For his next project, the unprecedented (and judging from the handful of cuts I’ve listened to so far, very promising-sounding) Asian American hip-hop compilation Strength in Numbers, Philly production wizard CHOPS turned to Kickstarter to fund the compilation (full disclosure: I’m one of the Strength in Numbers Kickstarter’s backers). One of the artists who recorded a track for the CHOPS project, which reached its Kickstarter goal, is Bay Area rapper Rocky Rivera, who just dropped Gangster of Love, her second full-length.
Rocky‘s contribution to Strength in Numbers is “Mary Lou,” a track about a female battle rapper’s struggles to hold on to her integrity in an industry that sees her only as Levy Tran-ish eye candy. Mary Lou’s experience echoes the struggles every Asian American hip-hop musician has had to deal with while persevering in an indifferent industry, whether it’s CHOPS when he was part of the Mountain Brothers (whose history-making but short-lived contract with the Ruffhouse label soured due to creative differences and label execs’ ignorant attitudes towards Asian American hip-hop); present-day CHOPS, rallying his fans on social media to help him get Strength in Numbers off the ground; or Rocky herself, who’s one of the few Filipino American female MCs in hip-hop.
Fighting to keep from being marginalized is also a major theme of Gangster of Love, which gets its title from one of Rocky‘s favorite books, The Gangster of Love, Jessica Hagedorn’s 1996 novel about a fictional Filipino American rock musician who’s the namesake for Rocky‘s MC name. Rocky‘s background is in hip-hop journalism (viewers who actually still watch MTV might remember Rocky when she was simply Krishtine, the winner of I’m with Rolling Stone, the network’s 2007 reality TV tie-in with Rolling Stone magazine). That journalistic background and her educator/activist side both color her preference for the kinds of subjects she raps about on Gangster of Love (speaking of her activist side, her domestic partner, or potna, to borrow the title of one of my favorite recent mixtape cuts of his, is fellow conscious rapper Bambu, who makes a guest appearance on Gangster of Love and recently big-upped Rocky for being the anti-Levy Tran during his Sun of a Gun mixtape track “Yayo”).
The subjects of Gangster of Love include defying the colonized mindset that some Filipinos too willingly embrace (“Gangster of Love”); hating on colonialism (“Call to Arms”); not wanting to be handcuffed to the role of a traditional wife (the Mi Vida Loca-sampling “Names”); and economic inequality (“Air Mail,” which samples the Tagalog ballad “Sa Bughaw na Buhangin,” or “On the Blue Sand”). Gangster of Love‘s first single, “No Love,” criticizes police corruption in the best tradition of the anti-police tracks of one of Rocky‘s idols, 2Pac (whom she pays tribute to in “Fallen Soldier”), and dismisses the police as just another gang.
Rocky‘s voice is the kind of voice that was too rarely heard in pre-2010s, pre-Strength in Numbers hip-hop, although fortunately, that seems to be changing with the emergence of other Filipina spitters like Ruby Ibarra and the not-as-political but equally skilled (and law degree-carrying) Hopie, who are both also involved with Strength in Numbers. The substance of Rocky‘s conscious raps is a beautiful thing to behold, so how does the production side of Gangster of Love hold up? Quite nicely. You can’t get more Bay Area than 6Fingers’ dope production work on “Still” and the mellow (without sounding too sedate) and catchy “Shine,” in which Rocky raps about finding her ideal potna in Bambu. As usual, executive producer and Beatrock label founder Fatgums works his production magic on another solid-sounding Beatrock album, which is also an album we need right now: a fierce antidote to what author Jeff Chang referred to as a painful summer for racial justice, the summer of such delightful moments as the Zimmerman acquittal and Levy Tran’s “Asian Girlz” debacle. Rocky is one Asian girl—or rather, woman—who doesn’t play that “I love your sticky rice” shit.
Stream or purchase Gangster of Love via Beatrock Music below.