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Words and Rhythm in Today’s Balagtasan

13 May

Balagtasan is debate and poetry in one combine. It was created during the American Colonization of the Philippines, inspired by the old forms of Philippine verse debates like karagatan, Juego de Prenda, and the Duplo. Having been created to honor his death anniversary, its name comes from the original surname of Francisco Baltazar, Balagtas. As most Filipinos know, he is a well-renowned Filipino poet especially for his poems and his Florante at Laura. (Montemayor, 2008) Decades after the American colonization and the second world war, Balagtasan and most if not all forms of poetic debates have faded from the limelight. However, in the coming of the twenty-first century, another form of poetic battle took its place in this contemporary setting, culture, and context: Fliptop.

Fliptop, originally, is a rap battle league in the Philippines made to help Philippine rappers promote and train their rap skills and abilities. The league places these rappers in a  pit against each other in a battle of lyrical creativity and innate musical rhythm. At present, “Fliptop” ceases to be a name of a rap battle league and has evolved into a legitimate form of rhythmical poetic debate.

The rules of fliptop are generally casual, in contrast to the rigid rules and regulations of the Balagtasan. The only aim, in essence, is to insult or make the other side look bad to make yourself look like you’re the better one. The battles are a capella. Because the fliptop “battles” compose mainly of Ad Hominem attacks against the opponent, details such as honoring an opponent’s request not to mention certain things during the battle, like a person’s family member or other topics, are agreed upon beforehand. The only strict rule in Fliptop is that the battle cannot turn physical, for if the said rappers do get into a fight, they will be banned from the battle league. The rappers are told about their match-ups as to give them enough time to prepare for their battles. With that being said, they are given the chance to write what they say, which would essentially give them more consistent content and make the battles more entertaining. However, even if they are given the chance to write, that should not stop them from rapping freestyle and creating impromptu rebuttals, as the rappers that do so are generally admired and even called to be the best there are.

Fliptop’s Dos por Dos event was held last May 5, 2012 at B-Side, a bar inside The Collective in Makati City. Unlike the usual Fliptop battles, which are one-on-one, the rappers were grouped into pairs and given three minutes per round to lyricize the crap out of their opponents as brilliantly as they possibly can. There were 3 rounds per battle and the ones we were able to watch for the night were that between Aklas & Sayadd vs Papew & Melchrist, and Apoc & Dictah, representing Kampo Teroritmo, vs Harlem & Juan Lazy, representing Schizophrenia.

Upon arrival, one may observe that the security was tighter than that of usual venues. Bouncers and security personnel were everywhere, and they searched every person thoroughly before letting them in. Drinks, even water in jugs and PET bottles, were confiscated in the entrance. Even candies were prohibited, as some drugs may easily be disguised as such. Looking into the history of the rappers, their groups are actually real gangs, and there have been previous cases of gang wars in the field of Fliptop, quite unsurprisingly.

Upon entering the venue, someone who isn’t used to the environment cannot help but choke in the thickness of the smoke because the place was infested with heavy smokers and drinkers. Inside B-side, it can clearly be seen how the people try, more or less, to imitate the urban gang, hip-hop, and hipster cultures as seen in Northern and Latin America. Men generally wear long, baggy shorts, loose shirts and rounded caps, sporting flashy and somewhat eccentric jewelry such as necklaces and rings to produce more “swag” and “show dat blingage” (YEAHH HOMIE). Upon analysis, this kind of clothing would allow them to move freely and thus prepare them for impending fights, which gangs are more or less believed to engage in. The women generally dress less and show more skin, as if to catch the eye of anyone interested (if you know what we mean).

One may also observe how females comprised only around 10% of the audience population. Most of them also showed very little interest in the battles, chatting in the far corners of the venue while the battles heated up. Most of them also seemed to simply be dragged along by their boyfriends. In conclusion, such kind of activity may be deemed as something which does not generally appeal to women, perhaps because the place was filled with people who are viewed as rough and the activity itself, since it consisted of plain mocking and bashing, was viewed in the same light.

The venue itself also paralleled with the hipster image the very activity and its people were trying to portray. The entire The Collective, where B-Side was located, was enveloped by graffiti-clad walls radically speaking of freedom from the bounds of conformity. Even its shops were unusual and, when viewed in the context of a usual middle-class Filipino, somewhat radical.

As per Filipino time, the event started late: almost two hours after its supposed beginning, but it was worth the wait. The first battle was between Aklas & Sayadd vs Papew & Melchrist. The initial banats were very intense, as they were finishing each other’s lines coupled with direct personal attacks. It was very evident that these guys weren’t playing any games. They were clearly prepared and they knew what they were doing. Aklas & Sayadd took the upper hand in the opening round, but Papew & Melchrist staged a comeback and won the battle.

After the battle, a 30-minute break was scheduled. Everyone went around, chatted (mostly about the battle that ended just then), took pictures, ate, and drank, as food and drinks were sold by B-side. One may feel a very casual and chill atmosphere; the type where you could go up to anyone and talk about them with absolutely anything. Our classmate and friend, Nat Juan, even got to talk to Batas, a very popular Rapper in Fliptop, as if they were close friends. Contrary to the initial impression that the place, being filled with smokers, drinkers, and dangerous-looking people (as per the generalizations generated by the media, etc.), generally evoked, despite being radical and non-conforming, the people there were actually quite like us in a sense that they also mingle in a similar way and they probably are not as dangerous as the image portrayed by the media and the majority of the population. They also drank, laughed, ate, and chatted like we do, and although the topics are different, everything else, in essence, remained fairly the same.

After the break, the next battle commenced. It was the most hyped up battle of the night, as it was between the groups Kampo Teroritmo and Schizophrenia. Representing Kampo Teroritmo were Apoc & Dhictah and representing Schizophrenia were Harlem & Juan Lazy. Kampo Teroritmo is known for their intense delivery and hard-hitting personals, while Schizophrenia is known for their versatility as well as their comedic ability and sense of humor. Kampo Teroritmo led off in the first round, but made extremely fatal errors in their delivery. One of them choked and forgot his line, immediately giving Schizophrenia an advantage. Schizophrenia capitalized on that error, making jokes about it such as how forgetful his opponent was and how they should replace their name from Kampo Teroritmo to Alzheimer’s because that described their group’s ability better. They also made quite a lot of references to the popular culture, such as Kuya Kim’s commercial about Memo Plus Gold, which they advised Kampo Teroritmo to take because of their forgetfulness. Schizophrenia was able to make the audience revel with laughter and they eventually won the battle, with 3-0 votes from the judges. As it was already past 1 a.m. and they scheduled another break, we left shortly after their battle.

Although both are famous during their era and legitimate forms of poetic debate in their own right, one may see the extreme contrast between the 20th century Balagtasan and the 21st century Fliptop. Perhaps, their similarities stop there. The formalities have been set loose, the hifalutin language abandoned. The premium on philosophical substance had been lessened and the premium on one’s ability to insult, mock, and degrade was heightened. It makes one wonder, what does this say about the evolution of the Philippine society?

Maria Teresa B. Galera – 111639 – SA21 J

Gerard C. San Juan – 113509 – SA21 J

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