Director Doug Pray’s 2001 documentary Scratch, a film that’s referenced a few times by Cal State Long Beach sociology professor and Soul Sides blogger Oliver Wang in his 2015 book Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area, is a very good overview of the history of scratching as an art form. One of the key moments in Scratch is the movie star entrance Pray came up with for one of his interviewees, DJ Qbert.
The Bay Area scratch legend and three-time DMC World Champion actually first appears in Scratch in the form of a life-size cardboard cutout that gets playfully punched out like a punching bag by Yogafrog, Qbert’s fellow Thud Rumble DJ technology company co-founder. But when the time comes for Qbert to appear in the flesh, Scratch gives him an entrance akin to Harrison Ford’s entrance in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Heath Ledger’s introductory moment in The Dark Knight. Just like the way those sequences were shot, Pray teasingly films Qbert from the back of his head while he’s scratching (inside his ill Daly City lair known as the Octagon) and stays on his hands for a prolonged amount of time before finally showing his face.
The documentary’s segments on Qbert and his former Invisibl Skratch Piklz cohort Mix Master Mike resulted in Scratch being the most high-profile documentary about any Filipino American musician to date. DJ Babu of Dilated Peoples, another Pinoy turntablist who appears in Scratch, points out in the documentary that there’s a dearth of Filipino American role models for Filipino American kids to look up to, and that leaves only two options for potential role models. “We have our parents. And we have Qbert,” Babu says.
Like any other revered musician, Qbert and the other Piklz started somewhere, but Pray’s film doesn’t have time to cram in their origin story because it has 10,000 other DJs it needs to cover. Wang’s Legions of Boom is that origin story. Part accessible and anecdotal music history book, part ethnographic study (so that means you’re sometimes subjected to the ivory tower term “hegemony,” an annoyingly highfalutin way of saying “dominance” that often leaves me saying, “Why can’t cultural studies people just say ‘dominance’ instead of ‘hegemony’?”), the Duke University Press book fills in the blanks when it comes to the lives of Qbert and the Piklz before they became scratch legends and chronicles the underreported scene where they first honed their turntablist skills: the predominantly Filipino American mobile DJ scene in the Bay Area, a.k.a. the Yay Area, from the late ’70s to the ’90s.
These mobile DJ crews, many of whom are interviewed in Legions of Boom, worked at many different functions, whether they were their relatives’ garage parties or weddings. They went by crew names like Images Inc. and Live Style (the crew Qbert belonged to) and spun all kinds of music, from the most popular rap jams of the day to Latin freestyle. One particular ’80s freestyle song best encapsulates both the sounds and the aesthetic of the Filipino mobile DJ scene, according to Wang during interviews where he promoted Legions of Boom on San Francisco’s KQED-FM and Noisey, and that tune is Debbie Deb’s 1984 single “Lookout Weekend,” a song Wang has said he wanted to quote from in Legions of Boom but was unable to clear.
I remember constantly hearing “Lookout Weekend” on the radio as a Bay Area kid raised on Biggie and
Nirvana bibingka. That was the quintessential late ’80s/early ’90s Bay Area R&B radio mix show jam. Debbie Deb sang about “Jumping music, slick DJs, fog machines and laser rays.” You wouldn’t expect the more ’90s-ish-looking turntablist geniuses from the Piklz crew to have emerged from those ’80s fog machines and the thick clouds of hairspray that held together the poofy Filipino hairdos that can be glimpsed in the book’s archival ’80s party photos, but that’s precisely what happened. A few other equally fascinating and noteworthy things emerged from the fog machines and hairspray, and Wang does a valuable service by bringing attention to those things at length, like an all-female mobile DJ crew known as the Go-Go’s, named after the all-female L.A. band that dominated the pop charts at the time with albums like Beauty and the Beat and Vacation. The Bay Area Go-Go’s came complete with a hypewoman (so that meant Go-Go’s member Daphnie Gambol was a precursor to present-day female Filipino MCs like Rocky Rivera) and consisted of teens who “knew how others might treat them as trophy girlfriends [of DJs], and they were quick to assert their agency in pursuing their craft,” that is if they could actually make it to their DJing gigs.
Wang points out that many female DJs came from households with strict curfews for teenage daughters, and they had to figure out ways to circumvent those curfews in order to reach their gigs. The chapter about the few female DJs in a mostly male scene is such a fascinating section of Legions of Boom that it deserves its own separate book or deserves to be turned by a female rapper or some male instrumental hip-hop artist into a music video where the characters are these female DJs in the Bay Area in the ’80s. I can even picture their story as a feature film that takes place in that part of the mobile DJ scene and involves fictitious characters like a Charlyne Yi type in a satin bomber jacket who becomes a whiz at sneaking out of the house at night, in addition to being a whiz on the ones and twos. Get Matthew Libatique, the Filipino cinematographer of Inside Man and Black Swan, to shoot it, and you already have one hell of a cinematic period piece, although someone, possibly a Dave Bautista-sized brother, has to keep Kevin Spacey away from producing the project because he’ll probably whitewash the hell out of it.
Legions of Boom captures the lifestyle and mindset of a typical Filipino mobile DJ in ’80s Northern California as vividly and detailed as possible. You could almost smell the waft of ozone-killing hairspray. These DJs were middle-class rather than poor — they’d have to be in order to be able to afford the flyest DJing equipment — and a lot of them were too young and too concerned with cold rocking a party (or, as former mobile DJ Jay dela Cruz recalls, being “the star quarterback” and attracting the ladies) to be aware of ethnic identity politics or matters of Filipino American representation, although an e-mail interviewee in the book, scratch DJ Jeremy “Uprise” Monsayac, notes that “The party scene in the eighties helped give Filipinos an identity.”
A couple of major differences between ’80s Northern California and the old New York that’s frequently chronicled in books, documentaries and comics that flash back to hip-hop culture during the Wang book’s time period are the Bay Area’s bizarre and sprawling geography and its underwhelming forms of public transportation in comparison to public transportation in New York. That’s how you know this book is very Bay Area: like almost everyone in the Bay Area still does, Wang amusingly grumbles — but in a clinical and academic way, of course — about the wackness of NoCal public transportation, which became a challenge for Filipino American youth trying to criss-cross the Bay Area to get to a party. “Most people need at least forty minutes to travel between any two points between the four major hubs: (1) San Francisco—Daly City, (2) Vallejo, (3) Union City—Fremont, and (4) San Jose… Public transit options were inefficient and time-consuming,” writes Wang.
Legions of Boom also goes into detail about why the mobile DJ scene petered out and was eclipsed by the scratch DJ culture represented by former mobile DJs like Qbert, who has a memorable post-credits-ish moment in the book where he attributes his skills as a mixer and composer to his time as a member of the drill team for his high school’s ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps). “The scratch DJs were far more adept at wielding these media-based tools of marketing and distribution,” says Wang about why scratch DJs have left a bigger impact than the mobile ones. My favorite part of the book that covers how ahead of their time and how thirsty for experimentation these future scratch geniuses were is an anecdote from former mobile DJ Anthony Carrion about reprimanding one of his crew’s younger members, Qbert’s future Piklz cohort DJ Apollo, for starting to scratch — in the middle of a wedding.
The book closes with Apollo, now a member of Triple Threat, behind the ones and twos at a throwback party honoring the mobile DJ scene where he got his start and learned the basic fundamentals of DJing, like mixing and making the crowd move on the dance floor, skills that Apollo interestingly notes are being oddly ignored by younger generations of DJs who “just go straight into the battle stuff and the trick stuff.” The Triple Threat party is one of a few throwback parties in recent years that are keeping alive a nearly forgotten part of Filipino American hip-hop history. Meanwhile, Wang has done the same thing in book form with an engaging 200-plus-page snapshot of the mobile DJ scene, the kind of tome that will tempt you to consider bumping some Rodney O & Joe Cooley and playing around with fog machines and laser rays just like these DJs who wanted to be the Filipino American equivalent of “the star quarterback” used to do, but in far less silly hair, of course.