Kurimaw is a man from the periphery. The eldest child of a lower-middle-class household, Brian “Brav” Bravante grew up the son of a pastor outside Metro Manila. For much of his childhood, songs of praise were all the music he knew; in his teens he swore by punk rock and emo. He’s spent most of his 25 years away from hip-hop, which makes one wonder how he has so casually yet boldly strolled into it.
On January 30, Kurimaw dropped the ‘buzo_Omp’ EP on Soundcloud. Its five tracks – with production credits by Calix and The O’nonymous – notched over 80,000 plays in a matter of weeks. Kurimaw hit Spotify in late February and has since become a rising name among purveyors and patrons of Filipino hip-hop.
Kurimaw’s mischievous singing, rapping and sing-rapping evoke the playfulness of today’s youth, but the songs also deal with relatable themes: growing up and having fun, yet facing uncertainty. ‘buzo-Omp’ sounds like a melodic rendition of scrolling down a social media feed filled with your friends.
Like so many, Kurimaw came across hip-hop while hanging out on the streets with his friends and classmates. In 2012, he was struck by the bravado of Gagong Rapper, Francis M, Death Threat and other local acts heard blaring from the speakers of the PC shops and street corners he frequented.
Brav was in high school, and around the same time he got into graffiti, joining a rebellious bunch known as the Red Star Crew. There were dozens of them, spray painting anti-establishment messages all over the metro, skateboarding in public parks, being chased by the police, tagging walls while marching in demonstrations and sprawling around gigs of idols such as Stick Figgas. Standing at the intersections of graffiti and skate culture, Kurimaw’s interest in hip-hop grew.
In a short few years, he’s managed to synthesise fresh sounds from popular styles and influences he’s absorbed. “A lot actually happens when you’re just hanging out,” he says, admitting that the conservative values of his family drove him to seek out street culture in particular.
It wasn’t until late 2018 that he joined a neighbourhood rap crew called Astig sa Hilaga (Cool in the North). Already calling himself Kurimaw, he got a taste of the stage at local rap competitions. “I was just 22, and I even choked a bunch of times on stage. I would get really nervous,” he recalls – it’s hard to believe he’d be just a couple of years shy of recording what would become the ‘buzo_Omp’ EP.
Soon after, Kurimaw branched out on his own. “Graffiti was like a bridge to the hip-hop scene,” he explains. “I started sticking with folks from Kartell’em, and joined cyphers in gigs in Quezon City like Mow’s and Makati too.” By November 2019, he released a music video for ‘Wasakulap,’ which has since racked up close to a million views on YouTube.
The song’s title exemplifies the rapper’s style of wordplay, a consistent feature of his music. Kurimaw sprinkles his raps with colloquialisms he invented. His linguistic innovations are known as “Gagstinese,” a label inspired by the rapper’s social media handle “Gag Sti” and created by his followers and admirers.
‘Wasakulap’ is a term he coined that, in the context of the song, means getting as high as the clouds. When you say ‘buzo_Omp’ out loud, it gives the impression of something having just sped by – which ties to its meaning of something going really fast. On the hook of its second track, ‘2 Shine,’ Kurimaw sings “Lagyan ng kulay mga bagay / Na skaranay / Kahit mahirap ang buhay / Pilitin mong makisabay.” (“Put some colour on it / The skaranay / Even if life gets hard / Try to hold up.”) When Kurimaw sings “skaranay”, it sounds like an audible shrug. What does it actually mean? “Something really fucked up,” he replies.
The buzzier Kurimaw and his music get, the more Gagstinese spreads from the margins to a wider audience. How the ‘buzo_Omp’ EP came together is another story from the periphery. In March 2020, Kurimaw travelled with Kartell’em for a gig in Tuguegarao province. More than a dozen of them were stranded there when lockdowns were imposed. They stayed in their modest accommodation for the next three months, left to their own devices.
“It was fun and also a mess,” Kurimaw remembers. “There were so many of us, with very different personalities. There would be good times, but sometimes fights would break out. But mostly I’d just laugh at our situation.”
Marooned in Tuguegarao, they hosted online gigs and survived on donations that filtered through. “Every night, there was something going on: writing, rapping, brainstorming,” says Kurimaw with a sigh of relief that the intensity of it all has passed. By the end of their isolation, he had finished writing his EP. A month after returning home, he got to work recording with The O’nonymous.
“People just want to consume things instantly and I wanted to give them that”
No money was spent throughout the speedy recording process, which was a series of favors from friends – a labour of love by mainstays of the Manila hip-hop scene. Kartell’em connected Kurimaw with his producers and fixed up some recording equipment for him. Rapper-producer Mocksmile designed the cover, accentuating the Salvador Dali-esque roguishness of Kurimaw’s moustache. Calix called in GVNDVLICXXX$ to provide a verse for the dizzyingly infectious ‘Anghell’, while members of the PLAYA HATAZ crew, a brotherhood forged amid the Tuguegarao quarantine, rounded out the bars on ‘Di Laging Sunday’ (‘Not Always Sunday’).
The result is a melody-driven collection of tracks that seem strung together by a collection of hooks, rather than the usual structure of verses sandwiching a chorus. While most artists can be fixated on how they and their music are perceived, Kurimaw prefers to take things less seriously. When asked if he is trying to mess with his listeners, have a bit of fun with them musically, Kurimaw laughs hard: “Something like that.” Apart from ‘Di Laging Sunday’, all the other tracks are deliberately brief, barely exceeding the two-minute mark. “People just want to consume things instantly and I wanted to give them that. Everything was put together so fast, too,” Kurimaw says.
Kurimaw’s manager CB came into the picture shortly after the final mixing of ‘buzo_Omp’. He had known Kurimaw since 2015, whom he often saw lounging at the back of crowded gigs. CB, who has organised a series of shows called Friendly Thursdays to showcase up-and-comers, fancies himself an appraiser of new talent. Upon hearing of Kurimaw’s work in late 2020, he immediately wanted to collaborate.
“Kurimaw’s lyrics are grounded, relatable, and even offer a trace of sadness,” CB says. “Brav doesn’t flex his vocab, he uses familiar words with a slightly new sound, cutting grammatical corners like the end of the main hook in ‘Di Laging Sunday.’ His audience, young people, are facing increasingly unpredictable times, struggling with the notion of what it is to be young.”
Kurimaw has emerged from the fringes, and in a short period, riveted Filipino youth with his unconventional hip-hop. Now he’s wondering where to go next. For now, he and CB are looking to produce a music video to match the hype created by ‘buzo_Omp’. The pair even have their sights set on political satire, a much needed counterpoint to the current state of affairs in the Philippines. But that’s a plan for the future. “For now, I’m still planning my attack,” Kurimaw snickers.
Kurimaw’s ‘buzo_Omp’ EP is out now