DALY CITY (CBS SF) — To the casual observer, two turntables sitting side-by-side may look like a fun, interesting – and maybe outdated – way to play music. But at the hands of a world champion DJ like Richard Quitevis, or DJ QBert as he’s known, a turntable becomes a musical instrument, one that QBert has been playing for nearly 30 years.
Every beat, mix and scratch his fingers produce are part of a rich cultural history, centered in the Bay Area, and a story that QBert describes “as if the Earth had a download of knowledge, or arts … and all the kids were, like, into it.”
DJ QBert is talking about the 1980’s and the role young Filipino kids played in the mobile DJ scene. That decade, and the years after it, saw an explosion of mobile DJs in the Bay Area. Hundreds of kids came out to battle, break dance and play music at school dances, church functions, weddings and more. Many of those DJs were young Filipinos. QBert was at the center of it all, and he was their role model, a local boy who became world famous.
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“I got lucky and won a world competition and so it kind of got out to the world,” said QBert. “And I think a lot of Filipinos were into it because there were these dances and they were called ‘Imagine’ dances and they had all these showcases with all these DJ’s from around the Bay and it just so happens that everyone was Filipino.”
But fame aside, QBert and his music also have some surprising roots, in a U.S. policy change, one that shaped Bay Area culture in a big way. Many of the early Filipino DJs were children of immigrants who relocated to the Bay Area after the passing of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.
The Act abolished the quota system based on national origins the US government had previously followed. It also gave preferences to immigrants seeking a Visa based on job skills and family relationships. It opened up the opportunity for families to re-unite, and many Filipino families did just that.
Their kids were growing up in America, and looking for something to do. DJing became the after-school activity for many young Filipino kids. Music historian Oliver Wang sees this era of DJ history as a unique alchemy
“The thing about the mobile DJ crews is that because they represented people’s high schools and people’s neighborhoods and cities as a whole, this was something very similar in a lot of ways to how you might identify with a sports team,” explained Sociology Professor and UC Berkeley grad Oliver Wang. “So I think to me, the role of sort of the Filipino quality of it was really at the community level. The community is what made the scene possible in terms of providing gigs and outlets and venues for these kids to do their thing as DJs.”
Wang’s research for his graduate degree led to a book about Filipino DJs and their place in Bay Area music history, Legions of Boom. The book is also a love letter of sorts to both the music and the DJs themselves. Wang spent countless hours collecting interviews, photos, old audio tapes, and even some 1980s video footage.
It’s been a like a treasure hunt for Wang, himself an aspiring DJ, because the content is scarce, most of it was produced in an era before social media and smart phones.
“To me, I think that if social media had existed back then I think the biggest difference it would have made is it probably would have given the scene more life and more exposure because people outside of the Filipino community could have seen it happening. There would have probably been videos of the DJ battles and of the performances,” said Wang.
“And I think it would have probably helped to inspire people not just in the Bay Area but outside of it to learn lessons from what the DJ’s here were doing in terms of the elaborateness of their light shows, the kind of staging that they would do, the innovating mixing styles that they were coming up with.”
The role of Filipino mobile DJs has remained somewhat under the radar, except in the Filipino community itself. DJs were often the biggest stars for young Filipino kids. “At a time in which you didn’t see Filipino actors or Filipino American musicians necessarily, you saw Filipino American DJs,” said Wang.
Behind the turntable was the most important person in the room, the guy everybody wanted to be. And QBert was their hero. He’s modest about his fame and success, which includes his own studio and label.
“You know, I never really thought of it as a Filipino thing. I thought of it as we are doing it for the world,” said DJ QBert. “We are trying to heal the world.”