“Salarin,” Gloc 9’s duet with Bamboo off his 2012 album “Mga Kuwento ng Makata,” is a guttural cry of anguish straight from the Pinoy underbelly: a work of Tagalog poetry as authentic, as fully realized and as powerful as “Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag” or “Isang Dipang Langit.”
Gloc 9 credits the late Francis M. for inspiring him to pick up the mic, but his lineage stretches way back, from old-school truth-tellers like Lino Brocka and Amado V. Hernandez, down to O.G. Fliptop ancestor Jose Corazon de Jesus, a.k.a. Huseng Batute. (The current local popularity of “battling,” the impromptu verbal sparring matches between hip-hoppers, owes not a little to the Filipino poetic tradition of the duplo, or balagtasan.)
The title of the album makes the connection explicit, but even without the literary references, songs such as the breakaway hit “Sirena” and the aforementioned “Salarin” speak so directly and so eloquently so as to leave no doubt in the listener’s mind that they are listening to a modern bard: In a way, poetry is like pornography, you know it when you hear it.
The fact that National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera has unabashedly declared himself a Gloc 9 fan only seals the deal. In an online column for the investigative journalism website bulatlat.com, Lumbera wrote:
“Ambag ni Gloc 9 at ang kapwa niya makabayang rapper ang tinig na nagpapalaya sa mga hinaing at kaisipang pipi ng mamamayan… Hangad niya na bigyang tinig ang bawat kabataang may mensahe na nais niyang ipaabot sa kanyang kapwa. Sa ganyang paraan, nagkakaroon ng tinig ang lahat ng mga taong may nais sabihin tungkol sa sarili at sa lipunang kinabibilangan niya. At sa paglaganap ng rap, ang mga Filipinong pinipi ng kanilang katayuan sa lipunan, ng kakulangan ng pormal na edukasyon, ng panghahamak ng humahawak ng kapangyarihan, ay magkakatinig. At kapag ang mga pipi ay nakapagsalita, isang hakbang na yan sa pagtatamo ng mga Filipino (nang) masabi nating tunay na pagkapantay-pantay ng mga mamamayan sa ating lipunan (Gloc 9 and his fellow nationalist rappers give voice to the unspoken woes and thoughts of the people… His aim is to give a voice to every youth who has a message. In this way, every one who has something to say about himself and his society finds a voice, and with the popularity of rap, Filipinos rendered mute by their status in society, by the lack of formal education, by the oppression of those in power, are able to speak. And when the mute speak, it is one more step toward true equality in Philippine society).”
High praise, indeed. Labels like “rap” and “hip-hop” no longer seem adequate to describe what Gloc 9 is doing, but he is loath to deny his roots.
“If there’s one thing I want to achieve every time I write a song, it’s to be able to relate to my fellow Filipinos and not alienate them,” he says.
[Gloc speaks in Filipino throughout our conversation; his words are freely paraphrased into English for convenience.]
“For as long as I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed that when I start off a rap with ‘yes, yes, yo!’ or ‘wassup?,’ many listeners are immediately alienated, and likely they’re not going to listen to what you have to say.”
If he had to describe what he does, Gloc 9 would prefer to say that he is continuing what Francis M. started, which is forging a genuinely Filipino rap.
I’d have to say that he’s largely succeeded with “Mga Kuwento ng Makata,” his sixth album since first being signed as a recording artist in 1997. It’s that rare commodity, a work of art that’s also a commercial success, with “Sirena” gaining massive airplay and critical attention, “Hari ng Tondo” landing in a major film’s soundtrack, and a slew of potential singles yet to get their due.
His fan base also transcends the traditional hardcore hip hop audience, including indie and alternative rockers, mainstream pop fans, and members of the Pinoy underclass who regularly feature in his songs. A Gloc 9 show is usually an all-ages show, with grade schoolers rubbing shoulders with high schoolers and college students, as well as their parents and occasionally grandparents.
“I’m thankful that they ‘get’ what I’m saying,” he says. “I try not to sugar-coat truths or to sound flashy. I try to be as creative as possible in constructing my lines, but also to make them as simple as I can. To say complex things in a way that can easily be understood. I call it organized chaos.”
Gloc has been fascinated by language for as long as he can remember.
Born Aristotle Pollisco in 1977—he was named after the Greek shipping tycoon, not the Greek philosopher—Gloc 9 grew up in sleepy, semi-rural Binangonan, Rizal. He credits his early years with making him the writer that he is today.
“I had an incredibly rich childhood,” he recalls. “I was able to experience wandering freely around, playing in the rain, getting into mud fights, climbing trees and swimming in the river. I played all the childhood games that sadly children today have forgotten.”
The young Gloc went to school in nearby Morong. His schoolmates came from all over and he absorbed their vocabulary. He became a wordsmith at an early age, being the first choice to create catchy slogans for anti-drug or pro-nature campaigns since the third grade. He would take current popular songs and write new original lyrics for them, to make them fit the theme.
At the same time, he was getting schooled in real life. His mother ran a sari-sari store, and he was often called on to do the marketing for the household. Being the “Palengke Boy” put him in contact with the entire spectrum of Pinoy society at an early age. When he got older, he served as “conductor” for his father’s jeepney route, plying the Binangonan-Cainta Junction.
The seminal moment came when, in high school, he started rapping spontaneously to a classmate’s cassette player, improvising lyrics on the spot, to everyone’s delight. Thence came the realization that what he wanted, more than anything, was to be a rapper.
“I love what I’m doing,” he says. “I’ve never asked God for anything else, and even today, when things get blurry, and I feel that I’m not thinking straight, I stop and try to imagine myself back in first year high school, on a bench in Morong, Rizal, praying to God to please, let me be a rapper, and let me release my own album. I was 12 or 13 years old. That always puts me back in the right state of mind. I’ve always treated what I’ve achieved as a gift for which I’ll always be thankful.”
There were some hard dues to be paid, however.
Out of high school he took a succession of menial minimum-wage jobs to support himself while pursuing his dream: as cleanup crew in a fast food chain’s commissary, as a pizza maker in an all-you-can-eat pizza joint. All of these experiences fed into his lyrics.
At the same time he began to make a name for himself in the local underground hip hop scene. A friend told him he had to have a rap name if he wanted to be a rapper. It was 1995, the height of “gangsta.” A number of options were suggested: AK47 and M16 were rejected outright, but he decided that Glock 9, minus the “k,” sounded catchy.
His raw talent was recognized early on. Francis M. sort of took him under his wing, telling him: You have a gift, what you do with it is up to you.
The dues paying didn’t stop when he was signed to Viva Records in 1997. He already had three albums under his belt when he decided to enroll in nursing school.
“I figured I got what I prayed for, and it was time to pay back my parents, and God, for what they had given me,” he recalls.
In retrospect, studying to become a nurse while trying to pursue a music career was insane: Gloc would go straight from an out-of-town performance to the hospital, running while changing from his gig clothes to his nurse’s uniform like Clark Kent. It was brutal, but it thrust Gloc deeper into the very fabric of contemporary Filipino reality and proved to be one of his most fertile creative periods.
“It is very evident how hard life is for most of our countrymen,” he says. “But when I was about to graduate, and spent a lot of time as a duty nurse in various public hospitals, I saw first hand how hard life really was for the majority of Filipinos.”
Like the Siddhartha venturing outside the walls of his palace, Gloc saw death and suffering up close, fathers grieving for dead children, mothers and newborns crammed four to a bed, desperately ill patients who didn’t have the five pesos for the hospital registration fee.
It helped that he was already well known as Gloc 9: Patients got a kick from having their blood drawn (and, in several cases, having their babies delivered) by a famous rapper. But the relentless suffering that he witnessed took a psychic toll. Gloc channelled it all into his next album “Matrikula,” its title suggesting all the dues that he had paid for the right to speak.
Francis M., his friend and mentor, already gravely ill, was very much on his mind while he was writing the songs that went into “Matrikula.” He wanted, more than anything, to play the album for “Sir Kiks,” but sadly, time ran out. But the undercurrent of sadness permeates the work, as well as a growing authority of the voice behind the songs.
“Matrikula” (2009) was followed by “Talumpati” (2011) and “Mga Kuwento ng Makata” (2012), with Gloc’s writing getting tighter and sharper with each album.
“This is probably it,” he says when asked if he has found his authentic voice. “I don’t see myself changing my sound, or should I say, trying to sound younger.”
He says turning 35 and being a husband and father (to 8-year-old twins) have grounded him, and if there’s any new challenge to be faced, it’s finding new songs to write.
“Here in the Philippines, there’s no shortage of stories to tell,” he says. “But whatever you do, if you’re doing it for a good reason, you can’t go wrong.”
He draws his songs from his personal experience, or from stories that he hears. Sometimes, as in “Lando,” it’s an imaginative leap, beginning with the question: What kind of travails does a person have to experience to get him to the point of turning into a taong grasa (homeless drifter)? Sometimes, the words just come, as if from on high.
“My writing has become second nature. The word I use to describe the lines I write is biyaya (grace). When I hear some of the songs I’ve written, sometimes I can’t believe that I wrote them. Sometimes, I’m in the middle of writing one line but I already know what the next line is going to be. And I seldom erase what I’ve written. It’s a very fluid process, and I can’t attribute it to anything because I’ve never studied formal writing. It’s really a gift.” •
For more about Gloc 9, visit www.glocdash9.com