Written by Mark Pollard
Printed in Ministry Magazine
Issue 04 April 2003
Independent, marginalised and largely ignored by the masses, Australian hip-hop has cultivated a thick, insulating skin. It is a skin that has allowed it to develop a unique identity – borrowing from an American culture but putting a strong Australian spin on it. In some ways the philosophies of the local scene are more akin to countries such as England and Germany, where money hasn’t really played into the equation, and involvement in the culture is purely for the love of self-expression.
Since the turn of the millennium, however, the stakes have changed remarkably. A combination of more releases, greater access to technology, improving sound quality and increased media interest has seen the local hip-hop scene gradually making inroads into a traditionally rock-based culture, and for some time now the major labels have been tentatively looking at local acts with whom they could work.
However, cultural cringes still exist, with heavy Australian accents ostracising many more used to the American way of doing things. Unfortunately for those local artists wanting to take their music to the next level, that cringe is still very common among music industry decision-makers; although, as has been seen in the past couple of years, the tide is turning.
AS WITH MOST COUNTRIES outside America, hip-hop crept into Australia in the early ’80s through movies such as Wild Style and Beat Street, and video clips like Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Girls”. So it was no coincidence that the first elements of hip-hop heavily practised here were breakdancing and graffiti. In fact, it was not until 1988 that the first Australian hip-hop vinyl was released. Sydney’s Just Us was the group; “Combined Talent” was the title of the release. Case from Just Us is now the head of Funnel Web Productions and part of Terminal Illness, a group set to release its third album in 2003. In a recent rhyme he recalls: “Why were we called Just Us? Because there was just us.” The same year, one of the world’s first hip-hop magazines was published … in Sydney. It was called Vaporz and was edited by Blaze, who would subsequently go on to set up the Lounge Room (which evolved into Next Level Records (Sydney’s main independent hip-hop shop) and co-found the independent record label Parallax View.
The next two releases came out of Melbourne in 1989 (Park Bench Royals’ “One Time, Live” and the AKA Brothers’ “Coming Out Large”. Most of these crews’ members are still involved in hip-hop today. AKA Brothers’ DJ Ransom, for instance, frequently DJs around Melbourne and is part of Mnemonic Ascent with Raph Boogie (owner of Blank Clothing). Also around this time, Virgin decided to capitalise on the late-80’s worldwide hip-hop boom and released a mediocre compilation called Down Under By Law, featuring the likes of Rodney O, Peewee Ferris and Westside Posse (the foundations of Sound Unlimited Posse).
The quintessential, possibly never-to-be-eclipsed Australian hip-hop group was Def Wish Cast. Members Die-C, Defwish and Sereck, along with DJ Vame, were the most dynamic group to come out of western Sydney’s stomping grounds. They released the “Mad As A Hatter” vinyl EP in 1992, then went on to be the first local group to tour nationally. Their album, “Knights of the Underground Table”, became the Australian hip-hop manual and even saw them make a video clip for the song “A.U.S.T.” which was aired on Rage and Video Hits.
Also in this period, Melbourne’s Mama’s Funkstikools made an appearance on Tommy Boy’s “Planet Rap” compilation (Tommy Boy was the label that released Afrika Bambaataa onto the world stage). The AKA Brothers performed at the New Music Seminar in New York (this seminar became one of the most important music conferences of the time). Def Wish Cast went on to sell around 6-7,000 copies of their debut album – a feat few have come near to surpassing. It was also the time that Sony Music took a punt on Sydney group Sound Unlimited Posse (formed from the remains of the Westside Posse). With a distinct American edge, Sound Unlimited Posse didn’t earn a huge amount of respect from their peers, and while they had moderate success it is said that it took them many years to pay back their advance.
This period was the last real peak in Australian hip-hop until the past few years.
For many, Australian hip-hop seems to have only just surfaced. However, the foundations for what people are now starting to see have been carefully laid over two decades. In some ways, being ignored by the masses was a good thing for the local scene. It has had to forge its own way and build its own infrastructures, developing a distinct sense of hierarchy along the way.
In recent years, the phrase “Australian hip-hop” has started to assume a quasi-genrific quality. While this evolution points to the ever-strengthening local culture, it also runs the risk of segregating (not just differentiating) the culture from the worldwide movement. There is an entire generation of kids who profess to listening exclusively to Australian hip-hop.
Hams, who has worked at Brisbane’s Rocking Horse Records for seven years and is part of the city’s hip-hop fabric being a well respected graffiti artist, attributes this growth in interest in Australian hip-hop to the groundwork that the culture has put in. Through the major labels ignoring local artists, the local culture “has had to just do its own thing in order to survive.” Expressing a common belief, he sees what many call an explosion of interest as being “inevitable.”
While some would like to think that it is really the people involved with the culture taking it to the masses (which is true to some degree), 2001 saw the final piece slotted neatly into the puzzle: Triple J created a national weekly, three-hour hip-hop show. As Ham says, “Triple J has brought it to the mass market.”
Triple J’s acknowledgement of local hip-hop artists has had several significant effects. A lot of teens who would have levitated towards punk or rock are now finding that Australian hip-hop provides a voice that is closer to home. It has also increased the interest of larger labels in getting involved with the scene. As Shazlek One from Melbourne’s Obese Records says, “If there’s money to be made off it they’re going to want to be involved.”
The dichotomy of the dismissive way that local hip-hop is regarded by some and the reason that so many have embraced it is explained well by Shazlek One: “A lot of people look at Australian hip-hop and laugh at it. They don’t understand how good it is unless it is right in their face or it is as commercial as you can get.”
“Anyone in the hip-hop scene has to understand that we’re a direct derivative from America but we have to be true to ourselves because this is us. This is our hip-hop scene and this is what we’re about.”
“What we’re about” takes many forms – from raps about BBQ’s, drinking beer, smoking pot and painting trains, to political and social inspections about race, class inequality and gender issues.
The content of Australian hip-hop is as varied as its practitioners.
So, just who are some of the artists in the spotlight? Well, to get an idea of the different sounds coming out of Australia right now, you would do well to start off with some of the compilations. The “Homebrews” series was the first solid attempt at grouping together hip hop artists from around the country and giving them a national platform. “Down Under by Law” pre-dated “Homebrews” but it did not have the cultural impact or support of its predecessors. At times patchy, the “Homebrews” series did however feature standouts from groups such as Koolism, Faces of Debt, Voodoo Flavour and Moonrock. Mother Tongues, possibly the only all-female hip hop label in the world, released “First Words” in 2000. It contained tracks from Trey, Maya Jupiter, Ebony Williams and Shorti RV. “Airheads: The Droppin” Science Experience came out on Sydney label Parallax View and won “Best Compilation” at the Dance Music Awards in 2002. Its textures are smoother than some of the other locally produced compilations.
“Culture of Kings” dominated 2002 in every way possible. Volume 2 was a Triple J feature CD, the launch events around the country were very well attended for the most part, and the project subsequently took on juggernaut proportions. The “Culture of Kings” series was responsible for giving a lot of artists their first chance to gain national exposure. It had this strong underdog ethos to it that people simply rallied behind. 2003 should see the third instalment released.
With “Culture of Kings 2” receiving so much airplay on Triple J it is probably the sound that most would be familiar with. However, artists such as Hilltop Hoods, Reason, Koolism, Morganics, Katalyst, Quro, Downsyde, Mass MC, The Herd, Trey and 1200 Techniques have all received their fair share of exposure.
Along with DJ’s Nino Brown and Nick Toth who signed to Universal in 2001, Melbourne’s 1200 Techniques has been the closest thing to local hip-hop to get on a major label since Sound Unlimited Posse. To date, the major labels have only really looked at groups who have some sort of crossover appeal – and most of the time, in this land of rock, that can be best achieved by working with a band.
According to 1200 Technique’s DJ Peril, Sony were more interested in their live act rather than their demos. “It was a matter of timing. Sony came to us. It’s not how it usually happens.”
The purists don’t really see 1200 Techniques as operating within the traditional Australian hip-hop scene but that’s not what they were set up to do. Peril states that their aim was to appeal to a larger Australian market “of people who like to hear eclectic music. We never went for that straight up hip-hop edge because we weren’t [straight-up hip-hop].”
The group is surprisingly humble about their success. In their acceptance speech for Best Hip-hop Act at the 2002 Dance Music Awards they even went as far as saying that they didn’t believe they were the best hip-hop group in Australia because of all the other groups that they like and respect. “When you win the award for best hip-hop act and you aren’t you feel a bit funny accepting that.”
There is an entire movement of local hip-hop artists who are about to introduce themselves to the rest of the country. They will benefit from a long and hard slog that has claimed many scalps, dwindling the number of older culture participants to only the most dedicated. The grassroots infrastructure is stronger than ever, revolving around independent hip-hop shops and record labels, studios, community radio stations, magazines, promoters, workshops and, increasingly, the internet. If mainstream Australia decides to dim the spotlight that it is currently pointing at the local culture, chances are that most artists will simply continue doing what they have been doing for years: expressing themselves.
1. Just Us “Combined Talent”
The first Australian hip hop release, setting the tone with a strong local identity.
2. Def Wish Cast “A.U.S.T.”
From the seminal “Knights of the Underground Tables” LP, a true Aussie hip hop anthem.
3. Mass MC “BBQ Song”
Great story-type rhyme complete with catchy chorus.
4. The RIze & Tarkee “Called to Add Mind”
This Melbourne duo’s first 12″ released in 1990 and still able to hold its own in any hip hop set.
5. Easy Bass “Space Programme”
Playful, unselfconscious cassette-only release from a Sydney collective that influenced a generation in the mid-90s.
6. Koolism “Anything”
Koolism’s sound is far from being formulaic but it is consistent and always quality.
7. Celsius “Celsius”
Sereck and Brassknuckle’s debut release as a group features gritty, powerful beats on standouts “When Currents Collide”, “Retrooper” and “Illuminate”.
8. Various Artists “Culture of Kings” 1 & 2
The 60 or so tracks in the first two volumes of this series add up to a very diverse overview of Australian hip hop.
9. Various Artists “Roc Da City”
Jase from Nubreed and Prowla from the Nuffsaid label concoct beats with standout tracks from Troy (“Soul Terrain”, Dedlee (“32 Lines” and MC Que (“Southern Hemispheric”.
10. Various Artists “Obese City”
Where “Culture of Kings” gives a lot of previously unheard of groups a chance to shine, “Obese City” is more a consolidation of established crews.
Copyright 2003. Not to be re-printed without permission.