Filipinos have been making waves in rap since the genre’s earliest days. New York’s Joe Bataan dropped “Rap-O Clap-O” in 1979 and Portland’s Nasty Nes helped form the Nastymix label that launched Sir Mix-a-Lot’s career in ‘83. Their contributions are still powerful, with Canadian artists like Manila Grey and Killy blowing up, and Cali emcees like P-Lo, Ruby Ibarra, and Bambu making waves. Many of these artists often speak to and take inspiration from their homeland on the opposite side of the world, and this island nation has a serious rap game of its own.
Hip-hop releases in the Philippines go as far back as 1980 with Dyords Javier’s “Na Onseng Delight,” but the late great Francis Magalona, more commonly known as FrancisM, is considered the OG of the country. A teen celebrity in the ’80s who could be regularly seen breakdancing on TV, he unveiled his debut rap album Yo! in 1990 to wide acclaim, remaining in the spotlight until his passing from leukemia in 2009.
Like the rest of the world, rap has hit the mainstream in the Philippines. The trap-light sounds of Ex Battalion can be heard daily on the radio, whether in the streets of Manila or beachside in Batangas. Rap battle culture is also alive and well, with Fliptop ranking as one of the world’s most-watched battle leagues.
Pinoy hip-hop culture was recently captured by the award-winning film Respeto, which features a cast of local rap stars, including well-known Pasig MC Abra as the main protagonist. In addition to depicting local battle rap and dance culture, the film tackles weighty issues like President Duterte’s internationally-condemned war on drugs, the generational effects of martial law by the Marcos Administration in the ’70s, and life in the informal settlements of Metro Manila.
Not unlike other local scenes around the world, rap is very often a window into life in the Philippines. But it’s not always so serious, and the subject matter often deals with love or partying. As you’ll see below with this group of Filipino rappers you need to know, the country’s hip-hop geography is as diverse as ever.
Stick Figgas (Loonie and Ron Henley)
Stick Figgas was originally a duo of Pasig City rappers Loonie and Ron Henley, who got their start in 2002 on a popular television talent show and were mentored by legendary rapper FrancisM. It has since grown into a supergroup, fronted by a singer and backed by a four piece live band and turntablist.
Loonie was one of the main characters in Respeto and is the biggest star of the wildly popular Fliptop battles. Ron Henley’s style is usually quite lyrically driven, but as Figgas shows, he’ll go in over anything, whether that be electro, pop-punk, or dubstep. He’s even worked with Sage The Gemini. Ron and Loonie are backed by a major label as a group and also individually, but they’re more popular as solo rappers.
Marlboro Blacks are like the Newports of the Philippines, often sold as loosies by street vendors and at corner stores called sari saris, making them a locally identifiable object in the same league as Jeepneys and basketball hoops. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that this track by Because blew up earlier this year, racking up about 10 million views over a few months. Or maybe it’s just because its smooth AF and the lyrics are a refreshingly introspective take on a break up. No one’s really sure why it blew so suddenly, Because included, but he’s since signed a record deal. All this before he even graduated high school — he’s only 16 years old.
Because’s work is spread around different channels but lives mostly at UNRTHDX, where he has multiple tracks in the millions. The administrator of that channel never actually asked for permission to post his music, but Because let it rock anyway. And lucky for them, since that’s where “Marlboro Black” really caught fire. They work together now, and the channel has became a key hub for Pinoy rap.
Yet another supergroup, 727 Clique has about 12 members, including 3 from another well-known crew called Owfuck and two photographer/videographers. The above “Family Day” is their biggest tune, and with its breezy flows, party vibes, and all around upbeat feel, it’s no wonder why. Digging further into their catalog uncovers a range of styles, from nostalgic boom bap and skater hoodies to hard drums and skittering trap snares paired with all-black-everything fits. The most recent video by one of their members is about the streets of Tondo.
While they came together in 2016, team founder Third Flo’ and Alas Ng Beats had been a part of the indpendent rap scene for over a decade. But they never saw as much success as with 727, which got their first break with the video “Trabaho Lang.”
Al James is the man this year. With only a handful of songs to his name, he’s blown up in the past 18 months, collecting over 25 million views as his sound spills out of cars across Metro Manila. And all that love is with no label backing. His syrupy flow and purple imagery make for a chill counterpoint to the chaos of life in this dense megacity.
James is part of the Baryo Berde team, which includes a dozen members, a few of which are also designers and videographers. DB is a notable member of the crew, and she’s probably the Philippines’ most popular female rapper right now. There’s also Kid Cras, who runs Hellasolid, another great channel to discover local rap.
Bugoy na Koykoy
Covered in tattoos, throwing signs, and counting stacks, Bugoy is focused on the streets. He’s one of the most prolific Filipino rappers, dropping about four mixtapes a year and posting weekly music videos and vlogs that are consistently popular.
His style is straightforward and direct, with sparse beats providing a blank slate for an unrushed flow. Bugoy (which means “bad kid” in a Philippine language called Bisaya) raps about life in the hood, which for him is Sorrento, Cavite. He’s all about making money, getting cars and girls, and staying away from cops. He’s also not afraid to talk about his former life as a drug dealer, which is controversial (and probably dangerous) because of the country’s bloody war on drugs. But he doesn’t seem to care, and is thriving regardless of his past.
Cavite’s GFAB, an artist and producer who releases as much R&B as he does rap, is the least-known face to grace these ranks. But his self-produced music is too hard to pass up, what with its detailed and dynamic beats, smooth vocals, and bouncy flow that blurs the genre lines of rap. He’s only been making beats for rappers from the area for about 3 years now and adopted the GFAB name even more recently when he started making solo music and rapping on his own tunes. Since he’s so new to the game, he’s focused more on spreading his music than performing live.
The above clip, using his “PHB” cut, is a concept video for Manila’s Zyro Santos, a top tier Filipino hip hop dancer. If that’s not a co-sign, then what is?
Like many of the rappers on this list, Apekz is a battle rap stalwart, claiming a number of titles. The above song “Pegue” compares fake clothes to fake friends. Posing in front of a slew of counterfeit designer shoes, including the ubiquitous bootleg Supreme slides, and settling down for some plastic surgery, he raps about how brand name gear isn’t all that and that fake sunglasses are better than fake people.
While a lot of his verses are the type of machine gun raps you’d expect from a battle champ, he also drops his fair share of feel good, summer day type singles. “Haring Araw” is a good example of the type of radio-ready, saccharine rap that has captured him the widest swath of attention beyond his underground base.
Another FrancisM protégé, Gloc 9 has been in the game for 20 years and most Filipinos with an interest in music know his name. He’s secured major label status but touches his audience through grounded visions of your everyday Filipino, rapping about overseas workers, the dreaded commute in Manila, and even about life as a gay person in the Philippines. The video above is about traffic, a universally despised fact of life in the country’s capital.
As part of his goal of being relatable to his listeners, his sound is also very accessible; a bright and friendly style of production that may not be globally appealing but is something that people from many walks of life in the Philippines seem to appreciate.
Bawal Clan is a newer clique, with about 15 members, including a few originally from the States. In addition to rappers, it counts filmmakers and designers as part of their ranks. They’re also probably the only team with black artists on the mic and one of the rare selections on this list who rap mostly in English.
Their style is hard to pin down. One release will be a moody basement cut with dark beats and visuals, the next will be a smooth R&B joint featuring Butta B, a popular Filipina DJ and dancer. On stage though, you can count on them to bring the energy. They have a monthly night at the forward thinking club XX:XX, where they invite other crews to perform. Past guests have included 727 Clique and ACDMND$.
This 17 year old is the newest rapper to claim the OPM (Original Pilipino Music) limelight, gaining major label support while still in high school. His recent hit “Nadarang,” set to clear 20 million views, is exemplary of his wave. Smooth, polished boom bap beats set up his rapid-fire, bar-driven lyrics, with the occasional dose of distortion. Like many of the country’s biggest hits, it’s about a relationship.
While he’s young in body, Dope can seem older in mind. He tackles difficult subject matter on his debut EP, Materyal, covering topics like the drug war and the need to seek out more than material success. That doesn’t mean he can’t joke around—he’s got a track called “Str8 Outta Condom,” after all.
For more of our international spotlights, take a look at 10 Japanese rappers to put on your radar.
- Words: Mike Steyels