAF: Right, so we're currently in progress on that. So we went to the Philippines in March for about three weeks and I worked with a director from there on a music documentary he's producing from 2011 on the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival when Kanye and Q-Tip were performing. So I told him we were coming out there and he kind of...he's like an OG of the music scene out there and he kind of set everything up for us:; who to talk to, when to talk to them, and, basically, he's like one of those people who's made so many people's careers happen than when he says something, people show up. And that's how it came to be. Originally we were just gonna go and try to shoot stuff, and we kind of made it more official and it allowed us to enter a lot of spaces we wouldn't have, like working with one of the governors in the Philippines– he was 26 and making a rap album.
A: Is that common in the Philippines ? Manny Pacquiao is a politician, but he also makes music and boxes, and this guy is a governor but he also raps. Is everyone wearing multiple hats?
Simone Varano: Actually, there was the GT driver who was also a rapper, and then there was the nurse who was also a rapper, so I do think that there is – kind of like, there's not really any limit, that's sort of an American thing, that you have to pick a goal and pick a career and stick with that. There was one woman we interviewed who actually is a rapper part-time and she's also a nurse, and she uses rap music to kind of help her patients kind of just have hope and feel better.
LAF: Music is a big part of the culture there, and that's something that people are pretty open and vocal about. People made it seem like everybody had a great voice and it really did seem like everyone we ran into could sing beautifully. I think that's just part of Filipino culture, like if you ask Filipinos themselves, music is like a really big part of who they are, so the flip side of that is that the industry is not very big, right? So a lot of the stuff that gets supported – I mean it's a monetary thing in the fact that the country doesn't have as much money as, obviously, the US – so the industry supports a lot more commercial type of work, yet everyone is into music, goes to karaoke bars, is singing all the time...so music is this big part of the culture yet doesn't have this massive industry like the way it does in the U.S.
SV: And just hip-hop in general...how hip-hop started is kind of like a place of poverty and oppression and racism, and, you know, those kinds of issues exist all over the world, right? So a lot of the people we spoke to, like...this one guy, I guess he's darker than the people he's grown up with in his community, and he was talking about feeling isolated and feeling oppressed and judged because of his skin color, hip-hop gave him something to relate to, so it's also interesting to see how...it means similar things to different people.
A: What is the Filipino expression of rap as compared to say, the Americas?
LAF: The number one thing that I think people would point to when it comes to hip-hop in the Phillippines is battle rap...
SV: Yeah, Fliptop
LAF: It's kind of the defining medium, like that's what people look to, that's what's popular, that's what people's popular imagination of rap is. That being said, there are artists that don't battle, and just make albums. As far as their sound, it sounds familiar in the sense of like, "This is hip-hop", but it hasn't taken more of that more experimental tone that, in the last 5-10 years, hip-hop in the U.S. and the U.K have. It's generally not, like, trapped out, I don't think that's something that's arrived over there for artists creating music.
SV: There are a lot of Filams that came in, that grew up in the United States and came to the Philippines – they were kind of expressing this frustration of a trickle down effect. It seems like a lot of the trends of hip-hop music or pop culture in general are kind of like behind. I mean, even in my experience listening to the pop music and the hip-hop music in the Philippines, it's sounds a lot like older rap music from a few years back, it doesn't sound as current or as innovative as rap music is in the States. I don't know if that's because the internet isn't as big out there since they have the pisonets and pay something like 15 pesos a minute or 5 pesos a minute just to use the internet, it's kind of harder to connect with what everyone else is doing.
LAF: "Filam" is a Filipino-American and a "pisonet" is a computer where you have to pay money to use the internet, just to clarify those terms.
A: So we talked about the sound which, as you said, is early days, but what about in terms of subject matter?
LAF: Yeah, so they divide it into tiers – it's like "A" market, and "B" market, and "C" market, and "D" market, and C and D is targeted more toward the masses, and means it would be generally in Tagalog or another native language, whereas the A and B market tend to be in English and aimed at the commercial/Filam/ American expats or other expats. It's kind of hard to answer that question because I don't speak Tagalog so I don't know exactly what they are saying, but generally from what people are talking about in their lived experiences that they are communicating to us in English is a lot of the stuff, the same kind of issues that happen globally, where it's corruption on a massive scale, whether it’s officials being bribed, or it’s generally a system that ignores people without money or power or influence, so I think a lot of those issues get brought up, especially when its targeted at the masses. It really depends on the artist, but that's the impression that people are giving us when they're talking about what their music means or what its about.
On an individual level, that we, for one of the people in the doc, Kat Alano, her music, she used it as a means to deal with some of the issues she went through, having dealt with a rape case in which she wasn't believed and then blackmailed from the industry.
SV: Just in general, a lot of the people we talked to, there was an undertone of bigger issues. Again, the nurse/rapper, even in some of her raps, she's talking about the corruption and the fact that there was a three-month period where the nurses in the hospital she worked at weren't getting paid, and then her speaking out resulted in her having to work in the terminal section of the hospital and work the night-owl shift. So like a lot of her music...a lot of the things she raps about, it has a happy tone to it, so it sounds good and it sounds appealing, but her words are the words of her disappointment. A lot of Filipinos we talk to have a lot of pride in their country, despite the adversity that they face or the things that they go through, they're still really proud - they just want to see things get better.
With what Lucas is saying about Kat Alano, with her individual rape case that she was speaking to, which is kind of how, at large, women are treated in the Philippines, and just Asian countries in general, how these situations happen to women all the time, and there's really nothing that women are able to do about it, because the man who did that to her, he's still working, and she was blacklisted from the industry. So as much as the artists we talk to have their own mainstream music going on, and they still try to make make a living and sell off of it, but they also make music that is a reflection of, not only their personal issues, but [also] what they notice about the country in general.
A: Who are some Filipino rappers that we should be on the lookout for?
LAF: I think the biggest ones everyone’s looks to are Abra and Loonie. Those would be the two rappers that everyone talks about.
SV: And Mike Swift..
LAF: Mike Swift, yeah, he's another big person. He actually lived in Brooklyn for a while, and then moved back to the Philippines.
SV: Uprising, they're the ones who...they started Fliptop.
LAF: Oh yeah, Uprising is the group Anygma is in.
SV: Yeah, and they are trying to...they obviously still have ties to Fliptop, but they're trying to define themselves more as a group than as a battle rap crew.
LAF: And LDP is the group that Abra is in...
SV: Lyrically Deranged Poets!
LAF: Artifice, that's Loonie and Abra when they're together...
SV: And also, we talked to people outside of hip-hop. There's a group called Motherbasss that we got to speak to and go to this huge music festival they have, called "Unleashed" where it's a bunch of EDM music. And even Kat Alano, the woman we talked about who was raped, her music is more like funk. So it's kind of like, exploring other genres coincides with hip-hop, because it's a very small music community – we were also really surprised at how many people knew each other and networked with each other.