By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Long before they met and formed their hip hop group, J-Pros, Filipino American rap artists Reggie Sapida and Ran Gamboa had been spitting out verses.
“I’ve been writing rhymes since I was 12, detailing the social drama that went on in the back of the bus in junior high,” said Gamboa.
As a teen who appreciated writing stories and poetry, Gamboa saw rapping as an outlet for his interests. “I love telling stories in rhyme … so learning to write rhythmically to a beat happened naturally.”
Sapida also picked up rapping as a teenager. “Back then, I couldn’t break dance, and I didn’t have the voice to sing, so I started rapping,” said Sapida. “I loved how I could express my mind when I wrote a rap verse.”
A producer proposes J-Pros
Their passion for hip hop music carried over into adulthood. In 2004, Gamboa and Sapida were each pursuing solo projects at J-Studios, a recording studio based in Shoreline. It was the owner of J-Studios, producer Joel Mallari, who first proposed the idea of J-Pros.
“I never thought about putting them together until one studio session when [Sapida] and I had a conversation about Asian [American] rappers and how there’s rarely any other Filipino [Americans] in the rap game,” said Mallari.
Mallari played Gamboa’s tracks for Sapida who was impressed with what he heard.
The three met up for drinks later that night, and Gamboa and Sapida hit it off.
“They ended up freestyle rapping in the middle of the bar,” said Mallari. “It was from that point [that I saw] potential for a group.”
Sapida and Gamboa bonded over their love for boom-bap, backpack-style hip hop. For material, they draw from relationship and family issues as well as the random and mundane. “I think I speak for [Sapida] when I say that we rap what we know,” said Gamboa.
They came up with the name J-Pros as homage to where their group was born and how they envisioned their future. The “J” in their name stems from J-Studios, where they record and mix tracks, while the “Pro” stands for words they associate with their group, such as prolific, production, and professional.
“We knew people would ask this question, so the song ‘Self-Titled’ on our first album addresses this,” said Gamboa, speaking about the origin of J-Pros.
That same track also provided the name for their first album, which came out in 2006. But promotion of the album was short-lived because Gamboa moved to Kansas City, Kan., to pursue a degree in radiology technology.
The hurdles of long distance and long hours
Without their ability to perform together, J-Pros was put on hold. But the two rappers maintained contact for the next four years. They wrote songs through e-mails and phone calls and managed to record tracks during visits Gamboa made to Seattle during college breaks.
By 2010, the duo had produced enough tracks for a second album and digitally released “Pacific Central.”
The album title reflects how their songs were created in two different time zones. Gamboa also finished school and recently moved back to the Northwest. J-Pros was resurrected.
However, the group still struggled with promoting their music to the public. “We found that making music is [one of the few] fun parts of the music industry,” said Sapida, in regard to the group’s marketing woes.
For their day jobs, Sapida is a respiratory therapist at Everett Providence Hospital, and Gamboa is pursuing a career in the MRI technology industry. Both fields require long hours at the hospital. These professional demands prevent J-Pros from performing consistently, which Sapida believes is key to marketing their music.
“We’ve sent our music to local radio stations and hope they at least open our music portfolio,” said Sapida.
“It’s tough knowing that we have music to share but having few resources to let people know outside of our circle of friends.”
For the love of music
After spending years communicating over the web, J-Pros are firm believers in the Internet’s outreach power; it has allowed their music to reach new demographic audiences outside of their core audience.
“I consider our web presence a success, and we can only build from there,” said Gamboa.
Although Sapida and Gamboa will find new avenues to promote their music, they acknowledge that J-Pros isn’t their number one priority. “We’ve had discussions about the profitability of J-Pros as a product,” said Gamboa. “But we’ve both agreed that it comes a distant second to just making music.”
Sapida also notes that rapping is a hobby; much of their time is focused on their own families and careers.
“We don’t depend on music to live so [that’s why] we make [our music] free to download from our website,” said Sapida.
For future plans, J-Pros hopes to perform around Seattle as their schedule permits, and they are in talks to collaborate with other local hip hop artists. But they’re most eager to return to the basics of their operation, which is making music.
“I’m already looking forward to writing new songs,” said Gamboa. ♦