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The Low-Key Hip-Hop Genius Of Al James

This young trap soul virtuoso is all about that nuanced swagger

by John Paulo Aguilera | Jun 18, 2018

Like his music, Al James has that innate magnetic pull that sneaks up on you when you least expect it

Setting up a whole-day shoot with hip-hop artist Al James for a feature was a no-brainer.

Comments on his independent releases ("Pahinga," "Pa-umaga") are mostly good-natured, save for the occasional explicit reactions because of the unmistakably sensual vibe his music creates. His track "Ngayong Gabi" is arguably one of his more recognized songs, an RnB tune that's simultaneously in-your-face and sexy, capable of making listeners feel like their melting into satin sheets. Despite gaining a cult following, this low-key fine arts major has managed to keep a steady reputation. His under-the-radar status, however, might be of his own doing.

From the moment Al—all six feet of him—entered the feature shoot location, independent art and design space Suez & Zapote, there was no trace of an explosive ego from him whatsoever. Surprisingly enough, the 26-year-old is extremely soft-spoken and mild-mannered for a hip-hop artist, yet also friendly enough to swap jokes with our crew. His personality perfectly sums up his musical style: he's unassuming enough, but he has that innate magnetic pull that sneaks up on you when you least expect it.

Perhaps his reserved demeanor has something to do with his humble rap roots, which he fostered during college. For someone interested in street art, particularly graffiti, hip-hop came naturally for Al and his peers/collaborators like Thyro Alfaro (2015 Awit Awards winner for Best R&B Recording and Best Dance Recording) and Migo Senires. "Una, trip-trip lang, gawa-gawa ng verses, freestyle, tapos nagpe-friendly rap battle kami," he recalls. Until they decided to write their own material, look for a producer, and come up with their first group track. "Nung time na yun, tuwang-tuwa kami na kahit kami lang ang nakakaalam ng kanta namin. Marinig lang yung boses namin na nagpe-play, may instrumental, tapos nakalatag nang maayos, sobrang saya na."

The crew then turned its feverish passion into a full-fledged career through the hip-hop group 5th Wave Theory, and more recently, Baryo Berde Atbp., a collective of like-minded artists. Al was one of the last people to expect that their lyrical concoctions would go from personal to public consumption—his songs being the fastest to gain traction on a commercial level. He even admits that the particular call to remix "Pahinga" really caught him off guard.

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Listening to Al James, it's clear that he's capable of infusing new blood into and shaping the future of the local scene. Some are responsible for keeping the fire of the independent landscape burning, while others will churn out easy beats that will cater to the majority of the listening audience. But this is how Al holds the upper hand: behind the coy facade is a rap virtuoso who is steadily learning how to straddle both his underground and mainstream sensibilities.

What type of music were you listening to while growing up?

Hindi lang naman hip-hop. Nung high school, may crisis pa, dini-discover yung sarili. Nag-e-explore ng iba't ibang music, style, and passion. Marami ring nag-influence sa'kin na ibang genre—nakinig din ako ng jazz and rock at the time. Pero nag-start talaga ko as a fan of hip-hop and rap. Ang difference lang, sobrang open mo sa lahat. Hindi mo pa ma-distinguish yung maganda sa hindi. Ngayon, nag-evolve na yung taste mo, may specific ka nang gustong pakinggan. Basta gusto ko yung musicat the end of the day, yung naramdaman mo ang mahalaga.

Who do you consider your biggest influences and artists you still follow?

Nag-iba na yung wave eh. Dati, ang dami kong sinusundan sa underground hip-hop: Jedi Mind Tricks, Atmosphere. Ngayon, mga old-school rappers na international. Ang pinakamatagal kong nasubaybayan si J. Cole. Malaking inspirasyon siya, lalo na sa group namin. Siya yung nag-connect sa'ming lahat na J. Cole fans. Sa pagsulat, siya yung nilu-look up namin. Marami pang iba, sila Joey Badass. Sa local naman, pinapakinggan namin dati sila Loonie, Ron Henley, and Gloc-9.

How would you describe your current musical style?

Parang modern, ang dating sa iba R&B-ish, na na-merge sa trap, kaya ang tawag nila trap soul. Na-realize ko pwede palang Tagalog yung content, kaya pala sa ganung klaseng sound. Okay din kasi parang nabasag yung language barrier. Unti-unti din siyang nag-sink in, lalo na nung nilabas ko yung "Pahinga." Hindi ko in-expect—kumbaga, para lang siya sa'ming Baryo Berde Atbp. Hindi ko alam na magiging ganun yung impact.

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What goes through your mind when writing lines like 'Wag ka sakin maaning di ako PDEA'?

Yung nakasanayan namin, hindi naman kailangan sobrang lalim ng pagsulat, basta may sense. Kasama na sa hip-hop yung pagandahan ng metaphors—payabangan creatively. Pero maganda rin na may message or relatable. Yung thought process ko is, "Ano bang feel ng beat na 'to, chill or aggressive?" Tapos freestyle, mag-isa ka lang, sa utak. Umpisa, sobrang random ng themes. Sa gitna, dun ko mapipili kung tungkol saan ako maraming nasabi. Dun ko na siya tatapusin, iisipin yung buildup. Ako kasi pag theme muna, parang nakukulong kaagad, nali-limit yung vocabulary. Tsaka pag sa Tagalogchallenge yung wordplay, kaya saludo ako sa iba na pinu-push talaga. Pag English naman, sobrang dami mong mahuhugot na vocabulary.

Some have called 'Ngayong Gabi' as the perfect background music for sexytime. How does a lyricist discuss such a sensitive topic such as sex?

Yun yung naramdaman ko nung instrumental eh. Eto yung kwento pag narinig ko. Minsan din yung unang salita habang nag-iisip ka, yung bumagay dun—parang nung sinulat ko yung "Pahinga." Pagdating naman sa sensitivity, matsa-challenge yung creativity mo. Ayoko ring maging sobrang bastos ng tunog, hindi maganda pakinggan. Kaya dahan-dahan mong ibibigay sa nakikinig. Nung una, iniisip ko lang kung ano yung sound trip ko pag nagsusulat ako. Dati, yun lang yung basehan ko, hindi pa naman ganun kadami yung followers, kami-kami lang. Yung pinaka-critic yung sarili ko. Minsan binabaril ko din yung sarili kong sulat.

How did you end up with your trademark trap soul sound?

Ang hilig ko rin ngayon yung chill vibe, so yun din yung pinasok ko. Personally, yun din yung mga nasa playlist ko, kumbaga sinali ko lang yung sarili ko. Ha ha! Open naman ako sa ibang style, since nag-start kami sa sobrang lawak, nahanap ko lang yung bagay.

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How much of a part does your visual art play in your overall craft?

Malaking tulong siya, yung mga album art namin, tulong-tulong din sa paggawa yung group and community. Si Karencitta, Mike Swift. Sa posters and merchandise, kami-kami na rin, kung ano muna yung abot namin. Ngayon, nakakatuwa na merong nagri-reach out, yung gumagawa ng music video. Kumbaga, nagsimula sa sarili, tapos tulungan sa paggawa at pag-shareso dumadami yung connections. Dun papasok yung pakikipag-collaborate sa iba, para mag-explore ng style, hindi lang sa music, pati ideas and visually.

You told us you were a Fine Arts student in college. What similarities can you find between your music and visual art?

Yung process yung pinakamalapit. Pag nagde-design, parang ganun din—idea muna, tapos paglalaruan ko, and siyempre may references. Tsaka minsan sa writing, nagkakaroon din ng unfinished canvass. "Sige, babalikan kita. Tatapusin kita sa susunod." Nakaka-inspire at the same time nakaka-challenge kasi sobrang nag step up yung local scene ngayon, sobrang laki rin nang tinalon ng quality. Ang daming young blood na nag-invest ng time para matutong mag-mix, mag-record, mag-produce ng beats. Dati, ang hirap isingit ng sarili sa ganitong eksena, kaya ang ginawa ng generation ngayon, bumuo sila ng sarili nila. Major labels na ang lumalapit sa independent artists.

"Dati, ang hirap isingit ng sarili sa ganitong eksena, kaya ang ginawa ng generation ngayon, bumuo sila ng sarili nila"

Do you make a conscious effort to stay under the radar given your underground origins?

Pinag-iisipan ko ring mabuti. Ngayon, nagbago na naman daw sila [music labels], hindi na sila ganun ka-higpit sa artist. Kasi rin yung mga nakukuha nila ngayon galing indie, na mas gusto may creative control. Wala naman akong preference, itutuloy ko lang kung nasaan ako ngayon. Kung sino yung sumuporta, sa kanila muna ko. In the future, why not? May misconception kasi na pag nag-sign, mag-iiba yung style, pang-commercial na. Pwede namang may label, pero nakakababa ka pa rin sa community. Kung nagko-cross over yung music, bakit hindi ituloy yung mall shows and B-Side gigs? Masaya pa rin eh.

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Did you expect this kind of reach for your music?

Hindi ako ma-club, nag-start talaga underground, mga gigs sa Saguijo, intimate bars lang. Tapos na-invite na kami sa House Manila, Black Market. Nakakagulat din na nape-penetrate 'tong ganitong scene, tapos yung tao ang wild ng response. Okay pala. Naging bukas na din yung pinto nila for other artists, samantalang dati, "Ah, underground. Bawal pakinggan yan dito." Posible pala na kahit ganunkumalat organically.

What do you think this says about the current generation of listeners?

Yung mga mas bata, alam na nila eh. Hindi na sila by hype—may sarili na silang taste. Basta alam nilang quality yung release, o maganda sa pandinig, kahit Tagalog, Bisaya pa yan, susuportahan nila. Sobrang active nila, pag nanood kayo ng underground gigswild talaga yung crowd. Mas may tiwala na yung millennials sa decisions nila, kaya extremes sila. "Kung ayaw ko sayo, idi-diss, iba-bash kita." Pros and cons din eh, malawak naman yung community, so salo pa rin. Hindi naman nila trip yan, dun na lang sila sa isa.

Which of your hip-hop contemporaries do you follow?

Mga kasabayan ko, si Shanti Dope. May mga bagong sign din na tropa, si Just Hush. Nakakatuwa lang na dati magkakasama lang nakatambay, sabay-sabay ding umaangat. Looking forward ako na in the next few years, sila pa rin yung maririnig mo. Tsaka ngayon less yung away, dati kasi uso yung mga gang. Ang tingin ng tao sa hip-hop, "Magulo yang mga yan. Mga gangster, nagbabarilan," kaya ilag sila. Ngayon, tulungan. Hindi mo maiiwasan yung friendly competition, pero iwas sa beef.

How is the relationship of the new blood to your predecessors?

Na-a-appreciate nila yung energy, nagugulat sila eh. Dati, nagkaroon ng conflict sa principles, "Hindi, dapat ganito yung style." Ngayon, unti-unti nang nabubura yung barrier. Maba-block yung creativity mo pag may rules na dapat ganito ka kumilos eh. Napakalaki na ng nangyayari sa eksena, na yung mga nauna, sila pa yung nagpapa-event. Tumatalon na rin sila sa new school.

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Photography Eve Baswel

 

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