Furious Five

Hyphen gets elemental with hip-hop’s new school.

October 1, 2006

Photographer Seng Chen

1. NATIVE GUNS. MCs that matter.

 Jonah Deocampo and Jack DeJesus prefer to aim straight for your head. With their lyrics, that is.

“When we speak, we try to get in there,” Deocampo, or MC Bambu, says, gesturing to his head with expressive hands.

The two Filipino Americans make up hip-hop group Native Guns—a play on ’90s hip-hop collective Native Tongues—and are known for their conscious lyricism, occasional rapping in Tagalog and live shows that get even the most reluctant heads nodding.

They grew up in different parts of inner city Los Angeles but in similar situations—both were jumped into gangs at a young age; both say hip-hop saved their lives.

Deocampo, 29, grew up in Watts and was one of the only Asian kids on the block. At 12, he was jumped into a gang, but his way with words not only gave him an expressive outlet, but an easier out from gang life.

Fast forward to 2001, when Deocampo met DeJesus, a k a Kiwi, at an event in Los Angeles. Their first collaboration, “Peaceful Pistols,” appeared on Deocampo’s 2001 solo album.

Their first full-length album together, Barrel Men, was released this spring and includes cameos from DJ Rhettmatic, Sabzi of Blue Scholars and Denizen Kane of Typical Cats. The album opens up with “Initiation,” about a young kid getting jumped into a gang, but both Deocampo and DeJesus are quick to point out that they’re not advocating that lifestyle.

Though they may be misunderstood for the violent symbol of a gun, Deocampo says it’s all metaphorical—the gun as a symbol of getting straight to the point and as a revolutionary symbol for self-defense.

These two self-described “bald-headed brown brothers with tattoos” are walking poster men of balance between art and activism: DeJesus works fulltime at a nonprofit, hosts a monthly radio show dedicated to Asian American hip-hop on an independent Berkeley radio station, and can be seen out on the streets as a chant-leader during demonstrations. Deocampo works at a media company by day and teaches hip-hop writing on the side. The newest addition to their group, Patrick Huang, or DJ Phatrick, 24, teaches music production to high school youth in West Oakland.

DeJesus, 31, who now lives in San Francisco, says he can’t separate what he raps about from his background. “I’m going to want to talk about sweatshops and identity. I feel like my Filipino-ness has everything to do with the quality of my music. We don’t want that to be removed from the art.”

Ten to Spin
Top 10 hip-hop joints by API artists (in no particular order)
By Jack DeJesus/MC Kiwi

1 “Another Life” » Denizen Kane
2 “Authentic Vintage” » Jern Eye
3 “Chaos” » Skim
4 “Keep it Going Now” » Power Struggle
5 “Still Water” » ELEMNOP
6 “The Long March” » Blue Scholars
7 “Sureshot” » The Pacifics
8 “Slingshot” » RJ
9 “I Suppose” » Group Therapy
10 “Work It” » Native Guns



Adrenaline-seeking b-girl.

Writer Rebecca Klassen

Photographer Ejen Chuang

ON WEEKENDS, Peppa—nom de guerre for L.A.-based Peipei Yuan—practices falling from great heights and landing hard. But she knows how to get right back on her feet.

This stuntwoman-in-training—you can see her work in CBS’s Numb3rs—is exuberantly devoted to movement in all its forms. Her primary love, though, is breaking. “B-girling,” she insists, “is a way of life for me.”

It’s no surprise that this self-professed “adrenaline junkie” had taken on the challenge of the “testosterone sport” that is the b-boy cipher. Peppa asserts, “Claiming the floor, you really have to have guts. It’s really a mind thing. Every time I get on the floor it’s still such a rush. Like what am I going to do when I throw?” She simplifies the intimidation by focusing on the music: “If a really good song comes on, I’ll be sure to get down.”

Peppa’s predilection for movement needed a little jump-start early in life. When she was a baby, Peppa’s mother thought she was mentally retarded because she failed to cry in reaction to her sister’s hijinks—like the time she stuck a toothpick in Peppa’s eye. The doctor recommended that they work on increasing little Peppa’s motor skills through gymnastics.

“I think I must have what they call an addictive personality, because when I start some-thing I keep doing it, to the extreme.” When she tore her knee ligament doing gymnastics, she took up springboard diving. Partner dancing in PE classes sparked an interest in lindy, swing and salsa. When a relationship ended, she took off on the weekends to snowboard as a way to feel better. Summer’s lack of snow led her to skateboarding. She also surfs.

This impressive roster for Peppa has mostly been a form of cross-training, especially after she started breaking in the New York club scene in 2000. She views herself as a sort of kinesiologist, which only helps her in her daytime job as an animator. The ability to translate idea into movement leaves the “technical nerds who’ve never done physical things in their life” in the dust.

In terms of hip-hop culture, Peppa gets most excited about the scene’s creative spirit, as well as the increasingly globalized focus. When there’s a big event, “kids from around the world will travel for the love of hip-hop,” like the L.A.-Stuttgart exchange she participated in back in August. “It’s so beautiful. They’re just here to dance. For the love of hip-hop culture, the arts. Not drugs, or to get drunk, or pick up on girls. It’s such a simple idea, but it’s pure, and it’s right, and it’s the way life should be.”



DJ cum auteur.

Writer Neelanjana Banerjee

Photographer Jerome Gacula

On a sweltering 112-degree afternoon in San Diego, Mike Relm nearly sweated through his signature suit. While on tour with Peeping Tom, former-Faith No More front man Mike Patton’s collaborative project, Relm got to showcase his own unique
DJ skills.

He spun an audio/visual set that mashed up Peanuts, Rage Against the Machine, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Battle Royale, White Stripes, some of his own beats, old Beatles footage, Led Zeppelin, N.W.A., The Neverending Story, The Godfather, Arrested Development, The Ali G Show and more.

“I like when people laugh,” Relm explains about his show. “I hate standing for longer than 20 seconds and not doing anything [on stage]. I feel like I’m ripping people off.”

Relm has certainly paid his dues in the DJ world, purchasing his first turntables in early high school and winning his first DJ competition over 10 years ago at an import car show in San Francisco. By 1999, Relm had placed second in the International Turntablist Federation’s world competition and become a serious artist in the world of scratching.

“It wasn’t really an art form when I got into it,” Relm says about his humble origins. “You’re just the guy that plays the music. I thought, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ I did nothing but that. When you do something so often, when you’re so deeply engulfed into it–you turn it in to different things. I started manipulating sounds and music, started experimenting.”

Relm’s serious interest in film, his desire to truly entertain the audience and some technological advances in the form of DVD-mixers, led him to the incarnation of his show today.

“I used to run a video loop behind me just for atmospheric stuff. When I would open up for bands, I didn’t want to be just playing records on stage. If anyone is on stage, you’ve gotta earn it. I’d do as many zany tricks as I could but the video wouldn’t really have as much to do with what I was doing musically,” Relm says. “Now I can control what people see and what people hear and it’s a lot more fun.”

This fall, Relm will tour his show widely as the opening act for Del the Funky Homosapien. But he says that his music will continue to evolve and he is currently working on a full-length album of original music. “No more mix tape stuff,” he says, characterizing his music as uplifting and eclectic.

As an Asian American DJ, Relm says that he has always felt as though hip-hop has welcomed him with open arms. “Especially with turntablism, there is no racial discrimination because it is about the skills,” he says. “DJs are pretty lucky. We can be whatever we want, but you can’t suck.”



Beatboxer for the people.

Writer Neelanjana Banerjee

Photographer Alex Felipe

Being South Asian has definitely helped elevate Toronto-based Jugular’s beatboxing abilities. On top of the extremely versatile and diverse bass lines, drums, record scratches and musical sound bites that he makes with his mouth, he includes intricate tabla rhythms and even Bollywood orchestral flair in his repertoire.

After six years of spitting in microphones all over Canada and the United States, Jugular is expanding his beatboxing skills into something more holistically musical. He is currently working on a full-length album called Welcome to the Universe, where he beatboxes as well as plays guitar, bass, keyboards and flute.

“No samples are used,” he says. “All layered percussion sounds heard on the album are made by the human mouth.” Jugular describes the album as a “complete make-out album” in the style of ’70s/’80s soul with elements of R&B and hip-hop grooves. The album will drop November 2006.

Jugular—otherwise known as Nikhil Tumne—says his musical-mouth skills developed the same way as those of most internationally known beatboxers.

“You have to be broke,” the 27-year-old Jugular says. “Beatboxing comes from not having any instruments. My parents didn’t buy me a guitar. But you couldn’t stop me—it was like a disease. In the end, I had to make the music with my mouth.”

Jugular’s family emigrated from India to Toronto’s working-class Thorncliffe Park neighborhood in the late 1960s, where he grew up on the sounds of hip-hop in the streets. But when the family moved up and out to the suburbs, he felt out of the loop.

“People were into bands like Poison and Skid Row, and I was like what the fuck?” Jugular says rapidly. “I was like, ‘What about Erik B and Rakhim?’”

He first started performing as a way to escape the frustrations of university life. “I support university if it helps you get to where you want it life,” he says, “But I hated it. I would do my homework and stuff and then I would go downtown and get on the mic just to get the frustration out of my system.”

When not working on his album, Jugular teaches beatboxing workshops to young people through the Urban Noise arts festival. A long-time community activist, Jugular says he hopes to “move minds through music” and has definitely faced the trials and tribulations of a young brown man after 9/11. He lists various times when he has been denied entry to the US, pulled off of planes by the INS and questioned for hours.

“Pretty much every time I have to go to America I get pulled into INS and interrogated,” he says bitterly. “They are really targeting the wrong people.”

Yet, Jugular says he doesn’t let such setbacks discourage him, he just works a bit harder to get his music out there.

“It just fuels me more,” he says “I will continue to keep on doing art till I die. No government can keep that shit away from me.”



Graffiti artist on the move.

Writer Marcie Chin

Photographer Jason Chen

New York-based painter Jeff Cylkowski, 30, recently graduated with a bachelor’s in fine arts from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

On paper, he doesn’t exactly conjure up the image of a graffiti artist. But dig a little deeper and you’ll also find a Korean American adoptee who grew up in the Midwest, raised in the subcultures of urban America, particularly skateboarding, punk rock and hip-hop.

His first solo art show Momentum, which opened in 2003 at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia, consisted of a series of murals—with bright and bold colors, text and shapes including lots of sweeping arrows that clearly reference his foundations in graffiti and b-boying.

And Momentum rightly captures Cylkowski, a k a SlopeMUL, and his life thus far.

Adopted at birth by white, working class parents in Chicago, this artist of Korean descent found identity first through the urban Midwest, where he pioneered a small graffiti scene in Indianapolis, which he refers to as “IndiaNoPlace.”

“I lived in predominantly white/black communities,” he describes in his bio. “I never knew what it meant to be Asian or Korean… I spent most of those years confused, wanting to be white/black.”

Cylkowski, who has painted walls, tunnels and trains internationally, also lived in San Francisco, where he was an active writer in the flourishing late ’90s West Coast graffiti movement, and Philadelphia, where he began identifying with the burgeoning Asian American art scene, including working with the Asian Arts Initiative (www.asianartsinitiative.org).

But as an artist constantly on the move, he decided to apply to art school at age 27, surprising even himself.

Today, Jeff describes his work as “a rhythmic assemblage of abstract elements borrowed from art history—sampled, reexamined and remixed, into imagery that reflects a fusion of painterly romanticism and hard-edged digitalism with a graffiti (street art) sensibility.”

Magazine Section: 

Momo Chang

Senior Contributing Editor

Momo Chang is the Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media, and freelances for magazines, online publications, and weeklies. Her writings focus on Asian American communities, communities of color, and youth culture. She is a former staff writer at the Oakland Tribune. Her stories range from uncovering working conditions in nail salons, to stories about “invisible minorities” like Tongan youth and Iu Mien farmers. She has freelances The New York Times, WIRED, and East Bay Express, among other publications.