DJ Love and the sheer bliss of budots

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Budots pioneer DJ Love, whose real name is Sherwin Tuna, talks to CNN Philippines Life about playing a Boiler Room showcase and drawing influence from his hometown of Davao. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

After DJ Love wrapped up his song at the Boiler Room’s Broadcast Lab, he raised his arms up to the sky, almost in tears. He looked around to the people around him reciprocating with deafening cheers. Even if he’d be back on a flight home to Davao in a matter of hours, for now, he stands triumphant.

The show, held on April 29, 2023 at a boiler along the Marikina Riverbanks, was set to be broadcast online to Boiler Room’s international audiences all over the world. Its lineup has featured musicians like Thom Yorke, Run the Jewels, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, to name a few. This particular show’s organizers, the volunteer-run platform Manila Community Radio, threw quite a curveball by celebrating budots and its mutations after winning Boiler Room’s sixth Broadcast Lab grant. The grant aims to “provide funding & bring new audiences to underrepresented scenes, communities and artists.”

When DJ Love started his performance, there were only a handful of people around the room dancing the distinct freestyle dance characterized by a deceptively quadricep-straining gyration of the hips, paired knees swinging like a sideways avian beak. By the time he ran his last song, budots was everywhere, and people on the dancefloor were teaching each other how it’s done.

DJ Love during his set at Manila Community Radio's Boiler Room Broadcast Lab showcase. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

Manila Community Radio celebrated budots and its mutations at its Boiler Room Broadcast Lab showcase last April 29, 2023 at the Riverbanks complex in Marikina. In photo: Showtime Official Club starts his set. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

Not that budots needs saving. You don’t need to travel far to hear it. Even the hardware store near the venue was blasting budots on its range of speakers for sale. Just ride a jeep or do your Sunday morning market run, and you’ll know it when you hear it: a relentlessly pummelling four-on-the-floor rhythm, piercing leads colloquially called “tiw ti-ti-tiw,” and eclectic samples of everyday sounds.

A few days after his performance, DJ Love, whose real name is Sherwin Tuna, picks up my video call. He’s back at home, and his surroundings are surprisingly familiar thanks to his livestreamed performances when the pandemic lockdowns were at their strictest. Even on video, his stage presence is undeniable.

“Sakit ng leeg ko. Nagheadbang ba ako? [My neck hurts. Was I headbanging?]," he says. Despite the bodily aches, he was already back at work preparing for a shoot with Camusgirls, his dance group whose budots dance videos grace the YouTube algorithms of millions. He was also in the midst of replying to the hundreds of comments on his social media posts, a little irked that he had to stop after being flagged by Facebook for too much activity. But he wanted to show his appreciation to listeners who were rooting for him.

His Facebook post on the day of the Boiler Room read: “Guys para po ito sa inyu.. Lahat ng producers specially [sic] sa mga friends ko. BUKAS INTERNATIONAL NA ANG BUDOTS / I PROMISE YOU ALL [This is for you guys, all of the producers, especially my friends. Tomorrow, budots will be international. I promise you all].”

The vocal clips of “kiat jud day” and “DJ Love on the mix!,” and other tracks released by DJ Love have been copied, remixed, and re-appropriated by different personalities on the internet, but making works of great cultural impact doesn’t necessarily translate into the artist themselves being elevated into stardom overnight. Tuna has been making tracks for over a decade and a half, sharing them online since the era of Friendster and early DSL internet. He runs a computer shop himself, where he made tracks that are heard by millions.

“Sa totoo lang, hindi ako magaling na producer,” says Tuna. “Nakauna lang ako.”

DJ Love is often called the inventor or pioneer of budots. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

While DJ Love is often called the inventor or pioneer of budots, radically new forms of music don’t usually originate from an individual alone. He draws from a deep musical well, citing techno, Indonesian dangdut, Italo disco, bomb, and deep house, among other genres.

Historically, these musical movements rise from a primordial soup of different cultural and social forces. DJ Love is surrounded by communities of neighbors, fellow producers, and his online and offline audiences. However, his strongest influence is inseparable from the urban slums of Davao.

“Pang squatter ang tugtog. Pang squatter ang galaw, pang-batang lamog [The music is for squatters. The movement is for squatters. Batang lamog],” he says as a matter of fact. “Totoo iyon. Doon naimbento ng budots, sobrang simple lang. Kung ano ang naririnig — ’hey hey putang ina mo!’— pwede na iyon eh. Ang nature ng budots na tugtog, doon mo lahat maririnig: tuko, alarm ng kotse, ano pa? Ang nag-aaway, basagan ng bote, huni ng ibon, ng aso — ’awww ow ow ow!’ — nagtitinda ng taho. [It’s true. That’s where it was invented, it’s simple. Whatever you hear — ’hey hey, you son of a bitch!’ — that could work. That’s the nature of budots. You can hear everything: the call of a tokay gecko, a car alarm. What else? People fighting, bottles breaking, the chirp of birds, a dog going ‘awww ow ow ow!,’ someone selling taho.]”

"Ang nature ng budots na tugtog, doon mo lahat maririnig: tuko, alarm ng kotse, ano pa? Ang nag-aaway, basagan ng bote, huni ng ibon, ng aso — ’awww ow ow ow!’ — nagtitinda ng taho," says Sherwin Tuna. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

“Siyempre, pag gumagawa ka na ng tugtog, pag-’TIW!’, parang pwede iyon ha! Ang tenga mo na siguro ang makaka-decide na pwede pala iyon. (...) Kuha ng cellphone, record. [Of course, while you’re working on a track, you go- ‘TIW!’ Maybe your ears could tell what kind of sounds you could use. Then I grab my phone and record.]”

Even the sample for one of his tracks “Tagsingko," referring to street vendors selling assorted goods for five pesos each, was recorded nearby. It’s a matter of being attentive to what might initially seem like cacophony, and singling out sounds that could become something.

Tuna also has an irreverently savage sense of humor when it comes to what he samples, like graduation marches and Bisaya jokes. He reenacts a Davao radio skit which has surfaced in a lot of budots remixes: A patient is at a clinic to consult about whether he’s handsome, and his doctor replies, “Unsa? Ang imong mama pangit! Ang imong papa pangit! Ang imong igsuon puro mga pangit! Unsa ba’y tan-aw nimo? So unsa man kaha? [Your mama’s ugly. Your papa’s ugly. Your siblings, they’re all ugly. What do you think? What could it be?]”

The patient replies: “Himala!” [A miracle!]”

It’s a struggle to translate this joke faithfully into English without losing its edge. If you understand it, great. If you don’t, sori ka na lang. But you can still dance as the word is sampled, disintegrating into a hypnotic, irresistible rhythm: Himala, la, la, la-la-la.

More than the music or dance alone, budots is about sheer attitude.

Tuna muses about how he had to squeeze all of the hits into a 60-minute set. He’s used to playing for hours on end at fiestas and awarding nights for basketball leagues. There are so many tracks that he wanted to include by other musicians.

“Alam ko ang pinagdadaanan nila. Lalo na pag nakababad sa computer. Ang mahal ng kuryente. (...) Minsan nasisiraan na rin ng loob kasi walang tumutulong, walang nag-aadvice. Pero ako, as much as possible na kaya ko ibigay, ibibigay ko sa kanila. At least para dumami ang mga producers. Hindi parang ikaw lang ang magaling. Kaya ang budots, um-expand. [I know what they’re going through. You spend so much time on your computer. Electricity is expensive. (...) Sometimes, they get disheartened if nobody’s helping or giving them advice. But for me, I’ll give whatever I can give, so that there can be more producers. It’s not like I’m the only one deserving or recognition.]” Plenty of budots producers reach out to him online, and he helps them reach new ears.

“Masaya ako ‘di ba? Nakatulong ako. [It makes me happy, right? I could help.] Community.” Music by other known budots producers like DJ Ericnem have also been featured in the dance videos that he’s created over the years for groups like Camusboyz and Camusgirls. Tuna is staggeringly prolific with his videos, for which he’s also the cameraman, video editor, producer, and choreographer. I asked why the Camusboyz couldn’t come to his performance, and he wistfully says they’ve gone on to raise families, make a living, or move to Manila.

“Masaya ako ‘di ba? Nakatulong ako. Community,” says Sherwin Tuna. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

Still, to the Camusgirls, the now inactive Camusboyz, and other youth in his community, he’s become an older brother of sorts. Even the dancers’ families are content knowing that their kids stay out of trouble with DJ Love. Dance was Tuna’s answer to finding a better, safer pasttime for the young folks in the area. To be part of the group, he had two strict rules: you can’t be part of a gang, and you can’t do illegal substances. (That’s also behind his series “Yes to Dance, No to Drugs”.) He shares a piece of wisdom: “Wag ka na sumabay sa mga tropa mong ulol. Dito ka na lang sa amin kasi ang masasabayan mo, pure sayaw. Dance. Iyan lang naman ang gusto mo eh, sumikat. Dito ka na lang sumikat, legal pa. [Forget about the delinquents that you’re with. Join us, it’s pure dance. That’s what you want, right? To make it big? You could get famous with us, and it’s legal.]”

“Ginamit ko ang music ng budots para ‘di na magriot-riot. [I used budots to keep the kids from rioting.]” While budots is often talked about as a viral phenomenon bordering on mass hysteria, to producers like Sherwin, it’s something deeply personal. Beyond producing music himself, he mentors other producers and dancers out of care, and the aspiration of building something bigger than himself.

He says, “Wag kang sumuko. Ako nga, 14 years nag-aantay. It takes time. Pag gusto mo, trabahuin mo. Gusto mo eh. Darating at darating din ang panahon na panahon mo. (...) Dati binabash ako, tinatrash talk. Pero gusto ko [mag-music] eh, wala ako magagawa. Pero ngayon, dumating din ang panahon. [Don’t give up. I’ve been waiting for 14 years. It takes time. If you want [to make music], you’ll work for it. Because you want it. Your time will come. I used to get a lot of trashtalk and bashing. But I wanted (to make music), what could I do? I’ve made it.]” The Boiler Room stage was icing on the cake.

Tuna goes to tell me many more stories of the different budots scenes he’s seen around Mindanao. (Cotabato is remarkable to him.) He walks me through a few of his works-in-progress on FL Studio, a program for making music, and I feel like I’m peeking into trade secrets. He is incredibly generous about what he knows about music, whether it’s in a club or on the streets. Then again, if it were just about the fame, his story would be different. Budots isn’t just about a few select individuals in niche places. It’s alive and kicking because of how it’s shared by people from Luzon to Mindanao who blast budots loud and proud, whether or not they know DJ Love’s name.