About 20 years ago, hip-hop in the Philippines was considered riffraff—a want-to-be black act that promoted violence, gang culture, and vulgarity. Alaric Yuson, then a 22-year-old university student, was aware of that stigma but chose to dive into the world of hip-hop anyway, rapping and fraternizing with others in the local hip-hop scene.Before graduating from university, the young rapper had an idea for a rap tournament. That tournament would go on to transform the local perception of hip-hop and rappers for years to come.
Yuson, also known as Anygma, is the man behind the legendary battle rap league FlipTop. FlipTop consists of several tournaments in which rappers, otherwise known as emcees, insult and outwit each other in a series of timed rounds, mediated by a host and decided by a group of judges in front of a live audience. Emcees battle alone, in pairs, or in teams, and the winners of each round battle each other until a champion emerges. Unlike other battle rap events in the country at the time, which adopted the freestyle-with-a-backing-track format popularized by the movie 8 Mile, FlipTop emcees write their rhymes before their battles and deliver them a cappella, or without an instrumental track. This ensures emcees win because of their lyricism, or what Anygma called “the power of concentrated thought,” and not by how well they can ride the rhythm of a track.“Between its emcees being extremely particular about the rhymes they write, and the fans becoming meticulous about the lines they hear, I think FlipTop has increased the quality of lyricism in the country,” said Joseph Martin Cagasan, aka Sinio, 32, a FlipTop emcee known for the jokes he injects into his verses.Freestyle, of course, is not dead. The ability to come up with rhymes on the fly often spells the difference between what Anygma called “regulars” and “God-level” emcees. But preparing rhymes allows some rappers to better articulate themselves without having to hide the fact that they write rhymes in advance anyway.
“There was also a chapter in the history of battle rap wherein the people would join these freestyle battles [with written rhymes] but then they would all claim that it was still freestyle. No one would admit that they would actually prepare for it,” said Anygma.The first FlipTop event happened in February of 2010. It was called Grain Assault. Two hundred people gathered to watch hip-hop veterans battle each other in a cafe in Makati City, in the format that Anygma was just about to introduce to the local scene.“It was different, definitely surreal, and nerve-wracking,” Anygma said. He hosted that first event and continues to host all FlipTop events to this day.The a cappella format was already popular in battle rap leagues in the United States and Canada, but this would be the first time it was applied in the Philippines. The emcees who joined that first FlipTop battle agreed to do the event without knowing how it would go down or what they needed to do to prepare for it. Anygma said that one emcee even refused to proceed during the event, insisting they do it “the old-school way.”
But the event proceeded as planned. “We knew right away that this was something special,” said Batas, a FlipTop emcee who battled in Grain Assault. He went on to win two consecutive FlipTop Isabuhay tournaments, making him the first and only back-to-back champion.
The rhymes emcees deliver in FlipTop battles are loaded with the kind of anger and aggression you’d expect from sworn enemies but also a familiarity and intimacy only known by the closest friends. The intensity of the delivery catches your attention while the intricacy of the words keeps it.“I think people got hooked on FlipTop because we love to gossip,” said Sinio, the emcee known for his humor. “It’s like when your neighbors are fighting, husbands and wives screaming at each other, and you find a way to watch and find out what it is they’re fighting about.” While hip-hop fans flocked to the live tournaments, videos of the battles on the FlipTop YouTube channel spread almost as quickly as the emcees could rap. Anymga explained that uploading the battles for anyone to watch for free online, instead of finding a way to sell them, was one of the reasons FlipTop has become as big as it is.
Within two years of its debut, FlipTop became one of the biggest and most viewed rap battle events around the world. The channel now has over two billion views and more than seven million subscribers. “FlipTop” as a term has become synonymous with any sort of rap battling in the Philippines.Anygma credits FlipTop’s success to a mix of factors, but mostly the talent of the emcees. “It’s not like we got lucky. It’s not like these guys suck and then people like it,” Anygma said.
“The talent is actually there—waiting to be seen, waiting to be appreciated, waiting to be understood.” Many local emcees say that FlipTop was instrumental not just in the growth of the Philippine hip-hop scene but in the lives of the people in it. The league has catapulted many emcees’ careers, giving them nationwide recognition and allowing them a myriad of music and business opportunities.
“This isn’t just a simple league for me. Once you make it here, FlipTop can easily change your life as an emcee,” said 28-year-old emcee Christian Carlo Cañares, or Pistolero, the 2022 champion of FlipTop’s Isabuhay tournament. In 2021, Pistolero released his debut solo album 25 Anyos. He also now runs his own jewelry and watch company.Pistolero learned about the league when he saw his high school classmates rapping without a backing track, and they told him that was FlipTop.Today, all FlipTop battles are in Filipino. But in its early years, the league featured battles in English, too. Part of the format it introduced was a division between the battles in Filipino and the battles in English. Before the league, emcees who rapped in Filipino battled those who rapped in English. The vibe was different back then, Anygma said, when the “grimiest of the grimy from the hood” battled “English-speaking motherfuckers.” Anygma pointed out that he was an “English-speaking motherfucker” himself. People weren’t as diplomatic as they are today, and the tensions were high. Sometimes, those who rapped in Filipino won even when those who rapped in English were technically better.
In the Philippines, a person’s first language was and still is often an indication of social class. That means the language emcees used invited biases in judgment. It’s no secret, said Anygma, that people who speak English would judge people who speak Filipino for being tawdry and people who speak Filipino would judge people who speak English for having their heads up their asses. There’s also the fact that those who spoke English couldn’t always understand Filipino, and vice versa.FlipTop stopped hosting English battles because it ran out of emcees who preferred the language, but in their first event, Anygma explained to the emcees that it was best for the scene to ditch the biases and support hip-hop in both English and Filipino. Separating the battles by language helped level out the playing field among emcees, developing talent in both languages.
Of course, not everyone is bobbing their heads. And even Anygma is careful to say that the battle for hip-hop in the country has been won.As big as FlipTop has made local hip-hop, many Filipinos still shun emcees and the idea of battle rap as a whole. Anygma said the league has been critiqued for not being “real” hip-hop, and its emcees derogatorily called squatters.Local mainstream media has largely ignored FlipTop, covering them only a handful of times in the past years. Anygma added that local noontime shows, which he refused to name, have also bastardized the league’s name and likeness in the name of comedy. Some might say that this mockery is a sign of success because imitation is the highest form of flattery.“I don’t agree,” said Anygma. “Flattery is the highest form of flattery.” Despite persistent judgment from those outside the scene, Anygma said that Filipino hip-hop is bigger than ever. Being a “hip-hop guy” is now cool. As per FlipTop’s role in the scene today, Anygma said: “Ask everyone else. It’s not for me to say anymore.”Follow Romano Santos on Instagram.