Marikina, Philippines – It’s surreal to feel a concert wristband stick right around my left arm, let alone hear the echoing bass bounce around the acoustics of this bright food park and events space, situated in the middle of a roundabout road in the center of Bayan-Bayanan Ave., Marikina City, Metro Manila, Philippines.

The second leg of Urban Gathering is a bi-monthly event-slash-community-driven initiative to bring all styles and generations of hip hop all over the country. The Marikina show was headlined by Al James, Zae, 1096 Gang, Tiny Montana, and many more.

The night was young for many, even for a couple of rappers who came to attend the open mic session as early as 3 in the afternoon. Thirty applicants registered, determined to make that first impression count.

Stage manager and talent coordinator Inri said that it’s essential for longtime practitioners of hip hop to make a name for themselves under the UG platform, stating this is “Para sa gathering, para sa tribo na binubuo natin,” (This is for the gathering, for the tribe we’re forming) he says. “It doesn’t just end there, ito yung community na magko-continue mag-grow at magkaron ng evolution.” (This is the community where it continues to grow and evolve.)

Globalizing Pinoy hip hop

At the show, I spoke with one of the performers, AJ Kee Hong, who Brock personally invited. A young up-and-coming rapper based in Iloilo City, Kee Hong says that he’s still getting used to getting around Metro Manila, but his passion for releasing tracks is still firing him up. While he said he’s grateful for Metro Manila hip hop heads, he made sure to bring the rest of Iloilo with him.

“’Yung Iloilo dinadala ko talaga kahit saan ako pumunta.” he says, “’Yun yung sinasabi nila sa amin doon eh na ‘wag niyong makalimutan kung saan kayo nagsimula at saka mahalaga din sakin yung pinagmulan.” (I bring Iloilo everywhere I go. That’s what the folks back at home say: Don’t forget where you came from. It’s also important to me where I started.)

Kee Hong brought his nephew Kenneth Berde along with him, who also happens to be in his rap collective Iloilo Rising. The connection proves personal: Doug Brock’s mother hails from the same province, and the sense of community runs deep. Because of Urban Gathering, Kee Hong wanted to make his mother and father proud by establishing a career in the capital and hoping to apply for a college, also in Metro Manila.

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Ghuddist Gunatita, whose group 1096 Gang has worked extensively with Brock for years lauded how the event is structured, “Parang kakaiba siya sa local events eh” (UG’s really different from other events) he says, “Kasi dito organized talaga, maayos talaga galaw ng crowd, maayos talaga galaw ng artist” (Because here, everything’s organized, from the crowd to the artists).

Beyond the underground

Pasay-based rap group Olgang made sure their set left a memorable impression. As they started performing, the younger audience was forming a drill mosh pit whenever their popular song, “Akala Mo Ata,” (You Thought), came on.

One of its members, Nateman, surfed in the crowd and climbed up the balcony with his arms dangling by the bar, balancing with one foot off the ledge, trying to see if he could jump off the balcony—stunts often pulled by Lil Uzi Vert and the late XXXTentacion.

Talagang wasak ang set” (The set was wild), Nateman, visibly in cloud nine, comments on the experience. “Talagang vision ko ay hindi lang siya ‘Pinas, kundi worldwide” (My vision isn’t just for the Philippines but worldwide) he says. “Ang magawa ng drill music namin ay talagang pinaplano namin, matagos namin yung international kasi pangsabayan naman talaga” (We’ve been planning carefully about what our drill music can do, how it can reach the international scene because it’s up to par.)

The return of Al James

The show closed with an Al James set, as he went through some of his greatest hits, including “Pahinga,” “Latina,” “Ngayong Gabi,” and his latest single, “PSG.” With no live shows for more than two years, Al James—no stranger to underground hip hop—played to a crowd who undeniably went there for him, including those outside the venue who were unable to secure a ticket.

Al James made several private invites as warm-up sessions before he could actually get back to performing on big shows such as Urban Gathering. “It feels good to be back, of course” he says, “Iba na eh, ‘di na ‘to tawag underground eh.” (It’s very different now, it’s not just the ‘call’ of the underground anymore.)

He offers a couple of observations on his fellow performers. He recalled how Olgang reminded him of Owfuck when they were starting, before their smash hit “Gin at Marijuana” broke through the mainstream. “Naalala ko… parang sila [Owfuck] yung nagpaapoy sa trap eh, like 6 years ago, mga rooftop party, maraming nagta-trap pero sila nagdiin” (I thought of Owfuck when I watched [Olgang], they were the trailblazers in trap, like six years ago. There were a lot of trap rappers doing, like, rooftop parties then, but they were the ones who made a mark), he says.

“’Tas this time sila [Nateman], sa drill naman kumbaga mas maraming na-expose sa drill, maraming familiar, pero merong nagulat parin pero I’m sure two years or a year lang maka-catch up na tayo dyan eh.” (And this time with Nateman, with drill, for instance, many were exposed to drill because of them. Many were already familiar, but others were still surprised [of it], but I’m sure in two years or one year from now, we’ll catch up.)

Al James Returns To Form In ‘PSG,' His First Song In 2 Years—Behind-The-Scenes Exclusive

From trailblazing local acts popping off the “For You” page (FYP) of TikTok to the computer shop anthems, this is what UG founder and events manager Doug Brock and the rest of his team envisioned, saying that his dream is to bring local hip hop to the main stage all the while stay rooted from the underground.

“Our goal again is to bring local hip hop and different dialects into one big [platform] and tour it around the globe. Because [with] 200 countries around the world, lahat yan may Filipino eh,” (Anywhere there’s Filipinos) “So I want Filipino hip hop around it,” he adds. Until the next installment of Urban Gathering, that is.

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All photos courtesy of Urban Gathering, direkbombitfilms, and Kiwi Genesis Cuerdo