Barely a year ago, Assembly Generals rallied the crowd in Cubao X, the first witnesses to perhaps one of the most exciting, most charged acts of 2014 to look forward to: a four-piece electronic hiphop group that is no less punk than any top-billed rock band today. Exciting as it may be, seeing Raymund Marasigan on drums (for Cambio, Basement Lung, and Eraserheads), the man whose wide-ranging credentials almost always dismantles doubts on the quality of music an audience is about to expect, barely scratches the surface underneath. Adding more dimensions to the wholeness of the sound are Mon Punzalan, who’s responsible for manning the MPC, and Flying Ipis vocalist Deng Garcia on Ableton (APC40, to be exact) and vocals. As the only one who wrote lyrics for at least 10 songs after Marasigan and Punzalan sent their beats to a number of rappers, Paolo Toledo – who goes by the moniker “Switch” of local hiphop collective, Miscellaneous – was levied into the group.
The concept of Assembly Generals, according to Switch, is basically what their name suggests. The idea naturally reflected into their music, the camouflage jackets, the cap Switch himself sports during performances, the album design, and most symbolically – into their logo: a chevron insignia shaped into the group’s initials.
Assembly Generals is a self-aware album, an identity that is fully conscious and confident with itself and what it wants to put out there. Although the word ‘fresh’ in this context is relative, the group’s attempt to break out from what most of the local public’s archaic, automatic assumption of hiphop there is – battle rap; freestyle rapping lumped with trunk-heavy beats; thuggish, street-style gangsta rap (our local version would be the jeepney rap) – is daunting. Here, they succeeded into shelving that belief. Certainly, they are not the first one to do it. Most of the hiphop acts in the country belong to a crew, a collective, where putting out releases are done collaboratively in forms of mixtapes, which serve as a form of calling card. Interestingly though, Assembly Generals posits a different idea, which puts emphasis on an individual’s skill as much as it is with the overall result.
More than half of the eight-track record is comprised of high-octane cuts, combining crunk and suave technical merits (“General Assembly,” “Kontrabida”) and the direct, yet also stylish, lyrical rap sensibilities tackling social, touching into political, (“Kontrabida,” “Everyday Concept”) and personal (“Sakalawakan,” “In The Glass”) issues. Deng Garcia’s vocal assistance, whether to punctuate, emphasize, or swag things up, proves invaluable and adds dimension and variation to each song. Mon Punzalan and Raymund Marasigan balance each other, making sure the beats don’t end up robotic and the live drums not overpowering. Meanwhile, the veracity and straightforwardness of Switch’s verses do not come off as stiff and parochial, or even gaudy. In a genre where braggadocio only ultimately suggests Freudian slips, Assembly Generals has none. If there are, they are far too subtle to warrant attention. There’s crunchy wordplay, too, (i.e. UFO = “Unidentified Filipino Object,” “Leave the past in glass / I can’t keep swallowing the past.”) and the two Tagalog songs are poetic at best. Lyrically, the album proves that hiphop does not need to shout expletives or resort to misogyny to get its message across – loud and clear.
The group also enlisted the help of DRIP’s Beng Calma for “Neverland (All Gone)” and Pinoy Stories’ Camoi Miraflor for “Gravity Bound.” The former is spliced with scratches – courtesy of DJ Supreme Fist – and a thespian verse from Calma. The track is consummated with Switch’s assuaging lyrics, making it the most intimate cut from the record. “Gravity Bound,” on the other hand, is a crafty slowburner that opens with a Rey Valera sample colliding into a tantric trap looped throughout the song. The culmination of Assembly Generals is its closing track, “Fire In The Hole” – featuring Skarm, ILL-J, Dash, Tracer One, Godneeks, and Johnny Krush – a number reminiscent of ‘90s coastal rap, a mix of East and West coast swag that kids who grew up listening to LL Cool J, N.W.A, Wu-Tang Clan, Busta Rhymes, and 2Pac, among others, would certainly appreciate – a monumental nod to an era that brought the genre from the streets to mainstream consciousness.
Assembly Generals’ debut is a culmination of work that does not antagonize or parry with non-believers, or one where they tout themselves as messiahs of the local hiphop scene. That title is not one for them to brand for themselves. Not that there is no need for it, as their commendable first album already put them on top of the ranks.