Phil Tayag of the Jabbawockeez Talks Working on the 'Finesse' Remix Video and Calls Cardi B a 'Good-Ass Person'
South Sacramento native Phil “S.B.” Tayag is largely known as one of the founding members of hip-hop dance collective The Jabbawockeez. The crew burst onto the scene after their 2008 victory in the inaugural season of America’s Best Dance Crew, and their signature white masks have since become part of pop culture.
The group's success is nothing minor, as they’ve enjoyed a residency at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand for the past eight years, performed during the 2016 and ‘17 NBA Finals in their native California, and appeared all over television.
Tayag has the pleasure of being able to say that he always saw success for him and his crew. But S.B. also envisioned his career path going in a different direction. “When I was in high school, I thought that I would work with a huge important artist. I just always wanted to collaborate,” he says.
Today, it is clear that he's seen the vision through — Tayag's recent work shows that he’s living his dreams out. In fact, he has become the go-to guy of one of music's biggest stars: Bruno Mars. Tayag has worked with Bruno on his smash Mark Ronson collab "Uptown Funk,” the Super Bowl 50 halftime show, and most recently, the now-viral “Finesse” remix video.
Check out Phil Tayag discussing the "Finesse" remix video, and the chemistry he shares with Bruno Mars, below.
When did you start with dancing and choreography?
Jabbawockeez is the crew that kind extends from even the early '90s, and I'm still rocking with those guys today. But I just knew that I always wanted to do what I loved to do, I wasn't concerned with anything outside of this art world. I went to school, barely finished high school, finished up at a continuation school in South Sac, just because I was already traveling, doing shows up and down the west coast. I just committed to it, man.
We ended up doing this show, America's Best Dance Crew, in 2008, and it kind of started this whole wave. A culture shock as far as this style of dance and how we did stuff. Ever since then, it's definitely been a rollercoaster, being an artist coming from nothing to getting that type of recognition. We're still hungry, we're still doing stuff. I think after we even got the residency at MGM [Grand] and have been out here ever since. You know, seven years now.... It's 2018 huh? (laughs) Well we're going on eight years out here in Vegas and about five years ago, Bruno reached out, and the rest is history man. We've been doing videos since “Uptown Funk,” and here we are, I'm talking to Billboard.
When did you and Bruno get properly acquainted?
We were putting up our show at the Luxor [in Las Vegas] and I wanna say this was 2013 or 2014. But Bruno had reached out because he actually wanted me to get down on his record "Treasure," and at the time I was two weeks in with our grand opening for our show at Luxor, called Prism. I was super excited that he had reached out, but it was just bad timing. So it didn't work out, and then he ended up going on tour for like a year too, so I didn't hear from him. I thought kinda missed the bus.
When he got off the tour a year or two later, he hit me up again and was like, "Hey, Phil, I got the record that I want you to get down on. And it was "Uptown Funk."
When he reached out to do "Uptown Funk," what was going through your head?
Well first of all, he let me listen to the record... I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and good music is good music. My pops is a big fan of music, and so I grew up listening to everything from The Beatles, to David Sanborn, to Bob Marley, to Morris Day. I was definitely listening to Jimi [Hendrix]. When I heard this record, I was like, "Oh shit, this is just a classic." This a record that's gonna play at every wedding from now to 20 years later. Those are the hits, the classics, that you wanna play when you're celebrating one of the biggest, greatest times of your life.
I felt that way instantly about "Uptown Funk," and so I knew it was nothing to play with. Obviously it did a thing after it came out and we were right, my gut was right as far as how huge this record was. So it was definitely dope to be a part of that history for sure.
How did the "Finesse" remix choreography come to life? How does the creative process go?
I think that we definitely bounce ideas off of each other from the inception. And I think the song itself is pretty self-explanatory, you're already gonna think of a certain era, you're already thinking '90s. We're thinking about how to touch on that world but also still make it fresh and new. Like, how people do cover songs? We didn't want to just do a cover song, how do you remix that song? We didn't want to just cover In Living Color; how could we still make it fresh at the same time?
But going back and forth about the '90s era and all that, I guess you kind of just have to realize what's in front of you. So Bruno's like, "What if we do In Living Color?" At that time, I was probably Facetime-ing him — wearing like Reebok Pumps. Obviously we were kind of stirring that pot, and as soon as he said that, after all the ideas that we might have tossed around, that one stuck and we just went full-throttle. He reached out to the powers that be on that end with the In Living Color thing, got the blessing, and we just rocked out.
What was the energy like working on the "Finesse" set? I'm sure Cardi B was fun to be around.
That whole shoot day was kind of just celebrating, you've got real people that are in the game right now. It wasn't any funny stuff, it wasn't all Hollywood. I gotta shout out my dancers that I was able to put on the project: Danielle Polanco, Bianca Brewton, TJ Lewis, and Ysabelle Capitulé. These artists are big in the dance world, and I've been waiting to have an opportunity to collab and work with them. Especially with the female artists, because I haven't been working with female artists since everything with Jabbawockeez popped off, being that it was an all-male group.
I think that Cardi is a blessing to the game. I just think that she's a good-ass person. I think the humility that she has... When we see her, I feel like we see one of us making it. Like one of the homies from the hood. She's just a culture shock at the same time, because of how real she is, and how unfiltered she is. But really, that's how people are without trying to curate it, and trying to be a superstar. She's not trying to be a superstar, she just is.
It was really just dope to see her in person, and she's the same way that you would probably see her on Instagram, she just isn't a front. So when Bruno had told me that she was on the remix, I was like, "This is perfect." We were paying homage, but now there's this twist because Cardi B is the shit right now. So it's always a blessing to see real people make it.
You've pretty much become Bruno’s go-to guy as far as choreography. What have you learned from him and from working around him?
You know what, here's the blessing: I knew when I was really young, like when I was in high school, I thought that I would work with a huge important artist. I just always wanted to collaborate. At the time, and it's kind of weird, but there was a point in time where I thought I was going to... Well, I wanted to choreograph for Aaliyah. This was probably when I was a freshman; it was a big deal, obviously, when she passed. But then we started to develop the crew thing, and stuff started to pop off with the Jabbawockeez.
But there's always been a part of me that wanted to really collaborate and help another artist and really do their repertoire and style, and the whole visual side of their ar. Because dance, music, singing, writing -- they all go hand-in-hand. And I don't think people really recognize or really respect how important the video aspect is. That's why we love, for example, Michael Jackson -- because not only did he write, produce, record, and sing his own music but he was an embodiment of his music as well. He curated the entire package when it came to his art form and music.
I wanted to kind of get my chance and see what I could do with an artist out there. It never really hit me -- it's not like Bruno was my target artist that I really wanted to build with, but after "Uptown Funk," I realized... duh. This guy, he writes his music, he produces, he's a great performer. He's one of those artists that has the whole package, and I realized that after "Uptown Funk" that he was nothing to play with. This cat was serious.
And what I learned from him moving forward is just to embrace who you are. I mean that's what I've always been about, and it's weird because we're so similar. He's born October 8, I'm born October 9, we're both Libras. It's the same humor and the same vibe. We have really humble beginnings to, and I think you can see that in our art today where it's not from entitlement, we're not disconnected from the people. We come from that and still live that. I think that's where a lot of our inspiration is drawn from, our beginnings, our humble foundations, and every one that we kind of grew up with. Here we are doing In Living Color, and it's just celebrating another time that we have all been influenced by.
I feel like now, creating with my brother Bruno, it's just a celebration every time. We just get in the studio, and we're doing the same thing we'd be doing if we were dead-ass broke. It's just celebrating the fact that we have an idea and we can make it come to life.
Being that the song is so '90s in vibe, who are some '90s era dancers that you looked up to?
Definitely New Edition and New Kids On The Block. I can't even front, man. I really watched them on VHS and stuff, I loved watching them get down. Fast forward, we ended up touring with [with NKOTB] in 2009, and it was just a trip because these guys were like a big inspiration, and here I am on tour with them. And I still talk to them to this day -- Donnie Wahlberg, that's my big bro. We got a lot of respect for our elders and for the OGs, that's why I felt like we had some really really big shoes to fill when trying to pay homage to this era.