The University’s long and rich tradition of celebrating while studying the arts has allowed its sons and daughters to carve out their niche in many industries and art forms. UP has made its mark in mainstream and popular art, but is also in those spaces where counterculture has thrived, through,among others, one of UP’s top cultural performing groups Kontra GaPi (Kontemporaryong Gamelang Pilipino), and Kidlat Tahimik’s films that earned him the well-deserved title of National Artist for Cinema.
An emerging form
In music, the growing counterculture phenomenon known as FlipTop (which refers to anything related to the actual genre or form “battle rap” or local hiphop) has amassed a significant online following, with its YouTube channel presence of three million subscribers and its Facebook page with more than 2.6 million likes. FlipTop is actually the Filipino hiphop multimedia production company behind the famous rap battles. To the unfamiliar and bewildered, hiphop refers to the culture and lifestyle that has rap as one of its art forms.
One of the names that this rising form has produced is BLKD (pronounced “balakid”), a Community Development graduate from UP Diliman. “Modern balagtasan,” according to BLKD, is a battle rap format consisting of face-to-face rap contests. Battle rappers prove their supremacy by rapping verses usually directed against each other. The format originated in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom and these videos are what introduced BLKD to rap battles as early as 2006. When he learned that a local counterpart was being produced by FlipTop Battle League in 2010, he joined the fun. He credits his background in writing poetry in high school as his only tool of survival in the cutthroat, high-pressure contest. But he also believes that he has always had the knack for wordplay, hence his naturally learning rapping “on the job.”
A typical rap battle is governed by rules and mechanics adopted from its foreign counterparts who first launched battle leagues. The local rap battles run by FlipTop are in the modern format in which the competitors are given prior notice and ample time to prepare their a capella verses before the night of the competition. This is different from the old-school format in which performances are more spontaneous and verses are crafted on the spot with a beat.
BLKD’s experience in creative writing and theater in UP gave him a more solid platform on which to compose. But what set his verses apart on the FlipTop stage is his more grounded, more meaningful approach to art creation: his exposure to the social realities that have taken center stage in his works today due to his integration with the basic masses in Community Development as well as his cultural mass organization Sinagbayan. These influences have propelled BLKD to the mission of serving the people through art.
His first album, Gatilyo (released in 2015) a collaboration with DJ UMPH featured nine tracks as a concept album built with themes and statements that he personally picked. “I approached it almost as I would a research paper, deciding on chapters (tracks) that would help complete or explain my thesis,” he recalls. For each track and verse, he would decide on the form elements first before content, depending on the vibe of the beat he is writing to. “The process is never really linear. There are adjustments and remixing before the final product.”
Bigger battles ahead
FlipTop has evolved from being a small battle event in Makati to a national battle league with divisions in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. It has also expanded to publishing articles, running an online radio show, and producing new shows about local hiphop, on top of bimonthly events and a steady stream of battle videos online. BLKD is hopeful that FlipTop will become the country’s primary source of hiphop content in the future.
BLKD encourages young artists to study the culture and to immerse themselves in the communities first before giving battle rap a serious try.
“Battle rap is more than just rhyming and punchline writing,” he believes. “While outsiders can enjoy the spectacle from a distance, future artists in rap battle can only appreciate it when they know the context of the community in which they belong,” he added.
This unique part of the music counterculture has reached the national consciousness through the Internet. As it speaks to a more rebellious soul of young culture and expands its reach to more audiences, a bigger stage is set for artists like BLKD to harness and use art as a weapon in the battle against societal ills.