September 2020

Arts & Letters

The trenches of Mount Druitt: OneFour

By Mahmood Fazal

OneFour rapper J Emz. Photograph by Jonathan Tumbel

Australia’s most infamous hip-hop act is an all-Pasifika group born of Western Sydney’s violent postcode wars

Beyond the fog, we see public housing and powerlines. A palm tree blows in the wind outside a white fibro house. Two mattresses are leaning against a wooden fence. There are broken bicycles and broken windows. 

Sporting long braids, tracksuits and Gucci caps, a gang of rappers have come home to Mount Druitt, in Sydney’s west. Hulking and charismatic, J Emz stares down the barrel of the camera and spits, “I come from Mounty – that’s home of the brave.” Black and white images of Western Sydney romanticise the disarray that energises them. “Out here we at war with the cops like Brax, but this ain’t Home and Away.” 

Over the past two years, the all-Pasifika group OneFour, whose name derives from the “Mounty county” street gang NF14, have become Australia’s most infamous hip-hop act. Since their inception in 2017, their rotating roster of rappers – J Emz, Spenny, YP, Lekks, Celly and Caesar – have been going viral on YouTube with music videos that parade their thuggish frame of mind. Blurring the lines between street credibility and art, their authenticity has come at a heavy cost. In 2019, their national tour was cancelled because of police pressure on venues and, after a violent altercation, the majority of their members were incarcerated.

Spenny tells me, “We’re just rapping about what we were living.” His tall, wiry frame animates every word. “There’s nothing more meaningful than real-life shit.” 

While recording their debut EP, Against All Odds, J Emz and Spenny were the only members not in prison.

The band’s manager, Ricky Simandjuntak, explains. “Celly’s verses are just jail bars, stuff that we’ve recorded over the prison phones. YP and Lekks’ verses were recorded before they went inside.” 

To hear their new music, the boys in Long Bay prison listen to Hau Latukefu’s Hip Hop Show on Triple J.

For Simandjuntak, managing OneFour was an opportunity to represent the multicultural face of Australia. “I’m the son of Indonesian immigrants, but I’m Australian.” While working as a flight attendant for Emirates in Dubai, he would get frustrated when people asked where he was really from. “I thought, why can’t I be Australian? And I realised it’s the way that Australia markets itself. It doesn’t include us.”

While working with OneFour, Simandjuntak thinks hard about the intersection of branding, marketing and stereotypes. “It’s all about the way we tell stories.” 

He refers to the theories in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. “An unassuming hero from a broken world meets a mentor. The mentor tells him, ‘Everything you need to fix your world is within you, you just have to have the courage to make sacrifices. Sacrifice something about yourself to transform into something better, something you can teach your people.’” Campbell’s meditations on mythmaking are something Simandjuntak tries to instil in OneFour. “Only in small doses,” he quips. “Only in small doses.”

The rappers have given a voice to hundreds of thousands of marginalised young Australians who are seeing their dress codes, neighbourhoods and slang represented for the first time. The video for their latest single, “Home and Away”, attracted more than a million YouTube views in one week. 

OneFour’s first slate of singles was heavily derived from UK drill, a genre known for its vivid depiction of street violence. Drill’s lyrics are ominous and threatening, its caricatures unforgiving, its performative masculinity a survival mechanism. It’s one of the biggest influences on mainstream hip-hop today, with the likes of Drake collaborating with Headie One, a member of the UK’s most notorious drill group, OFB. 

But Against All Odds is a departure from the nihilism of drill. OneFour have introduced harmonies and reimagined “the trenches” of Mount Druitt with soul. On the track “Heartless”, there are themes of regret. On “Leaving”, there’s romance. “We wanted to show a different side to us,” Spenny says. “Music is in my family. When I was growing up, my dad had a band. They would play reggae music, like Spawnbreezie. We’re not just drillers. We’re artists.”

In June, the fatal stabbing of 15-year-old Solomone Taufeulungaki in Melbourne sparked controversy about the influence of drill music on young Islanders. As a warning to others, the victim’s relative wrote on Facebook, “Retaliation is not a must”, a direct reference to one of OneFour’s most famous lines: “Retaliation is a must, ain’t no maybes, ifs or buts.”

J Emz and Spenny voiced their frustrations on “My City” (featuring another emerging hitmaker, The Kid Laroi). J Emz opens his verse with tempered aggression: “Now they’re blaming OneFour for all of the drillings / They’re blaming us for what happens in Sydney / They’re blaming us for what happens in Melbourne / They’re blaming us for what happened in Brizzy … Get the fuck out my face, I ain’t leading the young’uns astray / Stay in your place!” 

For J Emz, the social fractures within migrant communities incite more violence than every gangster rap record ever released. “At the end of the day, we would never tell someone to go and shoot someone or stab someone. The postcode wars have been going on for generations. We talk about what happens, what goes on around here and what we’ve been through. That’s that.”

Although in sonic terms OneFour adopted drill, their style was steeped in a unique Western Sydney subculture – groups commonly referred to as “lads”, “earchers” or “eshays”. OneFour were the first Islander lad rappers to perform in an Australian accent. They wanted to use a colloquial Australian context to hammer home the point that they are a product of this environment. 

Lad rap emerged as an Australian hip-hop genre in the early 2000s, generated by Anglo-Australian graffiti gangs who were rapping about the struggles of life in public housing. Lads confuse police by speaking in pig-Latin slang – eetswa (sweet), innerspay (spinner) and eshay (yes or good) – some of which can be heard in OneFour lyrics. 

The founder of the genre, a rapper known as Nter, explains: “The definition of an earcher is someone who goes out to make money illegally … It’s about searching for ways to get money because you’ve got none. You’re searching back rooms looking for tills, you’re doing ram raids, you’re doing anything to find the money.” Nter was the first Australian rapper to employ pig Latin in his lyrics, to show illegal firearms in his music videos, and to openly discuss drug trafficking in his verses. (Not that his music has ever been censored by NSW Police.) In 2019, he offered OneFour a slot at a concert in Marrickville. It was OneFour’s first show, and the only time they would perform in Sydney’s inner west. 

“I had a good upbringing. My parents are church people,” explains J Emz. “That being said, it’s up to you. At the end of the day, it all falls in your own hands … You want the cars and the clothes they tell you you can’t have. You want to enjoy better living. And you get trapped.”

Three of OneFour’s members are currently incarcerated for violent crimes. “I’ve been in and out since 2016,” says J Emz. “I did my last lagging in 2019. That’s my last lag.” For them, New South Wales is defined by social borders; there’s “the area” (or Western Sydney), the beaches, the city and jail. 

“Our boys go to jail all the time,” says J Emz. “Jail taught me a lot of principles; your word is your word. I had to become a better man inside. It humbled me. I don’t take a lot of things for granted anymore because in a click it could all be gone.”

Simandjuntak believes J Emz’s last prison stint bolstered his musical resolve. “It’s the reason J Emz has so much self-belief: he went to jail and survived it. And I think he realised he had what it takes to lead the team, against all odds. Even in losing his brother, Lekks, and Celly to the prison world, he understands that he’s destined for this.”

Spenny, the only member of OneFour who hasn’t been incarcerated, has witnessed the transfiguration of his gang through art. “I’ve learnt to live and learn. I’ve learnt to take my losses as lessons,” he says. What would he say now to young kids involved in gangs? He pauses and reflects. “If it’s not you, then don’t do it. You need to have a reason to do things. Don’t just think that because you heard a song you can go out and do dumb shit. It’s in some people. And if it’s not in you, you’ll find out about it later. And you’ll realise you’ve lost.”

Spenny thinks before he speaks. He’s uncomfortable talking about the realities of his environment, and wary of betraying his oath to the streets. “Mount Druitt’s violent. There’s trouble there. The violence just happens. It happens all around us. Some people get ahead of themselves. It’s quick-second thinking. Emotional thinking.”

NSW Police alleges that OneFour are embroiled in an ongoing postcode war between rival street gangs representing Sydney’s inner west and greater west. In 2019, the police’s Strike Force Imbara told reporters it was looking into “gangs such as OneFour”. Officers from Strike Force Raptor have approached streaming music services to have OneFour’s music erased from their catalogues. And venues have reported that they have been pressured by police to cancel shows. “When [Strike Force] Raptor got involved, they were trying to get us to censor our music,” J Emz says, and giggles. “They were telling us to just make love songs.”

When OneFour’s national tour was cancelled, Simandjuntak had their lawyers write to the NSW Police commissioner. They never got a response. When asked what he wished to discuss with the commissioner, Simandjuntak sounds off. “Let’s talk about the sexual abuse that exists within the Church and how that’s been affecting Pacific Islander communities in Australia. Let’s talk about the domestic violence, the alcoholism, drug abuse and mental trauma that a lot of these kids go through. Let’s talk about suicide rates for Pacific Islanders. Let’s talk about Pacific Islander boys being the second-most representative in jail behind the Indigenous. There’s a plethora of things we can talk about, yet you want to talk about drill.”

J Emz recalls one of his first encounters with police. “I remember being at a house party in Bidwill on Luxford Road. And the cops came to shut it down. The riot squad pulled up and snatched our boys one by one. They were getting beat up. Everybody had to just watch. If you get involved, you’re getting bashed too.” 

Afterwards, he says, “I was sitting at the Maccas, and out of nowhere the boys that got arrested rocked up … They all had purple faces, black eyes. They were all busted open. But we were happy to be going home. It didn’t click until we got a bit older. They were letting us go just to clear their tracks. We were only 14 when they’d fucked us up and let us go.”

On the origins of the postcode-gang violence, he is candid. “The violence has been going on for generations. It’s sad because we don’t know why it started. But we’re just expected to go on with it.” 

He stresses that the band members are no longer involved in the melees. Their problems were personal disputes from their teenage years that they have outgrown through music. 

“There’s a lot of things we can’t speak about. It starts with punch-ons, turns into stabbings and shootings. You know how it goes from there – everyone’s pride gets the best of them. No one in the area wants to come out second best.” 

In October 2019, OneFour successfully applied for a bail variation so that YP could travel interstate to perform live in Brisbane. “And that night I was like, ‘You know what? Fuck it! I deserve to party tonight,’” Simandjuntak says. “So I get buzzed. I’m watching videos. And I get a call at 1.30 in the morning. And it was J Emz’s mum. And she said, ‘I’m just letting you know that our house just got shot at. It got shot at twice. I don’t know where J Emz and YP are.’” 

OneFour’s music is not about art imitating life, it’s about life becoming art.

“I remember, I was with YP outside my house. I was rapping my old bars, the stuff I’d written in prison,” J Emz tells me. “We began to plan the video in our heads as we started laying out our verses. I could see the final shot before it happened, eh! The final shot was me walking out of jail. And then my brother was walking in.” A few months later, YP was imprisoned.

Mahmood Fazal

Mahmood Fazal is a writer and a filmmaker.

From the front page

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during Question Time earlier this week. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Go figure

How did Labor end up with an emissions-reduction target of just 43 per cent?

Image of The Beatles and Yoko Ono during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions. Image © Apple Records / Disney+

‘Get Back’ is ‘slow TV’ for Beatles nuts

Despite plenty of magical moments, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour epic is the work of a fanatic, and will likely only be watched in full by other fanatics

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Declaration of independents

The success of Indi MP Helen Haines points to more non-aligned voices in parliament

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

In This Issue

Image of Mike Pompeo and Marise Payne

Choppy waters

Australia’s assumption that China will give up its Pacific rivalry with the US is dangerously misguided

Cover of ‘What Are You Going Through’

‘What Are You Going Through’ by Sigrid Nunez

The late-life author of ‘The Friend’ delivers a chastening and discursive novel of mourning

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Injustice unmasked

What are the priorities of policing protests under lockdown?

Cover of ‘Little Eyes’

‘Little Eyes’ by Samanta Schweblin (trans. Megan McDowell)

Intimacy and privacy blur as people adopt cybernetic pets inhabited remotely by others, in this disturbing speculative fiction

More in Arts & Letters

Still from ‘No Time To Die’

The Bond market: ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time To Die’

Blockbuster season begins with a middling 007 and a must-see sci-fi epic

Abbotsford I

New poetry, after lockdowns

Bing Crosby and David Bowie on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, circa 1977.

Oh, carols!

The music of Christmas, from the manger to the chimney

Image of Gerald Murnane

Final sentence: Gerald Murnane’s ‘Last Letter to a Reader’

The essay anthology that will be the final book from one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic authors

More in Music

Bing Crosby and David Bowie on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, circa 1977.

Oh, carols!

The music of Christmas, from the manger to the chimney

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

Image of Dry Cleaning

More than a feeling: ‘New Long Leg’

The deadpan spoken-word vocals of British post-punk band Dry Cleaning are the mesmeric expression of online consciousness

Image of Pharaoh Sanders and Sam Shepherd

Always tomorrow: ‘Promises’

Legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders joins electronic musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra for a compositionally minimalist album

Online exclusives

Image of The Beatles and Yoko Ono during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions. Image © Apple Records / Disney+

‘Get Back’ is ‘slow TV’ for Beatles nuts

Despite plenty of magical moments, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour epic is the work of a fanatic, and will likely only be watched in full by other fanatics

Image of John Wilson in How To with John Wilson. Image courtesy of HBO / Binge

Candid camera: ‘How To with John Wilson’

Both delightfully droll and genuinely moving, John Wilson’s idiosyncratic documentary series is this month’s streaming standout

Image of Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho. Image © Claire Folger / Warner Bros.

Slow motions: Clint Eastwood’s ‘Cry Macho’

Despite patient filmmaking, the 91-year-old director’s elegiac feature is unable to escape the legend of the man

Image of Anthony Bourdain in Roadrunner. © Focus Features

End of the road: The Anthony Bourdain documentary ‘Roadrunner’

Morgan Neville’s posthumous examination of the celebrity chef hews close to the familiar narrative