The leaner, bolder brotherhood of Deep Foundation

And then there were three: Rosendo Pili, CJ Guiang and Mark Malacapay of the Deep Foundation hip hop group. Photo by Berlin Tomas

By Cristina DC Pastor

Has it been 11 years?

To be exact, 11 years, two albums, four members less and countless mixtapes. The hip hop trio Deep Foundation is still writing songs about identity and the Filipino immigrant struggle. “Children of the Sun” is a groundbreaking single; in it, the group transmutes Heber Bartolome’s “Tayo’y mga Pinoy” into hip hop, adding their own lyrics and rapping with fellow New Yorkers.

“We’re always writing,” said Rosendo Pili or Ro.

From seven in 2001, the group is now down to three members. The number is just right, they said. They move faster and there’s better coordination. But they are not closing their door to a fourth member if a good fit comes along. In June, Deep Foundation led a hip hop writing workshop for Filipino youth in coordination with the Philippine Forum. “Deep Foundation has taken up the parallel cause of educating, enlightening and motivating local youth through the use of creative expression…tackling issues of poverty, social inequality and discrimination,” the group said in a press statement.

Yo, like a Filipino family that moves in New York
I go to every single meal with a spoon and a fork…
I went to school with English as my second language
And prayed to the God crusaders gave to the savage.

I sat down with the smart and exuberant Ro and Mark Malacapay to learn more about this intriguingly popular Filipino hip hop group in the New York Tri-State. (CJ Guiang offered a cordial apology that he couldn’t join us) Over Chinese noodles and steamed string beans, Mark and Ro spoke about the hip hop culture, the empowerment of Filipino youngsters, and why lyrics that pay homage to violence or sexism are not for them.

Mark, 30, said his is the typical Filipino immigrant story: His mother is a nurse. He came to New York from Bacolod at age 10. He is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at NYU, while doing internship work at the Lower Manhattan Arts Academy.

Like Mark, Ro, 27, lives in Queens. The first immigrant in his family is his grandmother. Ro became part of his Taguig family’s ‘next wave.’ He is now an IT professional in a midtown advertising agency. His mother works in a blood bank; his father is retired.

Of the three, CeeJay, 31, is the only U.S.-born. This Ilocano from Jersey City owns a deejay company.

Here’s listening to Mark (stage name: ILL Poetik) and Ro (M.U.G. for misunderstood genius) minus CeeJay.

TF: What do you guys rap about?
RP: We write about our experiences. I don’t necessarily think we’re underground. I’d say we’re socially aware.
MM: At risk of sounding cliché, we don’t want to fall into labels. We’re concerned about making music we love. I wouldn’t do music that I cannot respect, I feel the rest of the group feels the same way.

TF: Where do you perform?
RP: A lot of colleges hire us. We also have shows outside of colleges, mostly Filipino student organizations.
MM: Most will be Filipino because our music has a lot of Filipino references.

TF: Did you pioneer Pinoy hip hop in New York?
MM: We didn’t start it. We were part of a wave.
RP: When we were growing up there weren’t any Filipino rap artists. There were hip hop elements, but not rap. In some ways we were part of that new wave. There’s Koba, and Ryan or Hydroponikz. Hydro came a little bit later. Koba has been around when we started coming out.

TF: You were formed in 2001 but it wasn’t until 2008 when your first album came out. Why that long?
MM: There’s a lot of conceptualizing, yes, and reaching a level where we were able to sit down and say, you know what? We should make an album. Before that, we sold mixtapes, bootleg CDs.

TF: So it’s just the three of you? That’s it?
MM: I think it works. I feel like we’re more confident with our sound. We’re more comfortable with one another, we’re able to move faster, there’s so much more coordination. The three of us in the last two or three years is more streamlined.

Mark and CJ lead a youth workshop: Hip hop fosters empowerment.

TF: Why do you say hip hop is for empowerment?
RP: When hip hop started, it was really the voice of the disenfranchised. It gives a voice to people, it became a medium to say what they wanted to say.
MM: Hip hop is another form of creative expression. It’s free form, and with it you can be a little bold.
For example, I love Wu Tang Clan. Back in the ‘90s they had a song called “C.R.E.A.M,” it’s an acronym for Cash Rules Everything Around Me. The song talks about the upbringing that they had. Growing up in the Philippines and growing up poor, I was able to relate to that pain of growing up in struggle. I realize, without knowing it then, the power of words, the power of sharing a story.
RP: I liked DMX because of the rawness of his music. His lyrics, there’s a lot of violence in it. When you look back there are some negative aspects, and it’s hard to ignore that, but also some of the stuff, like when they talk about violence, it’s like projecting reality for a lot of people, sometimes not necessarily your own.

TF: Are you avoiding violence because your Filipino audience does not like it?
RP: We don’t necessarily avoid it. I guess if I’m in a violent mood I’d write a violent song, but I’m not necessarily in a violent mood. I write about whatever inspires me at the moment. We write about our struggles, about the realities of life, the job market, and people can relate to that.

TF: Do you rap in Tagalog?
MM: I can’t speak Tagalog, but I speak Ilonggo. I did a rap in Ilonggo.
RP: I understand it but never knew how to speak it ever.
MM: Even though we don’t incorporate the Tagalog language, we make up for it with the content by speaking of our Filipino experience.

TF: How different or similar are the Pinoy hip hop artists in California to hip hop artists in New York?
RP: In California, there’s more of an organizational aspect; they’re more political. A lot of the artists that we know personally are also activists. Whereas in New York, the artists here are not necessarily activists. They’re just musicians. We work within the community but not necessarily as organizers.
MM: Artists like Bambu, Kiwi incorporate more of their activism in their music. Politically speaking, there’s more of an activist movement within the Filipino community in California.
RP: Growing up in New York, we’re a little more isolated. Personally speaking, my influence is more local.

Mark (left) and Ro: Friends since high school. The FilAm photo

MM: Ro was one of my first Filipino friends, and that’s in high school. It took me high school to have a Filipino friend whereas in California, there’s a lot of Filipinos around. If I had a Filipino friend growing up my experience would have been completely different. There wasn’t that community at least where I grew up.

TF: In your second album, “Generation ILL,” you had Ryan in there.
RP: We do a lot of affiliations. That’s how we view Hydro, he’s like an unofficial member. He’s solo, we don’t want to take away from that. We don’t want to claim him and cheapen his solo venture.
MM: We’re good friends with Hydro. He was heavily involved in our first album “The First Draft.” He did a lot of our production, the mixing the engineering, he rapped a lot.

TF: What’s the Filipino rap community like?
RP: Nice (laughter).
MM: (laughter) That’s a loaded question.

TF: Are there intrigues, like everywhere else?
MM: It’s competitive like any other artists community. We have people we collaborate with. Like I’m now working with a singer/songwriter named Inez Galvez, and Ro is coming out with his own mixtape called “Punching Clocks.”
RP: We do our music and we’re happy with our works and let’s keep it at that.

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