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How Western Sydney is redefining hip-hop

Hip-hop is the biggest musical genre in the world right now, and one of the fastest growing locally, but in Australia it still feels like it hasn’t quite broken through and dominated the mainstream yet, in the way it has overseas - especially in the US and UK. 

Acts like the Hilltop Hoods and Bliss n Eso helped popularise Australian hip-hop in the mid-2000s, but while they were achieving commercial success, a much grittier and raw kind of hip-hop was coming out of housing commission estates in Sydney and Melbourne.

Known as gutter rap, or lad rap, this underground subgenre never saw much airplay and didn’t sell heaps of records, but it influenced a generation of artists redefining hip-hop in Australia today.

Writer, journalist and contributor to The Saturday Paper and The Monthly, Mahmood Fazal, joins The Culture to discuss the history of Australia’s underground hip-hop scene and how it feeds into the music being made today.

 

Guest: Writer, journalist and contributor The Saturday Paper and The Monthly, Mahmood Fazal

 
Show Transcript

[Theme Music]

OSMAN: 

Hey there, I'm Osman Faruqi and welcome to The Culture, a weekly show from Schwartz Media where we take a deep dive into the latest in the world of music streaming TV film and everything in arts and entertainment. 

Today on the show we’re talking hip-hop - specifically the local scene here in Australia.

Hip-hop is the biggest musical genre in the world right now, and one of the fastest growing locally, but here in Australia it still feels like it hasn’t quite broken through and dominated the mainstream yet, in the way it has overseas - especially in the US and the UK. 

Acts like the Hilltop Hoods and Bliss n Eso did help popularise Australian hip-hop in the mid-2000s, but while they were achieving commercial success, there was a much grittier and more raw kind of hip-hop that was coming out of housing commission estates in Sydney and Melbourne.

That kind of music was known as gutter rap, or lad rap, this underground subgenre never saw much airplay and didn’t sell heaps of records, but it influenced a generation of artists redefining hip-hop in Australia today.

Joining me on The Culture to discuss the history of Australia’s underground hip-hop scene and how it feeds into the music being made right now is writer, journalist and contributor to The Saturday Paper and The Monthly Mahmood Fazal. 

Thank you for coming on the show.

MAHMOOD:

Pleasure to be here. 

OSMAN:

Alright let's just jump straight in, and you can’t really talk about hip hop right now without talking about what is one of the biggest categories of the genre, drill rap. It’s probably one of the most popular kinds of hip-hop being made right now, all over the world. It came out of the Chicago rap scene but drill is also huge in parts of Australia. You made a documentary about a Western Sydney drill group called ONEFOUR. Tell me about them and about how you ended up making this doco.

MAHMOOD:

So this guy had been speaking to you, who’d just been released from juvie played me, Shanks and Shivs on his phone.

OSMAN:

Which is a ONEFOUR track.

MAHMOOD:

Which is a ONEFOUR track.

Archival Tape -- ‘Shanks and Shivs’ - ONEFOUR

MAHMOOD:

And I just remember having the kind of same visceral feeling I had in primary school when I heard Tupac for the first time, because all of a sudden my immediate environment or the environment that I'd been raised to around, uh, kind of came into focus. 

Archival Tape -- ‘Shanks and Shivs’ - ONEFOUR

MAHMOOD:

They were guys that dressed like I used to dress in tracksuits and Nike tns and they were just really eloquent with their lyrics...

Archival Tape -- ‘Shanks and Shivs’ - ONEFOUR

MAHMOOD:

...Rapping about the brutality that was familiar to us. Um, so I was really shocked and mesmerised and so I wanted to shoot something with them right away.

OSMAN:

You mentioned Tupac, and to me the ONEFOUR story is very similar to that early wave of rap in America in the 90s, where you did have police cracking down on artists for what they were rapping about. And that's kind of what we were seeing with ONEFOUR.

Archival Tape -- ONEFOUR Vice documentary

MAHMOOD:

So the documentary was essentially more about the place that they'd come from and how that fuelled or inflamed the brand of music that they were putting out, which was very, very violent, unabashedly. 

Archival Tape -- ONEFOUR Vice documentary

MAHMOOD:

It was important to not go into that because so much of Australian hip hop hasn't been given the attention it deserves, and it's only really given the attention when it's through something negative, you know, like, like a crime or something. That's when people pay attention, not the fact that we made this documentary about them and it got like a million views. And the music that they were putting out was getting like millions and millions of listens. So there was obviously something going on, yet we still weren't paying attention and we weren't willing to pay attention until we...until it made sense, and for most people, it made sense when they committed a crime, which I found really kind of offensive.

OSMAN:

ONEFOUR are, without a doubt, one of the biggest rap groups in the country right now - they’re also enormously popular overseas, particularly in the UK. The kind of music they’re most known for is drill. Uh, for the sake of our listeners, who might not be as across the ins and outs of rap subgenres as you and I, can you explain exactly what drill is?

MAHMOOD:

Drill started in Chicago. It was basically rappers like Chief Keef...

Archival Tape -- ‘I Don’t Like’ - Chief Keef

MAHMOOD:

...Offering really violent lyrics and depictions of street culture in really bareknuckle ways and some critics have said that, you know, they kind of are literally addressing different gang feuds in their music, and that's why it's controversial. 

Archival Tape -- ‘I Don’t Like’ - Chief Keef

OSMAN:

When did it kind of cross over into Australia and where has it landed here? 

MAHMOOD:

It crossed over to Australia via the UK. So Chicago Drill took off in the U.K. 

Archival Tape -- ‘I don’t like’ - Harlem Spartans

MAHMOOD:

And then from the U.K. it blew up here maybe two or three years ago with acts like ONEFOUR and Hooligan Hefs. The majority of the scene grew out of western Sydney, and, uh, it's kind of divided by the inner west and the greater west. 

Archival Tape -- ‘Spot the Difference’ - ONEFOUR

OSMAN:

And you've also written a lot about the history of lad rap, which is another hip hop subgenre, which I think has quite strong ties to drill. You could say that it's kind of the predecessor of the current wave of drill music in Australia. That scene, the lad rap scene, really originated in Sydney during the 1980s. Can you break down its origins and how you think it’s kind of come to influence the modern wave of Aussie hip hop we're hearing and seeing right now? 

MAHMOOD:

The whole subculture is kind of rooted in what's called eshay culture, which is a term that even the Daily Mail likes to throw in the headlines. It began as a subculture called urching, which was essentially started in Sydney around suburbs like Waterloo, Redfern and Woolloomooloo in the 1980s, where, you know, young gangs or crews, urching crews would get together and basically, you know, commit crimes to make money; break and enter crimes, they were searching for money, ‘urching’. They would speak in pig Latin to avoid police. And a lot of that language is steeped in a lot of hip hop that we listen to today, coming out of coming out of Western Sydney... 

OSMAN:

Sort of ironic that they spoke in pig Latin to avoid the police...

MAHMOOD:

Yeah, yeah. I mean, and then from that they would graffiti the names of their crews, these break and enter crews in suburbs, and then suddenly it started becoming more involved in graffiti. And then once the graffiti subculture kind of mixed and meshed in that in that scene, it naturally led to hip hop, where people, you know, you kind of had to have a presence on the train lines through your graffiti before you could have a voice in hip hop in this scene to be validated. In Australian hip hop in the underground, you kind of had to have authenticity in the graffiti world. 

OSMAN:

And so who are some of the, um, the rappers from that era that you think really, I guess, exemplify that wave of lad rap? 

MAHMOOD:

It all began in kind of 2005, where this mythical guy called Sonds or Soinds, the leader of the most notorious urching crew HR, introduced an Indigenous female rapper named Sky’high to Skeaz Lauren. She was kind of one of the originators of this whole scene. 

Archival Tape -- ‘Real Gutta Muzik’ - Sky’high

MAHMOOD:

Together with Skeamo’s younger brother, they founded the Sydney Searches and that was the first group to represent the urcher subculture. And they gave it its own name, which was gutter rap. 

Archival Tape -- ‘Real Gutta Muzik’ - Sky’high

MAHMOOD:

The OG kind of western Sydney sound was heavily inspired by Southern trap music, like Pimp C, Scarface, Bun B, Three 6 Mafia. Uh, and then from that it gave rise to artists like Kerser who started charting and actually created something of a scene of selling out shows and things like that. 

Archival Tape -- ‘Who Are You?’ - Kerser

MAHMOOD:

But in Melbourne, the sound was different. It was more inspired by New York rappers. It was grittier, it was still a bit more underground and a bit. Yeah, a bit more shady.

OSMAN:

We’re gonna take a quick break, and we’ll be right back.

[ADVERTISEMENT]


The way that you're describing these artists, their backgrounds, the kind of music they make, it feels so much more similar to the kinds of music from London, from New York, from L.A. that wasn't just popular there, but crossed over and was popular here, right? So throughout the 2000s, you have Australians listening to pretty gritty rap from the U.S., from London, but neglecting the local stuff here. Why do you think there was that disconnect? 

MAHMOOD:

I think, I think it's something deeply embedded in the cultural psyche of Australia, to be honest. And it makes me think about when, um, when I turned 18 and my cousins took me out, um, for my birthday and, uh, we went to a fine dining restaurant... 

OSMAN:

...I already love where this story’s going. 

MAHMOOD:

...And, and I, you know, I bought myself a Burberry shirt and, um, you know, we were all, we were all dressed up, a few of my older cousins had their Rolexes on, we were ready to have a great night. We get to this steak joint and you could just feel the atmosphere of the room move and like people kind of laughing at us. And it was like, you know, we did our best to look the part and fit in, but...you know, maybe we were trying so hard, but we were just on the other side like we didn't fit in. It was like we were a joke or something. Um, but you kind of- the room, although we, we were as good as anybody in that room. Um, we were being looked down upon for who you are, who you were, which is something we, we can't escape. Um. And I think that's the way maybe journalists today treat drill music. It's like this weird way of thinking, like we applaud positive representation of diversity. Like we think it's really amazing that Baker Boy can do all these fun dance moves and rap really eloquently about his experiences and stuff like that. But we don't want to hear about the shootings, the imprisonment or gangs, even though it's more popular. We don't want to write about it. We don't address it because it's negative. It's a negative representation of diversity. And it's like we're not ready to accept that we're responsible for that or something. And, um. It's completely fucking bizarre because the, there's a huge population of people in this country, um, and their experiences haven't been positive. They've been negative. And it's this music that helps them make sense of that and deal with that and realise that, OK, like this is how it is in areas of Queensland. It's how it is in Adelaide. It's how it is in Western Sydney, like even before, before this huge explosion in Aussie hip hop, I didn't realise that the same problems that were in my community were literally happening in the exact same ways in all these other communities throughout Australia, from NT to Perth to everywhere. And we all dress the same. We all look the same. We all speak the same. What's happening in these communities? And it's not- and that's why it's so fucking condescending when you have the authorities be like, oh, it's because hip hop's inflaming this, this culture. It's like, no, it's, it's not, that's condescending, it's everything else that's led to this - hip hop's just become the mouthpiece, I think.

OSMAN:

I think everything you're saying, it's making me think of, um, like I think part of this issue is that Australia - and when I say Australia, I mean sort of like elite Australia that shapes narratives about itself, that decides what culture gets to be made and lauded - has a vision of itself that has never been true. The projection of Australia of this massively, predominantly, overwhelmingly Anglo country where everyone is white and blonde and blue eyed and has shrimp's on the barbies and you know, its Neighbours and Home and Away... 

Archival Tape -- ‘Home and Away’ - ONEFOUR

OSMAN:

That, one, is not true and has never been true of Australia. But, two, is the only stories that we’re allowed to be told. So it is not just the external perception of Australia, it gets refracted back in, so Australians think that's what Australia is. And if you’re then compounding that by living in suburbs that are effectively like racially segregated, right? You're not seeing black or brown people, you’re not seeing people from- who’ve had a different kind of life to you. And so when you think that that is what this country is, when you're confronted by the kind of art that you're talking about, you dismiss it. This is not, this is not real stuff. This is some crazy thing on the fringe. I don't need to pay attention to it. 

MAHMOOD:

It's also this awkward thing about people who assume some sort of authority or power, like, in, in a kind of colonial context when they see people on screen who are more successful than them…

OSMAN:

Mm

MAHMOOD:

...It makes them kind of uncomfortable because we live in a society that's structured to see people like that fail. And so there's this weird thing where it's like, ‘oh, we don't know how to deal with this. How can we talk about this? Why? It's just there’s- there's too much going on’. 

OSMAN:

I think that, that is right. And I think it’s all these lines that are created, right? It's like whether it's sports people or artists. We're happy for people from different backgrounds, from more diverse backgrounds, particularly black and brown people, to perform really well to succeed, we will love them for that. The second they use the platform to make us think about Australia

MAHMOOD:

...In a different context... 

OSMAN:

...in a different context, we're like, ‘Oh, hang on, no, no, you can sing and dance, but you got to shut the hell up.’ 

MAHMOOD:

Yeah and you certainly can't project that to the world. 

OSMAN:

Yeah. And so I think then that goes also to the heart of what the content is in these kinds of songs and in these kinds of tracks. It's not just that these people look and sound different to what mainstream Australia expects. It's that they are talking about the structural problems of our society. They are forcing people in power to confront what it means to live in a cultural state, to what it means to live in a system where you are born into a life of poverty because of your race, because of your geography, because of the structural inequalities. And that is not, that’s radical and that's confronting. It's so different to what most mainstream Australia art has been. And I think it is terrifying to, to people in power, to be honest. 

MAHMOOD:

Hm. I've interviewed a lot of people, young boys involved in gangs. And it's not the hip hop that inspires them. There's, there's this recurring motif of shame, like shame is the thing that makes them do bad things. Like one of the rappers who's currently in, in Supermax told me it was like, you know, getting searched in front of his younger brother constantly made him a violent person. You know, the overpolicing of his community, of the commission homes in, in Redfern back in the day, that's what, that's what made people behave badly. It wasn't listening to DMX. 

OSMAN:

Totally. And, you know, when you're talking about that, I mean, that's something that ONEFOUR, as an example, talk about a lot in their art, in their music. Do you see a sort of direct line between the kind of crews that you're talking about from the mid 2000s, the urching, and the music coming out from the current crop of drill rappers like ONEFOUR. 

MAHMOOD:

For sure, it's constructed from the remnants of outsiders in Australian society. You know, that whole culture thrives on being, you know, neglected, rejected, living in poverty. And that doesn't have a colour, you know, race or creed. Because they were involved in that culture they're representing that culture. And that's why they use the language and, and the apparel and they look the same. If you asked one for, they might not say that there is a direct line from NTER, to what their latest album was. But the culture is definitely alive in both acts. Yeah, I think, I think it's undeniable because that, that scene is founded on eshay culture.

OSMAN:

And why do you think that artists like ONEFOUR, this current crop of rappers, have been able to break through in a way that that first wave wasn’t?

MAHMOOD:

For me, the most effective thing about them was that they were young Islander kids, uh, spitting verses in an Australian accent. That was really shocking and I think even on a global stage, people hadn't heard, uh, you know, black or brown people rapping in a heavy Aussie- They hadn't seen people, black or brown people speaking in a heavy Aussie accent.

OSMAN:

Which goes to what we were talking about before, which is what Australia's what Australia projects of itself, right? Like some of those, some of those reaction clips from like, you know, black dudes in the UK that I like ‘I didn't know Australia had Samoans. I didn’t know Australia had these people’. Because when does Australia talk about them? When do we, when do we let people like that make art and succeed?

MAHMOOD:

In my article for The Monthly on ONEFOUR, um, their manager, Ricky, actually speaks about this because he used to work for Emirates and people just couldn't comprehend that he was Australian because...

OSMAN:

...Because he's of Indonesian background. 

MAHMOOD:

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And he was like, he realised very early on that it was the way Australia markets itself. It's like it markets itself one way, and then when anything kind of counters that narrative, it becomes a problem.

OSMAN:

But you think, um, I mean, obviously we should also say the actual skill and the music itself is superb...

MAHMOOD:

Absolutely it's much better than than a lot of the early rappers, purely on lyrics, the production value is very high for some of these guys. When they started, it was just, you know, made at youth centres in Mount Druitt and stuff like that. Like there’s just, there's a lot of talent. The timing, you know, they jumped on the U.K. drill sound very early on. There was a lot of things that were at play. And then their videos were just pretty provocative. You know, they were letting off flares outside the courthouse in Mount Druitt. You know, it's pretty, pretty radical. 

OSMAN:

It's super radical. It’s super fun to watch, as well. And I think the other thing we should mention here that I think is fair to, when we're talking about the gatekeepers and the institutions that have not supported groups like this, I think in the last few years we have started to see some very small changes, I’m thinking particularly of someone that we know and respect Hau, who hosts the hip hop show on triple J, who now has a record label imprint as well. He was part of Koolism, he won the first ever ARIA award for hip hop back when it was still called the Urban Award. And he, having succeeded and reached a position of some kind of influence, has been very dedicated to helping and support people like himself or people from similar backgrounds up into the industry.

MAHMOOD:

For sure, but there's, I mean, he can't do everything on his own. You know, he's a one hour show on triple J once a week, you know, that so many people listen to. Why isn't there more hip hop on the radio? Hip hop is as big as pop music. 

OSMAN:

It's bigger than pop music. Hip hop is the biggest genre in the world right now.

MAHMOOD:

How is, how is there only one one-hour slot? Especially in Australia? Like I went on The Sydney Morning Herald's music page this morning just to see. There wasn't, in the whole list of articles under music, for the first page, there was only one article about a black or brown artist, and it was Milli Vanilli. Like is like, is that our like is that like...It's insane, and then you see all this stuff about Delta Goodrem and it's like, bro, Delta Goodrem’s last five videos on YouTube, don't even make up the last ONEFOUR like- the Street Guide ONEFOUR song, like all of them combined don't even add up to Street Guide by ONEFOUR which was released the same year. 

OSMAN:

I notice this when, um, you know The Kid LAROI, who's a young rapper from, from Waterloo... 

MAHMOOD:

...He had to headline Saturday Night Live to get a feature story written about him... 

Archival Tape -- ‘Blessings’ - The Kid LAROI

OSMAN:

...So when he was on Saturday Night Live, it was the same day that Elon Musk was guest hosting, and Miley Cyrus was doing a performance as well. Every story I read, bar one in the Australian media, The Kid LAROI was the smallest part of that story. Like this is a teenager from Australia, from Waterloo, who has made it. He's got the you know, it's charted on the billboard charts...

MAHMOOD:

Off his own back, too. 

OSMAN:

Absolutely.

Archival Tape -- ‘Blessings’ - The Kid LAROI

MAHMOOD:

But it's sad. Like this is arguably the most significant moment for Australian music, you know, to kind of ever happen, I can't think of a more significant moment in Australian music history than this current one, and it's being ignored completely.

OSMAN:

Let's do what we can to address it. I mean, when you're looking at the scene right now, we've talked a lot about ONEFOUR, who are some of the other artists in the sort of drill space or the contemporary hip hop space that you think are flying a bit under the radar, deserve more attention or props for the work that they're doing? 

MAHMOOD:

Well, I think Youngn Lipz definitely. Like he just won an APRA Award for, um, I think it was like most listened to hip hop track, but he's showing a different side to the areas. You know, he still rocks the Gucci hat. He’s still got all the eshays behind him. He still says, lad, um, but he's, he's kind of like a crooner. He sings like these beautiful love songs. 

Archival Tape -- ‘Say It’ - Youngn Lipz 

MAHMOOD:

Really inspiring to see, um, someone from neighbourhoods like that sing songs like that with their heart on his sleeve and it just being embraced by the whole community, not be kind of dismissed or like put on as like, you know, it's not macho enough or anything. It shows how sophisticated the audience are. Like the, the... 

OSMAN:

Can you tell me a bit about his background, his area? Where's he from? 

MAHMOOD:

He's from Cabramatta, um...Yeah, he's from Cabramatta. And, you know, he's- he had a really rough upbringing. He just dropped a new track called Spaceships 

Archival Tape -- ‘Spaceship’ - Youngn Lipz

MAHMOOD:

He's had...insane, like twenty million streams. You know, OVO reached out to you, to his people, like he's really...there are these artists who are really taking off in big ways. And it's really embarrassing that we haven't given them the critical attention as well as just reporting on it. Yeah, like I...

OSMAN:

...Delta Goodrem has gotten more coverage than someone like Youngn Lipz

MAHMOOD:

Yeah. I really love Snoee Badman right now.

OSMAN:

Tell us Snoee’s story because it's quite extraordinary. 

MAHMOOD:

Well, he was the first Australian to release an EP from inside a maximum security prison

Archival Tape -- ‘Lock Arf’ - Snoee Badman

MAHMOOD:

He had a Discman where he would listen to, uh, a 21 Savage track, and he would just try to ignore what 21 Savage was saying and just listen to the beat. And then he would write bars, and then call up a producer and spit bars with like the phone in one ear, and the headphone piece in the other, over the beat while ignoring 21 Savage. And then the producer would take that, those vocals, and match the 21 Savage beat and basically construct this EP. 

OSMAN:

That’s wild. 

MAHMOOD:

It's incredible. 

OSMAN:

That is incredible.

MAHMOOD:

And in the meantime, he's, he's, he's got this towel in the mainstream yard of Goulburn Prison wrapped around his head, trying to get everyone to stay quiet, in a maximum security prison yard. It's outdoors. It's a pretty, pretty amazing feat. 

OSMAN:

And what's the music like? Is he again - is it, is it him rapping about, you know, his experiences, his life?

MAHMOOD:

Yeah, it's, it's really, really visceral kind of details of, you know... violence. And he's the perfect person to illustrate that because his whole world has been constructed by violence. He's been in and out of prison since he was something like 13. Um, he's, he's last stint has been a brick, like 10 years long. Um, and so he's, you know, absorbed a lot of the institutional kind of brutality that system has kind of forced upon him. 

Archival Tape -- ‘Lock Arf’ - Snoee Badman

MAHMOOD:

And so he, he recites that in his music and tries to bring to life the attitude, ah, of, you know, what survival- he tries to illustrate what survival looks like in a system like that. And it's bloody. 

OSMAN:

So, Mahmood, when you’re, when you sort of survey the lay of the land now, it does feel like these artists that we're talking about are getting more attention, more props, more listens, more streams than at any other point in Australia, within the similar genre space - even if that's happening outside of the mainstream institutions and structures. Do you think that we are at a tipping point where we might end up seeing just the fact that people love this music, that it connects to them, that there are so many people in Australia that are waiting to have their stories told in this way. And that's obviously why so many of these artists are popular. You know, you talked about Youngn Lipz having 20 million streams, ONEFOUR videos are ballistic every time they go up. Do you think that will just propel this genre into mainstream consciousness, or do you think that there's still a long way to go?

MAHMOOD:

I think without the support from the institutions, it will never break through. I think in the U.K. and in America, hip hop is embraced by the press and the institutions, the awards and everything. I mean, it's not perfect, but it's still embraced and it still works within that system. Here, it's like it doesn't really even exist. And I fear that the momentum that has been generated at the moment will fizzle out really quickly if, you know, we don't support this, this culture that's really come from nothing.

OSMAN:

Well, hopefully people listening to this episode will be encouraged, I guess, to at least suss it out if you've never heard any of this music. It is, it's powerful. It's important. I think it's some of the most compelling art being made in Australia right now. 

MAHMOOD:

And it's fun. It's not always serious. Like, you know, it's fun. It's machismo. It is what it is. 

OSMAN:

Mahmood, thanks so much for joining me on The Culture today to talk everything hip hop in Australia. 

MAHMOOD:

Much love, my bro.


OSMAN:

Thanks for listening to the show, The Culture will be back in your feeds next week.
In the meantime you can follow us on Instagram @theculture.pod. 

The Culture is a weekly show from Schwartz Media, it’s produced by Bez Zewdie and Atticus Bastow, Our editor-in-chief is Erik Jensen, and our theme music is by Hermitude.

I’m Osman Faruqi, see ya next time.

 

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