“The Folks Who Are Violent Don’t Want to Talk About the Softer Side:” An Interview With MBNel

Yousef Srour speaks to the Stockton rapper about being shot at 14 and the San Francisco 49ers using one of his songs.
By    August 13, 2020

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Living in the Bay Area, the general consensus is that nothing happens in Stockton. MC Ride of Death Grips hails from Sacramento and went as far as to mutter, “Feeders suck like stuck in Stockton,” on the Death Grips’ song named after the city on their 2012 album, No Love Deep Web. Stockton being one of the 10 most dangerous cities in America may be startling to most, but to MBNel, this is no surprise. Living on South Stockton’s 8th Street for most of his life, MBNel has been no stranger to gun violence and police harassment. With his breakout song, “In My City,” the track is thoroughly embedded with references to his friends being locked up in cages, and how at the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to make it out. 

Growing up, the Filipino American rapper had to find his own ways to make money, which forced him to become as resourceful as possible. Being the son of two immigrant parents working hard to make ends meet, Jhonel Dongon decided at a young age that he would follow his uncle and cousin’s path on the streets. It’s not that he necessarily chose this life, but he found himself drawn to it by his environment, his family, and the people he was surrounded by at school. He hustled to be able to buy himself new sneakers and new video games, and he joined the neighborhood Crips because when you live on 8th Street, your options are limited and your resources are scarce. 

It’s not shocking that some of MBNel’s first experiences with music include his father’s DJ equipment, because in the once-thriving Bay Area mobile DJ scene, Filipino artists were at the helm of innovation. Turntablists such as DJ Qbert, Mix Master Mike, and DJ Shortkut (who just so happen to be the most notable members of Invisibl Skratch Piklz) are some of the greatest DJs of all-time, and their fast-paced cutting and scratching techniques have pioneered music in general — with their impact reaching as far as electronic music and Run the Jewels’ (and Company Flow’s) El-P. Regardless of how influential Filipino artists have been as DJs, Filipino-American rappers have had difficulty breaking out until now.

MBNel is aware that he isn’t your traditional rapper. He’s the introvert in the back of the party; he never really associated himself with the hyphy scene, and he’s one of the only Filipino rappers that he can think of besides P-Lo. Despite his reserved demeanor outside of the studio, MBNel doesn’t hesitate to pour his soul out in the booth. MBNel divulges into introspective accounts of his challenges with mental health, discussing the paranoia and the unhealed trauma that he faces on a daily basis. MBNel believes it’s his role is to reveal the untold truths of the streets. He doesn’t want to only rap about gang banging nor does he only want to flex his money; he wants to delve deeper, articulating the anguish that comes with street life, and the harsh reality of living with a target on his back. The first time he was shot at was when he was 14 years old, and ever since, he has seen his friends and loved ones lose their lives to the pen and the streets. It haunts him and it seeps into his music.

Child of the Trenches is a 6-track glimpse into how MBNel escaped the trenches, told after the fame has begun to sink in. He started writing rap lyrics in high school, jotting in his journal during classes and going home to record songs on his laptop with a PlayStation microphone. After “In My City” blew up in 2018, he became a local celebrity recognized by both fans at the mall and police in his neighborhood. Yet he’s wary of having any attention on him at all; he’s constantly anxious that he’s becoming too comfortable in his own city. He sees rappers get shot and killed just walking down the street regardless of how famous they are, from LA’s Nipsey Hussle to Sacramento’s own Bris, and it keeps him on edge. Fearing death may soon be at his doorstep, MBNel’s new project revolves around the concept of self-preservation, whether it be surviving to see tomorrow or making sure that his family is taken care of if he doesn’t make it home.

If he could, MBNel would live reclusively, away from all of the fear and madness, but he knows that with his platform, he can speak to more than just the people in his community. He wants to guide those facing the same hardships that he has had to endure. When I speak to MBNel, he humbly claims, “I’m just another kid from the ghetto” because he doesn’t want his listeners to think that making it out of the ‘hood is simply another pipe dream; he wants them to know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. — Yousef Srour

Did your parents play any music around the house when you were younger?

MBNel: My pops did – he was actually a DJ. He was really into music, and he was even part of this cover band with his friends. He’s still into music right now too; he has a whole bunch of DJ equipment around the house.

What was the first song you remember loving as a kid?

MBNel: That’s a hard one — it’d probably be an older song that my dad used to play from one of the bands he used to listen to. It wasn’t even a rap song. I was around other music, the soft rock music that was playing.

Where in the Philippines are your parents from?

MBNel: My mom is from Cebu, that’s more of the city area, and my pops is from Siquijor, which is more island, so he lived in the cuts, like a village-type thing.

What did they do there?

MBNel: I didn’t really talk to them about it, but my mom lived with her siblings in the house, and she went to college out there. I think my pops was always working on the farm, doing whatever was on the island. They met, they started going to college, and then eventually they were able to go to America.

Did you eat a lot of Filipino food growing up?

MBNel: Yeah, definitely.

What are your favorite Filipino dishes?

MBNel: Balut, pancit, lechon, this cow-blood thing that smacks called dinuguan, adobo, sinigang – a whole bunch of stuff.

What kind of music did you listen to growing up?

MBNel: I was really listening to hip-hop. Like I said, I was first introduced to music by my pops, and he was listening to that older rock shit. You know, old Filipino fathers like Journey and shit like that.

What kind of hip-hop artists were you into?

MBNel: Meek Mill, Lil Wayne, Nipsey Hussle; that stuff is what I grew up on. After that, it was local shit like Bari. This was around when Livewire and Philthy Rich first came out, so it was really local shit.

Who are your biggest influences?

MBNel: My biggest influences would probably be Nipsey Hussle, Lil Wayne, Chief Keef, and Lil Herb [G Herbo] when he first came out.

Mac Dre or E-40?

MBNel: I’m going to be 100% honest, I wasn’t into the hyphy thing like that. The sound wasn’t for me. I never really liked dancing at parties, thizzin’ and shit like that; I was really just in the background. But if I were to choose one of those people, Mac Dre fo sho.

Can you talk a little bit about MB and what it signifies? I know it references Muddy Boyz and Mattie Harrell Park.

MBNel: Mattie Harrell is an area we’re from on 8th Street, Mattie Harrell Park. There are multiple different meanings for it, like Mattie Boyz, but really though, our circle specifically is Muddy Boyz or Mud Brothers. That’s what we call ourselves. There’d be hella of us that are from 8th Street, but our main circle is Muddy Boyz. MB – we’re Mud Brothers.

Are these people you’ve known ever since you were in school, or how did you guys get together?

MBNel: I know them from school, but loyalty doesn’t really come from time, it’s more who’s been a hundred with you since the day you met ‘em. There are niggas that have been a hundred with me and I’ve known them less than niggas I’ve known since school days who switched up, so it ain’t really about time or none of that. They’ve kept it a hundred since the day I met ‘em, and that’s how I look at it.

How did you get involved with the streets?

MBNel: My moms and pops didn’t get their own house, so they moved in with my cousin, and it was like 2 or 3 families in one house. After that, we moved again down the street. We all lived in the same area, not more than 2 miles apart from each other my whole life until I finally moved out myself. It’s what I’ve seen growing up, some of my cousins gangbanging and gangin’ up. When I was growing up, OPTP, that was what my cousin and uncle were in, and that’s Crips in the same area. Going to school, that’s what I found myself around. Obviously, you’re going to become who you surround yourself around or you’re going to be influenced by that.

Do you believe that the media makes gang culture seem worse than it truly is?

MBNel: I feel like the media makes it sound crazier than it really is, but at the same time, it really is people dying and people going to jail over dumb shit. I know people doing a stupid amount of life, like 5 years/10 years, for something they didn’t even do. It’s as serious as they make it seem, but at the same time, it’s blown out of proportion because they’re not the ones living it, they’re just talking about what they see in movies or songs; it’s not really based on experience. Anybody who’s really involved in anything, they know – if you’re programmed to live like that, it is what it is.

What made you want to become a rapper?

MBNel: It wasn’t even my plan. I’ve been writing raps since high school, in my journal and shit. I’d be in class, and instead of writing notes, I’m writing down raps; I’d always have that journal with me. I got a laptop one day, and I even had a laptop mic, the one for the PlayStation [a Rock Band mic], and I hooked it up to my laptop when I first started it. Then, I shot a video, and I was really just doing it for fun.

Do you think being a Filipino American artist has had an effect on how you’re

perceived in the rap game?

MBNel: I feel like I’m looked at differently, since it’s not what people are used to because of the stereotypes of Filipinos, or not even just Filipinos, but Asians or Islanders in general. There’s not really a lot of people in hip-hop like that. I feel like I’m opening a lot of people’s eyes, just because I am Filipino and I’m making music about what I’m making music about. There’s the P-Lo’s and the other artists like that, but I don’t feel like there’s a lot of street shit. It’s unique from everybody out there.

Has becoming a father changed the way that you move?

MBNel: Yeah, for sure, just because you can’t move how you used to; you have to move smarter. You’re not living just for yourself no more, you’re living for this little girl. A bad decision that I make can affect her life in the long run, whether it be jail or doing something dumb, so you definitely have to move smarter and not be selfish and not think about yourself all the time.

What do you think about the hip-hop community in the Bay? Is it easy to link up with other artists?

MBNel: With a lot of artists that I’ve been working with, or meeting artists that I was a fan of, I can shoot a text to a rapper or something and not expect a hit back, but then they’ll hit me back like, “I fuck with you hard.” It’s cool.

When you’re looking for a producer or another rapper to hop on one of your tracks, what are you looking for in them?

MBNel: It’s really just the vibe of it. Whatever mood I’m in, I’ll try to figure out a beat and the subject matter of it. I don’t like putting artists on songs just because of their name or because they’re big. If it goes with my song and I feel like it’s a person that matches it, then I’ll go for it. I don’t like having features to just have features, or just because someone’s bigger than me. I want that person to fuck with it and the song to be genuinely good, not just like, “Oh, it’s a feature,” or “It’s a favor-for-favor,” but because of the ingenuity of the music.

How does the Stockton rap scene differ from Sacramento and other cities around the Bay?

MBNel: Between Sac and the Bay, Stockton’s always been its own separate island. As far as the influence, obviously a lot of the popular music right now is coming from the Bay and Sac, so we get a lot of influence from that. As far as the whole, a lot of people in Stockton take the influence, but we really make it our own. The authenticity of the city and where people are coming from – Stockton is a rough city, and not a lot of people have shit, so everyone’s making their own wave. We’ve got to make that progress for Stockton without it being like, “They’re trying to fake way be the Bay” or “Be a Sac nigga.” That’s why I take pride in representing Stockton the way I do.

What’s your greatest fear?

MBNel: Not being able to provide is probably my biggest fear. Losing it all.

Stockton has one of the highest violent crime rates in the country. Did that have any influence on you when you were growing up?

MBNel: Yeah definitely. Like I said, everyone around me is holding guns and is involved in all the shit they’re involved in. Obviously, being around it, being a part of it, and even knowing people who have lost their lives to gun violence, it definitely makes you think and move differently. Not even just knowing somebody that’s passed away from gun violence, but actually being directly involved in all that gun violence.

I read that the first time you got shot at was when you were 14 years old. What happened then?

MBNel: I was 14 years old at the park. I was with a group of friends and we were chilling over there at the playground at Mattie Harrell on 8th Street. We see a vehicle, and I’m 14, so I’m not worried about none of that. We’re kids, we don’t trip over that. My friend was older, he was about 16/17, and I was with him. I didn’t even notice it until he pointed it out, and he just started shooting. Luckily, there was a mini wall in between us where the playground is, so we just started ducking in the street, a couple yards away from where the playground is, so it didn’t really hit us. It was hitting the wall, but he was too far to really get good aim. He didn’t even get outside the car; it was just a drive-by. It opened my eyes about being more aware of my environment, especially when you get older and you start getting involved in the shit. The bullets ain’t even for the people who’re running almost, it’s a different story when the bullets are meant for you now. It makes you move differently and think differently about your surroundings. It’s not even paranoia, but it’s locking every car, when I pass, trying to look inside, looking over your shoulder, just being off-tip regardless; never get too comfortable. Especially being in music too, you see a lot of rappers who get killed in their own city being too comfortable, so it’s not just the street shit.

You’ve spoken how you lost people you grew up with, either from passing away or to prison. What effect has that had on your life and your music?

MBNel: Rappers like me, they focus a lot of their music on the aggression of it, but coming from where I come from where everyone’s trying to rap violently, I feel like that’s what separates me from everyone else in my city. The aggressors and the gangbangers and the folks who are violent don’t want to talk about the softer side – the thoughts that are going through people’s heads that are involved in this but want to be too hard to really express it. That’s what I think makes my music ding; it’s personal thoughts that I know a lot of people are thinking about but don’t like showing.

What have your experiences with Stockton PD been like?

MBNel: It’s a lot of harassment, especially after I started getting a little bit of buzz off of rapping because now, they know who I am. They already knew who I was, but me being a rapper, that made it grow a whole lot higher. I even had a friend a couple years ago who got shot and killed by the police, and he was in high school, so the animosity between police is there. No bullshit, I was living on 8th Street and I was pulling out of my driveway, literally doing nothing, and would get pulled over as I’m pulling out of the driveway. Walking to the store, or illegal searches at the house – I don’t know why they’re trying to stop me. I’m younger, I just moved out, I don’t know my rights yet, and the police search my house with no warrants and shit. Because I didn’t know my rights, they were taking advantage. I also run into good police too, so it ain’t always just bad police; that’s why I ain’t really think about the police like that. Obviously, the system is fucked up, but saying “Fuck all the police,” that don’t really do nun’ because I know good police too. That’s just ignorant to me.

What’s the origin story of this new project?

MBNel: What I was trying to go for was being a child of the trenches, no matter what color or where you’re from. That’s why the cover of it is a foreign child, to represent that you could be in any country, and there are going to be people in the trenches who have it worse and they still got a good attitude. It’s very personal; it’s my personal experience and what I call my trenches. In general, there are other kids in America living worse, living in trenches in their own way, and I’m just telling my story. Hopefully, someone can take it as motivation and do what they want to do.

On this new tape, you talk about how you had a lot of struggles when you were younger. What were you dealing with?

MBNel: As far as my moms and pops, they really were doing their best to shelter me. They were working hard to make ends meet, and it was really me getting in trouble, which had me starting to leave the house. My moms never really spoiled me and never really bought me shit like that, so I started making money on my own. It made me get out of the house and meet other people, making my own money. If I wanted a PlayStation or new shoes or a new computer or a new video game, I had to get it on my own. It’s not my parent’s fault, because they did their best coming to America and giving me a better life, and that’s already a blessing as it is. It’s all self-inflicted damage: leaving the house, getting involved with people, and getting involved in funk.

On your song “Heroic,” you talk about living with demons. Do you feel like mental health is addressed enough in Bay Area hip-hop?

MBNel: I feel like the Bay is known for the giggin’, but mental health is a big part, especially when you get involved with the streets. I don’t think getting shot at or being scared to go outside or being paranoid and looking over your shoulder should be a regular thing. People, kids, and teenagers, they’ve started thinking that shit is normal. That shit is not normal. No one should be worried about getting shot or going to jail.

On the song “Dividends,” you sample Childish Gambino’s “Redbone.” How did that come to be?

MBNel: The producer, Poodah[Beatz], sends me stuff, and if y’all know the type of beats I like, I like beats with pianos and voice overs or something like that. He sent me a beat pack and that one stood out to me like, “I gotta hop on this one.” It’s the style I be rapping on.

How did it feel to have the 49ers use your song, “Born to Win,” in a hype video?

MBNel: That was unreal. It was out of nowhere; no one on the team even knew, none of my management knew that was going to happen. I was in the studio one day, I looked on Instagram, and everyone tagged me. I looked on YouTube, and surely enough, it was the ‘9ers using my song for the hype video. That was a shock because none of us hit them about it or nothing.

Have more people started reaching out to you, now that you’re starting to get a lot of success?

MBNel: When I was growing up with my family, I wasn’t really close to none of them like that. When I went to juvenile, some of my family even looked at me different for the rest of my life because of it. All of us hang out now, I’m everyone’s favorite cousin, and they come around for pictures, but I wasn’t close to any of my family before this. That’s something I noticed. My friends from school are hitting me from years ago like, “You remember me?” “No, I don’t remember you.”

What do you hope people understand about MBNel?

MBNel: I’m just another kid from the ghetto with a success story; I ain’t no more special than anybody else. I made my dreams a reality and it can work. Hopefully anybody can see that and see some light like, “I can do it too.”

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