BAMBU: ON THE BACK OF THAT BEAST
illustration by themegoman
Gang-banger, Marine, organizer, rapper and father: L.A.’s Bambu DePistola has lived a few lifetimes so far and the cumulative wisdom finds its way into his music. Explicitly political and firmly focused on making powerful hip-hop with a purpose, Bambu’s approach to rap is truly grassroots. The best example is his latest album, Party Worker. For what may be his strongest effort to date, Bam raised over $40K for production via crowdfunding, conducted extensive interviews with working-class folk and ended up crafting an album centered on a grassroots peoples’ organization. The result is music matching the energy of deadprez with the hyperlocal rooting of Invincible, topped off with the indignant fervor of a pre-Are We There Yet? Ice Cube. Long way of saying this shit bangs and it’s saying something. On a sunny California morning—in between daddy duties—Bambu squeezed in a Google hangout with yours truly to shoot the shit. The conversation resembled the intersectionality of Bambu’s music. We talked in equal measures about Bam’s politicization, the need for communal spaces for grassroots artists’ development in L.A., the difficulty of youth organizing and how his artistic development has led to Party Worker, which he performs live at the Echo on Sun., Mar. 15. This interview by sweeney kovar.
How did you become politicized?
I want to say it was a collection of events throughout my life. Me gangbanging when I was a kid. I got locked up and joined the Marine Corps after that. During the Marine Corps I saw many things I didn’t really know how to process until I left and got organized and built with some of my folks, some of my comrades. I structured all of the things that had been happening to me in my past and that really politicized me and shaped my ideology.
What were some of those moments that were hard to process?
I’ll give you an example: There was a conflict in East Timor when I was in the military. East Timor is a small island off the shore of Indonesia. When I went there—obviously I’m Filipino Southeast Asian Malay, so we look the same. I had gone out on leave after patrolling all day and when I came back I was in my civilian clothes. They pulled guns on me, made me get down because they thought I was just somebody showing up to the base. They thought I was a local in this time of conflict. Those little instances like that, I didn’t know how to process them then. I just thought, ‘That’s wild racist!’ Because I was working within that military structure I figured they were being cautious and safe. It wasn’t until I got out and started talking to organizers that I looked back and realized that was wild racist and I started asking questions like why: ‘Why were they doing that? Why was I in East Timor? Why were we in Yemen?’ I hadn’t really figured out what I was doing in all these places. I knew there was something wrong. I guess that was the beginning.
Tell me about the L.A. you grew up in.
I’m from the flatlands of L.A. We call them the flatlands because there’s no hills, no mountains. I don’t really talk about it too much only because I don’t have the same experiences that other kids had growing up in those communities. I was very outcasted being southeast Asian during the late 80s, early 90s. It was rough. This is when the gang module was poppin’. Everybody was banging and I didn’t really have an attachment so growing up in that part of town wasn’t really a great thing for me. It pushed me into doing things I wish I didn’t have to do. It wasn’t until I got older and really started bangin’ that I had my own identity and place. Gangbangin’ really helped me carve out a piece of L.A. for myself. I’m from a neighborhood but I didn’t live in that neighborhood, if that makes sense. The neighborhood I lived in was personally oppressive. There was one family of four Filipinos and that was us. The early 90s, the mid 90s—that’s when I got locked up for armed robbery. It was a rough time in L.A. I think it was a time when people were trying to figure shit out, when all the ports in Los Angeles [slowed down] and all these businesses started to leave. Folks didn’t have jobs. All these people who lived in the flatlands near the ports from Long Beach to South Bay to South Central Los Angeles, that was the main industry—the ports. When that went away in the 70s and into the 80s, the economic crisis hit us hard. When crack was introduced to help people cope with that, that made it even rougher. That’s the time in L.A. that I’m from. It was culturally confusing. MS[-13] had just started. The El Salvadorans were just starting to come in. I got a lot of Salvadoreño homies and they came into the U.S. because of the Silver War. It was a weird melting pot of people. I always say I’m from L.A. because I’ve lived all over Los Angeles. I know people in every part of L.A. from the west side to the Inland Empire, Valencia down to Long Beach. That’s the L.A. I’m from.
As an L.A. native, how does the gentrification we’re seeing resonate with you?
Fortunately from the military on I’ve been able to travel, unlike some of my peers I grew up with. I’ve seen that it’s not just L.A.—gentrification is hurting all these communities across the nation and even in other countries. Looking at the Philippines now, it’s the same! I went back in December and I can tell you that it’s drastically changed. The same with L.A. There are parts of L.A. I don’t recognize anymore. The neighborhood I grew up in used to be a dead-end street. They opened that up and now it leads to a Burger King. Even the skyline of L.A. has changed. Downtown has changed. We couldn’t go downtown when I was a kid. First off, there was no reason to go downtown. Secondly, downtown was a rough-ass part of town. Now I drive through and it’s white people everywhere and hipsters everywhere. But again, that story is shared all across the nation. I say it on the album—I name a bunch of cities at the end of it and these are all cities I’ve been to. You can have this conversation with a local in Detroit and they’ll tell you shit is different as fuck now. You can talk to someone in Chicago and it’ll be the same thing.
What started the concept of Party Worker?
I did a whole bunch of albums before Party Worker. I call them albums but it was really me learning how to be in the studio. It didn’t come as natural as it may have come to other people. It took me a really long time to figure out my own voice. I was dealing with identity issues. I’m dealing with my own place in hip-hop as a Filipino man. I’m dealing with my own place in hip-hop as a political MC, someone who challenges the socio-economic status quo of our country. I had a lot of things I had to deal with, even my age. I didn’t get back into this game until I left the military. You look at a guy like Kendrick [Lamar] who at 18 was already building great songs. When I say it didn’t come naturally to me, I mean that. My first album wasn’t this amazing project. There were a lot of flaws in the first four albums I made. It wasn’t until one rifle per family that I figured out how to make a proper album. one rifle per family is what I often call my debut. It was me being comfortable in the studio, comfortable with my own voice and being comfortable with where I am as an artist. The album before that, which was Exact Change, was really close but where it suffered was in that I didn’t know how important it was to get something mixed and mastered correctly. I had figured out how to write songs but I was still sticking to the formula of verse-hook-verse-hook. I wasn’t comfortable to do what hip-hop tells you to do and just go and don’t worry about anything. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from hip-hop—roll with the punches. If a DJ throws a beat at you, you just have to work with it. If you’re a DJ and something goes wrong, you gotta just figure it out. If you’re a B-Boy and the record skips, you gotta figure it out. During the album before [one rifle per family], I Scream Bars For Children, I had just gone through a big separation from this group I was in, the Native Guns. That was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life—be a part of the Native Guns. When that went away and the group dissolved, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I Scream Bars For Children was a very reactionary attempt to figure out how to be a solo artist again. All these albums mirror different things that were going on in my life. If you listen to Exact Change, that’s when I was the Secretary General of [Filipino-American organization] Kabataang maka-Bayan, Pro-People Youth USA. I was in the thick of organizing and in the thick of my rap career. I had just started to tour. I Scream Bars for the Children, I had separated myself from youth organizing and I was with my family a lot. With one rifle per family, I was trying to figure out how to be an organizer outside of the youth sector and be a father as well as a partner. With Party Worker, I’m completely out of the youth organizing sector at this point. I am fully engulfed in my music now. I used to say organizing came first and my music came second. As of recent, my music seems to be taking precedent over my organizing, which is bad but it’s just the reality of my life. I had said to myself that it’d be dope if MCs were in a grassroots peoples organization. That would be the shit, where everybody’s rapping in a meeting instead of talking and where people are dealing with issues as artists and not as organizers. I feel like Party Worker is my best work only because I was the most comfortable. We recorded it in a hotel in four days—me and DJ Phatrick who I’ve worked with for years in the Native Guns. He’s one of my best friends. He’s one of those guys that knew what my issues where in music but me being so stubborn, I was always like, ‘Fuck you. I’m going to do what I do. I’m not worried about you Phatty.’ It wasn’t until after one rifle per family that I started getting on MTV and a whole bunch of stuff was happening to me and I didn’t really know how to process it. Phatty really helped me with Party Worker. He’s really helped me figure out how to make an album correctly and market an album correctly. We did it through Kickstarter, too, which was pretty awesome just to see where I was. I was really trying to figure out if people still supported me. I’ve been in this game for a long time and I’m very comfortable with my audience. I’m not looking to get new fans. I guess that’s what a lot of artists are looking for—I’m not. I know who I rap for: youth of color, adults of color. That’s who I want to stay true to. I studied deadprez, I studied cats that came before me. I read an interview one time with deadprez, after I went to a show of theirs in Orange County, and they were talking about how the music doesn’t mean as much anymore because when they look out in the crowd it’s just white kids screaming this pro-Black stuff. I recognize that when I do shows. All the big tours I’ve ever been on have been with guys that have predominantly white audiences.
How did you negotiate that?
It was tough to connect at first. My music is written specifically for young people of color—that’s who I organize and that’s who I work with. That’s who I make music for. I make music for people like me. Trying to connect with that audience was difficult but there came a point where I was like, ‘Fuck it, they’re either going to ride with me or they’re not.’ I know a bunch of conscious MCs and I know a bunch of political rappers but I can’t listen to them! It’s not fun music to listen to. It’s just like sitting in a rally and listening to some guy spout off the same ‘injustice for all’ shit in spoken word. I’m not with that. I always say I’m a fan of hip-hop first. I know my audience and I love my audience and I want my audience to stay the same way it is. I don’t make music in hopes of gaining new fans. I would love if more folks picked it up but I know who my audience is and they’re there and they’re supportive. They tell all their homies. I’d rather be grassroots that way. Just like organizing, I’m into the face-to-face, off the internet type shit. I’m going door-to-door, hand-to-hand. I’d rather be that way.
In recent years there has been a big conversation around what is authentic organizing, and the online aspect kind of throws a curveball at everyone.
Authentic is a great word to use. The authenticity of your organizing online gets lost I think. When I look in your face, sweeney, I can say, ‘I feel this way about certain things.’ Then you and I can dialogue. That’s so much better than me putting up a meme about #BlackLivesMatter, which is obviously something very strong and valid, but if I see 50 other motherfuckers with that same meme, I do feel it gets lost. It doesn’t feel as personal. How much do you really feel that? How much do you really want that justice? That’s where I am with music and organizing. Cut all that Facebook shit out for a second. Let’s just stop it for a second and get back to looking at people in the face. That will get people out more than anything. For a long time I spent so much energy focusing on putting up a Facebook blast. I started to notice my crowds were dwindling from where I was selling out the Echoplex and now I’m just putting in 400 bodies in there. What’s going on? I had to be out with the folks, shaking hands—not to con them into coming but to make that connection. I want them to come and see what I’m doing here because … I don’t want to say it’s important on some bigging myself up shit, but I feel it’s good for hip-hop in L.A. I came up in a time where there was an open mic somewhere in L.A. every friday. Me and my boys would hop in our little car and we’d drive from Poisonous Records in Hollywood to Foundation Funk Collective out on the east side to The Good Life down in South Central. There were outlets. I’m not a youth so I don’t know if there are now—it could be the same. But from my personal experience, I don’t see that much anymore. It’s good for hip-hop to be able to show kids that this outlet still exists in Los Angeles and you can do it with purpose—it doesn’t need to be that stupid-ass party rap. There’s always a place for that but this underground militant hip-hop still exists in Los Angeles and it’s grassroots. It’s still accessible to you. TDE is no longer accessible to the masses. TDE is on some other shit and while that’s a great representation of L.A., they’re so big you’re not going to see them at a 100-capacity venue. You’re going to see them at Nokia Theatre or the Staples Center. I grew up with Unity! Black Moon would come out, Notorious B.I.G. would come out and it was a 200-capacity venue. I miss that. I love where hip-hop is now because there is a clear division between what’s pop, what’s for the radio and what’s for us—what is underground. I think maybe ten years ago it was confusing. There were guys pandering to the underground rap audience but doing stuff that was not in line with what we believe is underground hip-hop lyricism. There wasn’t a clear division and now there is a clear division. If I don’t want to listen to Iggy Azalea, I don’t need to. The rap section at the store is not one aisle, it’s like ten aisles. You can pick and choose what you want. That’s why I love where hip-hop is. I’m not one of those guys that’s mad. I don’t think it will go the way of a jazz or a rock ‘n’ roll.
I usually hear people say the opposite— that hip-hop is going that way in terms of becoming mainstream and white-washed.
It’s going to go the way of jazz if we allow it to. That’s the thing—jazz still exists! There’s still that segment of improvisational, forward-thinking jazz. I’m okay with that. I think we gauge the success of an art by its mainstream digestibility. We judge it by how much money its made. I think hip-hop is one of those unapologetic art forms where you have to pay homage to where it came from. You don’t have to do that with jazz or with rock ‘n’ roll. With hip-hop it’s spoken in the word—someone will come and check you. Iggy Azalea … I keep using her because she’s an easy example. With her, I don’t feel like people are stupid. I think people know that is some made up shit. Somebody came in and said, ‘You should do this.’ And she did it. She doesn’t get it. That’s okay. There’s room for that. Why should that taint what we do? Nothing we can do can control that. We don’t have that kind of bank. Hip-hop can suffer in some ways but I don’t feel it will go the way of a jazz or rock. It could either go away completely or it will weed out what real hip-hop is. There is still confusion amongst the underground community around hip-hop. I heard somebody tell me there was 20 elements of hip-hop. It’s really up to the people who hold this thing dear to us—it’s up to us to dictate where it’s going.
What are your reflections on your time spent organizing youth? I ask because as someone who also works with youth—though not in an organizing capacity—I see young people as a gauge of where our communities are going. They have access to so much more information than we were growing up so they have the potential to become politicized earlier. But it’s not without its drawbacks.
I’m still trying to figure it out but I think what you said about youth having access to information more readily than we did is absolutely true. At the same time, the same instrument that’s giving them all this information about what’s going on in our communities is the same machine that’s feeding them the bullshit that’s counterproductive to what we’re trying to push. I didn’t grow up with an iPad or even a laptop. It’s so foreign to me, which is why I’m not in the youth sector anymore as far as organizing. I’ve hit that ceiling already. I do middle school workshops and the kids look at me like I’m stupid because I’m like, ‘How many of y’all like Ice Cube?!’ I’m just that old where I remember Death Certificate like it just came out. When I go back and see the youth … what I realize is things haven’t changed, especially in Los Angeles. Those that are really into underground hip-hop, that sector still exists. Gangbanging youth, that still exists in Los Angeles. Now we just have to cast the net differently to grab all these kids. How do we do that now? Now it’s about learning the landscape, which is the internet. I don’t really have an answer to your question except that I’m still trying to figure it out. That’s the job of the organizer—to organize yourself out of a job. What we’re trying to do ultimately is create more organizers. Just because you listen to my music it doesn’t make you an activist. It doesn’t make you a revolutionary. It doesn’t make you progressive. It doesn’t even make you a liberal. It just makes you a fan of my music. It’s not until you actually go out and organize that you become a real activist. That’s the whole objective of my music—for you to pop in Party Worker and if you don’t know what’s going on in the album, for you to ask, ‘Why is this happening?’ Hopefully you’ll go out and get that change. That’s the only way it’ll really happen. Music is just music. It’s just here to raise the awareness of everybody. It’s not real activism. Artist who speak like their music is changing the world, they’re usually just bullshittin’. They don’t really know how it works in the world. It goes beyond just writing a song about Ferguson. It’s about realizing that police brutality is a systemic issue. It’s not just Darren Wilson. It’s a whole system that allows these cops to get away with what they’re doing. It’s these laws that have been written in order to demonize and criminalize us. It’s the status quo that’s in place that allows people with money to get away with shit and for us to suffer. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’ve really been concentrating on my son. Having a very curious seven year old has really forced me to figure out some of the standards that I’ve held myself to. The youth sector is forever evolving. I think that’s why people organize in college and by their fourth year they’re out and you never see them again. For those four years they’re at every rally, every meeting just gung-ho as fuck! They’re carrying the flag, spittin’ at a cop. Then soon as they graduate, you never see them again. What we have to understand is that here in this country, organizing has to play a back role. Where in a place like the Philippines or Mexico or Guatemala, organizing can come first because all the organizers live in one house. It’s all very communal. Everybody feeds each other. Organizers work together. That’s what their full-time shit is—organizing! Here, you gotta eat first. You gotta house yourself, you gotta do all these things. You have to live within the confines of this system, in order to organize. Your organizing comes last. I think some organizers want to model themselves after these old time revolutionary forces. You gotta realize it’s not going to work that way out here. People will leave a meeting because they’re fucking hungry. They will stop coming to meetings because they got a job at McDonalds. That’s just how it is. You have to eat first. Nobody else is going to feed you. It’s not that kind of society. That’s not against a whole buncha folks but just a couple of the folks I’ve seen that try to mimic the movements from back home but they don’t adapt it to being in the belly [of the beast.] All we can do as organizers here is support movements internationally and work within what we have here to dismantle what is spreading that imperialism. Unfortunately we’re riding on the back of that beast and everyone else is suffering at the hands of it. It’s a difficult job. Organizers are still trying to figure it out and then we get blinded by shit like Barack Obama getting into office. I remember organizing in the George W. Bush era. It was so fucking easy. ‘Hey man, we’re having an anti-war rally. Fuck Bush.’ ‘Yeah! Fuck Bush! We’re there!’ You have 100 people at your rally off top. Now it’s like we have a Black president so everything is cool—we have socialized medicine. My favorite quote on that is, ‘Same dog, different collar.’ We gotta kill the dog. I can put you in office, there is only so much you can do. You can have every great intention in the world but unfortunately it’s a systemic problem. We aim for systemic change, not for reformist change.
If a teenager from Delano, CA, is hearing of you for the first time through Party Worker and it’s their first encounter with political hip-hop and organizing and they’re inspired … what would you say is a good next step for them to be that change? I live in a place that doesn’t have a strong overt history of organizing and resistance and I ask myself similar questions.
Where are you from?
I’m from Merced, in the Central Valley.
Merced is crazy, G. I just read that the cartels are huge in Merced. I had no idea.
Yeah, that’s Merced County. I live in Merced City which is inside the county. There’s definitely cartel activity, there’s definitely lot of meth production—there’s still KKK chapters in some of the rural areas.
That’s crazy. I go to Delano and Orosi a lot just to visit because of what you just talked about. The guy that produced half of Party Worker, this kid named OJ—he’s from Orosi. In the daytime, he works in farms all day and he goes home and makes beats. That’s his life. I met him when I was in Visalia. He gave me a beat CD and I was floored. It was amazing. I found out what his story was and I was like, ‘Bruh! That’s what I’m about!’ He’s actually hands in the dirt, working in the fields. His involvement in Party Worker was heavy for me. He asked me the same thing: ‘What can I do? I’m excited to be working on this record. You’re speaking real shit. This really affects us.’ He sees it everyday. The gang problem in Central California is one that people in L.A. and NorCal have no idea about unless you go into the prison system. In Central California, it’s worse than NorCal and SoCal combined but we never hear about it. I get that question all the time. I don’t have an answer for a first step. I can give you the classic organizer answer which is: Identify the problem. Integrate yourself into the community for six months. Start building your core group. From your core group, identify your leadership and so on. It’s going to take organizers to go into those communities but because most people don’t know there is an issue in those communities, the organizers are few and far between. The good organizers leave because it feels like a winless battle. You’re right there in the heart of what’s driving California, which is our farms. When you live on that plot of land that is garnering so much money for the rest of the country, how are you going to organize that community? How do you organize people who are hungry as fuck and feel like the only way is to keep working and keep your head down? In the Philippines they say the best people to organize and the most difficult people to organize are the farm workers. Farmers only want their plot of land and to be left alone: ‘Gimme this plot of land and get the fuck away from me.’ But when you do organize those farm workers, they become the strongest—and I mean the strongest. The strongest movement we’ve had, as far as the labor movement, came from farm workers. The United Farm Workers and the grape strikes in Delano—that’s grassroots! I’m hoping that the casual Bambu listener goes, ‘What can I do?’ and as opposed to try and get the answer from someone, they just do it on their own. I don’t know what it’s like to live where you’re from. It would be pompous of me to come and say you should do it this way or that way. Only you can figure out how we’re going to fix this mess. We recognize that change doesn’t happen from the top. It’s not about an elected official. Change happens from the bottom and works its way up.
BAMBU PRESENTS PARTY WORKER LIVE WITH DJ PHATRICK ON SUN., MAR. 15, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / $8-$12 /18+. THEECHO.COM – GET TICKETS HERE! BAMBU’S PARTY WORKER IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM BEATROCK. VISIT BAMBU AT BAMBUDEPISTOLA.TUMBLR.COM.