How to collect pop music from down under, part six: the hip-hop course

It was inevitable that hip-hop would be bubbling under in Australia, as it had around the world. As with most music movements down under, hip-hop there also took a nudge from its popularity in the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1980s. But here, it took just a little bit longer. We’ve talked for the past few weeks about how the development of Australian music centered around bands performing in local venues, and how they grew after some sort of national infrastructure – critical support on radio and TV – was locked into place. Well, that infrastructure got complacent for a while – then again, the 80s were big for many of these bands – and hip-hop barely got a look-in, even by the time the 1990s came in and tastes were starting to shift all over.

 

It’s not that Australia was totally sheltered from hip-hop. Groups were beginning to form in the mid-80s, inspired by American acts like Public Enemy. As with the bands a decade before, they first released their music under independent labels. By the 1990s the major labels were beginning to pay attention. Sound Unlimited were the first Aussie hip-hop group to release under a major label, first with a series of singles, and then, in 1992, their only album, A Postcard From The Edge of the Under-Side. However, reactions to their music was mixed, with other hip-hop artists accusing them of being too slick; while their sound was rooted in funk, they also came in with the working class perspectives of their western Sydney locale.

Even if they split in 1994, just four years after their founding, their success demonstrated how Aussie hip-hop was capable of breaking through to the mainstream. In 1993, another hip-hop pioneer, Def Wish Cast, released an album, Knights of the Underground Table, through a major label. They embraced all of hip-hop culture – turntablism and b-boying front and center – while, importantly, integrating the Australian accent in their tracks. The same year, hip-hop would get an important boost when Paul Kelly – yes, him – retooled one of his songs as “Last Train”, collaborating with indigenous singer Christine Anu and female rapper MC Opi; the new version, which further embraced dancehall influences, was nominated for an ARIA Award in 1994. (MC Opi would later work on Christine’s debut album Stylin’ Up, which was named Best Indigenous Release at the 1995 ARIAs.)

 

Pushing recognition further is the Melbourne-based group 1200 Techniques, founded in 1997. Its members were fully immersed with hip-hop culture when it began bubbling under in the 1980s – they were really young then – and released their debut single, “Hard As Hell”, in 2001. By this time Triple J – which had copped accusations of being late to hip-hop in the 1980s – had made some sort of turnaround and began featuring more Aussie hip-hop acts on their playlist, no doubt buoyed by the success of the acts that came before. The infrastructure had finally taken notice.

The following year, they released their debut full-length, Choose One, which became a runaway success. “Karma” won two ARIA Awards, for Best Independent Release and Best Video – the first for an Aussie hip-hop act, at a time when the ARIAs didn’t even have a category dedicated to hip-hop. The group helped bridge the gap between hip-hop culture and the mainstream by bringing the best of both worlds: embracing the typical sound of the genre and merging it with a killer live performance, bringing in rock and funk influences to their final output. While their contribution to the genre is undeniable, they only released one more album – 2004’s Consistency Theory – before the members pursued solo work. Well, there was a surprise EP eleven years later.

 

In 2004, the ARIAs finally set up a hip-hop category, first won by duo Koolism. A couple of years later, arguably one of Australia’s biggest hip-hop groups would dominate that category: Hilltop Hoods, founded in Adelaide in 1997. Like with 1200 Techniques, their members grew up steeped in hip-hop culture, with turntablism being an important element of their early work. Their 2003 album The Calling further proved the mainstream appeal of hip-hop, hitting #53 in the Australian album charts and later becoming the first hip-hop record to reach platinum status.

However, it was their follow-up, 2006’s The Hard Road, which would be their biggest success. It would hit the top spot in the charts – the first Aussie hip-hop act to do so. That album would win both Best Independent Release and Best Urban Release at the ARIAs, but most importantly, it was a defining moment for Aussie hip-hop: finally, their appeal goes beyond the fans from the under-side (hah) that have supported them throughout the years. The Hoods continue to perform to this day, and importantly have lent critical support to other rappers and acts – important as hip-hop began to flourish as a critical part of all of Aussie music.

 

By the time Aussie hip-hop has staked its place in the country’s music landscape, it has become a sound that is both distinctly Australian and also keen to absorb influences from around the world. Perhaps importantly, these influences come more from Europe and Africa, perhaps a result of the country’s history, and an initial apprehension towards out-and-out embracing American influences during the movement’s formative years. Perhaps the best example is Bliss N Eso, the first hip-hop act to break into the Aussie album charts’ top 50 (before the Hilltop Hoods ever did so), and whose breakthrough album, 2008’s Flying Colours, was recorded in three different continents.

In 2011, Perth rapper Drapht released his fourth album Life of Riley, doing so independently – he previously was with Obese Records, one of the first Aussie imprints to specialize in hip-hop. The album would end up topping the album charts that year; it would also win an ARIA Award. Seth Sentry would do the same in 2015 for his album Strange New Past; his carefree style often integrates references to video games, with him being an avid gamer and all.  Thundamentals also made headway with their 2014 single “Something I Said”, although their 2017 album Everyone We Know would see greater chart success. By this time hip-hop and electronic production are starting to fuse, as exemplified by the work of M-Phazes, who is better known for producing for a wide range of artists, including tracks off Kimbra’s debut Vows, and Amy Shark’s breakthrough “Adore”.

 

Like with other countries, hip-hop has served to bring underrepresented voices to the fore. A bunch of female acts from Australia went on to huge success internationally: Tkay Maidza – born in Zimbabwe but raised in Perth – made headway at that intersection between hip-hop and pop, particularly after a guest appearance on Troye Sivan’s debut Blue Neighbourhood. Sampa the Great also established herself first in Australia: the Zambia native began to release music while studying audio production in Sydney, and continues to do so out of Melbourne. And of course, there’s Iggy Azalea; born in the outskirts of Sydney, she moved to the United States to pursue a musical career. Her 2014 album The New Classic made her the first non-American female rapper to top Billboard‘s hip-hop charts.

Aboriginal Australians also took to hip-hop to express their sentiments about their situation, in the grand tradition of hip-hop being an avenue for political opinions. One of the most important proponents is Briggs, who first attracted the attention of the Hilltop Hoods and later released a series of acclaimed records. His Yorta Yorta heritage informs his music, particularly his work with the Aboriginal duo A.B. Original (alongside Trials) whose music is more political – see debut “January 26”, which tackled the ongoing debate surrounding the date set for Australia Day. Just this year, the duo were named Songwriters of the Year at the APRA Awards, off the strength of their album Reclaim Australia. Oh, and also, Briggs acts too. Just to loop it all back. [NB]

 

[Next week: we wrap up the series with a listen to Australia’s country scene.]

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