by Oliver Wang
The photo above is of 3 Style Attractions, a mobile DJ crew founded in San Jose, CA back in the 1980s.1 3SA was one of hundreds of similar mobile crews who began to emerge in the early 1980s from across the Bay Area; besides geography, they also shared this in common: they were predominantly, if not exclusively, Filipino American.
To be sure, mobile DJing drew folks of all stripes,2 but in the Bay Area, the Filipino American mobile scene was on some whole next level in terms of size, scope and longevity. These Filipino crews have been the subject of my dissertation-now-book research since the early '00s. In fact, I really should have spent this week revising my manuscript instead of guest-blogging but since I've been slowly, painfully working through those revisions, I figured posting about my research was a way to stay on focus (sort of) and still get a post out of it. Mostly, I find that the more I write about it, the more I remind myself what it is I find interesting and engrossing about this work despite the fatigue of working on it for eight years and running.
Quick primer: Mobile DJs provide lighting and audio services for events: weddings, parties, dances, etc. The "crew" phenomenon was produced partially by necessity. By the 1970s, when mobile DJs were expected to replicate the sound and light atmosphere of discotheques, they needed people to help move and set-up heavy, bulky audio and lighting gear. Crews evolved to include the DJs, roadies, business managers, security, not to mention all the hanger-ons who wanted to get into the party for free and kick game to the ladies.3
Amongst the Bay's Filipino American population, the mobile scene got underway in the late 1970s and lasted until roughly the mid 1990s.4 Along the way, estimates for how many mobile crews may have circulated range somewhere between 100-200. More importantly, as a "scene," it touched the lives of many—if not most—FIlipino youth in the Bay Area in the '80s. If you didn't know of someone actually in a crew, you at least went to a party or dance where one was spinning. At its height, the mobile scene probably resembled similar mobile DJ-based subcultures including Jamaican sound systems, South Bronx party crews, and the UK's Northern Soul scene: crazy creative energy, super loyal fans, and as I'll address in a second, profoundly influential in shaping a community's identity.
In the interests of not brain-dumping my entire manuscript on you, I pulled out three key points to share:
1. The creative force of teenagers
The Filipino American mobile scene was run by teenagers. We're talking high school students, sometimes even junior high students. Too young to get work doing much else besides flipping burgers, often times too young to even drive themselves to their gigs. Yet they were negotiating contracts with adults, promoting gigs before anyone had ever heard of the term "street team," mastering complicated audio and lighting equipment. And when the weekend came, they could flip a school gymnasium, a church hall, even a suburban garage into a discotheque, even if that meant dropping dry ice into a bucket of water to simulate a fog machine. And of course, their DJs could hang with the best nightclub jockeys, whether seamlessly spinning for hours, quick-mixing through stacks of 12"s or tag-teaming on four turntable routines.
As bad a rap as teenagers tend to get for being lazy or unmotivated, it's not surprising how often we forget that, given the right outlet, they have a tremendous amount of creative energy to express (especially when their incentive is to impress one another). It seems like nothing to them to forge a fully realized social world for themselves and their peers, especially when their age prevents them from accessing the grown-up world of nightclubs, bars, etc.
I should also note that these were all children of immigrants;5 the vast majority of their families came to the U.S. only after the Immigration Act of 1965, with another big wave arriving circa 1975 (when Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines). When you look through the history of popular culture in America, it is staggering how some of the most creative scenes and industries are indelibly linked to immigrants or their children: Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, hip-hop, salsa, etc. There are numerous reasons for this, not the least of which is that when more conventional routes into "acceptable" employment and society are denied to you, you find your own way to where no one's thought to go before.
2. Social networking before the interweb
When I saw the mobile scene spread peer-to-peer, I mean literally, person-to-person. The most common story for how these youth were inspired to become DJs or start up a crew was by watching someone else do it first. In the early days, it was all about sneaking into nightclubs and getting blown away by what disco-era DJs could do. The most famous of these, at least amongst my respondents, was a white DJ from Daly City—Cameron Paul—who held down a residency at Studio West in the late '70s and early '80s (before eventually moving onto become a big radio DJ at KMEL). One of my respondents even named his first-born son "Cameron Paul xxxxxx"; that's how influential he was on guys in the scene.
By the time the first mobiles begin to appear, including five out of a single high school in southern San Francisco, each of these crews became unofficial evangelists for the craft. Other teens from around the block or their schools would see them perform and they had this lightbulb moment: "wait, if they can they do this...and I'm like them...that means I can do this too."
That moment of realization has unspeakable power. And it, pretty much alone, is what powered the spread of the mobile scene. These crews weren't on TV or the radio, they weren't being written about in newspapers. You saw them at a friend's garage party or maybe your cousin's wedding or DJing your school's dance. And that's it. But that was enough.
3. Cultural activity produces community.
Not to get too theoretical but we usually treat cultural forms or activities as "reflections" of group identity. Cockfighting tells us something about the Balinese, Friday night football reflects small town American values, merengue speaks to the Dominican spirit, etc. I definitely don't dispute that one can learn much about a community through its cultural endeavors.6
However, music scholar/critic Simon Frith argues that it's actually the other way around: a social group acquires its identity as a social group, its sense of itself as a community, through participating in cultural activities together. As he puts it, "Making music isn't a way of expressing ideas; it is a way of living them."
In my research, I seen this manifest in two ways. First, the crews themselves often aspired to realize an idealized camaraderie—many referred to themselves as brotherhoods, as families—and given how close the relations are between former members, decades later, it's clear that many did build bonds with a familial strength and loyalty. The crews allowed them realize a kind of aspirational quality to the power and potential of what they could accomplish together.
But it wasn't just that the mobile crews influenced how members perceived themselves in their cliques. I also suggest that the mobile scene shaped how Filipino American youth saw themselves. For example, when I first set out, it seemed like an obvious question to ask why they thought so many fellow Filipinos seemed interested/invested in the crews. The vast majority of my respondents more or less shrugged their shoulders and replied, "I never thought about it. It's just what we did."
Once I thought about Frith's point, I realized that I had been chasing the key question backwards. The Filipino American youth community didn't create mobile DJing as something to do to express some innate "Filipino-ness." It was through DJing, through participating in the scene, that these youth formed an identity as Filipinos; it's "what you did" if you were young, Pinoy/Pinay and living in the Bay Area. I'm not suggesting any of this happened in some conscious, conspicuous manner. Rather, as each of their friends or family members got involved in it, the mobile scene became the primary space through which young Filipino Americans would participate if they wanted to bond with their fellow peers—or meet new ones.
And in that process, the mobile DJ scene brought together a community of Filipino American youth that likely wouldn't have existed - in the same form, with the same relationships—without it.7
All this yammering about DJs with no music? Let's correct that.
(I don't mean to be regionally biased towards SF/DC but these were the easiest old school mixes to find and they happened to all be from DJs from those cities).