Artist Spotlight: Queens Hip Hop Artist M.U.G.Shot
Rosendo Pili, a.k.a. MUGSHOT shows his funnier side, talking about his childhood in Queens, life as one of the more recognized Filipino Emcees in the country, and perhaps being the Filipino version of 'Drake.'
**On that last part, not really.
As the 7 train thundered past above, we waited on the corner of 69th and Roosevelt in front of Krystal's Cafe.
It was a bright and gorgeous Sunday in Queens, and the first signs of warm spring weather had arrived.
I tried to picture the dialogue I was about to participate in. Back in November, we published a press releaseon the well-known hip-hop group around Queens -Deep Foundation, and more specifically, on the man we were about to meet. Through DF's music videos, I had envisioned a rugged persona, which was the perfect way to deliver the messages that were in their songs.
Rosendo Pili, better known as M.U.G.Shot, recently released a new single called "Unnecessary."He is one third of Deep Foundation, and lately, has been the lone ambassador for the brand while his partners CeeJay and ILL Poe take a quick hiatus.
Ro gets out of the cab with his girlfriend Sheryl to meet us, and I immediately noticed how disarming and charismatic he was. The man was the exact opposite of who I thought I would be interviewing, and he candidly spoke about the journey towards becoming the "Misunderstood Genius." We were right on time for Krystal's Sunday lunch, and we sat down to talk.
"This is perfect, man," he said. "I'm pretty hungry, too."
The fourth youngest kid in his family, Ro is one of the most astute, well-spoken and funny interviewees I've ever come across. Ro speaks about his childhood, his process with songwriting, a love for DMX, and among other things, how he almost became the 'Filipino Drake.'
JC: I'm not well versed with hip-hop or anything, but stylistically, you kinda remind me of The Game.Mugshot: (Laughs) Really? I've never really gotten that comparison before, but thanks man.
JC: You were born in the Philippines, correct?Mugshot: Yeah. I was born in Manila. I grew up in Taguig until I was four, and then I moved to Woodside shortly after that. So I've been living in Woodside for like the last 24 years.
JC: Do you recall experiencing culture shock once you got here?Mugshot: I was in kindergarten, and I remember, one of my first days there, I was looking for the bathroom, I couldn't find it in the hallway, and I kept asking, 'Where is the CR?' (Comfort Room) And everyone is asking, what are you talking about, and I couldn't find the bathroom. I eventually found it, obviously, but, you know, for a five-year old kid, walking around in an unknown building, it was kind of weird.
Queens, in the early 90s,... Asians were just starting to come in, I feel, to that area. Like in Woodside, I guess we've been here for a while because all these stores had already been established, but in my neighborhood in particular, we were the first Filipino family to move into that block (by 64th and Broadway). It's mostly Dominicans, like you'll see it's right across the housing projects, and so I grew around Hispanic people. It wasn't so much of a culture shock, I guess, because I didn't know what was going on in the Philippines, or how people perceived me in the Philippines, but I was aware from that age that I was different when we got here.
JC: You can probably attest to this better than most Filipino-Americans, because you were born back home, but you grew up here. I would hear from some friends who grew up here that it isn't that easy to identify with our heritage and culture, although there is definitely an understanding. For you, is there even a struggle with such a thing? Is it fair to categorize it as an identity crisis of sorts?Mugshot: A lot of people would say, that identity crisis is something internal, but for me, it would be a completely external crisis because I don't feel as if my identity is in crisis at all. I know exactly who I am and where I am coming from, but the problem is that people come in and have preconceived notions... especially with a Filipino rapper. My own parents didn't understand it in the beginning, and they were like, "Why are you acting like that?"
I remember (laughs) we went to the Philippine Consulate (as Deep Foundation), and it was me, Mark (Malacapay a.k.a. IllPoetik) and CJ (Christopher Guiang a.k.a. CeeJay the DJ), and we were going to register our act for the Philippine Independence Day Concert after the parade, and one of the women that were there, she was like, "Oh what do you guys do?" Like, she asked if we sang or are we dancing, and we're like, 'No, we're rapping.' And she's like, 'Rap? Really? That's so black.' That was what she said, and we just shook our head and were like, 'Yeah, Tita, we know.' (Laughs)
JC: That sounded kinda foul, man.Mugshot: Yeah, that wasn't what we were expecting, but you just have to learn to deal with it. I don't think I would ever let those types of opinions affect what I do and how I act as a person, and I take it experience by experience. So I understand why there would be an 'identity crisis,' so to speak, but in general, I don't feel that internally, even if I can understand it from an outsider's perspective.
JC: The reason why I asked the question was, as I did my homework on you guys, Deep Foundation made an appearance on the TFC's Speak Out, and at the time, one of the topics of discussion was this awkward disdain between Fil-Ams and Pinoys from the Motherland. Mugshot: Yeah, Speak Out talked about that and about censorship in Hip Hop.
JC: How did Deep Foundation start?Mugshot: I was the youngest when we started. I came in, it was so cool, I was doing shows with these college kids at Rutgers, and I was a 17 year-old kid in high school. (Smiles) But I would tell girls back then I was 19, so they didn't know I was in high school.
I already knew Mark from the neighborhood. We met through a mutual friend, and we found out that we both were rappers and we started being cool with each other. And we had a similar sense of humor so we would go around and make fun of people and hang out. He introduced me to his friends from Jersey, who happened to be his cousins, and I met Proseed, who was a founding member, and he came up with the name for the group, Deep Foundation.
We had a freestyle cipher at the Filipino Day parade, and afterwards, they asked me to join their group. And the first time I performed with them was 2001, and I was at Rutgers. After that, we just kept it moving. I was the last member to join, and before that there had been six of us altogether. The three original core members were all friends from Jersey, and Mark and I were from New York, and Mark's brother would do sound for us.
We weren't really trying to put a Filipino rap group out, but that was just how it happened, Filipinos know Filipinos, and that was it.
JC: What happened to the original three members prior?Mugshot: It started out as more of a hobby for a lot of us, and then it picked up momentum, so we started doing a lot more shows, and we started dedicating more time to it. So long story short, you have me, IllPoetik and CJ who have taken on the roles as the core of Deep Foundation, and the other guys back then, one was about to get married, the other one has three daughters, so life takes over basically, and you make decisions. That hasn't really deterred me up to this point, so thankfully, I'm still here.
JC: When you were growing up, how did your love for rap start? Did you develop through poetry?Mugshot: Yeah, definitely! My entire family is comprised of singers, and I used to be in a Filipino choir when I was growing up, so we went around caroling. This (Krystal's) is actually one of the places that we would go to. I've been performing since I was very young, like first or second grade, and it was at a point where I started being exposed to, not even poetry, but rhyming words - I would realize that I could put words together and make them run. So that was how I began writing songs and poetry. I wasn't even allowed to listen to rap music in the house until I started to become "rebellious," and I would just do things on my own. My sisters would listen to it on their headphones, like in the morning when they'd listen to HOT97 on their walkman,and sometimes I would come across their music. For the most part, I didn't get exposed to hip hop until a very later age.
My first rap album was "Life After Death" and it wasn't until three years after it was released.
JC: What was childhood like for you?Mugshot: Um, it was good, it was basic.
Not really. (Laughs.)
I have four brothers and four sisters. And when we first moved here, we were incredibly poor, we were living in a basement in Woodside. Back then we were still small, but you could kind of feel that it was packed and crowded. Like, my siblings and I would share the same mattress, my parents on another mattress just on the floor. We didn't have a lot of money, but I felt like things were a lot simpler back then, not necessarily because we didn't have a lot of money, but moreso because I didn't really notice that when I was younger. In retrospect, now I realize like, 'Damn,' you know? (Laughs), like I can go down there now and be like, "Holy shit, how did we live here?"
When you're a kid, everything is a new adventure for you, and I remember the first time that I saw snow, and I thought to myself, "Wow, we never have this in the Philippines." I was playing outside one day in my backyard, playing with rocks and stuff, and I see these two guys and they hop the fence in my neighbor's yard. They walk into the back door and they went like this (motions with a finger saying quiet), "Shhhh!"
And they go inside, and come back out with this big TV, and they motion again to me, "shhh!" (Laughs). And I go back to playing with my rocks and it wasn't until a couple of years later and I thought to myself, 'Wow, these guys just stole my neighbor's TV.' I was too young at the time to realize it. It was a bad neighborhood, and I think New York in general was pretty bad at the time.
I also felt there was a lot of anti-Asian sentiment. But family-wise, yeah, we didn't have everything, but we made do. I went to school and a lot of the time people then had no idea what I was. My Asian-ness was homogenized, I was called 'Chinese,' because there was no other Filipinos there. I'm sure people got carpal tunneldoing that thing with their eyes when they saw me, but luckily I was aware enough to just realize it, and I could just go, "Well, fuck you, too." I would just shoot back at them, I had a lot of siblings so I knew how to fight.
Yeah, man, it was fun, looking back at it. (Smiles.) I have no qualms about my childhood. It wasn't boring. And it gives me a lot of energy and passion now towards my music, because I feel like that's where all thiscame from. My music gives me a chance to convey my message, especially growing up that you didn't always get to talk because you were the youngest, and I couldn't really speak for myself because there was always someone speaking for me. That's really what made me into an emcee.
JC: So while we were doing research, I ran into a freemix you did with the B.o.B song"Nothing On You." You can sing, man! So I guess that does make sense after all your time caroling.Mugshot: I appreciate that. (Laughs.) Yeah, that's where that came from. I don't really market myself as a singer, because I'm not that good, so I don't want someone to just call me out...
JC: You don't want to be the 'Filipino Drake?' Mugshot: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly! Haha. I mean, this is a funny story, at one point I really did (want to do sing and rap at the same time), and when I took a little break from Deep Foundation in my early 20s, and I started rapping with a totally different group from Corona, and it was more street oriented. That was a point where I really started to experiment with rap and singing at the same time, and they just kept telling me, 'Yo, man, you gotta, choose your lane, you can't do both, etc.' And then Drake came out a few years later and I'm like, 'these guys were wrong!' I should have kept doing it! (Laughs all around.)
Me and Illpoe talk about it all the time, and I joked with him, "This guy Drake, man, he killed my life."
But, yeah, Drake is cool.
JC: Who are your biggest influences?Mugshot: From the beginning? I'll tell you right now, the first person I ever religiously listened to was DMX. Yeah. It's Dark and Hell is Hot.
And it's funny because this is what I always say when someone asks "what kind of music did you listen to." I always say DMX, and the other guys in the group would say Wu Tangand Company Flowand they started naming underground rappers that were big at the time, but I'm like, no, DMX. That's the only guy. And, for some reason, I just related - he was just really angry (laughs), and I kinda liked that about him. He barked every five seconds.
It was him and, eventually, Jay Z and Nas. You get into the staples of hip-hop once you realize there's more out there than just DMX. (Laughs). So, I started listening to a lot of stuff - Wu Tang, underground stuff like Sage Francisand Eyedea, Brother Aliis another huge influence. I have a lot of love for acts that are out right now, but for the most part, I love listening to older shit like The Roots,Tupac. I don't listen as much toBiggie anymore, but like I said, "Life After Death" was one of the first alums that I had, and I still sometimes listen to it.
JC: Obviously you were more into East Coast than West Coast back then.Mugshot: Yeah, I just didn't know enough of the West coast when I was growing up, and back then they were in this rebuilding phase, kind of what the East is dealing with right now. West Coast rap is just taking over right now, in my opinion. All the big acts are out there, and here in the East we have guys like A$AP Rocky, and that's really it. But I'm definitely more East Coast.
JC: You mentioned DMX as a huge influence... Yours, at least in my opinion is a strong, almost stern style and approach through delivery and in your message. How much of this on-stage persona comes through in comparison to your daily life?Mugshot: A lot of my personality comes out, say during a live show, and it's not really something that I've been doing as a solo artist, like I would throw jokes here and there to make people laugh. I always try to throw a little bit of myself out there. But as far as the music goes - if you were to listen to my entire catalogue right now, including the mixtape that I'm releasing this year, a lot of my music goes by my mood. I think it is a very reflective style, if you go through song by song, say, here, he's probably pissed off, or on the next track, oh he seems happy here... That's sort of how I differentiate it. Generally, I am a pretty laid-back person. I think it's just when I start writing, it's really to express a certain feeling during that moment, it's just a mood that I happen to be in at that very point in time.
JC: How much of your work ethic comes from your parents?Mugshot: I never want to be poor, ever again, you know? And this is obviously looking very far into the future, but if I were to have kids, I would never want them to experience the same thing I did. I would want them to know and learn those same lessons but not necessarily lack for basic necessities. And I think that is what drives me a lot. It is something that is always in the back of my head. Every time I go to work, every time I go do something, if I'm tired and I have to do something, I think of my experiences, and I tell myself, "You gotta get up for this."
As far as that's concerned, with what I learned from my parents, my dad always reminded me how hard my mom worked. She was the main breadwinner of the family, she worked three jobs when we got here. My father just recently turned 75, and he had a government job in the Philippines, and back then he was making good money. My brothers had a driver to take them to school, and we moved here because we were actually political refugees. We sought the asylum of the US. And so when we got here, he was working as a security guard in Alexander's. Then he got laid off because they closed up. And then my mom stepped up to help, because my dad couldn't get a job - she went to school to become a blood bank technician and she worked three jobs.
That also taught me that I didn't wanna sit behind a desk. I wanted to do something that makes me happy, something that I was passionate about. But at the same time, you don't want to struggle either, so these thoughts are what definitely drives my work ethic.
JC: I guess that really holds true with creative types - the dread of the dead-end desk job.Mugshot: Yeah, that was what really where the project took root - I wanted to flip that ideal on it's head. The last single I made, 'Simpleton'is kind of a testament to that. I'm here at my desk all day long and I'm struggling to get through this mind-numbing day that you have me scheduled for, and I don't wanna do it. So I'm here sitting rhymes about it. I want to express my passion and creativity instead of this 'trap,' and I prefer to have my energy flowing instead of being grinded down.
So it's not just about what you're working on. It's also about working on how to stay passionate. Doing both is tough, but it is important so you can stay true to what you're into.
JC: What would you say is your creative process? Mugshot: A lot of the time it'll start from one line. I'll be sitting and thinking and then, whoa, I like how that sounds. Then I'll just start writing. Or, sometimes, I'll get a beat from somebody, like, do you know Jay Legaspi?
He's been producing on the side, so he's been working a lot with guys like Nemo from Triangle Offense. Jay's the in-house producer for them. And Jay is a good friend of mine, I talk to him almost every day. And so he's always like, "I gotta get on your project, man." So he sends me beats. And there's one that he sent me and I couldn't stop writing to it, so it's usually through that.
Or sometimes, I would have a concept of a song, and everything will just come together.
It can even come from a word. For 'Unnecessary,' it was necessities. But I couldn't fit it into this verse, which ended up being "Bring only what's needed." And it became this really sarcastic song, where we could just say crazy shit in between the real idea of poking fun at things we don't really need.
I guess, (laughs)what I'm really trying to say is that I don't really have one. It just kinda happens altogether. But if I had to pick one, my process usually comes from one phrase or word that sticks out to me and I build around it.
JC: What is it like working with Illpoe and CeeJay? Mugshot: These guys are like my brothers. We've been rapping for so long together, and we're friends outside of music. The amount of time that we spend together, driving to shows to Virginia and Illinois and coming back - those are like five-hour long trips, and a lot of stupid shit happens (laughs). One moment, we'd be singing along next to Miley Cyrus, random stuff like that, or we would do air orchestras - like air guitars and air triangles. We have a lot of inside jokes. Like, if you were to ever hang out with all of us at the same time, we would just be laughing at random shit half of the time and we would be serious at the other half. That's really how it is.
A lot of the time they'll call me and be like, "Yo, let's go rehearse for this show," and I get there and we don't start rehearsing until an hour later because we would sit around and crack jokes at each other. It's like having brothers that you play-fight with all the time. And we're close enough that it doesn't affect our relationship, like we can say foul shit to each other. (Laughs). At the end of the day, we're family. They've taught me a lot about showmanship, about professionalism, and being yourself at the same time - to not try to be one of these 'overtly' rapper types - Yeah, I'm hea, I wanna make it big, shout out to my label - Like that, giving shoutouts to the label that doesn't exist. A lot of guys approach you in the industry and they have that really hard sell, "I'm doing this for this records or blah blah blah for these guys." That's not really me. I learned to just be myself and be careful with the people that you wanna work with... They'll come around to see that you're a real person and you're not just sitting there trying to use them for whatever connections they have. It's a good lesson to have, especially for this environment, especially for myself who is trying to make it as a solo artist.
This was something that I was never cognizant of before, I was kind of reckless back then. I would maybe diss someone or make fun of someone, only to find out later that, oh, this guy is connected to this dude, and I would feel bad. 'I guess they won't want to work with us now.' (Laughs.)
One of the best analogies those guys have for me, ask either one, and they'll say, 'You put a red button in front of Ro and say don't press this, and fifteen seconds later he'll press that red button.'
That's me, I can't control myself sometimes.
JC: What message would you have to those that want to follow your footsteps?Mugshot: Be prepared. It's not the most glamorous lifestyle. I mean, I see a lot of different people taking different approaches, and I don't want to disrespect anybody and name any names, that's not what I'm about. But I think, basically, there are a lot of various approaches to pursuing a career in music and hip hop, and it's mainly about staying true to yourself and having a good idea of what you want to do. Try not to listen to cookie-cutter formulas, you have to work and when you work hard, it will speak for itself. I believe that is what should define you. You don't want to be someone that just puts out a lot of material, but none of it really speaks personally to you. You don't want to bite someone else's message, someone else's style or movement. Just be yourself.
And, have the hustle. You're gonna need it. (Smiles.)
Making music is expensive, and it takes a lot of time - it's a tedious and effort-oriented craft which you will want to account for. If you enjoy it and you're passionate about it, then everything will come easily because you won't look at it as work. Have the hustle if you really want this, because no one is really going to pay you to rap right off the bat.
There are a lot of skills that will help you along the way - sound engineering, graphic design, videography - and all of these things, you can make a legitimate income out of "in the real world," and at the same time you an pursue your passion towards becoming an artist, and becoming successful.
JC: What's next for you and for Deep Foundation?Mugshot: We're coming out with a third album, which is the main reason why I'm coming out with a solo project now. The rest of the guys took a little hiatus with life, Illpoetik is finishing grad school at NYU with social work, and CeeJay is a full-time DJ and he has a lot of things going on, too.
And as for myself, I have a lot of ideas for my own songs that I want to come out with, and it's perfect (timing) because I can work on this and push the brand, maintain that relevance and keep people interested so that when we finally drop the third album, we'll be ready to go.