Bonus Cut Presents: An Interview With Bambu

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By: Gus Navarro

I want to start where Bambu de Pistola ended his show. Drenched in sweat after ripping up the stage for a solid forty-five minutes, he spoke to the crowd. With Dead Prez’s “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop” thumping behind him, he stressed to us that while artists such as Dead Prez, Immortal Technique and himself make music from a radical perspective, it doesn’t start and end with the music. He explained that if you’re simply into the music, you’re just a fan. There is nothing wrong with being a fan, but in order to demand change, people need to go out and take it. Communities have to organize and come together around the issues that are important to them. Hip-hop is absolutely a powerful manifestation of this, but it can’t end when your favorite album reaches the outro.

Representing Los Angeles and currently residing in Oakland, Bambu walks and talks the life he raps about. Whether it’s on his 2012 release, …one rifle per family., or his recent album, Party Worker, you will find an MC that reps his Filipino-American heritage to the fullest and is unafraid to tell it like it is with politically charged, and at times, humorous lyricism. Following the show, we sat down and chopped it up over the creation of his new his record, his work as a community organizer, raising a child and some of the albums that were most influential to him. Being on tour can be hectic, so I appreciate his willingness to sit down and speak with me following his performance.

Bonus Cut (BC):  Based on your experiences, what has hip-hop meant to you?

Bambu:  It’s been positive. I grew up around hip-hop so it was just always a part of my life in some form or fashion before we even labeled it hip-hop. It was just always around. It’s difficult to figure out where it fits in because it runs parallel with all the significant moments in my life. It’s a difficult question to answer, but I think the bottom line is that it’s been a positive experience for me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s saved my life, but it’s given my life direction.

BC:  Do you want to talk about your time in the military?

Bambu:  I mean there’s not much to say. It was a strong suggestion I was given. I had been getting in trouble, a lot. I got locked up for armed robbery. I was let off house arrest and on probation and upon my release from house arrest I moved in with my adopted family. Then joined the military. I started to become politicized only because I was starting to see things from within. I went to East Timor, and saw people that looked just like me. I heard what people said about them, and came home with a different fervor. And you know, George Bush was in office so it was pretty easy to put a critical eye on things.

BC:  I work with youth in underprivileged communities and the military is presented as a viable option as far as getting out of the hood. For me to even say that is just wrong.

Bambu:  Yeah I mean it’s calculated. It’s marketed that way to us. And they specifically target low-income, marginalized communities. I was talking to a security guard yesterday, a young kid who had just turned eighteen. He was working security at the venue we were at last night, and he was going to boot camp in a few days. We were talking about what he was going to experience and go through. He was telling me how they just brought the ASVAB test to him. They make recruiting so easy.

BC:  And this is something we see throughout history.

Bambu:  Right. It’s the school-to-prison pipeline system, but also the school-to-military system as well. It’s one or the other.

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BC:  As you’ve already said, hip-hop is a positive thing, and was for you specifically. That being said, is there a side of it that isn’t positive?

Bambu:  I mean there’s a lot of lying in hip-hop. That’s something I don’t need to speak on that much. I think anyone with intelligence knows that half of these cats out there are lying. I’m hoping we don’t believe it. Yeah, it can influence kids. But I don’t think it influences kids more than what’s actually going on in their communities. It’s their life. The problem is that somebody else is getting paid from exploiting them. That is the negative side, and that usually comes with the business side of hip-hop. All of this is very calculated. I don’t think it’s an accident that record labels put money behind and push certain kinds of music.

BC:  As a community organizer, what is the work that you’re involved in?

Bambu:  As of recently, I’ve been working a lot on my music. I did youth and student organizing. I started working for a non-profit that I love dearly called People’s CORE, People’s Community Organization for Reform Empowerment, where we would go out to the community and try to create small people’s organizations and help facilitate that. We would try and find communities that needed us. We’d go in and try to identify issues. The last campaign I worked on with them was a smoke-free multi-unit housing project. We taught about the tobacco industry, how they work, their marketing ploys and things like that. While I’m in Oakland, I’m a full time dad, a “domestic engineer” if you will. My partner, Rocky Rivera, she does a lot of the community organizing. There was one year while I was doing it, and now she’s doing it. We just try and balance it out with being at home with our son. It’s too tough to have two community organizers going full time with a kid. 

BC:  Things must change when you have a child.

Bambu:  Yeah, it definitely puts things into perspective. Even to your ideology and political work.

BC:  How so?

Bambu:  Ideology wise, you start to realize that you gave a shit before. Now that you have a child, you really give a shit now. This means something to you. Not that it didn’t before. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve had a child. You see your child, and you start to genuinely care about what happens in the future. For that reason alone, the way I thought ten years ago compared to now isn’t necessarily different, but it’s more mature.

BC:  What are some of the books that influenced your thinking and that you really learned from?

Bambu:  The first book I ever sat and read, front to back, was in the day room of the Los Padrinos Detention Center. You had the option to either go outside and play basketball or stay inside a read books. I stayed in there and read The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. Wonderful book. I felt like it related to me. This was before even all the hype around the nation (of Islam) through hip-hop and what not. That book made me feel powerful. For a long time I just felt worthless and stupid and dumb. Here was a guy who came from worse conditions and he managed to transform that same energy, not change, but mature that attitude and that energy into something that was structured and uplifting. That was beautiful to me. That’s where little things started to spark in my mind. What I will say is that along the way, hip-hop influenced a lot of my life. Ice Cube’s Death Certificate is an album I praise like some people praise the Bible. I pull verses from it, you know? I wrote a whole song about it on …one rifle per family. It was powerful for me and forced me to read books. It forced me to read Native Son because I was searching, I was looking and that really opened the door for me. Without them, I wouldn’t have even read those books and I’d rather talk about that.

BC:  What are some of those albums?

Bambu:  Kam’s Neva Again blew my mind the first time I heard it. The Coup’s first album, Kill My Landlord, love that album front to back. Let’s Get Free by Dead Prez. As a youth, I would hear what they were rappin’ about, and I’d want to take that bar or line and research it. Where does this come from? Why is it this way? I learned so much before I even traveled the country. I already knew about some of the cultures. I had a sense about the mid-west, northwest and east coast, all because of hip-hop. I understood that there was a different language, but our struggles were the same. Jeru the Damaja’s first album, The Sun Rises in the East, developed my sound so much. I come from a time, in the Freestyle Fellowship era, where rap was a lot of giant words for no reason. I say no reason because I sucked at it. Those brothas, Freestyle Fellowship and Project Blowed did that to the utmost. We were mimicking it, we thought we just had to use giant words just to mimic them. That’s where I came from. Then I listened to things like Mobb Deep’s The Infamous. Prodigy was saying such powerful things with such a short amount of words. He wasn’t killing you with all these bars, just throwin’ em at your face. He would say, “My gun shots’ll make you levitate.” That’s it. That’s all that I needed to know! That was poetic in just one bar. We gotta stop there or I’ll just keep going…

BC:  What was some of the music that was in your house growing up?

Bambu:  Carlos Santana was in my house a lot. My dad was a huge Santana fan. I remember a Tower of Power LP. My mom listened to horrible shit like Doris Day. My mom was corny with that whole music thing.

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BC:  Speaking of family and heritage, can you speak on some of the history of American colonization and how that has affected Filipino-Americans living in the United States but also in the Philippines?

Bambu:  Yeah so the Phillipines was a colonized territory, a strategic launching point, militarily and tradewise. Everyone wanted to be on those set of islands, it was a gateway to the Orient. The United States came in, put their puppet in play and did what they do best; colonize. All this began during the late 1800’s, but the U.S. still has a very strong influence on the islands, monetarily and even through the government. Militarily, the Philippines are very dependent on the United States. Land is getting exploited by companies that stem from the United States. For example, Nestle. All these companies come and what happens is that you force people to leave their homes. There’s nothing there for them anymore, the land is depleted. What you pay them is not enough to survive and the wealth is owned, just like here (the United States), by a very few. So then there’s this move to migrate. The way that it’s connected is that a lot of the money that is being recycled within the Philippines, especially on the neighborhood level, comes from the United States. Now there’s this huge push for tourism in the Philippines, which is just going to fuck the country up. You’re going to allow the Hiltons, which Paris Hilton already has a club there, and the Trumps to build on this land and ultimately push people out and force people into the service industry, and then they won’t have any self-sufficiency.

BC:  Have you been to the Philippines before?

Bambu:  Yeah and I’m going back this December. I try and go once or twice a year.

BC:  That’s cool. What’s it like there?

Bambu:  It’s beautiful. I have kind of a different experience when I go there. Usually when I go home it’s in a performance capacity. What’s great about that is that I have access to a different world while I also have one foot in the organizing community, and I have one foot with the masa, with the people. I can go and see that side, do the work there, and then go to this club in a nicer part of town and perform. I’m privileged to see both worlds. The corrupt, the shitty and you know, the people on the ground.

BC:   Do you see your new album, Party Worker, as a continuation of your previous record, …One rifle per family.?

Bambu:  No, no. If you look at my album catalogue, and this is calculated, I always have ellipses that go with my titles. So if you notice, One Rifle Per Family has a period at the end (…One Rifle Per Family.) because that series of albums is done. I felt like One Rifle was it for me. It didn’t come as naturally to me as it does for a (Brother) Ali or somebody else who’s done this for a while. Making this kind of music took me a long time. To figure out my path, I had to be in a group called Native Guns. I had to learn a lot of things before I could do an album like …One Rifle Per Family. I did it and I was like, “Dope. I said what I wanted to say. That Bambu is done.” Party Worker is a whole new venture. I wrote three versions of this album. The first version I wrote was a party record. It was a lot of party music on stupid ass beats. It was dumb. I had received all of this money from a kickstarter campaign I did. The label (Beat Rock Music) has always taken care of me, so this was the first time money like that was in my account. I was like, “Oh shit, party time!” So I’m writin’ this party music and it was shit. Then I decided to throw the party outside the window and go with the worker. So then I wrote this really pro-union, socialist record that was heavily influenced by punk. And I didn’t like that either. Not that it was a bad record, the party version was horrible, but this worker one wasn’t what I wanted to project. Then I put the two together and realized a rapper is essentially a “party worker.” The DJ is the party and what we do is help them along. Then I said, “What if rappers had a grassroots people’s organization, what would that sound like? What would that meeting sound like?” And that’s all I did.

BC: I totally got that vibe when I listened to it. Some of my favorite moments of the album are the interludes because you really do feel as if you’re sitting and participating in this meeting.

Bambu:  Thank you, man! That’s exactly what I was going for. Conceptually, Party Worker is similar to Barrel Men, the Native Guns album we did. It starts with a kid getting jumped into a gang, and the gang was the Native Guns. He gets jumped into it throughout the album. It goes from this really hard stuff to this more cultural stuff. Party Worker kind of mirrors that through the meeting interludes. I’m very proud of it and I got to work with Phatty, man! I always wanted to work with DJ Phatrick. If you like the album, half of it is all him. I entrusted that album to him. We wrote and we recorded in this hotel. We shut down this hotel floor and we had rooms for recording. My boy Roy Choi hooked it up! He gave us two rooms and we built up this studio in there. I slept, woke up, wrote and recorded there for four days. We had guests come in, we put them on album and it was great.

BC:  So it kind of was like a meeting.

Bambu: It was, it was. And then when I was done with that, I left it in Phatty’s hands and went on tour. The record was really put together by Phatty. I wrote it and he did what I wanted him to do. It was beautiful and I’m very, very proud of that of that record. I’m never doing a kickstarter again, though. Never. That shit was tough. I still haven’t talked to the IRS about it. I can’t wait for that conversation.

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