If you were a teenager in the ’80s, certain pop music might remind you of being in a nightclub — disco hits and remixes by bands like Menage and Boys Town Gang.

For Filipino-American communities putting down roots in California, pop hits from bands like these became a kind of soundtrack. They were remixed and played at weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, debuts or coming-of-age parties. The demand for music at all these events gave rise to a phenomenon, the Filipino-American DJ.

A new book called “Legions of Boom” describes the cultural importance of the Filipino-American DJ scene that formed in the Bay Area during the ’80s, and how it eventually led to the emergence of some internationally famous DJs. Today, young Filipino-Americans still look up to those DJs and aspire to spin records.

Orlando Madrid is part of the first generation of Filipino-American DJs in the Bay Area. At his garage in Daly City, south of San Francisco, he’s hanging out with a bunch of DJs in their 20s. There is music equipment all around and stacks of records Madrid has digitized. He is playing us a classic from the ’80s, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” by Boys Town Gang.

Orlando Madrid with an old mixer he used to deejay with back in the '80s.
Orlando Madrid with an old mixer he used to deejay with back in the ’80s. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

It’s cha-cha, Madrid explains. Yes, cha-cha is a kind of ballroom dance, originally from Cuba. But electronic-disco versions from the ’80s were big hits in the Filipino-American community. Madrid puts on another tune from his playlist. It’s a remix of the song “Memory” from the Broadway musical “Cats.”

Kevin Brown is one of the young DJs crowded around Madrid. Brown says, “The DJ scene back in the day was legendary. People still talk about it.”

“The scene” back in Madrid’s day was made up of mostly high schoolers, throwing parties in suburban garages, having competitions — DJ battles. They formed groups, “Mobile DJ crews,” of four or five kids to do lighting, sound and music.

Oliver Wang is a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach and author of “Legions of Boom.” The book traces the development and cultural importance of these mobile DJ crews. Wang says, “If you were a Filipino teenager growing up in the Bay Area, you probably had some connection to that scene.”

Wang says some of the young DJs following in Madrid’s footsteps eventually broke out and got famous — people like Qbert, Mix Master Mike, Apollo, Shortkut. But instead of just playing records, they started scratching them.

DJ Shortkut, aka Jonathan Cruz, says, “Oh yeah, definitely. I credit a lot of what I do now to the mobile scene.”

Cruz says that, like most Filipino-American DJs, he got his start at family gigs, where people demanded those ’80s hits. He says, “It’s funny man, it’s early ’80s aerobic music.”

Now, Cruz remixes a wide variety of music and has won regional and national DJ battles. He says Filipino-Americans like him used to stand out at competitions.

Cruz says, “I heard people underneath their breath say, ‘ Who are these Chinese guys out of nowhere from the West Coast coming out here to battle?’ ”

Since then, the Filipino-American population has grown, becoming the largest Asian-American minority in California. About half of the country’s entire 3.4 million Filipino-Americans live in the state. Daly City has the highest concentration of any U.S. city.

Orlando Madrid says you can see the evidence in the air. He says, “The joke is, there’s a lot of fog here because everyone is cooking rice.”

Madrid says the DJ scene here was about more than playing pop music. It was a way to form an identity as the kids of immigrants. He never got famous, but he says the music kept him away from drugs and violence — fallout from the Filipino-American gangs here in the ’80s.

“The way I’ve recognized it,” Madrid says, “deejaying kept me out of a lot of trouble I could have gotten into.”

Madrid says his family, like many in the community, supported his deejaying. They bought him equipment and drove him to parties. It makes sense — they were getting down to the music as well.

Author

Sam Harnett

Sam Harnett is a reporter who covers tech, capital and work at KQED. For the last five years he has been reporting on how technology and capitalism are changing the way we think about ourselves and what it means to work. He is the co-creator of The World According to Sound, a 90-second podcast that features different sounds and the stories behind them.

Before coming to KQED, Sam worked as an independent reporter who contributed regularly to The California Report, Marketplace, The World and NPR. In 2013, he launched a podcast called Driving With Strangers. In 2014, he was selected by the International Center for Journalists for a reporting fellowship in Japan, where he covered the legacy of the Fukushima disaster.

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