Jon Protege first made his mark as one of the few English-language battle MCs in FlipTop, the Philippines’—and the world’s—biggest and most popular battle rap conference. Then known simply as Protege, the Filipino MC told HipHopDX Asia in an exclusive behind-the-scenes interview on the location of “The Regionals: Philippines” video shoot that while his battle rap days are behind him (“I’m semi-retired”), he remains focused on his music.

In the last few years, Jon Protege kept a low profile. His last official release was in 2019, where he enlisted long-time collaborators PJ, One3D, and Liquid—collectively known as Audible MCs—for “The Beatdown,” which he produced.

The draw to return and become one of the five MCs for HipHopDX Asia’s “The Regionals: Philippines” was simple: !llmind. “I had to,” Jon Protege tells us. “[He’s] one of my favorite producers. When Rye [Armamento, A&R of Warner Music Philippines] hit me up about the project, I was like, I have to get on an !llmind beat, you know? That would mean a lot to me. Even just on a personal level, that’s what I really wanted,” he explains.

In a country where both Filipino and English are named official languages, rapping in Tagalog has its advantages, mainly as the language spoken by approximately 82 million Filipinos, Protege is in the minority, citing English as his first language. “I don’t really speak Tagalog that well,” he admits. “I can understand it, of course, but I didn’t grow up here. I grew up in Indonesia and Thailand, but I’m 100% Filipino.”

He makes a point about his choice to rap in English, saying that ultimately, it’s up to the audience how they receive him and his music. “I can say whatever I want [in English], but not everybody is going to understand it. But I don’t let that deter me, I don’t try to dumb it down just so they can understand me. So I just tried to stay true to what I know is true. And whether they understand it or not, that’s really out of my control. All I can do is just put out what I can. If they like it, that’s dope, but if not, then that’s okay, too.”

As an English-rapping MC, Jon Protege opened up about how this has, according to him, limited his audience. Even coming up in the battle rap community in the 2000s, he admitted that it was one of the very few places and opportunities where he can perform and share his music. “In my time, if you want to make a name for yourself, you had to go out and get it. It was hard to book gigs—you have to either know people and if you didn’t know anybody, or if like you were outcasts, for whatever reason, whether you rap in English, you had to just go get it,” he shares.

He continues, “That’s why, at that time, the only option that I had was to join battles. It was freestyle battles to where you have to sign up. And then they would just call you from the crowd. Then, you would come on stage and be like, OK, you’re battling and you didn’t know who you’re battling and then everyone would just be watching you. That was kind of the only way I had to make a name for myself aside from forming Audible MCs.”

The rapper-producer observes today’s music industry landscape as less rigid as it used to be, especially in terms of categorizing or even characterizing music genres. “I guess in a way, it’s kind of easier now. Everybody has the same platform, even though it’s easier now for people to put out music, you have a lot of people putting out music so you’re competing with a lot of different sounds. The lines of the culture kind of get blurred in a way [that] it’s no longer just hip hop. It’s like, music as a whole. Now, genres blend: trap and pop into like pop or rock.”

Jon Protege puts a lot of stock and greatly values the lyrical aspect of hip hop, as anyone who’s familiar with his music can attest to (yours truly included). He pulled out his phone and read to us his favorite bar of all time from Mos Def a.k.a Yasiin Bey’s 2004 track, “Sunshine.” “Don’t give a fuck about what brand you are / I’m concerned what type of man you are / What your principles and standards are.

When asked why that bar resonated with him, he said, “I think, as artists, the music kind of goes hand in hand with the life that we live. That kind of makes the music everything that it is. Like, the life that you live alongside the music that you make is very important, because that’s you as a person that has to reflect in your music… That’s what you stand for. And that should show itself in music, and in what you say what you stand for.”

For his verse on “The Regionals: Philippines,” Jon Protege revisits his experience and imparts advice to those who are like him. “I actually really liked my verse on this track. [It] means a lot to me. I wanted to describe a mindset that someone like me or someone who isn’t me could also be going through. It applies to both me whose first language is English but it could also apply to just some kid out there [who’s] dreaming to do something and be someone.”

Towards the end of the interview, the reserved Filipino rapper was asked for his advice to aspiring artists. “I guess just be yourself. I mean, I know that sounds corny, but you’ll eventually find your voice and what you want to say. Don’t let anybody or expectations of what other people want you to be like. Because what’s important is that you find meaning in yourself and in the music that you’re making because that is what’s going to take you, not far but it’s gonna keep the fuel, what’s gonna keep you motivated to keep going in and bring longevity to what you’re doing.”

Pre-save The Regionals: Philippines here and set your alarm on September 2 at 7 PM, Manila time for the world premiere of the official music video below: