Introduction: I first got to know Jeff Chang back in the early 1990s; he’s long been a great friend and mentor. He was also one of the final readers of the Legions of Boom manuscript, offering some crucial feedback that helped with fine-tuning everything at the end. Back in 2004, he asked me to interview him for a Q&A segment for his book, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop. When it came time for me to create something similar, it only seemed appropriate to go full-circle and ask Jeff to do the same with me for my book. –O.W.
Jeff Chang: Let’s start with the basics: what’s the book about?
Oliver Wang: Legions of Boom looks at the Filipino American mobile disc jockey scene in the San Francisco Bay Area. This was a musical, cultural scene that was made up of largely Filipino American teenagers who created DJ crews to provide audio and visual services for different private events: the school dance, your cousin’s wedding, that sort of thing. Dozens, if not hundreds, of these crews popped up from the late ‘70s through the early 1990s, at practically any high school that had a significant Filipino American population in the Bay Area, from Vallejo to San Jose, San Francisco and Daly City to Union City and Fremont. The book looks at the rise and fall of that scene, why these teens formed into the crews, and what they got out of it.
JC: Why did you want to title this book Legions of Boom?
OW: The book title comes from the Legion of Boom. They were an alliance of different Bay Area crews, basically a Voltron-like collective. The idea behind an alliance is that you’re sharing equipment or DJs, so that if you want to stage a really big performance or have multiple DJs contributing, people could collaborate to build something bigger than what any single crew could mount. Different alliances came and went but the Legion of Boom was perhaps the biggest. I just loved the mental image that came to mind when you think of a “Legion of Boom”: armies of speakers and subwoofers lined up in a row. The name gives you this beautiful visual picture of sound systems while also capturing the way in which a DJ scene was made up of not just individual DJs, but groups who were collaborating and competing with one another.
JC: What makes this story so compelling?
OW: I think first and foremost: it was just a story that I had not heard anyone else tell. There were a tiny set of exceptions like [Bay Area journalist] Davey D who wrote an article about this back in the late ’90s, but when I started digging into these stories around 2001, there was nothing else I could find written about the Filipino American mobile DJ crews.
I first learned about them through the Filipino American scratch DJs that many people know: Q-Bert, Mixmaster Mike, Shortkut, Apollo,etc. When I began to interview these guys for local press, the one similarity in their “origin stories” is that they got started DJing with mobile crews. What occurred to me is that in order to understand the history of Filipino American scratch DJs and turntablists, you really had to go back one generation and look at their roots, which meant the mobile scene. As no one outside the scene seemed to know much about it, my journalistic Spidey Sense went off and I thought, “there’s a really good story to be told here.” And that story was rich enough not just a single story, but an entire book.
JC: Mark Anthony Neal and I were once talking about the history and roots of hip hop and he said he was waiting for this particular story to be told, that he was expecting that it might challenge him. This story feels like a hidden hip hop history.
OW: I think yes and no. I actually even include in the book itself a little footnote to point out that this book is ultimately not meant to be a book about Filipino American DJs in hip hop. The scene began to aggressively form in the early 1980s – concurrent with hip-hop’s growth out of New York – but not because of it. Hip-hop was absolutely an important, essential part of the identify of many DJs from the scene, especially the younger ones who joined in the mid/late 1980s, but I never got the sense that the early pioneering crews identified themselves as being hip-hop DJs. And musically, most of what they were playing was under the influence of disco and funk music, and then new wave and electro. Hip-hop became a big part of their playlists but it didn’t become a dominant part of their musical tastes until the latter end of the scene.
Plus, the big crucial difference is that with hip-hop, it made the jump from being a local party scene to a recorded medium and genre. The mobile scene in the Bay Area never was able to make that leap, which I think is one key reason why no one outside of the scene was that aware of it.
JC: Well, the scratch scene has had a really strong impact on hip hop. And of course hip-hop DJing itself had its roots in Jamaican reggae sound systems and also strong links to the disco DJ scenes. Public Enemy was a mobile DJ crew before they were a rap crew.
OW: Yeah, I think we sometimes forget how central mobile crews were to DJing and hip-hop culture. The invention of scratching added a different layer by introducing this stylistic, competitive element that the younger DJs in the mobile scene could get with. They had already been intensely competitive at the crew level – vying for business with one another, vying for reputation. Introducing something like scratching into that mix, it gets adopted quickly because people understand how that this kind of stylistic invention allows them to find another way to compete with one another.
What happens is that with people like Q-Bert, and Mike, and Apollo and Shortkut, these are all basically like the young guns in the scene but they’re not supposed to be scratching at weddings because you just wouldn’t do that at a wedding. So they had this kinship in being interested in a kind of DJ performance that was not widely embraced by the elders in the scene and instead, they find one another. Eventually, you can see this generational shift happening by the late ‘80s as the scratch DJs break off from their mobile crews and instead, join up with newly emergent scratch crews.
Q-Bert, Mike and Apollo form the Shadow DJs, later known as F.M.2O and that eventually becomes the nucleus of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. My point is that hip-hop helped implant this new idea that then gives birth to what eventually becomes the turntablist off-shoot from the mobile crews. That, in no small way, helps explain why the mobile crew scene goes into decline by the early ’90s is because when you were 14 in 1981, the cool thing to do was to become a mobile DJ. Fast-forward 10 years, and it’s really turntablism, or maybe import car racing, that become the new things to do at that age.
JC: It’s such an amazing thing that you’ve done here. You’ve captured really what is an ephemeral scene, but you’ve outlined the very complex sets of relationships and ecosystems that come out of it. Were you surprised at how deep and how broad the movement lasted to have left such little trace?
OW: I don’t know if “surprised” is the right word, but I think for me, the big transformation in my own thinking is that when I first started this research, people from outside the scene would ask me, “What was it about Filipinos that got them into this?” It was a quest for some kind of quasi-anthropological explanation.
I wanted to base my conclusions on what my respondents had to say versus trying to – pardon the pun – put an outside theoretical spin on it. And what I found was that when you tried to probe the “Filipinoness” of the scene, what people had to say wasn’t so much about cultural influences as it was talking about how their extended family networks and Filipino student and church groups and community organizations all pitched in to help these guys get gigs. Whether it’s a birthday, or a wedding, or a debut, or a church party, if someone needed music, you could hire one of mobile crews in your neighborhood or in your family circles. In other words, the mobile scene had this incredible social network—what I describe as a community infrastructure—that could support all these different crews with gigs.
So I don’t think Filipinos in the Bay had some inherently superior, cultural advantage that allowed the mobile scene to thrive. It’s because they had a strong set of social networks that proved key to building and sustaining this scene. To me, that was a big revelation to think about because it established the scene’s Filipinoness without advancing some kind of cultural pathology.
JC: You have really written a wonderful local, sociological take on cultural production amongst an immigrant and second-generation kids, a rare ethnography of Asian American communities in the post-65 period at leisure. There is just not a lot of that kind of scholarship. Was that part of the attraction you had to telling this particular story?
OW: Yeah, absolutely. Part of my entry point into all of this is the fact that I started DJing around 1993 myself. I’m not Filipino American, but as a Chinese American, I was intrigued at how a generation of Asian American youth created this incredible cultural scene for themselves. I was aware of other examples too, whether you’re talking about the Buddhist basketball leagues or all the import car racing clubs. But as someone who was taking Asian American Studies classes at UC Berkeley in the early ‘90s, I wasn’t reading about any of this in those classes.
I have nothing against the discipline’s focus on literature but I felt very little of that had anything in common with what I was interested in culturally. It didn’t feel connected to what I could see peers getting into. It’s not like I went into this research with a chip on my shoulder but I did think it was important to demonstrate that there are other stories that we could be focusing on and pursuing.
JC: In our current moment, it feels like there are these cultural uprisings that occur all the time, but that then leave without a trace. What are some of the insights that you can pass on to people who are interested in capturing these kinds of moments for the future, to talk about what endures from what seems like ephemera?
OW: The simple, yet incredibly effective, thing anyone can do is to sit down and talk with people about their experiences. I was amazed at how so many of my interviewees told me, “No one’s asked me about this before.” This seemed like such an important part of a generation’s experiences that I was always surprised to realize how few people had bothered to document it. Those conversations reminded me that sometimes, all you need to do is ask, “What happened? Why did it happen? What did you get out of it?” Once you open that door, all kinds of stories will come out. You don’t have to have a grand sense of where it’s all going to go. Just get the testimonies down first, and then see where it goes.
JC: One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was the beautiful passages where you actually talk about what it means to actually be a DJ. I wanted to ask you how your experience being a DJ influenced both your research as well as your writing?
OW: Hearing them talk about what it was like to be a DJ and to interact with audiences, and why that was important to them in terms of their sense of power and control…those were all things I could inherently understand as someone who DJs myself. And even though I never did mobile parties in the way they did, that basic relationship between DJ and audience is something that I understand very well.
I also think that assembling a book is like putting together a mix. It’s all about selection and sequencing and segues. It’s about the decisions you make, which means not just what you include, but also what you have to leave out. I’ve never made a mixtape where I didn’t later regret the things that I could have put in, but didn’t. And I feel that way at the end of the book-writing process.
It was about the act of producing a finished product made up of little bits and snippets of your source material, whether those are vinyl records or a series of oral histories. You’re piecing them together to form something you hope is coherent and entertaining and informative and insightful. I don’t think being a DJ made the writing process any easier – probably the inverse in fact – but it did feel familiar, mixing together different parts to create a final whole.