By Zoneil Maharaj
Sep 30, 2006 - 12:00 AM
The Native Guns kick nickel-plated knowledge
Bambu and Kiwi have their guns pointed at you. With angst in their eyes, aggression in their voice, and tattoos on their brown skin, you’d do best to put your hands up as they demand. Though not as intimidating as his older partners, Phatrick stands behind them and won’t hesitate to give you a cut. But don’t worry, this ain’t a stick up. This is a Native Guns show. Or as they put it on “Initiation,” the lead-in to their debut album “Barrel Men”: “This is soundtrack music, to the grassroots movement, a non-violent resistance with a clip full of the bullets…”
Trading in real firearms for guns formed out of their thumb, middle, and index fingers, the two former Filipino-American gangbangers and their Chinese/Taiwanese-American DJ are more than just another rap group in the oversaturated genre of hip hop – they’re radical activists with the hammer cocked, taking aim at the struggles facing today’s youth by utilizing their past experiences to promote social change. Each song is a fierce call to action over pounding production.
Paying homage to the golden era rap collective the Native Tongues, the group’s name is more than just clever wordplay. “With what we speak, we consider the knowledge that we have and the things that we see and our interpretations of those things as ammunition and bullets. When we open our mouths and fire them off, we’re hoping to get it to you,” says Bambu, 29, who was making people throw their hands in the air before he was rocking stages; he was arrested for armed robbery while still in high school and placed in Los Podrinos Juvenile Detention Center in Los Angeles.
While doing his bid, he began reading books. The Autobiography of Malcolm X gave him a new role model and mission: to embrace the struggle of his people. His partner Kiwi echoes his sentiments.
“A lot of our style comes from our experience as Filipinos here in America,” Kiwi says. “It’s taken us both quite some time to grow into that and feel comfortable in that space to be able to go from rapping in English to rapping in Tagalog or to talk about our own stories about being children of immigrant parents or the experiences of working class Filipinos here in the U.S. and back home in the Philippines.”
Bambu decided to take his hobby of rapping serious. After serving his time, he enlisted in the military and began working on his first album. Using his thoughts as gunpowder, he encased his frustrations into lyrics and began firing over beats for his 2002 solo debut, “Self Untitled.”
At the same time, Kiwi was already making a name for himself up and down California, doing shows and recording tracks for his solo “Writes of Passage: Portraits of a Son Rising.” He too was a product of L.A.’s vicious gang culture.
“Everyone I grew up with ended up joining the same gang in the same neighborhood. That was the thing to do if you were an adolescent Filipino male during those times,” says Kiwi, 31, now based in San Francisco. “I don’t think any of us at that time had a sense of ourselves as being Filipinos. Being in a gang gave us that sense of belonging to something. It provided that sense of camaraderie. It was really how we were able to survive those times. Those were real violent and dangerous times for us. Even though we were perpetuating a lot of violence, we were protecting ourselves as well.”
Kiwi was hooked on hip hop before the gang life got to him. 1580 KDAY was the first all hip hop format radio station in L.A. Through KDAY, hip hop infested every neighborhood, possessing the ears of those who heard it. The power of hip hop could not be denied; Kiwi’s story is testament to it. It was hip hop – the teacher KRS-One’s call to action on BDP’s “Stop the Violence” – that motivated him to leave streetlife behind.
“When I heard that song, I was at the point where I was questioning a lot of that stuff. It wasn’t an overnight thing for me but it definitely made me go, “Oh dang, this hip hop thing is real and it’s really talking to me right now,” Kiwi says. “After that, I wrote my first rap. It was a corny wack rap about questioning gang life but that’s how it started for me.”
The story of the Native Guns began at a show put in memory of a fallen friend where the two met for the first time. Like the sound of a gun being cocked back, the two clicked. The result was the track “Peaceful Pistols” for Bambu’s “Self Untitled.”
DJ Phatrick was enlisted later down the road. Born in Houston, raised in Sugarland, Texas, and now living in Oakland, the black-framed glasses-and-mohawk sporting turntable technician came from a far different background than the emcees. He attended private school from the sixth to ninth grade where he was the model minority, being one of the few Asian Americans in his school. During these years he was isolated and faced ignorance and racism from his privileged classmates. That experience was crucial to his development.
“Coming up in Sugarland, the certain demographics I was in. I wasn’t aware of too much stuff. I wasn’t really that active with the community. I didn’t know about how everything – socially, politically, culturally – connected everyone,” says Phatrick, 24, who moved to Cali to study at UC Berkeley. Here, in the Bay Area’s ethnically diverse urban setting, Phatrick had an awakening while taking an Asian American studies course. “That shit blew my mind…because the teacher made us go to community events. That was the first time I saw Asian Americans doing music and poetry. I wasn’t really aware of the culture and community around me.”
He started to organize, doing community and cultural activism and joined the Students for Hip Hop, a UC Berkeley student organization which he later became the chair of. Through the organization, Phatrick did outreach and community activism, working with youth in Richmond and Oakland, CA to teach them the power of hip hop. “I feel it’s my duty to take my privilege and step into the community and help the youth that aren’t getting the attention,” Phatrick says.
The Students for Hip Hop held monthly block parties and arranged events on and around campus; one of the events featured Kiwi. A year later, Phatrick deejayed an event where the freshly-formed Native Guns performed. They had similar interests – all were involved in activism – and they seemed to be on the same mission, so it was only natural that they asked Phatrick to join them.
“Our backgrounds are different but we’re definitely in agreement in how we feel about everything,” Phatrick says. “Everything Bam and Kiwi say follow my beliefs and I learn a lot from them.”
Far removed from gang life, Kiwi and Bambu turned to activism, working with various organizations. Bambu currently works with Kabataang Maka Bayan (Pro-People Youth) where he holds writing workshops and also helps counsel at SIPA (Search to Involve Pilipino Americans) community center, both in LA. Kiwi organizes with Bayan USA, working closely with the Filipino community.
“We just happened to be two gangbangers who got politicized, organized, and decided to use what we’ve been given,” Bambu says.
And what they’ve been given is a platform to rally the youth with a radical guiding voice, giving back what was given to them by their politically-charged predecessors.
“We both owe a lot to hip hop in terms of getting us out of situations that would have left us in jail or not alive anymore,” Kiwi says. “And I feel like the best way we can repay hip hop back is by being true to who we are.”
Visit their webpage at http://www.nativeguns.com.