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Making Musical Scenes In Filipino America
By Christine Bacareza Balance
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
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When turntablists compose, they are theorizing tonally.
— Kodwo Eshun
At the end of the twentieth century, the San Francisco Bay Area incubated hip-hop culture's leading musical innovators. Defined by Los Angeles–based DJ Babu as "a person who uses the turntables not to just play music, but to manipulate sound and create music," turntablist-DJs reemerged from the shadows of hip-hop's commercial stages. With their symphonies of far-out sounds, these DJ-musician-composers stressed to global audiences their central role in the evolution of hip-hop's music and technology. These turntablist-DJs, many of whom were former party or mix DJs, built upon a twenty-five-year-old tradition of mixing songs, looping break beats, and scratching or skillfully moving fingers across vinyl introduced by New York–based luminaries such as DJ Kool Herc, Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, and Grandmixer DXT. Yet, in the 1990s, hip-hop's futuristic sounds resounded not from its cultural epicenter but, instead, from its outposts in California, namely, the northern "City by the Bay."
Within the tradition of DJing, turntablists work with extensive archives of sounds ranging from whole tracks of popular and obscure music (including films, video games, cartoons, television, and even radio shows) to sound effects (including lasers, human bodily functions, a variety of robot and spaceship functions) to break beats (full-length tracks either from previously recorded songs or produced simply for DJ albums). Similar to the role of a musician, turntablists utilize techniques of playing rehearsed and learned in collaboration with their instrument — the turntables — in order to produce sounds that are then arranged into compositions or tracks. Turntablists bring together the archival and technical to orchestrate sonic compositions of a symphonic quality, movements that contain within them a plethora of musical phrases and notes produced through encounters between a rotating album and a DJ's careful finger movements on his one hand with the added flicks of a fader in his other. To the unassuming eye, these gestures might read as the careless mishandling of records resulting in what can only be thought of as noise. But to the studied viewer, one armed with a phonographic approach, the utmost coordination is required to maneuver between careful scratch techniques, the proper placement of the needle to find the right spot on an album, the quick moves of the fader to produce the proper sounds back and forth between turntables one and two, moving with surgical precision to produce the right music while preventing the record from skipping.
Through these DJ-musicians' performative acts of scratching, or digital manipulation, turntables no longer stand as archaic technology for merely playing back commodified recordings of popular songs and tracks. Instead the turntables and performers together become instruments for slowing down the passage of real time and create sonic worlds and systems in the fragmented, yet holistic, breaks of popular songs. Through this digital slowing down, turntablists defamiliarize popular song tracks and even sounds, troubling the affective value of songs, while simultaneously playing upon the audience's knowledge of certain songs to create a different system of listening. Turntablists disarrange the supposed divide between performer and machine — through full body tricks in competition, through the digital techniques of fingers that feel the physical grooves of vinyl and manage the clicks and flares of mixer controls.
As a set of musical practices, turntablism highlights the complex relationship between sound and sentience as well as between bodies and machines in live performance. We might think of turntablist performances and recordings as different ways to document the performing body. As these experimental turntablist-DJs' fingers inscribe new rhythmic patterns and other worldly sounds onto a record's smooth yet grooved surface, we are reminded of how time (through the record's archive) and space (whether it be the space of production, performance, or reception) are compressed in the present of a live performance. These performances expand the scope of our phonographic approach to include the gestural and bodily. How might we begin to listen and write about music, especially instrumental music, without leaving behind the musician's live performing body? How might we reenvision the politics that arise from the intersecting vocabularies of the sonic, literary, and sensational?
At the center of a turntablist musical movement, the Invisibl Skratch Piklz (isp) — a five-member turntablist-DJ group hailing from districts on San Francisco's outskirts (Excelsior and Daly City) — invented new scratch techniques, mastered the turntablist-DJ band arrangement, and dominated individually and collectively at national and international DJ competitions. Members of a California-based mobile DJ party scene, an active network of DJs, party promoters, and audiences from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, isp's QBert, Mixmaster Mike, Shortkut, and Vinroc earned their musical training at social functions (debuts, school dances, birthday parties, and house parties) in predominantly Filipino American cities and suburbs from San Francisco to Los Angeles. As Oliver Wang's work has shown, this California-based mobile DJ party scene carved out translocal spaces for Filipino American youth to socialize and build community, bringing them together around various kinds of music — freestyle, new wave, hip-hop, to name a few.
In the early 1990s, San Francisco-based music producer David Paul brought together and distributed the first ever Return of the DJ compilations as a response to the lack of mainstream visibility to DJ culture. These widely popular collections ushered DJs back onto the main stage and featured mainly Bay Area–based artists, which set the stage for a shift from East to West Coast dominance in the national hip-hop DJ scene and ignited the emergence of turntablism as an international phenomenon. By 1998, isp's members were forced to retire from competing in international turntablist-DJ battles, such as the Disco Music Competition (DMC), because other competitors were intimidated. Rather than cultivate a cut-throat competitive spirit, however, isp members have shared with other turntablist-DJs and audiences their off-stage personas and scratching tips through a pirate radio show (Shiggar Fraggar), online tutorial videos (Turntable TV), and an interactive website message board. In 2000, they organized the first-ever Skratchcon turntablist conference and, since that time, have built awareness of and community within turntablist culture.
With humor rather than bravado, flipping the beat of hip-hop masculinity, ISP's members — particularly DJ QBert (Richard Quitevis) and Mixmaster Mike (Mike Schwartz) — articulated musically a new genre of nerd boy culture with a particular focus on the sonic landscapes and alternative worlds of comic book hero cartoons, science fiction films, and video games. This reliance on futuristic tropes and figures is evident in their album titles (Martian Breaks, Invasion of the Octopus People, Official Adventures of the Toad Man), rehearsal locations (Temple Warplex and Octagon's Lair), and the space invading sounds of their recorded compositions. As the inscriptive and sonic qualities of turntablism congealed into possible extraterrestrial affiliations, DJ QBert translated this fixation into an artistic philosophy: "If you think of these sounds as a type of vocabulary, then you just imagine what types of sentences and things you could make up. I think of scratching as a form of communicating with aliens and other higher forms of being ... and I wonder what types of scratches and things they would try to create." The performative encounter between a turntablist-DJ's digital manipulations and the phonographic machinery of turntables plays an essential role in this shared musical language, this auditory kinship. As QBert later commented after the group's disbanding: "We'd always talk about how music would sound on other worlds and stuff ... the Invisibl Skratch Piklz were definitely a sci-fi thing. A lot of it had to do as well with the sounds you can play with a turntable. You can just pick the weirdest sounds, and of course, that's going to sound alien." Listening against technology's conventions of the turntable as merely a playback machine, for the last forty years, hip-hop turntablist-DJs like QBert have materialized and dematerialized sound — scratching words into notes and notes into noise.
Listening against the persistent search for artistic intent, this chapter focuses onISP's musical practices and performances. As tropical renditions, they highlight the methodological limits and pitfalls of racial visibility discourses, especially in regard to popular music and performance. Rather than marking the Filipino American turntablist-DJ as exceptional, ISP's members disobediently listen to these discursive demands. In the process, they resound familiar burdens of [in]visibility for racialized performers in the United States and the regimes of a proper response, especially from other Filipino Americans. By tuning into sonic abstraction (those turntablist techniques of digital and gestural moves across vinyl) I instead hear the labors of alienation — of estrangement, turning away, handing over, and crossing over — as a form of musical rendition that ISP performs. In this chapter, I take seriously what I am calling a turntablist methodology, the various practices — crate digging, scratching, beat-juggling, improvisation, and forming crews and collaborations — that have grounded and guided my own practices of archival research, close listening, phonographic approach, and writing. Maneuvering with this methodology, this chapter begins in the translocal scenes — of the San Francisco Bay Area, suburban garages, and turntablist music — where the interplanetary messages of ISP and DJ Qbert's science fiction–inspired music first launched.
Released in 2001, Douglas Pray's Scratch: The Movie was the first ever widely distributed feature-length documentary on the history and evolution of DJ/turntablist culture. The film incorporated interviews with, behind the scenes footage of, and live performance recordings by DJs in order to present the most comprehensive history of U.S. hip-hop DJ culture to date. While the film largely pays tribute to the predominantly New York–based African American and Afro-Caribbean male innovators of DJ culture, an interlude in the film's East Coast and urban-centric vibe takes place immediately after the title shot "Turntablism" appears.
Fast-motion shots of driving along Northern California's Highway 280. The camera zooms in on freeway signs for Daly City. They flash on the screen and situate the audience for the documentary's next set of interviewees. Dubbed the "adobo capital" of the United States, Daly City is home to the largest population of Filipinos outside the Philippines. As the familiar joke goes, "You know why it's always foggy in Daly City, right? Because all the Filipinos turn on their rice cookers at the same time." In the Filipino imaginary, Daly City is shorthand for suburban Filipino America. In the turntablist-DJ imaginary, Daly City is shorthand for one of its most famous crews — the Invisibl Skratch Piklz (ISP).
Two of the more commercially successful members of the now-defunct San Francisco–based turntablist-DJ group, both Mixmaster Mike and DJ QBert provide the film's comic relief by recounting how their musical approaches were inspired and informed by aliens and outer space. Most widely known as the touring DJ with the rap trio of the Beastie Boys since 1998, Mike recalls an evening when he witnessed the bright lights of spaceships landing on an open field across from his Daly City childhood home while he rehearsed his scratches and cuts. Surely, he surmised, his music had summoned these interplanetary visitors. Set alongside this narrative,Scratch quickly cuts to scenes of Mike performing in his bedroom. First showing off the song's original album cover, he then plays enough of a snippet from the chorus of Delta blues musician Robert Johnson's "Ramblin' on My Mind" to situate the listener. From there, and on the opposite turntable, he drops the beat to Dead Prez's anthemic "Hip Hop," which sets his performance's meter. He then flips the Johnson sample, distilling Johnson's sung melody and voice into tonal notes through the sharp, quick flicks of the fader, with his left hand, in rhythm with his right hand's fingers as they stab, chirp, transform, and warp across the LP's vinyl surface. His gestures produce an otherworldly symphony, both the stuff of science fiction movie sound effects and a form of musical intergalactic communication, the kind that reaches out to other worlds as it did that one evening in a Daly City apartment.
To be clear, not all of ISP's members are from Daly City. DJ QBert himself grew up in the Excelsior District, right outside San Francisco's Outer Mission neighborhood and birthplace of another Bay Area musical genius, The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. So, while they often "repp'ed" (represented) Daly City hats and T-shirts at international DJ competitions, they also paid homage to San Francisco and the Bay Area more broadly. In their 1998 URB magazine cover story, when asked if the Bay Area "spawn(ed) the world's sickest DJs," QBert immediately replied, "I don't think that's true. There's a lot of good DJs everywhere." But when pressed to account for the leading role of Bay Area turntablists in the emergent scene, he explained: "I think that our culture itself, in San Francisco's history, is known to be really open-minded. It's like a melting pot of friendliness. ... [Yeah] everyone's cool out here, everyone's open-minded, exchanging ideas. It's like a marketplace for ideas." At this point in their interview with hip-hop critic Dave Tompkins, Mixmaster Mike chimed in, "Kinda like what the aliens do," and QBert instantly followed up with, "Yeah, Yeah ... You ever seen in Star Wars that cantina scene, with all the aliens going in there and everyone's interacting? That's Frisco." The conversation quickly devolves into theories of aliens designing the City as their "trading base" and the pyramid-shaped Transamerica building as their telephone tower ("aliens' AT&T"). While all of this might appear as far-out, perhaps farfetched, and definitely science fiction–inspired, it also suggests the notion of San Francisco as a translocal interplanetary scene, a place within a network of places connected, in this particular case, through artistic and cultural exchanges and encounters.
In most narratives of U.S. hip-hop history, the San Francisco Bay Area functions as a minor place in comparison to the genre's capital, New York City. Furthermore, despite its demographics, history, design, and planning, Daly City is often characterized as a suburb in comparison to "the City" proper. Rather than continuing to uphold hip-hop and urban studies' well-established and prescriptive binaries of East Coast/West Coast and center/periphery, the figures of "cantina scene" and "trading base" suggest another way of imagining the relationship between popular music and place. Within the framework of translocality, places such as San Francisco and Daly City are conceived as "processes, always linked by people to other places." This reframing, in turn, reminds us that the portability and reproducibility of popular musical forms have always allowed for other, oftentimes unauthorized, modes of sharing, exchange, and circulation. In the history of popular music scenes, cities such as San Francisco, New York, Manila, Detroit, Liverpool, and London, to name a few, have functioned as nodal points and convergence sites in the cultural traffic of musical styles and objects, musical performers and fans. These ideas are further explored in later chapters, as I discuss Jessica Hagedorn's poetic and performance collaborations in the translocal scenes of 1970s Third Worldist San Francisco and 1980s downtown New York and as I remap Pinoy indie rock's itineraries. But, for now, I want to follow QBert and Mixmaster Mike's leads to reimagine the scenes where popular music's making takes place.
Excerpted from Tropical Renditions by Christine Bacareza Balance. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
Flip the Beat: An Introduction 1
1. Sonic Fictions 31
2. The Serious Work of Karaoke 56
3. Jessica Hagedorn's Gangster Routes 87
4. Pinoise Rock 123
Epilogue: Rakenrol Itineraries 155
What People are Saying About This
"In this stunningly refreshing take on the musicological and performative dimensions of Filipino American historical and cultural experiences, Christine Bacareza Balance makes intricate and superb sonic connections between seemingly separate realms such as colonialism, migration, youth culture, leisure, and labor. Standing alone in its incisive cultural critique and superb interpretive readings of a culture and a people spanning thousands of miles, Tropical Renditions makes a pioneering contribution to Asian American studies and performance studies."
"Tropical Renditions is an ambitious and exhilarating study that beckons us to listen carefully to the underground sound of Filipino and Filipino American 'translocal' cultures. Christine Bacareza Balance takes her readers to a range of sonic 'scenes' in the Filipino diaspora—from karaoke house parties to Pinoy indie rock shows to the experimental performance spaces of Jessica Hagedorn and the West Coast Gangster Choir, in turn showcasing an insurgent musicality that speaks back to and, in many ways, sings through and against the long roll of imperial violence. Like a radical postcolonial mixtape, Balance’s book captures the urgency of Filipino identity in sonic motion."