Vex Ruffin: Filipino-American beatmaker blends hip-hop, disco and the Manila Sound

On his new album ‘LiteAce Frequency’, the producer who has spent most of his life in the US embraces his Filipino heritage

Here’s the story of how NME became Facebook friends with Vex Ruffin’s wife.

It’s a classic tale of foiled connection in a pandemic: a planned Zoom call, miscommunication that left both parties waiting for the meeting to start, and finally a shift to Facebook – which entailed sending a friend request to his wife Jackie.

Before long, Vex Ruffin finally appears on our screen, in what we assume is his living room in his family home somewhere in Southern California’s Inland Empire. Meanwhile, we’re social distancing at a café in Manila.

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“I’ve been living here with my family for years,” he says. But Ruffin lived in Manila for a time, too. “We lived in Northridge in the San Fernando Valley when I was younger. Then my dad wanted to do business in the Philippines. So we moved back there when I was 10.”

And that’s where Ruffin’s “re-education” in music, particularly OPM (Original Pilipino Music), began. An uncle in the Philippines exposed the pre-pubescent Ruffin, whose real name is Ryan Africa, to rap and hip-hop artists like N.W.A and A Tribe Called Quest, as well as bands like The Cure, The Smiths and Nirvana.

Ruffin’s memories of growing up in the motherland are hazy, but at least one thing stands out clearly: excursions in the family Toyota LiteAce while stewing in Manila traffic.

“I remember trips to Batangas in that LiteAce,” he says. “Just looking out the window and seeing the city while listening to music.”

Those memories form the foundation of his new album, named after that camper van, ‘LiteAce Frequency’. It’s a throwback to the halcyon days of his youth, not to mention a tip of the hat to his Filipino heritage.

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“At my age, you start to reflect,” the now-37-year-old says, “I’m going back to my roots, channelling that time, mixing nostalgia with how I am right now.”

“At my age, you start to reflect. I’m going back to my roots”

Ruffin was deep into his teenage years when he and his family moved back to the US from the Philippines, where he settled into a “normal life” – going to school and eventually landing a job with package delivery behemoth UPS. The music bug hit late: he says he was around 22 or 23 when he wrote and recorded his first songs.

“It started when I bought a 303 sampler,” he says, referring to the Boss SP-303 he acquired in 2004. “I mean, I’m not a trained musician, and I only did it during time off from work. So I guess I wouldn’t call myself a musician… maybe ‘recording artist’ is more apt.”

Semantics aside, Ruffin says he taught himself how to work the 303; he calls himself a “big sampling guy”, finding inspiration in tracks from old tapes, records and, eventually, YouTube. He discovered the thrills of looping and layering tracks, trying to find his “vibe”.

“When I first started making music, it was all about just making beats,” he says. “Eventually I ventured more into hip-hop, experimental, punk, post-punk, industrial and electronic. I blended all of that.”

This was how Vex Ruffin, the musician – sorry, recording artist – was born. The name “Vex” came from the Jamaican movie Rockers, while “Ruffin” is a nod to David Ruffin of The Temptations. Like most DIY artists, he put his music together in his house, often in his kitchen, in lieu of an actual recording studio. Ruffin filtered his disparate influences, using them as a canvas for his pared-down musings on memories, family and relationships.

Those recordings – “mostly garage rock and punk”, he says – made their way into demos that he sent out to record labels, a valiant effort to gauge if there’d be any professional interest in what he was producing. His hopes were nearly crushed when nobody replied, until somebody from Stone’s Throw Records finally got in touch.

“They were the first and only label that contacted me,” Ruffin laughs. “And I’ve been with them ever since.”

“I want to keep the tradition of making great music just like all the other OPM artists that have done it before me”

What followed were sporadic releases under the Los Angeles-based label, collaborations with other artists and the occasional gig in and around the LA area, almost always outside of his UPS working hours.

In 2017, Ruffin released ‘Conveyor’. By then he had upgraded to an SP-404 and a laptop, and was primarily influenced by post-prog electronic music. But the “Ruffin sensibilities” were still there, he qualifies.

The artist was working the graveyard shift at the time, and recorded ‘Conveyor’ in order to cope. “It was about being stuck in a continuous loop and it’s about what’s inside of us that tries to break us free,” he said about the album at the time. “Looking back, my life was in flux. I was having an internal struggle, going back and forth in my mind.”

Three years later, Ruffin seems to have worked through those personal issues. In ‘LiteAce Frequency’, he opens with a track called ‘Know Yourself’.

Life is not what you expect,” he sings. “I don’t care / I’m happy anyway.” Layered with trippy psychedelic effects, and pulsing electronic percussion, the track is as much unsolicited advice as it is personal mantra.

Ruffin can’t help the statements of intent in his music: “It usually just comes out naturally. I’m not really thinking.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in ‘I’m Still At It’, where in between maniacal laughs and a funky bass line, he sings, “I’m still at it / I’m still here / You know I’m never, ever, ever gonna stop / I’m still making music.”

Influenced by memories of those years spent in Manila and riding in that LiteAce, the new album represents a homecoming of sorts for the artist. He may not have stepped foot in the motherland for years, but the strong pull of those experiences has helped him shape his current worldview. In a way, Ruffin has come full circle with ‘LiteAce Frequency’.

The album itself is a trip back in time. There are unmistakable ’70s-era mirrorball disco grooves in tracks like ‘Ikaw Lang’ (Tagalog for ‘Only You’) and ‘Mabuhay Boy’ that will have you reaching for those bell-bottom pants and platform shoes, as well as softer, more reflective songs like ‘All I Have’. And if the nostalgia isn’t already evident, Ruffin even throws in a brief interlude with a sample from an old song by hitmaker Rey Valera (‘Naalala Ka’, Tagalog for ‘Remembering You’) interspersed with audio clips from vaguely familiar radio commercials.

It’s a mish-mash of musical styles, due in part to Ruffin’s exposure to a much wider variety of tunes, such as Japanese synths, and Brazilian and African music. But his fascination with hip-hop is still front and centre, as well as the Filipino music he was exposed to all those years ago.

“I listened to a lot of Juan Dela Cruz Band,” he says. “I know I don’t sound like them, but I just wanted to get that vibe. I was also listening to VST & Co., Hotdog, Sampaguita. Just the whole Manila Sound. I love all of it.

“And the Eraserheads!” he adds. “The Eraserheads were big when I was there, so they were definitely a big influence. All the others, I just kind of went back to them.”

Vex Ruffin new album LiteAceFrequency OPM
Credit: Danny Scott Lane

On the album, Ruffin also sings in Tagalog for the first time – further proof of his desire to reconnect with his Filipino roots.

“My Tagalog’s not the best,” he admits. “But lately I’ve been connecting more [with my Filipino culture] than before. And I really want to go back. I haven’t been back since 2003, I think. The only Manila I know is from when I lived there, obviously, so I’m pretty sure things aren’t the same. Coming back is definitely near the top of the list of things I want to do.”

But, with the way the world is right now, that might have to wait. In the meantime, Vex Ruffin’s music will have to do the reaching out for him.

“I just want to spread positivity through my music,” he says. “And I want to keep the tradition of making great music just like all the other OPM artists that have done it before me.”

Vex Ruffin’s ‘LiteAce Frequency’ is out now via Stones Throw Records

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