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More than just curses and dirty jokes: life as a Filipino battle rapper

IF you were to see 23-year-old National Teachers College student Nathaniel Villaviray during the day, you’d see nothing extraordinary. To any unsuspecting passerby, he is Kuya Nat, funny and carefree. He’s the chairperson of the Lakas ng Talayan organization in his barangay and even a member of the parish ministry at the Basilica de San Pedro Bautista church. 

No matter how heavy things may get, you can always count on him to bring a little mischief and laughter to the table.

But at night, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mister Hyde, a new persona of his emerges: the ever-serious Hespero, an aggressive battle rapper with a sharp tongue and even sharper wit. 

He shares his talent with the world as a spoken word artist of the Midnight Collective and participates in battle raps for the Motus Battle League. 

Looking up to the likes of Loonie, Apekz, and Liphkram – who he’s even managed to go up against in the past – Villaviray has had a love for the art of battle rap ever since he was a child. Now, he’s being seen as one of the up-and-comers in the industry.

But who is Hespero? And what does it mean to be a battle rapper like him in the modern day?

Hespero’s roots

While others may have been interested in watching cartoons or playing games during the fifth grade, Villaviray was starting to hone his craft. He first discovered Fliptop through YouTube, when he watched a battle between Dello and Target. This was in 2010, when Fliptop was just starting to set down roots in Philippine culture. 

During this time, Villaviray’s family were informal settlers living in a cramped home. He was often asked to take part in random mock-Fliptop battles that would take place on random streets and alleyways. He would copy whatever he’d see on YouTube practically bar for bar.

He didn’t take it seriously at that time, he said. 

“Ir-rhyme mo lang yung dati eh,” he said.

The rhymes he would copy were not exactly kid-friendly, he said. 

“Yung ginagaya ko pa noon, bastos talaga… parang ‘Yung mga linya mo gaya-gaya, tignan mo yung ano ng mama mo kasya buwaya,’ ganung mga linyahan lang talaga dati, tapos nag-evolve lang siya nang nag-evolve,” he said. 

He continued to hone his craft as he grew Up, taking part in battles in school whenever he had the opportunity. 

But it was during the pandemic that he entered the battle rap scene. Before then, he’d only ever been a fan, watching from afar. 

Villaviray started on the live-streaming app Kumu, where there would be leagues featuring battle rappers like MC Duane, MC Bounce, Rhyxodus, Death Threat, and Lady Masta. The group would often organize rap battles, and it was there that Villaviray – “Hespero” as he’s called – started to show just what he could do. 

He’s come a long way since he first started, battling the likes of Class G, BLZR, Bisente, as well as the aforementioned Lhipkram. Many have called him underrated, with YouTube comments under his battles praising him for his lyricism. 

He recounts his battle with Lhipkram, where even his opponent praised him afterward, saying he’d be waiting for Villaviray to be a part of Fliptop, too. 

“Sana daw maging magkalaban kami ulit, tapos nung nilabas yung video, ang dami ngang nagsasabi na naging bias daw yung hurado – pero para sa akin naman, hindi siya naging bias,” Villaviray said, remembering his loss. 

Based on the support of both his fans and even his opponents, it’s no stretch to say that a spot for Villaviray in the Fliptop Battle League may just open up soon enough.

Preparing for battle

While he’s already rapping online and battling the greats, Villaviray said that he’s still adjusting to the whole thing. Starting from Kumu to taking center stage, it’s easy to understand why even now, he still gets nervous before each battle. He said what he feels now is still anxiety, just a different kind – one filled with excitement.

“Sabi ko, parang ito na yung time para patunayan ko na hindi lang ako pang-online, kasi ganun yung tingin nila kapag buma-battle sa online. Iba yung live. At yung nagawa ko nga sa online, nagawa ko sa live, kaya ayun. Boom. Warak sila,” he said. 

To prepare for his battles, Villaviray takes three days to memorize his pieces. On the day of, he makes sure to eat only what is necessary aside from his lunch; no dinner, no snacks, no nothing. This is because whenever he eats, he tends to lose focus during the match itself.

Those who are close to Villaviray also know not to touch him or talk to him before the start of a match. “Moody” is what they call him. Before D-Day, he wants only to concentrate on the task at hand. 

He admitted that there are many problems he has to deal with in the battle rap scene. There’s a lack of funds for the art, such as the money participants spend on food and transportation.

There’s also the well-known fact that in battle rap, practically everything is fair game. Participants are sure to hear insults about every aspect of their lives, whether it be their friends, family, or even their biggest insecurities about themselves. And no matter what they hear, there’s never a time wherein they can show weakness. 

Those who want to win have no choice but to fight back.

A misunderstood craft

One struggle that Villaviray continues to face as an up-and-coming battle rapper is the negative stigma that continues to be attached to it, which is that it’s nothing more than just low blows against whoever your opponent is. In reality, battle rapping is much more complicated than that.

“Yung tingin namin sa battle rap punong-puno ng sining, pero ‘yung tingin ng iba don bastusan, entertainment,” he said.

“Hanggang ngayon, pag naririnig nila yung Fliptop, ‘Ay mga murahan yan, mga bastusan yan, bakit ka sumasali diyan?’” he noted. 

What they don’t know is that Villaviray, like many other battle rappers, takes months to prepare for his battles – to figure out the wordplay, the figures of speech to be used, the similes that’ll hit the hardest. 

“Sinusugal namin yung pangarap namin dito, naglalaan kami ng oras,” he said. 

People also don’t realize that with each fight, battle rappers have to work to live up to a certain standard that’s been set in the community. In the past, as long as the ends of the words rhymed, that was enough. That doesn’t hold up anymore now.

In other countries, Villaviray said battle rap is much more technical; they focus on gun bars more than anything, and he believes this is because it reflects what their society is like. In the Philippines, there’s more freedom to adapt to different styles.

What he has noticed about battle rap in this country – or at least the kind of battle rap that’s become popular to the masses – is that it focuses on taunting and bringing up issues, whether it be within the rap scene or outside of it. Villaviray feels that this is part of the culture of gossip being second nature to Filipinos.

“Kaya siguro mas pumatok siya dito sa Pilipinas, kasi yung culture natin, masyado tayong tsismoso, tsismosa, tapos ma-issue.”

He also disabused people of the notion that insults delivered within a fight become an issue even when it’s all over. Villaviray says that outside of their battles, battle rappers are friends that bond, collaborate, and share their knowledge with one another.

Above all, Villaviray continues to look at battle rapping as a form of art, one that’s helped to make his life all the more exciting. It’s through Hespero – through this nightlife – that he manages to explore a completely different side of himself, trekking a completely different world with his words in his mind and his black bandana in hand.



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