Interview Series: Oliver Wang, Legions of Boom

by Jarek Ervin on October 2, 2017

Oliver WangLegions of Boom

In Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area (Duke, 2015), Journal of Popular Music Studies editor Oliver Wang (California State University, Long Beach) takes readers behind the decks of pioneering mobile DJ crews in the late 1970s and 1980s. There, Wang shines a spotlight on a hidden subculture of Filipino American musicians and fans thriving in garages, high school gymnasiums, and community halls. Through interviews with iconic regional crews such as Ultimate Creations, Spintronix, and Images Inc.—as well as with international household names such as DJ Qbert of The Rock Steady Crew and Invisibl Skratch Piklz—Wang highlights how, without these crews, DJing today would look very different. Recently, Wang spoke over the phone with Shawn Higgins (New Mexico Tech), delving into subjects such as Wang’s own experience as a DJ, the similarities between academia and DJing, and the importance of bringing untold stories to the surface.

Shawn Higgins: Your book calls attention to a subculture of Filipino American DJ crews in the Bay Area that largely was ignored by the media. You say that these DJs existed in a kind of “self-contained bubble,” and that this was due to a kind of “media invisibility” (149). Even so, you’re hesitant to call that lack of media coverage “racial exclusion,” but it’s clear that living in a bubble without media exposure was and is regrettable.

Oliver Wang: In that section, I was quoting Jennifer Lena. I think the reason I hedged there was because I didn’t do enough research in this area to make a strong argument that newspapers were deliberately not focusing on the lives of Filipino Americans. “Exclusion,” to me, reflects a form of intentional behavior, and I think when Jennifer Lena was writing about why certain genres fail, she was writing about more deliberate forms of exclusion. The exclusion here had more to do with people just not realizing what the hell Filipinos were. It’s exclusion via invisibility rather than exclusion via intentional policy.

In general, the cultural lives of Asian Americans remain very, very under the radar. The main difference between then and now is self-publishing and social media. We’re not as dependent on “mainstream media” to shed that light. It’s probably rare that there is an interesting cultural phenomenon that nobody is writing about. Someone is going to be documenting it on YouTube or talking about it on Twitter and Facebook. What sadly remains is that the lives of Asian Americans don’t receive a ton of attention. You will occasionally see stories pop up in an alternative weekly city newspaper about Cambodian rappers in Long Beach. That’s a story once every couple of years, but it’s not a constant source of attention. Instead, what you will find is a website devoted to Cambodian rappers in Long Beach, and all they do is report on that scene.

SH: You yourself are a DJ. Tell us about your own experience in that world.

OW: In high school, I actually primarily listened to modern rock and new wave. In Los Angeles, one of the popular radio stations among my high school friends was KROQ 106.7 FM. Back then, it would have been New Order, Depeche Mode, Erasure, OMD, Tears for Fears, and the Pet Shop Boys. I was heavily influenced by the musical tastes of older relatives—in my case, my cousin, who is a year older. It wasn’t until 1989 that hip-hop really entered my orbit in full-force.

I started DJing in college at UC Berkeley on KALX 90.7 FM during my sophomore year (1991). I stayed at that station for the next twelve years, all through undergraduate and graduate school. I finally left the station around 2004 when I was trying to get my dissertation finished and my daughter was on her way. In the midst of being a radio DJ, I began to branch out doing club work. I never did “mobile work” outside of very small instances.

SH: One of the pioneering Filipino American DJ crews you write about is Sound Explosion, a crew from San Francisco in the late 1970s. In your book, there’s this great photo of how they repurposed a car tire rim in order to make a lighting truss to hang a disco ball. Given the history of DJs repurposing sounds in terms of sampling, technology in terms of using the family turntable, or spaces in terms of fitting new societal wants and needs, do you think someone has to be good at repurposing in order to be a good DJ?

OW: I think the kind of creativity and ingenuity of the early mobile DJ showed how they played with the hand dealt to them. In the late 1970s, mobile DJing was still a relatively new phenomenon, probably less than ten years old. As I write in the book, the idea of a DJ who moves equipment from location to location, goes back much further. A radio station doing a sock hop, that’s a “mobile DJ.” But the kind of mobile DJ I’m talking about, in terms of individuals and not a corporate entity, is pretty new.

At that time, there were no DJ specialty stores, and you couldn’t go buy a lighting truss for DJ purposes off the Internet because it’s the early 1980s—none of those things exist. Many of DJs had to figure out how to create a space like a discotheque or a sensory environment like the heavy metal concerts they were going to. I don’t think that makes later-generation DJs less capable or interesting. However, I do think that good DJs learn to deal with making use of the tools at their disposal.

SH: In Chapter 2, your respondents talk about how becoming a DJ meant becoming an object of both “respect and admiration.” Most DJs do it for fun, but certain perks are part of the package. One of your respondents cites getting free food at McDonald’s as the sign that he’d made it. In your own professional experience, what are some of the unsolicited perks you’ve enjoyed?

OW: For DJs, getting a free hamburger was unexpected, but that was a product of social capital. Their fame and social stature led to people hooking them up. They didn’t expect to get hooked up, they were interested in DJing for the stature. As for myself, being a reviewing music journalist for a long time, I got used to not having to pay for music or concert tickets. When I stopped doing reviews frequently and someone would ask if I wanted to “go see” an artist playing in town and explain that “tickets are X amount of dollars,” my first thought was, “Oh, shit! I gotta pay for that?!”

Nowadays, after years of not reviewing so often, I’m much more open to paying. I just bought the Kendrick Lamar album on vinyl. Had this been ten years ago, I would have reviewed it and then gone to the publicist and tried to get it free. It’s funny… now that I think about it, I actually did review DAMN. for NPR, so I guess I could go to the label and request a vinyl copy. I’m not going to bother at this point. I have a well-paying, full-time job, and I don’t need to nickel-and-dime everything. But that was something I had to re-learn.

SH: Later in the book, you mention the love DJs have for “breaking” tracks for an audience, or playing a previously undiscovered song as part of a live set. In your performative positions as a DJ, writer, and professor, what are some subjects you’re most proud of “breaking”?

OW: The better examples are those songs and ideas that I think will “break” and then don’t! One song that comes to mind is a disco track from Skye called “Ain’t No Need” (1976). I first stumbled across this 7” at Groove Merchant in San Francisco, which is my favorite record store in the world. It’s a song that I think is freakin’ incredible, but I can never seem to convince dancers to get into it. As a professor, whether it be a theory or a text that I love, more often than not, as hyped as I am about X reading, I’m likely going to be disappointed by the crowd’s reaction. Ideas resonate with people in different ways, and just because you’re into something doesn’t mean others will be. Maybe I’m just a pessimistic dude.

SH: Have you ever hidden or scratched off labels to songs you wanted to keep as your own secret weapons? Or do you like sharing tracks with others?

OW: I completely understand the DJ impulse, but I’ve been a music journalist and a scholar for almost as long as I’ve been a DJ. Maybe it’s two against one being a journalist and a scholar, but it’s all about sharing knowledge. For that reason, I’ve never wanted to hide tracks. I’ll do it to a certain extent—there’s things I’ve put up on my website, that I’ve deliberately kept secret—but it’s a very small number of songs. Usually, it’s because I learned about it from someone who wanted to keep it secret.

SH: Academics, like DJs, can get contentious, so I’m not trying to start any beef. But in the same vein as the healthy rivalries you discuss among DJ crews in your book, who do you look at as some of your best competition?

OW: Wait, wait… are you asking me to say who I see as my academic rival?

SH: I am! Who is doing work that you just have to respect, even though you might wish you could have done it first?

OW: This is not me trying to be polite, but I don’t think of my current career in any kind of rivalry terms. The analogy that makes most sense would be this: the way Filipino American DJs in the Bay Area looked up to Ultimate Creations and their mystique, I look up to my good friend and mentor, Josh Kun. I am constantly impressed by what he does, digging through different crates of knowledge. In some cases, that’s quite literal—in his sheet music book, he analyzed how orange crates were an early form of marketing for Los Angeles tourism. He was literally digging through crates trying to find out what we can learn from them.

This phenomenon is something I write about in the book—the lightbulb moment of seeing someone accomplish something you didn’t even know was possible, how that opens up a world of possibilities for you to then pursue. My “lightbulb moment” mentors are people like Josh Kun, George Lipsitz, Robin D.G. Kelley, bell hooks, Stuart Hall, Coco Fusco, and Jeff Chang. I mean, Jeff… I think I even say this in the acknowledgments—Jeff was a Chinese American radio DJ in the early 1990s writing about hip-hop! Later, he put together a record label. Simply knowing that a Chinese American guy could write these things and be a DJ showed me that it was at least in the realm of possibilities. To that degree, I really, really, really identified with the ways in which my respondents said about other Filipino DJs from Balboa, “If they can do it, I can do it, too!”

SH: Sharing knowledge is a major theme in Legions of Boom. While there were healthy rivalries, these Bay Area Filipino American DJ crews in the 1970s and 1980s were all about friendship, support, cooperation, and respect. One of the downfalls of these crews was the rise of the individualistic scratch DJ. After reading your book, I’ve been thinking about the possibility of “academic crews.” Academics have a large stake in publishing original work that is one’s own. I dream about working collectively like a crew in order to produce and disperse knowledge. Instead, we’re pressured to write single-authored articles. I thought of your graduate school advisor (Michael Omi), a great example of someone whose name gets connected with another scholar (Howard Winant) because of the good work they did together as “Omi and Winant.” Do you think academic writing is like scratch DJing? Do you think it’s possible for an “academic crew” to pool resources and write as a unit?

OW: There are some academic crews, though I think it’s more accurate to say there are academic cliques that form around people who share likeminded disciplinary and theoretical allegiances or even just friendships that date back to grad school. You go to enough conferences, and there are informal crews that you can suss out simply because they shout each other out in their papers. You get a sense of who’s down with who that way. And I suppose there’s some collaboration that happens within these cliques in terms of planning symposiums together or co-authoring publications but these are more the exception than the rule.

So much of academia rewards single-author articles and monographs. That works against collaborative, crew-like work, at least from what I’ve seen in my circles. The institutional bias towards the solitary scholar leaves crews harder to create and sustain. I suppose it’s kind of like how, when bars and clubs began to hire individual DJs, the crews became a lot less necessary and that was one force that lead to the decline of the mobiles. There’s less incentive, beyond personal preference, to roll with a crew. At least in my lifetime as a scholar, I’ve rarely seen the incentive to form crews in academia.

But I definitely think the potential for academic crews is there. In sociology, you could have the neo-Marxists vs. the neo-Weberians, and they can battle each other with Powerpoint slide slows.

SH: Maybe we should all get embroidered jackets.

OW: That’d be dope. Roll into a conference with matching jackets and Lee jeans, starched and pressed. ♬

Oliver Wang Oliver Wang is a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach and the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area. He has contributed to NPR’s All Things Considered, KCET’s Artbound, KPCC’s Take Two, the New York Times Book Review, and the Los Angeles Times. He also writes the audioblog and is co-host of the music podcast, Heat Rocks.

Shawn Higgins is an Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico Tech where he was named the 2017 Distinguished Teaching Professor. Shawn teaches courses in writing, American literature, and trans-pacific cultural studies. His research interests include sound studies, food studies, and multiethnic American literature. Shawn received his doctorate from the University of Connecticut in 2016, and he is currently revising his dissertation, “Literary Soundscapes: Nationalism and U.S. Literature, 1890-1940” for future publication as a manuscript.

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