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An empire state of mind: The rise of Bawal Clan

Both born in the early 1970s in the city of New York, hip-hop and sneaker brand PONY (short for Product of New York) have been known for championing the underdogs. Originating from a revolution in the urban outskirts, hip-hop is underground culture at its most unfiltered. The movement was carried out by the kids of South Bronx in the best way they knew how—through the art of rhyme.

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Fast forward decades and miles away from its birthplace, Bawal Clan continues to live out the hip-hop ethos. Like all stories of rapper greats, it wasn’t easy. The hustle and the hip-hop attitude have always been at the forefront, and the group can attest to the truth in Drake’s “Started from the Bottom.”

Bawal Clan is comprised of 14 artists, ranging from emcees, DJs to producers. While the large number seems like a magnet for infighting, the collective doesn’t let their size become a cause of conflict. “It’s always going to go up and down because there are so many people,” Bawal Clan’s MNL$ tells us. “But we’ve learned how to be nice to each other. We’ve learned how to be considerate of each other.” DZ SVG dubs the clan as a “supergroup,” a Justice League of the hip-hop scene, much in the way of Kanye, Lupe Fiasco, and Pharrell’s Child Rebel Soldier.

DZ SVG  wears Atop in Pewter Black;, MNL$ wears Shooter Low in Black Buckskin and Nuevo wears PY1 in Vapor Blue/Black.

In the case of Bawal Clan, a lot has changed since they joined forces three years ago. The clan edges close to becoming a household name in underground hip-hop (or a “basement” name, really) albeit with their share of critics. “As hip-hop artists, we already have this kind of negative persona,” MNL$ says. “We’re not playing the flute. We’re not playing the violin or singing love songs. We’re on stage talking shit.”

As hip-hop artists, we already have this kind of negative persona. We’re not playing the flute. We’re not playing the violin or singing love songs. We’re on stage talking shit.

Despite the naysayers, the members of Bawal Clan shrug it all off, still ready with lines to spew. “When you’re in the limelight, you have to have thick skin,” MNL$ continues. 

Staying true to its roots, PONY continues to support iconoclasts like Bawal Clan, celebrating their artistry over generations and across the globe with its trademark in-your-face persona. While other athletics brands in the past focused only on technical performance, PONY established itself in both performance and a distinctly urban lifestyle. All-time sporting greats who wore the brand include football legend Pele, iconic boxer Muhammad Ali, and Spud Webb, the 5’7″ NBA All-Star Slam dunk contest winner. One of PONY’s most memorable collaborations with modern day cultural icons included rapper Snoop Dogg. PONY through the years has symbolized grit and unapologetic authenticity from the courts to the streets.

Likewise, Bawal Clan thrives with the mark of the underdog, alongside a badass attitude and a good amount of hustle. Geared in the latest kicks from PONY, Bawal Clan artists Nuevo, MNL$, and DZ SVG, talk about what it takes to make it.

Nuevo

Nuevo wears Shooter Low in White/Black

When asked how he found himself in Bawal Clan, Nuevo laughs and shrugs. “I actually don’t know how exactly I got in. I just got in.” The crew seems to fit him well, enough that his introduction came naturally—before becoming an official part of the rap group, Nuevo (named Gino in real life) has been in the game for some time, collaborating with several of its members.

What sets apart talent is the hustle.

Despite hip-hop’s many trends that crop up and disappear, Nuevo believes that the music Bawal Clan makes is in it for the long run. “It’s some classic stuff,” he says. “It’s not just for today or what’s hot right now. [With] the way we all personally design our music, we definitely want it to last for the long term.” The unwavering determination to stay true to your roots and values, while constantly evolving and innovating is attuned to the PONY attitude.  

While a hip-hop artist’s skill distinguishes them from the rest, for Nuevo, it’s just one part of making it big. His reminder for aspiring artists? “What sets apart talent is the hustle.” Nuevo, much like the origins of hip-hop, has a running currency of dreams, grit and hustle.

DZ SVG

DZ SVG wears Shooter Low in White/Black

If hip-hop crews had boy band roles, DZ SVG is the first to claim “the crazy one.” “I could be really weird,” he confesses. DZ SVG, known as Dino by his friends, is usually distinguished from his rap gigs, due to his status as a former actor. “Every time we would do gigs in the beginning, people were looking at me like, Di ba artista ’to? Anong ginagawa niya dito?’” DZ SVG recalls. Once he starts spitting bars, he’s resolved to prove them wrong. “I just showed everybody that I’m really Bawal, that this is what I really want to do. I’m here to stay, too bad if you’re butthurt.” DZ SVG has the whatever-it-takes perspective on life, and realized early on that diversity is necessary to foster creativity and dynamism in the group.

As Bawal Clan, [we’re] unsung heroes of the underground. 

Besides being an actor and a rapper, DZ SVG had his share of odd jobs in the in-betweens. He was a busboy, toiled in corporate America, and worked as a VIP Host in Las Vegas clubs. He flew back to the Philippines to pursue music, much to the displeasure of his parents, which he hilariously reenacts. “Magmu-music ka? Tanda-tanda mo na, mag-mu-music ka pa. Bahala ka na sa buhay mo! Basta gumawa ka na ng pera.” Now, he’s doing just that by hustling in music, and taking his rightful place in the hip-hop scene.

MNL$

MNL$ wears Shooter Low in White/Black

Chris, recognized in the hip-hop world as Manila Money, has lived to tell the tale of most rap artists’ uphill battle. He was born and raised in California to Filipino parents, fusing both lands’ influences in his own music, learning the ways of West Coast rap, as taught by Snoop Dogg and NWA.

While working a job at Silicon Valley, he stumbled on a whiteboard with one word written on it: “Manila.” He took this as a sign and found himself in the metro, then pursuing hip-hop full-time, and eventually ending up in Bawal Clan’s roster. Now, he bumps into fans as young as 12 years old.  “The mom’s taking a picture of me and this little kid, and I’m getting emotional. I couldn’t believe it was happening.”

For all the young artists, know that you are good enough, then show the world through hard work, focus, and execution.

In this interview, we talk to the three Bawal Clan members on the crew’s evolution, keepin’ it real, the style choices that reflect their music and the unquestionable affinity between their personality and the PONY values and underground beginnings.

MNL$, DZ SVG and Nuevo wear Shooter Low in White/Black

Bawal Clan has been making major buzz in the scene. Since the clan’s introduction to the hip-hop underground scene, what do you think has changed for the group?

Nuevo: Definitely a lot more attention. I get direct interaction from the people that listen to my music on my social media. It’s overwhelming even for me. 

DZ SVG: I think a lot of people in the group are diving into different styles. Aside from the music, we’re more business-minded. Everybody has been doing their own thing before Bawal Clan got together. Now that we got together as like some supergroup, I feel like we’re all mature enough to handle the business, instead of just getting turnt and making music.

MNL$:  We’ve learned how to be considerate of each other. And the fact that Bawal Clan has become a name, whether you know who we are, what music we make or what it sounds like, or what we do. The change is really just the growth.

Nuevo wears PY1 in White/Titanium

As artists, how are you able to stay authentic in a genre full of trends that come and go?

Nuevo: I’ve been doing this for a while. I’ve seen trends shift and change really fast. But when it comes to music, I feel like what we make would last forever. It’s some classic stuff. It’s not just for today or what’s hot right now. The way we all personally design our music, we definitely want it to last for the long-term. We look at the long game.

DZ SVG: I don’t really fuck with trends. If I like something, I just stick to that. And if it just so happens ’yun ’yung patokuso o mainit, then I guess it’s okay. Working with Neil [Yung Bawal] and Pope [Fiction], when we really feel the moment, you never know. There was no solid formula. If ever, we’re just trying to make our own ways.

MNL $: I’ve learned how to be more truthful and more honest along the way as an artist. What I’ve learned is how to strip down the walls and give people more of a truth inside of me, because at the end of the day, all of this stuff is actually not that fulfilling. What’s fulfilling to me is knowing that I’m doing it for the right reason, knowing that I’m inspired for the right reason.

To stay authentic is to learn about yourself as you progress along the way. What message you’re trying to portray, what you want to say, and how you want to carry yourself. 

MNL$ wears Atop in Pewter/Blue Nights

Do you think it’s possible to stay authentic and keep it real once you hit the mainstream?

Nuevo: Yeah, as long as you’re real to yourself. And it’s not just about you as an artist, it’s also about how you affect other people that really follow you. You’re part of their lives already. It’s just like how I listen to foreign hip-hop artists. It’s part of my everyday life, too. I sort of want to conduct myself like a Jay-Z when it comes to business, or I want to get my Kanye West on when it comes to fashion. 

DZ SVG: I think it’s funny how people will support a certain artist when they’re not known, but then all of a sudden, once they get a little notoriety or popularity, parang, “Ay, ayoko ’yan. Sell-out.” But the thing is, can you blame them if their music is good? So what if more people know them? Malamang hindi mo sila kilala kasi nag-sa-start pa lang, eh. I find it funny that people think they’ll lose their authenticity or their identity. As long as fame doesn’t blind the artist, then that’s good.

MNL$: Once you hit the mainstream, it depends on what kind of influences you’re getting from the outside. The reason why [artists think of stopping] is that there’s too much attention now on them. We’re getting praised, but we’re also getting hated. And that hate is really hard for even the strongest of individuals to brush off. When you’re in the limelight, you have to have thick skin. The way we carry ourselves is not lovey-dovey. It’s attack mode all the time. 

DZ SVG wears Atop in Pewter/Black

What do you think about the state of the underground scene right now? And in what way has Bawal Clan made its imprint on it?

Nuevo: The scene is healthy right now. We’re getting mainstream, even those in different dialects. Being part of Bawal Clan and seeing our effect in the current music market—it’s what we’ve been dreaming about. It’s what every artist would dream about, to get recognized for your music and talent. And for people to appreciate it. It feels good to be part of that whole movement and that whole wave. 

DZ SVG: It’s half and half na parang half the people hate us, and half the people like us. But we were able to turn a negative into a positive. Now that they’ve already absorbed the music that we put out, we feel the love, we feel the energy that they give off when you perform. I don’t want to sound mayabang, but I feel that we’ve done something. And even with helping other artists out. When I was the manager of Bawal Clan, I would book other people in their gigs. As Bawal Clan, parang [we’re] unsung heroes of the underground. 

When you’re in the limelight, you have to have thick skin.

MNL$, DZ SVG and Nuevo wear Shooter Low in White/Black

How would you describe your style, fashion-wise?

Nuevo: I stick to comfort. I’m a very active guy. I’m doing one project on this hour, and then the next, somebody asks if I want to play basketball, I gotta be ready to do it. 

DZ SVG: Either loud, or hella discreet. One day, I’m just gonna dress up in all black, hella low key, or I’m just gonna wear loud colors. Like bright jackets, bright-colored shoes, printed T-shirts.

MNL$: I come from West Coast style, so l can be very wild with colors, and just throw shit on. It might not match, but I’m gonna make it match, because it’s really about the person wearing it. I can wear blue sneakers, but my top is pink. 

Before music, I wanted to be a professional athlete. A big part of my style is wearing athletic socks, shoes, shorts and hooded sweatshirts. Like I’m walking into a basketball arena. I wear a lot of plain white T-shirts with plain bottoms, and a gold chain. It’s funny because I spend money to look as plain as possible.

Nuevo wears PY1 in Vapor Blue/Black

Since Bawal Clan is made up of so many distinct individuals, how are you able to express and distinguish yourself in regards to style, both fashion and music?

Nuevo: How I try to set myself apart musically is through the wordplay of English and Tagalog. Some artists specialize in English, or some artists can fully express themselves in Tagalog. At this point in my life and career, I try to make a good blend of both. My blueprint is as long as they can distinguish you from a distance, then you’ve set your own personal style.

DZ SVG: Basta, I’m the crazy one. [laughs] These guys are cool and Gs and all that, but I’ll take it to the next level, parang, oh, I don’t think we should go there, but wala na, we’re there na, eh! 

[Fashion is] the visual representation of the verbal and musical side of me. It’s part of the package, it’s part of expressing who you are as a person.

MNL$ wears Shooter Low in Black/Buckskin

Does the PONY attitude and your personal style reflect in your music?

Nuevo: Definitely. It’s the visual representation of the verbal and musical side of me. It’s part of the package, it’s part of expressing who you are as a person. 

DZ SVG: I guess so, ’cause I could be really weird. Some people would say [my music] is an acquired taste. There’s a lot of songs that I made that are very angry. Medyo grimy din minsan ’yung fashion ko

MNL$: It’s like look good, feel good. If you wear something that you like, whether you’re going to a party or a meeting, or even to the gym, you perform better. By looking good, it allows you to be more fluid when it comes to your creation. My fashion does connect with the wildness. There are songs where you don’t know it’s me where my delivery is different, doing an Outkast, Andre 3000 vibe. And then you’ll get the traditional chill Chris from the West Coast, with the deep melodic smooth flow.

DZ SVG wears Shooter Low in White/Black; MNL$ wears Atop in Pewter/Blue Nights and Nuevo wears PY1 in White/Titanium

To stay authentic is to learn about yourself as you progress along the way. What message you’re trying to portray, what you want to say, and how you want to carry yourself.

What’s your advice to hip-hop artists trying to make it big in the scene?

Nuevo: Keep practicing and keep perfecting your craft and your style. Surround yourself with good people who are like-minded. What sets apart talent is the hustle. And if you’re with good people, it makes it easier to really hustle and pedal your craft.

DZ SVG: Just keep doing you. I know that it’s cheesy and cliché, pero, you’ll find yourself eventually. You’ll find your style, you don’t really need to copy anybody to be known. As long as you respect your craft, your craft will respect you. Same thing goes for the people.

MNL$: This is such a tito answer, but focus on the Plan B. This industry is very cutthroat, it’s very inconsistent, and even if you’re the most talented and you have the most likes and views, that doesn’t translate into money sometimes. I encourage everybody to finish school.

Once you reach the point where you’re getting your name out there, just stay consistent. That’s the hardest part, because you can make the best song, the best album art, the best marketing plan, and the best music video, but after that’s out, people get bored of it in about a month.

If you have a structured work ethic and a structured release plan, then I think good things are going to happen. For all the young artists, know that you are good enough, then show [that to] the world through hard work, focus, and execution.

Together with PONY, Nuevo, DZ SVG and MNL$ of Bawal Clan are all about the underdog rising. Show them what you’re made of, and gear up with the right kicks hereYou can also check PONY out on Instagram at @pony_ph.

Photography courtesy of PONY, Header art by Cathy Dizon

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