Smokey's Blog

we gonna do the damn thing or what

Month: July, 2013

Fans are just as important as Kings

Horrorshow are music fans.

Solo assures me there’s youtube footage of him in the front row of the Annandale at the launch of my album The Signal in 2007. Thinking I could somehow use this against him one day, I checked out the video but found the resolution too grainy and the audio is a crime against your crappy laptop speakers. It’s hard to distinguish him but I don’t doubt the story or the inquisitive instincts that took him down Parramatta Rd to the gig that night. Ever since I met him I’ve been struck by how much of a fan he is of music.

Adit and Solo

Adit and Solo

Both he and his compadre Adit are always across new hip hop before I am. I’ll unintentionally stumble across the release day of a new J. Cole album and mention it in passing only to find they’ve already got opinions on the good and bad tracks. I could sleep out in a digital queue for a first-day download and still hear “yeah it’s alright man”, when I ask what they think that morning.

When Horrorshow brought me The Grey Space I deduced that they were fans of Atmosphere. They wouldn’t put Walk You Home on it, making the better decision to keep it for their unfinished second album, despite my wishes at the time. The first wanna join the Elefants conversation I had with them took place on the balcony at our studio/office at the time in Enmore. I remember telling them that the only way Elefant Traks could develop was if the likes of Horrorshow took the possibilities opened up by The Herd and amplify them.

A year or so after my Annandale gig, Horrorshow would sell the same venue out launching their debut and the ball was rolling. By then it was clear something was up – early days made the reception no less feverish. Inside Story finally did drop all of 13 months after album #1; truly announcing their arrival; outgrowing early influences and setting themselves apart from the growing pack.

Spitshine Tour squash. Jane, Gusto and I up front - Adit & Solo in the back.

Spitshine Tour squash. Jane, Gusto and I up front – Adit & Solo in the back.

They supported me in the Spring of 2009 as I launched my third album Spitshine – we played 30 dates and each night they’d finish their slot and hit the merch desk. Part of their vision has always been to go hard on the merch, but underlying that commitment is a genuine desire to be available to people at shows. It reflects the humility they project with their music – while simultaneously a perfect example of their ambitiousness and attention to work detail. They’ve lined up at the merch desk as fans and witnessed labels like Rhymesayers kill it with hoodies, tees and CDs – it’s no wonder they’re all about it.

Jnr Harrison (Ish Khopkar)

Jnr Harrison (Ish Khopkar)

There was an extended gap between Inside Story and the new album King Amongst Many but the ingredients for the new batch took only as much time as was needed. I sat with Solo on a handful of occasions as he worked through lyrics, once or twice in conceptual stages, and later at deadline, when it feels like every part of you is being pulled in different directions with an urgency that sirens louder as the sign-off looms. He shows me a stack of mostly-finished verses and choruses with random lines missing – usually a writer carries themself from one hard-fought line to the next, as if a computer game where one line unlocks the next line’s door – but Solo stops, skipping ahead knowing he’ll return to tie up the loose ends. It fascinates me – these idiosyncratic techniques always do. Somehow he makes it all sound so dope. In a way it reminds me of Ozi Batla, whose handwriting and written rhythm never make sense to me, til he knocks out the verse live.

Solo

His lyricism stems from a profound sense of responsibility a songwriter has to the listener. This goes above and beyond being educational (though he muses on Dead Star Shine about inadvertently becoming a teacher); it’s about being sincere. It’s an important value whether he’s listening to a Crate Cartel or a Roc Nation release or writing his own – sincerity doesn’t need to be badged by moral virtuousness.

Unkle Ho and Solo

Unkle Ho and Solo

The strength and conviction of Solo’s vocal reminds me of the sound of a well-built car door being closed. What I mean by that is there’s a completeness to his rounded tone, untainted by a tinny frame. It is authority. A lot of rappers sound like the door didn’t shut properly, in more ways than one. Most of King Amongst Many’s sung parts aren’t multi-tracked leaving the vocal performance to carry its melody without a posse of BVs strong-arming their insecure boss.

I’ll hear a lyric and have that moment that transcends competitive instincts: I wish I wrote that. As I sit in the back seat of a hire car cruising down the Queensland coastline these lyrics from Listen Close ring out…

I stay playing these beats on the same train platform that Lawson waited on watching faces in the street/ except that somehow the scene appears differently, soaked under the cold pale glow of electricity so/ Before that history goes to the grave, I listen close to the whispers of the ghosts of yesterday/ from beneath the coats of paint they speak/ empty shopfronts the faded evidence of a generation’s dreams

The kid’s on some shit.

Solo’s adventurousness thematically is tempered with a firmer loyalty towards boom bap – whereas Adit’s recruitment of synths and strings has resulted in a more contemporary sound than they initially discussed for King Amongst Many. This next record will be a throwback to stripped down boom bap rap shit they told me a couple of years ago. So much can change between the philosophical forecasts and the creative decisions made in the moment. They didn’t make the record they promised – they created something better.

King Amongst Many - Art by Dale Harrison

King Amongst Many – Art by Dale Harrison

The unflappable Adit motors away like a pro in the dying seconds of a nail-biter, writing prolifically in his own cheerful way. His production now feels effortless, the drums comfortably sitting alongside samples and instrumentation like old friends. Of course, these sounds were supposed to be together. Diddy just smiles and laughs like he’s having a ball; safe in the knowledge he knows wassup. I say it feels effortless but dedicated people have a way of shrugging their shoulders, downplaying the problems encountered and the painstaking quest for solutions. It’s done, what next?

Adit in the stu

Adit in the stu

That’d be the various projects he’s got on the boil with Left and Milan, as well as producing Spit Syndicate’s Sunday Gentleman. Adit has developed beautifully as a producer since the early days; he has the predisposition to do amazing things. That disposition is a great asset when it comes to co-writes and production work because there’s nothing better than a quick and autonomous musician in that environment. If you follow Adit on social media, you know he’s more likely to troll Ross Gittins over economic matters than self-promote himself.

Adit in form pre-Frankston show after a massive Melbourne gig the night before

Adit in form in Frankston

Their perspectives have always been balanced by a sincerity and respect which makes their rise all the more sweeter. It’s due in no small part to being music fans and having a respect for where they sit in the scheme of things.

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Both of them are part of the furniture around Elefant Traks now and accordingly we’d back them no matter what they did but I’m not surprised they’ve gone and written an album like this. King Amongst Many is something special. Elefant Traks’ designer, production manager and Herd bass player Dale Harrison, says out of nowhere “I love em”. Anyone who knows Dale Harrison knows he doesn’t say that.

Dale, Adit and Solo

Dale, Adit and Solo

He’s also a big music fan.

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Surface Level or Level Surface

I read Aamer Rahman’s great White Rapper FAQ and Part 2 and felt compelled to add to it. I’m a big fan of Fear of a Brown Planet and I reckon their humour is genius – but the piece got me thinking.

As a white rapper and label manager it’s been easy to fool myself into thinking that white privilege doesn’t exist.

I’ve always felt that as long as my music and deeds represent in a genuine way, I’m doing my bit. It’s much more humbling getting my head around acknowledging that privilege and how it trumps my perception of what ‘doing my bit’ means. For example, I consider myself uncompromisingly anti-racist but as a white male, I benefit from racism. Like some fucked up Steven Bradbury scenario where I stand to gain if sections of our society have their opportunities obstructed. Stop. Think about that.

Having it pointed out that you have white privilege touches a raw nerve, especially for us white hip hop heads – we’re like the kid who covers his head and becomes convinced no one can see him.

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In local hip hop, our prevailing perspective is that we represent the ‘little guy’ – a nod to our sense of egalitarianism. So we get offended and usually miss the point of what white privilege actually means.

I’m speaking from my perspective here but let’s cut to the chase – the majority of successful Australian hip hop artists share two features. We’re male and white.

Racism has become an ugly characteristic of the local hip hop experience – whether it be the subtle forms “I like your music cos it’s not about bling and bitches” (barely anyone doesn’t say that) to the more overt “I only like Aussie hip hop, fuck that n***er shit” (the comments section). There’s little to no overt racism in local hip hop ‘songs’ but there’s no shortage of straight-up boneheaded racism in our audiences. Why is that? Is it because our hip hop songs are for the most part indifferent to other people’s struggle? We care, but it’s not a problem we face when we walk out of the house, so it doesn’t become an integral part of what we communicate.

How many of us think saying “fuck racism” means job done? The mentality is that from time to time you draw a line in the sand and that publicly qualifies you as having a social conscience. A nice guy. Don’t forget that political song on your record. You can include me in that.

The concept that our privilege has an unspoken price is a bitter pill. Most of us earn between nothing or at best a small wage from music. I don’t even fully know what that price means for me but I do know we take the lifestyle and conveniently bypass the life. The latter contends with historical oppression and ongoing prejudice that we just don’t comprehend… as we beatmix the latest US rap slang into our lexicon.

And hip hop is regarded as one of, if not the most politically aware music genre in Australia. I don’t even want to get into what that says about other genres of music.

I hear Aamer when he says we should tread lightly. For me it’s an ongoing cause for sincerity and reflection. I don’t see this as white guilt; I think it’s an invitation to step up to being a genuine ally. Through action.

There is a disconnect in our music community between people who think they can work hard and make it, and those who can’t imagine it ever being an achievable goal. I’ve got a few practical thoughts on how we can step up. There’s a zillion more..

Artists with recognition need to book support acts beyond the latest MC with a song on triple J. A genuine music career takes time and requires opportunities. I watch tour after tour with the same handful of acts – no doubt reliable live performers that have worked their butts off – but it’s usually a combination of the same groups.

Artists with social media profiles (big or small) need to recognise their influence beyond a platform to get more ‘likes’. The ‘co-sign’ is a valuable thing, and it can open minds when it’s not the faces people expect to see. Inspire your fans.

What about a mentoring program similar to AIME where established artists give a leg up to aspiring artists from different backgrounds? When it works, it’s not one-sided, it’s a sharing of knowledge between both parties.

Don’t get it twisted, this is not about charity or well intentioned white people, it’s about recognising how good we’ve got it and paying respect to this great culture created by black excellence.

I believe that local hip hop is a community, more than an industry, and it has a great ability to lead on issues of equality and social justice. A lot already do, but if we really want a level surface consistent with a desire for social equality, we need this to be a surface level concern.