The story of hip-hop in the Philippines is a rich and winding one that involves imitation and homage in the early days, an unfiltered expression of Filipino society and life in the streets through rhymes and beats, and a struggle for legitimacy that continues to this day, among other aspects.

As a genre that purely originated from African Americans in New York City over 50 years ago, it couldn’t be helped that the earliest homegrown rap releases were conspicuously referential, with some being outright parodies of existing songs. But throughout the decades, Filipino hip-hop has evolved, thanks to certain artists who have brought in a new sound, displayed impeccable skills, gave an exceptional poignancy to their lyrics, or all of the above.

With the current breed of rising hip-hop stars in the country, the state of the genre has never been better, with many poised to cross over to a global audience due to their undeniable talent and accessibility of the music online. However, many Filipino rap pioneers and visionaries have come before them who have redefined the genre or paved the way for a new wave of artists to follow in their path. What follows is a sampling of pivotal homegrown rap and hip-hop tracks — some are game-changing and groundbreaking, while others are simply memorable and unavoidable during their day.

It’s by no means a definitive list of the best local releases ever, but it shows an evolving picture of Filipino hip-hop throughout the decades — a story that continues to be told today.

George “Dyords” Javier – “Na Onseng Delight”

Released in 1980, “Na Onseng Delight” is credited as being the very first rap song to come out of Asia. A parody of The Sugarhill Gang classic “Rapper’s Delight,” it hasn’t really stood the test of time and the rhymes are a bit clunky, but it’s important enough to be mentioned here.

Andrew E. – “Humanap Ka Ng Panget!”

Love him or hate him, Andrew E. brought hip-hop to the masses with his comedic, if not occasionally obscene approach to rap. “Humanap Ka Ng Panget!” was a massive hit in 1990, but its stature plummeted somewhat when listeners discovered that it was an almost direct translation of Cash Money & Marvelous’ 1988 single “Find An Ugly Woman.”

Further listening: Salbakuta – “Stupid Love

Francis M – “Man From Manila”

After becoming the country’s first high profile rapper thanks to his Loveli-Ness segments on primetime TV (in which he rhymed along to drum beats provided by a young Willie Revillame) and his debut album Yo!, Francis M took the nationalism of “Mga Kababayan” (My Countrymen) to another level with his second album, 1992’s Rap Is FrancisM. Considered a local hip-hop classic, it tackled socially conscious themes like corruption and drug addiction, and “Man From Manila” is the record’s call to arms.

MastaPlann – “Bring Dat Booty”

They weren’t the first Filipino rappers, but MastaPlann could be considered as the first true Pinoy hip-hoppers, as these former Bay Area immigrants brought not only the West Coast sound, but also hip-hop’s fashion and culture (i.e. DJ-ing, breakdancing, and graffiti) to our shores. Over three decades later, “Bring Dat Booty” is still an absolute banger, showcasing the stellar MC skills of Butch “Tracer One” Velez and Johnny Luna.

Further listening: Legit Misfitz – “Jabongga

Death Threat – “Gusto Kong Bumaet”

Death Threat are widely regarded to be the first Filipino gangsta rap group, with grim and sometimes violent lyrics that reflected life in the unforgiving streets of Manila. “Gusto Kong Bumaet” (I Want To Be Good) was the country’s introduction to the duo of OG Beware and Genezide, and their lineup had evolved to include a young Gloc-9 and others over the years.

Dice & K9 Mobbstarr – “Itsumo”

“Itsumo” might have made up all of Dice & K9 (and singer Hi-C)’s fifteen minutes of fame, as the group never had a hit of its magnitude after it (and K9’s subsequent departure necessitated the proper name change to Mobbstarr), but the song was as catchy as the common cold, and proved that there were talented hip-hoppers from Cebu and other parts of the country who could make it big.

Further listening: Thavawenyoz – “Hubag

Sun Valley Crew – “The Real (Hip-Hop Music)”

Parañaque poets Sun Valley Crew had more popular hits in the 1990s, but their third album It’s All Natural displayed a certain maturity (and musicianship, as the rappers themselves produced the music and played their own instruments) that garnered respect from the hipster crowd. It also helped that they performed live with a superband that included Raymund Marasigan, Mong Alcaraz, and other rock notables, making them a successful crossover act.

Gloc-9 ft. Ebe Dancel – “Sirena”

It’s hard to single out an essential Gloc-9 track from his consistent, two-decades-long discography, but “Sirena,” a collaboration with Ebe Dancel from his 2012 album MKNM, has become more relevant in recent years due to its anti-homophobia message. Once touted as the country’s fastest rapper, Gloc-9 continues to be in a class of his own as a storyteller of the highest order, writing poignant rhymes from the point-of-view of — and for — the everyman.

Loonie ft. Quest – “Tao Lang”

FlipTop’s contribution to Filipino hip-hop cannot be overstated, especially during the 2010s which saw the emergence of sharp-tongued battle rappers like Abra, Shehyee, and BLKD, who’ve achieved critical and commercial success. Loonie is definitely one of the greats, and “Tao Lang,” his 2013 collaboration with R&B singer Quest, is deserving of the millions of streams it has gotten so far.

Further listening: BLKD and UMPH’s Gatilyo album, and KOLATERAL by BLKD, Calix, Kartell’em, and more

Shanti Dope – “Nadarang”

After years of writing rhymes and guesting on other rappers’ tracks, the then-16-year-old Shanti Dope came into his own with his 2017 debut EP Materyal and its smash hit single “Nadarang,” which could be heard almost everywhere during that period, placing him (along with the likes of Skusta Clee and Flow G) at the forefront of a pre-pandemic, local hip-hop resurgence. Influenced by his mentor Gloc-9 and FlipTop alumni Abra and Loonie, he continues to inspire today’s younger emcees, serving as a bridge between revered icons and the new generation.