Hip-hop in Australia went from being a carved-in niche to a national phenomena over the course of the 2000s. Although the genre had been a part of the underground music scene since at least the ’80s and had seen intermittent success, it was 2002’s top 40 appearance of ‘Karma’, the unfathomably catchy single from Melbourne’s 1200 Techniques, that signaled the beginning of a new movement for Aussie hip hop.
It would be another four years before Adelaide trio Hilltop Hoods grabbed the first number-one album for the genre in The Hard Road – an album that, it should be stressed, was the group’s fourth, and came nearly 15 years after they initially formed – but the genre was well and truly cementing itself as one of the country’s most important going forward.
Now, in 2017, the game has changed once again. The genre is evolving, adapting and progressing on a lot of fronts, and is in many ways unrecognisable from what came before. That’s not to say it’s perfect by any means, but there are a lot more positives to the current state of Aussie hip hop than negatives, and it’s quickly become one of the most open, inventive and progressive music communities you’ll find.
But how, exactly, did it get there?
Hau Latukefu, also known as Hauie Beast or simply Hau, is a Canberra-raised and Sydney-based MC of Tongan descent. He is one half of ARIA-winning hip-hop duo Koolism, a solo artist in his own right and the host of The Hip-Hop Show on triple j since 2008, having taken over the role from Maya Jupiter. Latukefu has been a part of the Australian hip-hop scene for around 25 years, and he notes some significant differences in both sound and the culture surrounding it since he took the reins over at The Hip-Hop Show.
A lot of artists felt the need to try and pinpoint a sound triple j would pick up
“When I first started on the show, there was a certain sound hip-hop had in Australia,” he says. “A lot of artists felt the need to try and pinpoint a sound triple j would pick up – this was a time when acts like Hilltop Hoods and Bliss N Eso were really hitting their straps, so as a result there were a lot of artists trying to sound like that. At that point, it was very white too. Unfortunately, that lead to a redneck element creeping into the scene – not so much in the artists, but in the listeners. It’s not what I had envisioned at all.”
Seth Marton, a Melbourne-based MC who performs under the name of Seth Sentry, also recalled the stagnance towards the end of the 2000s in local hip-hop in an interview with The Brag in 2015, around the release of his second studio album, Strange New Past. “I think, for awhile there, people in Australian hip-hop were stuck just solely listening to one another,” he says. “It was that whole ‘support Australian hip-hop’ movement, with the stickers and stuff. Australian hip-hop is definitely a grassroots movement, and I think supporting one another is an important aspect of it. I just feel as though we were too caught up in that whole thing for awhile. It kind of held us back a bit.”
I think, now, people are doing whatever the fuck they want. That appeals a lot to me
In that same interview, Marton expressed a generally-positive outlook on where the genre was headed. “I like where it’s at now,” he said. “I like that there are more people pushing the envelope. There was a period there where things were quite stagnant – I don’t know if that was to do with a comfort zone or maybe it was to do with fear of breaking out of a certain mould. I think, now, people are doing whatever the fuck they want. That appeals a lot to me.”
Another group that have noted key changes from their inception to the present day are Thundamentals, who recently scored their highest chart success yet with their fourth LP, Everyone We Know, this past February. Speaking with Tone Deaf for a feature in which they were interviewed by Wil Wagner of The Smith Street Band, Jesse Ferris – better known as MC Jeswon – speaks highly of the evolution that hip-hop has undergone in Australia. “When we started out, it was impossible to fathom that hip-hop in Australia could grow into the thriving industry that it is today,” he says.
The thought of hip-hop artists being invited to perform at music festivals was laughable
“It used to really be a clandestine movement, supported largely by the participants within the culture. There was little to no airplay for hip-hop artists, with the exception of specialist community radio shows. The thought of hip-hop artists being invited to perform at music festivals was laughable. We never would have predicted that Australian hip-hop would go on to be regarded as a respected genre within the wider Australian music landscape. There is such a wide diversity of artists, sounds and stories now within the scene. We just feel blessed to be able to contribute our voice to the conversation.”
Breaking the mould
While that breakthrough success of acts like the Hilltops was vital in establishing hip-hop as a force to be reckoned with in the country, the move away from an established Aussie hip hop framework that followed was a vital one, with artists like Pez, 360, Illy and Allday ushering in a diversity of sound that hadn’t been seen up to that point. If Pez kicked things off with his breakout hit ‘The Festival Song’ with 360 in 2004, the latter’s Please Be Seated mixtapes and the album that followed, Falling and Flying, moved Aussie hip hop into new territory and smashed the mould of what counted as Aussie hip hop.
I no longer related to that subculture… I didn’t want to be bound by living up to the expectations of a bunch of old dudes that were living in a bygone era
Meanwhile, enter the long-haired emcee Tom Gaynor. A rapper, singer and songwriter originally from Adelaide who moved to Melbourne to pursue music under the moniker of Allday, he was building a groundswell of support around a sound and image that, only years earlier, wouldn’t have had a chance of breaking into the cloistered sphere of Aussie hip hop – but has since been instrumental in redefining it.
Now located in Los Angeles and with his anticipated second LP Speeding just released, he has commented in the past about feeling somewhat of an outlier as far as Australian hip-hop was concerned, but his 2014 debut album Startup Cult shot straight to #3 on the ARIA charts and he’s landed a handful of tracks in the triple j Hottest 100. For him, forging his own path separate from the established formula was the only thing that made sense.
Allday’s second album Speeding dropped today, featuring collaborations with Japanese Wallpaper, Mallrat, Gracelands and Nyne – you can grab a copy here.
“The weird thing is that I was at hip-hop shows and battles in Adelaide when I was around 12 or 13,” he says. “I was at all the historic events of that era – I was definitely a little Aussie hip-hop kid, catching CDs all the time. I feel like, by the time I was old enough to make my own music, I no longer related to that subculture as a whole.
“I didn’t want to be bound by living up to the expectations of a bunch of old dudes that were living in a bygone era. I didn’t see anyone whose life I wanted to replicate. I’m glad I did my own thing. There was no-one I had to suck up to or bow down to. It’s never been a big deal – it’s just the way things unfolded.”
Allday is quick to point out, however, that he holds no ill will against the scene at large. “I love so much music that’s coming out of Australia,” he says. “I just did a song with Erik Sanders [‘In the Air’]. I love Gill Bates. I love Tkay – of course, she’s from Adelaide too. I may like to poke and prod when I talk about it in interviews, but Australian hip-hop has a really good history,” he says. “There’s been a lot of good music, and it took a lot of their music to exist in order for artists like me to exist. I’m on Twitter, I’m on Facebook – if anyone wants a list of great Australian hip-hop albums to dig into from its history, message me.”
Acts like 360, and his tracks featuring the likes of Lisa Mitchell and Gossling, paved the way for previously-unexplored sounds in Aussie hip hop that we’re seeing today, with both Illy and the legendary Hilltops finding monstrous success last year with tracks featuring Vera Blue and Montaigne respectively, and Tkay Maidza breaking through with a sound equal parts rap and electro-pop.
Allday, too, embraces unexpected collaborations wholeheartedly, and believes that the doors have well and truly been blown off the genre. His unusual path to success saw him support UK pop star Lily Allen, something that would have been unthinkable for an Australian rapper in the past, not to mention his collaboration on multi-ARIA-winning pop star Troye Sivan. Now, he’s working with the likes of electronic producer Japanese Wallpaper on his recent singles to push the boundaries of hip hop further.
“There’s no gatekeepers anymore,” he declares. “All the ones that were there before are at home with their kids. We’re the new gatekeepers. We decide what goes on, and there’s so many great rappers that are influencing the way things are going. Genres are just blurring more and more. More popular rappers now sing as well – definitely more than those who don’t.
Another big shift in Australian hip hop that can be directly credited to acts like Allday is a new focus on presenting a more open face to fans than the often-macho image that came before, offering listeners honesty rather than sheer braggadocio. Breakthrough tracks like ‘So Good’ saw him open up about his struggles with ADD, mental health and self-image, and that openness carried through to his interactions with fans through social media.
Barring publicists from touching his social feeds to this day, his approach has seen him become the most followed Aussie hip hop artist online and amass a huge fanbase without a reliance on traditional promo – including a stack of new fans of hip hop who never saw themselves reflected in the old guard. With a past as a stand-up comedian and a wit forged in the fires of the local battle rap scene, the gags flowed thick and fast, and his influence on social media quickly became huge – to the point that he almost single-handedly resurrected Shannon Noll’s career with a single tweet.
That sort of fearlessness and unashamed honesty have since come to characterise Australia’s hip hop landscape in a number of very important ways, and our new crop of artists are characterised by a willingness to speak out on all sorts of topics without fear of reprisal. Many of the best hip-hop albums to be produced in this country over the last few years have been bold and uncompromising in their depiction of issues like institutionalised and structural racism, or inequalities and injustices for marginalised communities. Perhaps the biggest Australian hip-hop release of 2016, after all, was the AMP-winning Reclaim Australia – the debut LP from A.B. Original, comprised of indigenous MCs Trials and Briggs.
Consider, also, albums such as Last of Kin, the 2011 LP from Deadly Award-winners The Last Kinection; as well as Phoenix, the crucially-underrated 2013 album from Adelaide’s Jimblah. As reflections of both the solidarity and power of this nation’s first people, as well as a glimpse into the ugly side of how they are routinely treated and depicted by society at large, albums like this are essential listening.
One can additionally look to individual singles, as well, which stand as some of the few real protest songs in contemporary Australian music, like Horrorshow’s 2015 effort ‘Any Other Name’, which features the aforementioned Jimblah, as well as veteran MC Urthboy and indigenous singer-songwriter Thelma Plum; and ‘Change the Date’, the NITV-developed posse cut which brings together artists such as Birdz, Nooky, Tuka and Kaylah Truth to protest January 26 and its status as our national day of celebration.
That’s not even mentioning the grassroots campaign to get the aforementioned A.B. Original into the triple j Hottest 100 with their similarly-themed track ‘January 26’, which features Dan Sultan. In a countdown that garnered over 2 million votes, the song made an impressive dent by arriving at #16, while the group’s reworking of Paul Kelly’s ‘Dumb Things’ alongside the man himself also entered the top half of the list.
For Sukhdeep Singh – a western Sydney MC of Punjabi descent, who has released two acclaimed LPs under the moniker of L-Fresh the Lion – talking about personal issues through something as intrinsically-linked as music is second nature at this point. Speaking to The Brag in November of 2015, Singh noted that the medium and his message are one and the same. “It’s interesting when you’re discussing something like the issues of racism with other people,” he says.
People can respond by either listening to what it is that I have to say, or by talking over me – making their mind up about me before I’ve even said a word
“For me, it’s something that I have experienced my entire life. It’s one of those things where people can respond by either listening to what it is that I have to say or by talking over me – making their mind up about me before I’ve even said a word. Some folk just have that immediate agenda. That’s when you get people responding in a really harsh way. I don’t come from a place of anger or hatred – I come from a place of genuine love for community and for the country that I was born and raised in.”
Singh is representative of another key aspect of hip-hop’s newer wave: The pride it takes in its multi-culturalism. More backgrounds, more countries and more sonic elements are a part of the melting pot than ever before; from Africa to Zimbabwe. One of the most popular hip-hop acts in the country, for instance, is Melbourne duo REMI – a group that sold out national tours last year on the back of their widely-acclaimed second album, Divas and Demons.
The group is comprised of Remi Kolawole, born to a Nigerian father and raised in Moorabbin; and drummer/producer Justin ‘Sensible J’ Smith, whose parents migrated from South Africa. In an interview the two did with The Brag last year, Smith noted that this level of visibility for the diversity of the genre – while entirely welcome – was also well overdue.
“It really shouldn’t come as a surprise – they’ve been a part of this the entire time,” he says. “Still, it’s getting more attention and more time in the media. It’s taking over festival bills. It’s so great to see. That representation has been in the hip-hop demographic of Australia since the early 90s – maybe even before. It just seems to be getting the coverage that it deserves now.”
With this diversity, too, comes a considerably-important step forward. More and more, young women and girls are able to see themselves in key figures of Australian hip-hop. Among them are the prodigious teenage MC Mallrat, who recently sold out a run of dates with little more than an LP to her name; as well as the ferocious, poetic Sampa the Great and the boundlessly energetic Tkay Maidza. For Sally Coleman – one half of Sydney hip-hop duo Coda Conduct – the rise of women in terms of visibility is a significant one, although it’s one that she hopes is not doomed to repeat history.
The long-serving artists like Hilltop Hoods ended up getting played on Nova, whereas the women of the time disappeared
“What’s really interesting to look at is the waves that we’ve seen before,” she says. “If you look at the history of hip-hop in Australia and around the world, there have always been successful women. In Australia, it was MCs like Maya Jupiter and MC Trey back in the ’90s and early 2000s. Obviously, back then, hip-hop wasn’t making radio – especially Australian hip-hop – but as far as the scene was concerned, women like them were doing big things.
“What we’ve seen is a drop-off of sorts as hip-hop in Australia has arrived commercially – the long-serving artists like Hilltop Hoods ended up getting played on Nova, whereas the women of the time disappeared. It’s important to keep in context that, for women in hip-hop, this isn’t a new thing. We need to be aware it has every potential to drop off again. We can’t be complacent and just think that we’ve fixed that problem. Keeping a level of representation is a constant battle. It needs to be continually addressed, or else we will face the same problem in 10 years’ time.”
Tkay Maidza, in particular, has been focused on by local press as one of the new faces of Australian hip-hop; and her praises have been sung by the likes of Killer Mike, Mark Ronson and Charli XCX. It’s not something that’s lost on Maidza, who expressed to FasterLouder in 2015 that she doesn’t take her position for granted whatsoever. For her, it’s about following in the footsteps of her own inspirations – a tradition she hopes continues with future generations.
“When I started, there was a rapper called Miracle who was getting signed to Sony,” she recalls. “He’s Ghanaian, and I thought that if he could do it, so could I. Azealia Banks, too – I saw someone who loved dance music just as much as they loved hip-hop. That’s what inspired me to start making music. It was that simple.
In general, there just seems to be more interest in hearing different voices now
“It’s the same in any situation when you’re young, really – you see someone doing something. Someone like you. It connects with you, you feel the need to want to do it yourself. There’s always going to be waves of those people – especially in music. If I’m that person to any young girl or any young black kid – or both – I think that’s really amazing, and really cool.”
Another proud advocate of women in Australian hip-hop is Brisbane rapper Kaylah Tyson, who performs under the moniker of Kaylah Truth. Having toured nationally and performed with acts like TLC and Lupe Fiasco, Tyson has unquestionably paid her dues – and with her latest single ‘Wave’, she is currently in the top 20 on the triple j Unearthed hip-hop charts. Tyson notes a considerable shift in the scene’s attitude towards women and non-binary folk – particularly those of diverse colour and orientation.
“It has been harder for some women to be taken seriously in the past,” she says. “As we slowly multiply, and the new generation begin to experiment with their sound, we see a wider audience showing interest in artists that display elements of hip hop in the mix of their craft. In Brisbane alone, there is a greater plight for inclusivity of artists of varying gender, sexuality, musical influences and so forth. In general, there just seems to be more interest in hearing different voices now, hence the increase in the number of women being truly acknowledged in the scene.”
Standing on their own
Both Maidza and Tyson are certainly the type of artists that stand boldly and proudly on their own. That may seem like an odd thing to comment on, but it’s worth taking into consideration that a lot of Australian hip-hop’s boom was brought about by collectives, crews and labels. Elefant Traks, Big Village and Obese Records were just some of the key names that made up the building blocks of the country’s hip-hop scene – who you represented was a crucial matter in determining your own identity as a performer. Although labels like Elefant Traks are still proudly running to this day, the focus has shifted more onto the individual acts themselves; with many choosing to go their own way, so to speak, and not be defined by the crew around them.
Tyson backs the notion of forging one’s own path when presented with the same line of questioning. “I believe the change in mentality that we are witnessing is actually a result of artists moving away from the crew mentality,” she says. “Repping your label doesn’t seem to be as much of a thing, as more of us are doing it independently. Having more creative control over your own craft is empowering, and you’re less likely to tear others down when you’re happy within yourself.”
For Latukefu, who came up through hip-hop at a time where cliques and crews were a package deal with Australian hip-hop, he is able to see the points made by artists like Gaynor and Tyson. He does feel, however, that perhaps the proverbial baby is being thrown out with the bathwater. “I think it’s a generational thing,” he says.
The change in mentality that we are witnessing is actually a result of artists moving away from the crew mentality
“Millennials have the confidence in themselves to get out there and achieve whatever they set out to do. When I was coming up, we didn’t have the internet. Phones weren’t really a thing. We had to go out to record stores, and we’d meet people that way. There were hubs where you would meet like-minded people at that record shop or at a gig. I really feel for the generations coming through that never had that.
“It might not feel like a big deal to them, but it was a really beautiful thing. There are definitely still some awesome collectives around, but there’s definitely a focus more on independence now. I feel like it breeds healthy competition, and there’s definitely room for everyone to succeed.”
Making that next big leap
With artists like Allday and Tkay Maidza now making significant inroads over in the U.S., the question remains as to what it takes for Australian hip-hop – long thought to be too far carved into a niche to succeed internationally – to break out on a global scale. For Tyson, the vision is simple – keep making noise until the higher-ups can hear it. “Major record labels, radio stations and festival organisers need to come to terms with the fact that the scene in Australia is evolving,” she says.
“They need to open their eyes to the diverse talent we have in our own backyard and support their local artists. Until then we’ll just keep using technology as our strongest tool to push ourselves; or we do what other talent has done and go straight to the overseas market, bypassing Australia altogether. Let’s be real, though – it would be a crying shame for our own country to miss out on what we’ve got to offer.”
Coleman believes that there is definitely a place for Australian hip-hop to succeed internationally – all it will take is the right artist. “Look at an artist like Stormzy,” she says. “That’s maybe the first time a non-American hip-hop artist has made it that big in the States. He’s never felt pressure to change his music to fit a wider audience. He uses his local slang, he raps in his own accent, he makes music that is relatable to his peers but is also honest enough to relate to a wider audience.
If an Australian hip-hop artist comes along and achieves that success, it won’t be someone who is inauthentic. It will be someone who does it the way that it’s always been done – relaying their own stories
“Hip-hop has always been about a sense of place – it’s about representing where you’re from, grounded in specifics like the names of streets or stores. Intentionally trying to make your music more accessible to a wider audience is paradoxical. People want to hear about you and your experience, which they may not have encountered themselves. If an Australian hip-hop artist comes along and achieves that success, it won’t be someone who is inauthentic. It will be someone who does it the way that it’s always been done – relaying their own stories.”
“There will be an artist that will open doors. Tkay is in a great position to do something like that. She’s not a traditional hip-hop artist, but that’s what I feel it takes to break overseas. You can’t just be regurgitating what’s happening in American hip-hop. It needs to be highly original. We’ve seen artists from different genres in Australia manage to make the crossover, but hip-hop is such an American thing that it needs a truly unique spin on it for people to truly take notice.”
No more rules
Whether solo or with a group, black or white, straight or queer, whatever gender one chooses to identify with, there is one hard and fast rule about Australian hip-hop in its clear and present evolution: There are no rules. Collaborations like Allday’s new work with Japanese Wallpaper, or inventive tracks featuring the likes of Gurrumul are not only entirely plausible, they produce excellent results. A beat can shuffle, submerge, boom, blip or float. A hook can come in from left-field, from the heart or not at all. There is less and less of a rigid grid to latch onto as the genre moves forward.
For Tyson, the widening of hip-hop’s immediate spectrum has worked wonders on not only her music, but her confidence in it. “One particular bit of feedback I got when I released my debut single in 2014 was that I was rapping – so it was kinda hip-hop – but the beat wasn’t hip-hop enough,” she says. “I just created the song [‘Oh Diva Me’] without a thought to categorisation, because that’s what I was feeling at the time.
“The whole need for other people to categorise you can rub off and block your creativity, but if you let go and ride the new wave mentality, you might create some next level stuff that you didn’t even know you were capable of. There was a time when the sound from artists like Mallrat and Tkay would never have been called hip-hop, because it doesn’t emulate the boom-bap or skip-hop sound. The beauty of the new wave of artists is that there seems to be an appreciation for those that don’t box themselves in.”
I really feel like we’re starting to see the start of the next golden era. There’s no rules. It’s an open slate.
As for Latukefu, he’s going to keep rallying behind the next wave of Australian hip-hop over on The Hip-Hop Show for as long as they’ll let him. In his eyes, we’re in a truly exciting time for the genre. “I feel like the last few years in Australian hip-hop have been really amazing,” he says.
“I’ve a lot of artists come into their own that are expanding what we’re used to perceiving as Australian hip-hop. I really feel like we’re starting to see the start of the next golden era. There’s no rules. It’s an open slate.
“People are making the music they feel like making, as opposed to the music that might get them airplay or whatever. For me, it’s one of the most exciting times for hip-hop since I started out.”
Author’s note: This is, by no means, an entirely comprehensive write-up on the matter of Australian hip-hop in its current shape and form. That’s an entire book still to be written – and no doubt it will come. Within the time constraints, however, I’ve attempted to put something together that’s reflective of voices from different backgrounds and cultures, which is a big part of the current wave of Australian hip-hop. This is the same mentality behind the Spotify playlist that is attached to this piece.
If you have any tip-offs or recommendations for artists that do not feature here, please send them over to firstname.lastname@example.org – I look forward to hearing as much stuff as possible; and allowing this story to continue growing and evolving, much like the scene itself. Thank you to every person that got involved with this piece in one way or another.
David James Young is a freelance music journalist, podcaster and Australian hip-hop fan for 15 years. He tweets at @DJYwrites
Listen to our ‘Tone Deaf presents Australian Hip-Hop: Right Now’ compilation on Spotify right here.