The Big Issue – Rap Diaspora…

Last weeks Big Issue Magazine featured an editorial titled “Rap Diaspora”.

I was interviewed as part of the editorial and small grabs were taken for the article. Im yet to scoop a copy but heres a transcript of the editorial itself. Nice to be asked to comment on the relevant topic, thanks to Dan Rule for the call up.
(Report back for the extensive interview in the next couple days).

RAP DIASPORA

Australian hip hop acts have been making incursions into mainstream culture since the Hilltop Hoods broke through with their defining 2003 record The Calling, but the artists topping the charts are hardly representative of the wider culture. In 2011 and 2012 hip hop in Australia is more diverse and fractured than ever before.  

Trem One has never identified with the notion that Australian hip hop could be considered a genre. Now “on the 40 side of 30”, the veteran Melbourne MC and producer has always understood his involvement in rap – which stretches back to his introduction to graffiti culture while riding the trains of Sydney’s west in the mid 80s and recently manifested in his reflective nonetheless sinister new record For the term of his natural life…– to be partial to a much wider movement.

“I still struggle with the term ‘Aussie hip hop’,”offers Trem, who politely refuses to give his real name.“I don’t think I’ve personally called it that, ever.”

“I don’t think it even needs to be mentioned – we are who we are, doing our version of it, and that’s all.”

It may seem like an odd statement to an outsider, but Trem’s assertion echoes the attitude of a generation of early Australian rappers who schooled themselves on the formative elements of hip hop culture – graffiti, break dancing and MCing – filtering out of New York City in the early 80s. For senior rhyme practitioners like Trem – let alone first generation crews like Sydney’s Def Wish Cast and Melbourne’s AKA Brothers and rugged underground MCs like Brad Strut and the recently retired Bias B –hip hop is a movement with a geographical, social and cultural lineage that begins in black, urban America. Trem and his like understand themselves as students and interpreters of the form, rather than forbearers of an ‘Oz hip hop’ genre.

“Can you believe some youngsters only listen to supposed ‘Ozzie hip hop’?” he urges disbelievingly. “Not only that, but they actually diss US rap…It’s just crazy.”

A mere glance at the breadth of hip hop’s class of 2011 would tend to support Trem’s thinking. The sheer breadth and diversity of records to have been released in the last 12 month would tend to suggest that local hip hop has transcended the idea of core community participants and audiences.

The stark loops, dusky atmospheres and gritty renderings of Melbourne’s criminal underbelly for which For the term of his natural life… was lauded in underground circles couldn’t exist on more distant creative orbit from the bouncing electro buzz and pop-riddled hooks that sent mischievous new-school Melbourne rapper 360’s new record Flying & Falling to the top of the ARIA album charts when it dropped in September. Likewise, Adelaide crew Funkoars’ brash, rocked-up, cheek-laden albumThe Quickening and Perth rapper Drapht’s chart-topping April release The Life of Riley could hardly be considered in the same breath as the brassy, soul-drenched tropes of Ru.CL’sBrimstone & Fire or longstanding Sydney collective The Herd’s typically political traversal of electronic textures, band aesthetics and pop on their fifth record Future Shade.

From the more polished, radio friendly aesthetic that has come to define Melbourne powerhouse Obese Records’ younger stable (including the likes of Dialectrix, Mantra, Thundamentals and Illy) to the more lateral material coming out of Sydney’s Elefant Traks (Joelistics’ soul-searching solo debut Voyagerand indigenous crew The Last Kinection’s pop and reggae-infused debut Nutches) and Big Village Records’ clutch of more playful acts (Ellesquire and Tuka included), hip hop’s tendrils are reaching so far and wide it’s near impossible to trace, let alone define.

“The core hip hop scene is not little tribe like it once was,” says Tim Levinson (aka Urthboy), MC with The Herd and label manager at Elefant Traks. “It once was real tribe – you had a village type atmosphere around the hip-hop scene and you tended to know others who were involved.”

Trem recalls a time in which “paying dues was paramount”. “Not everyone got along, far from it in fact…[but] there still seemed to be this sense of unity in the fact that we were all working towards the same goal,” he recalls.

Hip hop today – with its multitude of incarnations, styles, approaches and threads – might be better described in terms of a diaspora. It’s an idea Levinson, who frames ‘Oz hip hop’ as a lethargic industry and media-bred term, is happy to get behind.“There have been a number of different acts that have succeeded and taken hip hop in Australia to a new place as far as its popularity and reach and the industry recognition and clout that it has,” he says,“which has just allowed all the undergrowth – all the younger acts – to come through with a lot more confidence in actually pursuing it in their own way.”

“The diversity of the music and audience reflects the broader context of how music is appreciated these days. It’s almost a faux pas to talk about a genre in pure terms now.”

Indeed, there are plenty of distanthip hop devotees who sit completely outside of any real manifestation of what might be considered the Australian hip hop scene. DJ and producer Declan Kelly  (aka Dream Kit) is a member of production crew This Thing, an 18-strong collectiveand label that includes the talents of Galapagoose, Woogie, Ben Houghton, Mike Kay, Baba X, Andras Fox and Thomas William. Alongside Sydney artists like Jonti, they’re are morphing experimental, beats that echo of left-of-centre US hip hop producers such as Madlib, the late J Dilla, Dabrye and Flying Lotusinto positively bizarre, abstract and funk-laced terrains.

Kelly, whose love of hip hop came from mining older forms of black music like funk and soul, sees This Thing’s experimental outputs as part of something far larger than a localised genre.

“We’re influenced by a lot of people from Australia, but also a lot of people from overseas,” he says. “It’s about us but it’s about the world too.”

By Dan Rule

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