The Cosmix Sounds crew in 1985 / Photo by Suzie Racho
Decades before Bay Area kids were getting hyphy and riding around in scrapers, they were chasing another regional sound, one that has historically gotten less attention despite becoming influential on a global level. Even if it meant riding three buses, a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train, and walking several miles to find them, kids were willing to chase down the mobile DJs of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, who were booked to play old-school rap and freestyle jams at events ranging from birthday parties to church functions.
This mobile DJ scene regularly inspired kids to take 100-mile round trips on the Bay’s notoriously bad public transit to see their favorite DJ crews—many of whom were also high schoolers—and set the stage for the battle DJs and turntablists of the 90s. Cal State Long Beach sociology professor and journalist Oliver Wang explores this scene in a vivid new book, Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area, out now on Duke University Press. Remixing the core of Wang’s dissertation into an engaging read for a wider audience, the book explores the phenomenon of mobile DJs and the unique social circumstances that allowed such a scene to form.
“Mobile DJing really was training grounds for a lot of things,” three-time DMC World Champion turntablist Richard “QBert” Quitevis, perhaps the most prominent DJ to come out of the scene, explained to me over email. “[It] taught us about performing in front of all kinds of audiences, and how to work as a team.” Other DJs shaped by the scene include jocks like Apollo, Shortkut, and KMEL radio mixer Rick Lee. The latter still even uses his old-school crew name Styles Beyond Compare (SBC).
QBert credits his old crew LiveStyle Productions—“Darwin (DJ Dumm) Seegmiller, Marc (DJ Kutz) Alejandro, Armando (DJ Dino) Visperas, Abe (Shay-D) Leano, Dale (Prod.D) Horton, and Calvin (UB) Davis”—for launching his career. The group formed in 1985 and continued until QBert headed to the DMC World Finals in 1991. “Everyone’s perspective in the crew was different,” he remembers. “While I concentrated on the music, other people in the crew would notice how the lighting should be, and others would have a technician’s mind and be awesome at setting things up etcetera. I think I would have learned these lessons in other ways if there were no mobile scene because we do that now in a very similar way when I perform at all these various sized venues around the world, but the fun I had with my high school friends in a mobile crew is unforgettable!”
Wang’s book aims to capture that spirit as it dives into the remarkably hidden history of a scene that endured for nearly two decades. It’s both a revealing glimpse into a music scene that fell below the media and mainstream radars and a fascinating ethnographic study of the Filipino immigrants to set the foundation for it. He explains how deep the Filipino community grew in the Bay Area by tracing immigration patterns from the Philippines as families first arrived in San Francisco—and later migrated en masse to nearby suburbs like Daly City when SF rents skyrocketed. As the Bay Area tech bubble brings in ever higher rents and drives out the poor, this book is a snapshot of a region’s diversity that is quickly dwindling.
Author Oliver Wang / Photo by Eilon Paz/Dustandgrooves.com
Noisey: Were you really surprised that just about everyone you talked to who was part of the mobile scene back in the day didn't identify it as being united by so many of them being Filipino until you pointed it out to them?
Oliver Wang: I was surprised. I was used to thinking about how hip-hop crews were often very identify-focused—I came up during the era of pro-black/political hip-hop after all—and so my assumption was that this would be a major part of their identity as well. It wasn’t, though. Their self-awareness/pride in being Filipino was very individualistic but not reflected in the scene as a whole. If you just look at the names of the crews or the parties, there’s almost never an indication that these were predominantly Filipino American crews. There areany number of ways to possibly explain this: It was their age, it was their generation, it was the overall climate around race/ethnicity and music, it was because, as Filipinos, they’ve historically been treated as invisible. I do think, had this scene taken off in the 1990s, we may have seen a different dynamic because of the influence of hip-hop.
Were there other mobile DJ scenes in that era in other regions? Do you think this scene was unique to the people and places involved, or could it have happened elsewhere?
There were mobile crews across the U.S. I know, just off the bat through personal conversations, that there were vibrant ones in Los Angeles and New York and, I suspect, in every major (and minor) city in America during the 1980s. Mobile DJing took off partially because of the general rise of the DJ thanks to the 1970s disco craze and other forces and access to mobile DJing equipment increased as manufacturers and distributors begin bridging the retail/rental gap. And in the Bay Area alone, there was a Chinese American mobile scene, a Latino American one, an African American one, et cetera.
However, I think the Filipino American mobile scene could only have happened in the Bay Area because of the particular demographic and geographic dynamics of that community. In Southern California, especially in Cerritos, for example, there were many Filipino Americans active in mobile crews but from what I know, those crews tended to be far more mixed, racially speaking, and that’s partially because there weren’t the same kind of settlement clusters of Filipino families you found down in LA versus what you saw in the Bay. The Bay Area’s all-Filipino scene was, best as I can tell, unique for all those reasons.
Various Bay Area mobile crew business cards / Photo courtesy of Dino Rivera / Click here to enlarge
You discuss how the mobile scene set the stage for the scratch generation, the battling DJs who were known as turntablists in the Nineties. Do you think scratch generation DJs like QBert, Shortkut and Mixmaster Mike would have had the same trajectory without coming up as youngsters in it?
The mobile scene is how turntablists such as QBert, Shortkut, Apollo, and Mixmaster Mike got their start as DJs, period. It’s where they built their initial skills as mixers, as performers in front of an audience, about what it meant to be in a crew. If the scene hadn’t existed, the question—impossible to know—is whether they would ever have become DJs to begin with. All I do know is that the mobiles nurtured an entire generation of DJs: turntablists, radio power mixers, producers, et cetera. It was a remarkable talent pool of future professional and amateur DJs alike.
Late in the book you address the fact that you don't spend a lot of time talking about the music that the mobile DJs played because the nature of the mobile business is that they would have to incorporate the music requests of the people holding the party. If you were to make a playlist of essential songs of the mobile era, what are some tunes that would be on there?
I didn’t end up talking much about the music because ultimately what I found most interesting about the scene were the DJs and the crews. In any case, it’s hard to come up with a representative playlist since we’re talking about a scene that spanned the late 70s through early/mid 90s. An essential playlist would have to span any number of different music styles across those years, from funk and disco to electro and freestyle to new wave and of course, hip-hop.
But to me, if there’s one song that captures the mobile era, it’d be hard to do better than “Lookout Weekend” by Debbie Deb. I actually wanted to use this line from the song to open the book, “Jumping music / slick DJs / fog machines / and laser rays,” but it was too hard to clear. But right there, that’s the mobile scene in one evocative set of lines.
Were there any crews that had a reputation for breaking records or playing leftfield of everyone?
DJs were definitely breaking records in the scene. It’s impossible to be a DJ and not want to be one up on everyone else by copping the latest records before everyone else. Again, had I really delved into this topic, I would have fully expected to find that there were some DJs who were considered the best diggers/vinyl sleuths in the scene. What I did learn was about all these great record stores in San Francisco that, alas, were no more by the time I started my research. The one that popped up the most was Aloha Records, which was apparently this incredible place in the Castro to scoop up disco and dance singles.
Is there much in the way of musical artifacts of the mobile era such as mixtapes or videos? Anything cool you can point our readers to online?
The main difference between when I started my dissertation to when I finished my book is that the rise of social media has very much brought out a lot of photos, music, fliers, et cetera into public display. Mixcrate.com, for example, is one platform where quite a few mobile DJs from this scene have posted up old mixes. And there are multiple Facebook groups where DJs and crews are sharing old photos and flier scans; I’ve tried to contribute as much as I have in my own archive to the book’s Facebook page.
There are a handful of videos—alas, it was too early for the smartphone video era—out there, too. I’m really hoping that we’re only seeing the beginning of people’s interest in the mobile scene. This book was always intended to be at the start of these kinds of explorations rather than any kind of end statement. I imagine in the next five years, we’ll see many more people delving in, especially as the children of these OG DJs come of age and begin to wonder why their parents have thousands of records in the garage or photos of themselves with big hair, surrounded by fog machines and lighting truss.
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