Features & Columns
Fingerz on the Pulse
IF YOU want to know where the San Jose sound went, it went to Vegas." Nick Ngo is talking about the Bangerz, the San Jose crew of DJ/producers who came up out of the South Bay's hip-hop underground a dozen years ago. It's true. The Bangerz's music is everywhere in Las Vegas—it's even played at the airport and in hotel elevators.
Most importantly, the Bangerz are the soundtrack for the first-ever marquee hip-hop show on the Strip, MUS.I.C. (pronounced "Muse I See"). The show at the Monte Carlo Hotel features the dance crew Jabbawockeez, who perform routines to the Bangerz's songs.
Ngo, one of the six members of the Bangerz—along with DJs Cutso (Paolo Bello), Goldenchyld (Dominic Cueto), G-Wrex (Germel Boado), Squareweezy (Aaron Aquino) and Ryan Buendia (Replay)—relocated from San Jose to Vegas to oversee the use of the Bangerz's music in the Jabbawockeez's show, which first opened at the MGM Grand last May, got renewed and then moved in the fall to the Monte Carlo, where it's been a hit, as well.
"Who would have thought they'd let a bunch of kids from San Jose score a Las Vegas show?" says Ngo with a measure of pride. "Who would have thought a dance crew would make our production crew famous?"
To be fair, the Bangerz were equally instrumental in the Jabbawockeez's sudden rise to fame. When the San Diego-based group of masked dancers won the first season of the MTV reality competition America's Best Dance Crew in 2008, they asked the Bangerz to produce their music. But their connection went back even further.
"In 2003, when we came out with our first album, they were just forming the Jabbawockeez," says Paolo Bello. "A good friend of ours was actually a member at one point. He introduced them to the album, and they used some of the songs from that album as a blueprint for their style. Jabbawockeez are really the first of their kind. They're the first dance group to hit pop status. It was really important for them to have an original sound, because they have a really original style."
Suddenly, the Bangerz were doing interviews on national TV and being asked to produce remixes and provide beats for Pepsi commercials and a Simpsons video game—all while they were DJing club nights and continuing to write and perform in San Jose.
People around the world were scouring the Internet searching for their music, which led to a record-label partnership with the Jabbawockeez. The newly released MUS.I.C. album demonstrates the synergy of that partnership—besides being the first Bangerz album in eight years, it also makes up a good chunk of the soundtrack to the Jabbawockeez Vegas show.
The finale of that show is set to "Robot Remains," the song that took the Bangerz to another level of popularity when it was released last year.
For one thing, the Jabbawockeez outdid themselves with their routine when they danced to it in their triumphant return to America's Best Dance Crew on last season's opener. The YouTube clip alone got more than 4 million views after the episode aired.
"They killed it," says Ngo.
With its mash-up of geek chic and hip-hop culture, and its retro robo-talk laid over 21st-century beats, "Robot Remains" perfectly captured the zeitgeist of a dance-music culture obsessed with the past but continually propelled forward by technological leaps and nonstop innovation.
For the Bangerz crew, though, it was also a personal statement. Their logo, designed by now-famous San Jose artist David Choe, is a robot made out of boom boxes.
"Our emblem is the robot," says Germel Boado. "And for a minute, we weren't really doing a lot of stuff. We DJed at clubs, of course, and we did shows here and there. 'Robot Remains' means 'We're still here.' That's why a lot of our heart and soul went into that song."
"We used to be called the Fingerbangerz," explains Bello. "Once we started garnering the respect of Jabbawockeez fans, we noticed they were kind of a young audience. So, you know, we can't send a kid out to tell their parents 'Mom, can you take me to Target to buy a Fingerbangerz album?' How would that sound? With that whole transition came a new phase for the crew. We started concentrating more on production and performing, and we changed our names to the Bangerz."
"The name changed," says Dominic Cueto, "but the robot remains."
As the Jabbawockeez were bringing the Bangerz's music to the masses in Vegas last summer, the crew got a chance to play their newest beats for their hometown at the SubZERO Festival. The stage was set up on First Street in the SoFA district, and an audience of thousands stretched back across the sidewalks and down several blocks.
What was most remarkable about the audience was how they reflected the make-up of the group itself: young and multicultural, with an ear for solid beats and a love of spectacle.
The Bangerz delivered, teaming up with San Jose Taiko for an unforgettable performance that ended their set deep in previously uncharted territory. Taiko drummers in traditional garb pounded their instruments and spun in sync to the hip-hop beats of the Bangerz, who had taken the stage with all the swagger of a championship team on a victory tour.
Though "Robot Remains" hadn't yet been released as a single, the Jabbawockeez had performed it on MTV two months earlier, and the crowd roared when the opening notes wafted out across the SoFA district.
"That was a moment for us," says Boado. "Being up there, it kind of defined all this hard work we did in the past. It was just like, 'It's our time to shine right now.' That's how I felt when I was up there. I was like, 'Yup, this is what's up right here.'"
"We just got pumped, 'cause we knew it was going to be something that nobody's ever seen before," says Aaron Aquino. "We were so pumped just to show it to people. We were like 'Yeah! Let's bring it to them!'"
For a bunch of perfectionists like the Bangerz, a week of practice beforehand with the Taiko group was the equivalent of flying by the seat of their pants. But it was the right time and the right show.
"That night, it was such a landmark thing for us," remembers Bello. "Nobody had really done anything like that before, especially here. Being in San Jose for so long and cultivating our crew here, this was like having everybody that we knew in San Jose witness us taking the next step."
The Bangerz made their mark as a trailblazing crew back in 1999, with their 12-turntable attack at a Zebra Records showcase in San Francisco.
"We wanted to do something outrageous," says Aquino. "At the time, nobody did a set with that many turntables. It'd be like probably three guys and max three turntables, or six turntables. Nobody got six guys and 12 turntables all on one stage, all going at the same time. And that was when we were only three or four months into being a crew, so it was like new personalities. We didn't really know each other that well."
Before that, all six members had gone to San Jose schools together at one point or another, and knew the others' interest in DJing. When they formed the Fingerbangerz in 1998, they were still in their teens, so there was another reason they wanted to make a lasting impression, too: access.
"We thought, 'Let's give 'em a reason to always let us into the club. 'Oh, you guys are the 12 turntable guys!'" says Bello.
They went on to win the 2000 ITF Western Hemisphere Team Championship and the 2001 DMC Regional Championship. But even turntablism seemed too narrow for what they were trying to accomplish onstage.
"We realized that to connect with everybody, you kind of have to step outside of that," says Cueto. "We'll use that as a tool, but at the same time, maybe we'll have Paolo and Weezy come out with some cowbells and step away from the turntables for a minute and do something else. It's only going to be entertaining for a large group of people if you step out of what they think you're going to do. 'Here's a bunch of dudes on turntables.' Well, what happens when I grab a bass guitar and start ripping on it?"
"People might know us as a DJ group, but once we pull out a Speak and Spell, it adds a whole new thing to it. Some of us play instruments, so we'll integrate live instruments in there sometimes. But it's always rooted at the turntables," says Bello.
Though they may have branched out, they've still got the skills, as evidenced by Cueto's recent win at the Red Bull Thre3style Bay Area DJ competition. But for him, Thre3style was less about the battle and more about the chance to do "the Goldenchyld show" at a high-visibility event.
"Winning it was awesome, but it was more the opportunity to have everyone's ear for 15 minutes," he says. "And they were focused. Because at a competition like that, they're there to see you wow them. And that's what I needed. At regular clubs, you don't necessarily get that. You're there to hang out with girls or get phone numbers or whatever, so I don't really have your full attention when I'm playing music."
Maybe winning doesn't have to be everything for the Bangerz, but they came out of the competitive hothouse of underground hip-hop, and it's still part of the way they create.
"We come from a battle-DJ background," says Ngo. "If I come up with a beat, someone else will take it and add their own twist. What they're trying to do is outdo what I've already done."
That goes double for the best beats, on which everyone pushes themselves to make their contributions irresistible to the rest of the group.
"No one wants to be left off of those hot tracks," he says.
But the spirit of collaboration is what really powers the Bangerz's music. "It's a lot of experimenting," says Bello, "and also we like to listen to a lot of music together, share music, watch videos. We also like jamming out with other musicians, other DJs, other producers. It's kind of like tooling around in the lab. We record everything, and then if something cool comes from it, we'll expand on it and make it a song."
Nothing is off limits, as evidenced by the constant mash-up of ideas in the group's songs.
"Usually the conversation starts as 'Hey, you know what'd be tight?' 'You know what'd look crazy? If ... something something,'" says Aquino. "It's kind of a wish list, like 'I want to see somebody do this. Well, I don't see anybody doing it. So let's do it.'"
"There are songs on the album that were two separate songs in the same key," adds Bello. "Put them in the same tempo range, sequence it right, add some stuff to transition and we have a brand new song."
After working together for this long, the Bangerz know how to push each other to do their best work.
"We give each other hype. We're like a football team," says Bello. "We'll amp each other up before we hit the field. That includes the lab. Like, Aaron will show us an idea that he's been working on, and we'll build on that. That's actually how we produce our tracks, too. One person will start it and throw it on the table, and if everyone thinks they can add to it, then that becomes a full song."
For all that raw energy, though, there's a perfectionist side to the Bangerz that is a double-edged sword. Both of their records took them two years to finish, a lifetime in the underground hip-hop world.
"One of the things that sort of works against us, I think, is we have a quality-over-quantity mentality. We feel like we're not going to drop it unless it's our best foot forward," says Cueto.
"We're our own worst critics," says Aquino. "We'll just keep tooling around with tracks."
Fair enough, but for any group with this many ideas to have put out only two albums in more than a dozen years is criminal, and they know it.
"We've been talking about that, and trying to restrategize," admits Cueto. "We've actually thought about trying to come out with things quarterly, maybe not albums. I don't even feel like people are really digesting albums anymore. So maybe putting out an EP every three months. We do need to speed it up."
For that reason, there have been some stretches where the Bangerz have seemed to disappear from the scene for a while.
"We had a lot of down time, but we were still working," says Boado. "We started focusing on our DJing at the clubs. But we were still making beats, too."
"When you don't see us, we're out paying bills. It's like, oh, a commercial for Yahoo? OK. Ford commercial? Yeah, OK, sure," says Bello with a laugh.
But part of it, says Cueto, is strategy. Especially after partnering with the Jabbawockeez, it seemed smart to wait for big events—a New Year's Eve network TV appearance here, the opening of the Vegas show there—to drop singles or albums.
"A lot of what we do is about seizing opportunity," he says. "Opportunities will come, you just have to be ready to make it happen at that moment. If you're not, then you miss it, and there's been times like that, too. 'Hey, super-big-name artist needs music, do you have anything right now?' And it's like, 'No, I don't really have anything for them.' It's about staying ready for those moments, and keeping your catalog strong."
Lions for Life
What's perhaps most impressive about the Bangerz's rise is that they lived to see it. What keeps a crew like this together for that many years, even when one member lives in Vegas and one in L.A.?
"Sometimes it's hard to deal with certain things, but we've kept it together because we've got so much love for each other. We wouldn't be able to imagine life without each other," says Bello.
"We're friends before anything," adds Boado. "I know their families, they know my family."
Now that they've come this far, their professional identities are intertwined, too.
"Over the years, we've built this brand that is much bigger than any one of us," says Cueto. "A Goldenchyld solo album is not going to be as good as a Bangerz album, I can tell you that. It wouldn't be as great without the help of the whole crew. And I think that's true for any one of us. That's not to say it's not going to be dope. If Weezy comes out with a solo project, definitely get it. I'm just saying the Voltron needs to be there for our best stuff."
Their most immediate goal now is to tour, which they've never done together. But they want to do it with the Jabbawockeez, and considering how the Vegas show is going, it could be a while before they're free.
"Ticket sales have been through the roof," says Ngo—who incidentally had never even seen a Vegas show before he started working on MUS.I.C. "We don't have the budget that Circe or Blue Man Group would have, but we're selling tickets like they are."
The ease of sharing music files online makes it possible for any of the Bangerz to go anywhere, and still work together. But with four of their six members building families here, they seem comfortable with their lives in the South Bay.
"A lot of people leave their hometown and go to an L.A. or whatever," says Cueto. "It's hard to be the super artist guy when you're surrounded by dudes that knew you when you were super regular Dominic. But that's not any of our personalities. We're not superstars. We're the dudes from San Jose. That's how we act, and that's who we are."