The "Aussie Hip-Hop" Debate Resurgent: A rapper's response to SBS Viceland
I wrote this article on May 7 and submitted to an online publication, which will remain anonymous, but despite interest upon my pitch, the piece was never published. Not sure what happened, but after waiting to hear back, perhaps too long, I have decided to publish it independently here on my blog. At the time of writing, the videos discussed were a hot topic in Australia's hip-hop spheres, as such if at any point the references or tone seem delayed, that is why. I have endeavored to change the piece as little as possible to remain honest to the tone and contention of the article at the time. Also, just to note, this is an opinion piece from the perspective of a rapper of 17+ years in Australia. Please disagree if you do, it is just another voice in the conversation after all. Enjoy!
I started rapping when I was 11 years old, in 2000. Like many other kids at the time, the most viable and popular artists I listened to were American. As a result when I started sketching my first verses, I spat it with a Detroit-esque Eminem-influenced twang. When I was in high-school I dismissed all Australian hip-hop as “Bogan rap about BBQs and VB”. When I was 14 I discovered Hilltop Hoods and Bias B and said to myself, “Wow. They rap like Mos Def and Gang Starr but in their natural accent... Maybe it’s not just Bogan rap after all...”
“Australian hip-hop as you once knew it is dead,” a young face declares in the opening of The Feed mini-doc entitled, “More of a Movement than a Sound”. Premiering in late April on SBS Viceland, the short examines the current evolving state of Australian hip-hop. It was first teased on April 28 with a trailer video entitled, “Is Aussie Hip Hop ‘Too White’? The social media debate this question flared up was precluded by a video from Capacite TV on April 22 entitled “The AUSSIE ACCENT and hip hop”. Both the Capacite TV and SBS featurettes examine the changing face of Australian hip-hop, promoting its evolution in sound and aesthetic whilst championing multicultural diversity and freedom of self-expression. The pieces feature today’s new generation of artists from Big Skeez, Manu Crooks, Da Mutantz, to Miracle and also asks Australian hip-hop veteran Urthboy to weigh in on the current state versus where the scene started off. Such pieces are long over-due crucial pieces of acknowledgement at the cultural and social progression and metamorphosis hip-hop has undergone recently within our shores. Unfortunately, due in-part to the quick nature of the videos, there is an alarming display of ambivalence towards Australian hip-hop’s historical and cultural context. This combined with some semantic and research oversights largely means the videos scramble the topics of the debate and ultimately misjudge, misrepresent and misreport what Australian hip-hop even is.
A large point of contention in each piece is the long and tiresome argument on “accent” within the Australian hip-hop community. Both pieces promote using an Americanised accent and champion that you don’t have to sound like Kath and Kim whilst making hip-hop. What both pieces fail to acknowledge, is that rapping with an American accent is far from reinventing the wheel. From Weapon X & Ken Hell, Digga of The J.Wess Project , Figg Kidd (who has dropped the accent and now raps as Lee Monro) and yes all the way up to Iggy Azalea, the use of an American accent in Australian hip-hop is a common practise and because of this it is an incredibly divisive one. For a time, Australian hip-hop heads were convinced the debate had ended, but it has resurfaced due to hip-hop’s recent adoption by larger mainstream Australian culture and a new generation of young talent on the rise. It’s a loaded question, no matter who you ask. “Is it okay to use an American accent if you’re a non-American artist?” There is no short or definitive answer. But what the SBS and Capacite videos fail to acknowledge or seemingly even realise, is the larger context for why “the Accent” or “Americanisation of Australian hip-hop” is such a contested issue.
In the 90s and 2000s, and even up until as recent as 5-6 years ago, being a hip-hop head in Australia was largely being a member of a niche community. Outside of fellow fans, the broader Australian population viewed hip-hop as appropriation of an American culture and lifestyle. There was a pressure by hip-hop heads and artists to fit into a pre-conceived image of a certain look and feel of hip-hop: it was inherently an American fashion, both in clothes and music. However amongst the Australian hip-hop movement, which for a long time was exclusively an underground movement, a push to embrace our own culture was by proclaiming that we were in fact Australian and not American and were making hip-hop. Our nationality was circumstantial. Unfortunately, against its wishes, some listeners who aligned with bigotry and supremacy latched on and infiltrated. Red-necks and white supremacists saw it as a movement where “White Australians” were seizing hold of hip-hop and making it their own. But the initial reason for promoting using an Australian accent was what hip-hop has always been about: championing freedom of self-expression. You didn’t have to put on an act. You could sound Australian and still be a legitimate artist. You didn’t’ have to try and fit in.
To begin with the “Support Australian Hip-Hop” movement was a call for championing local music. It did unfortunately become a form of nationalist propaganda, often slapped alongside Southern Cross and “F*ck Off, We’re Full” bumper stickers. But the original message was essentially: be yourself - you don’t have to copy American music to be “hip-hop”. You can be inspired by it and make something of your own. Unfortunately once again, this became a didactic put-down for anything that sounded like it may be trying to emulate or mimic an American sound or fashion. A symptom of a defensive stance which ultimately was a counter-intuitive tyranny, was translated as, “You needed to be ‘Australian’ (whatever the hell that is; this is stolen land after all) if you wanted to make hip-hop in Australia.”
But as we are now well aware, that era is almost long-behind us. In the past five years acts like Tkay Maidza, Remi, L-Fresh the Lion, B-Wise, Allday, Sampa the Great, Mida$ Gold, Gill Bates, Mallrat, Baro, Koi Child and more are prominent faces and voices within Australian hip-hop. But they could be considered prominent faces within mainstream Australian hip-hop. That Australia even has a mainstream hip-hop which isn’t comprised of a small handful of acts is a recent development. Until recently, the majority of our hip-hop was underground; what little mainstream rappers we did have, seems to be the only calibre of artist the SBS Viceland piece mocks. Yes, the sound look and feel of each new generation artist mentioned above is unique and champions a message of diversity and multiculturalism, which Australia is always in vital need of, however, and another short-sight of the SBS Viceland piece, in celebrating today’s diversity of sound one must not overlook or disparage the frontrunners of the hip-hop community in Australia.
The SBS Viceland featurette is mainly guilty of affording no time to the historical context of hip-hop in Australia. This allows the host to perform a mock rap personifying an idea of Australia’s hip-hop scene up to this moment, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, put your hands in the air / like you really don’t care/ about all them other cultures cause they really don’t compare”. What I also consider unfair is a majority of artists interviewed are from NSW. I do understand that this feature had certain geographical and budget restraints, but if you’re going to claim diversity, you could at least exercise that with a broad representation of hip-hop in this country for both past and current generations. It’s ironic that Australian hip-hop is largely called “white washed” (which I myself am guilty of) since many Australian hip-hop pioneers, Def Wish Cast, Koolism, 1200 Techniques, Pegz, Pac Dread and the AKA Brothers, Mass MC are from, to recall some, Italian, Greek, Indonesian and Polynesian multicultural backgrounds. Now, I am definitely admitting the larger pop-culture dominance of today’s artists is greater than the exposure afforded to the likes of Wire MC, Brotha Black, GMC, Justice & Kaos and Dazahstah of Downsyde. I am not for one second suggesting it was all sunshine and rainbows for these artists, who definitely were faced with racial and xenophobic hardship whilst carving a lane for hip-hop in Australia. But all these artists, who are merely a handful of our hip-hop pioneers, shouldn’t be ignored. The propensity to do so is largely part of a generational divide, which is a global problem for all of hip-hop culture.
One of the main issues inherent to this discussion of the “future” or “new wave” is a generational gap. There is a divide world-wide between today’s crop of artists and yesteryear’s. Nobody is innocent. There are guilty indiscretions on both sides. The age old go-to criticism from the older generation is that today’s hip-hop isn’t “real hip-hop”. Trap is considered a pop-friendly venture and as such is derided by “hip-hop purists”. Some of the younger generation aren’t so much guilty of criticism but more a general ambivalence and alarmingly proud ignorance towards the artists and eras that paved the way for them today. Now, it’s not Australian hip-hop, but the recent-ish showdown between new-wave artist Lil’ Yachty and “old-head” Joe Budden displays perfectly the divide between both generations. Fact is, the old-heads need to embrace evolution and stop fighting against development. Likewise, the younger-heads should respectfully do their homework and acknowledge what came before them. Not that they need to emulate what came before, but for appreciation and understanding of how their vocation came to be. Now the older generation can definitely come across as bitter (especially old mate Joe Budden) but it is understandable when you take into account that commercial success comes to those who are riding a popular wave without seizing agency of their situation and appear to be exploiting a moment for personal gain. But also, give the younger generation a break. We were all young and naive once, their viable avenues of exposure are the stuff we would have dreamed of 10 years ago, so don’t deny envy may come into play.
One of the moments being exploited is the current prominence of “trap” music which is the main theme of the SBS Viceland featurette. After proclaiming “Australian hip-hop as you knew it as dead”, the host declares, “No more rappin’ about barbecues or carrying cases into parties... it’s time to meet the future of hip hop in this country” before offering “trap” as that future. A short definition of trap and a quick reference to its Atlanta origins in Gucci Mane and Yung Jeezy devotes more historical context than is afforded to Australia’s hip-hop but posturing that “trap” is the future of Aussie hip-hop is a profanely hilarious misdiagnosis. In fact, stating “trap is a movement more than a sound” altogether is crossing the wires. “Hip-hop” as a term refers to a cultural movement consisting of four elements: MCing, DJing, Breakdancing & Graffit. Any discussion of nationality i.e. “Australian hip-hop” or “UK Hip-hop” is looking at a geographical off-shoot of that global phenomenon. Now, yes for the convenience of your iTunes and Spotify libraries hip-hop is technically a musical genre, but despite what purists may argue, there is no universal “hip-hop” genre. It is a movement defined by its sub-cultures which are personified by a variation of different areas and eras. While “trap” is definitely a globally popular sound and aesthetic, it is still a sub-genre and should be discussed and referred to as such. Of course the double-edged sword is that many purists will refer to “real hip-hop” and they most likely mean traditional sample-based and loop heavy “boom-bap” production with a focus on lyricism, whereas “Trap” focuses on layered instrumentation and creative vibe. Now, I’m not arguing that because trap is a sub-culture that it is slighter, just pointing out that is merely a slice of the pie. What all parties need to do is embrace diversity of sound. You are allowed to listen to Future one day and Joey Bada$$ the next.
However the main sin of the SBS Viceland piece is to infer that everything which came before today’s current scene is “barbecue” rap. It is snidely unfair and unapologetically ignorant. In both the SBS Viceland and Capacite features many of today’s “new-wave” artists refer to “barbecue” or “bogan rap”. Now, to The Viceland feature’s credit, they actually provide an example in Brisbane’s Lazy Grey & Ken Oath’s “Have a Beer”. Now this definitely isn’t the only song of this ilk in our country’s hip-hop history (and to be fair it is 17 years old, the SBS doco only refers to the last 15 years of “Aussie Hip-Hop” being “too-white” further evidence that this piece lacks research and fact-checking) but that particular brand is also a sub-genre unto itself. In fact, it’s not even a sub-genre; it’s technically a common content within a sub-genre. No one is calling “weed rap” the only past of hip-hop, so saying trap is the future and the past is only “barbecue bogan rap” is like talking about the action genre in film and saying comic book movies are the future and the past is only the Western. And I’ve said it before... If Nickelback doesn’t represent all of rock music, why does “barbecue bogan rap” represent all of Australian hip-hop? It feels like just as the old bitter heads can be accused of thinking anything “un-Australian” is only wannabe Americana, then anything not globally or trap influenced such as underground labels Crate Cartel, Pang Productions and Big Village are automatically considered “barbecue bogan rap”?
In fact, it seems all hip-hop from these shores before today is unfairly reduced to the slogan “barbecue rap” and what’s most frustrating is the claim that the days of “Barbecue rap are over” has been proclaimed for a long time. When Hilltop Hoods achieved success. When 360 achieved success. When Illy achieved success. When Briggs achieved success. Like the accent debate, this is a back and forth which many Australian hip-hop heads thought was long over.
Yes, many of the commercially performing artists mentioned above are white, but so are the majority of popular examples of many cultures in Australia. Our hip-hop isn’t guilty, the whole damned country is. Culturally speaking, Australia as a whole has historically been white-washed. To lump it all on the shoulders of hip-hop is proportionally unfair. A country founded on stolen land which still largely doesn’t acknowledge the culture of its indigenous first nations essentially means all cultures are adopted cultures. That is one of the beauties of where Australia has come as a multicultural diverse society. Hip-hop is just one of many movements and cultures which in the larger popular eye are now representing a diverse range of faces and sounds. One of the reasons it has taken us so long is that as “Australia” we are ourselves a young country and therefore so is our cultural landscape.
One question I would like to consider, and the aim of which is only progress and clarification: at what point does emulation become appropriation? That is to say, is using an American accent or style cultural appropriation of American culture or Black American culture? I’d argue, for extreme cases, that it is. However I also am aware that the whole point of championing native accents for making hip-hop, regardless of your nationality, is true to what hip-hop is about: being yourself and shouting it from the rooftops. That means, whatever is true to you, spit that shit. Whether you hail from Adelaide and sound like you’re from New York hail from Perth and sound like you’re from Atlanta, Melbourne and you sound like you’re from LA, from Sydney but sound like you call Houston home, NT but sound like you’re from Detroit or Tasmania and you sound like you’re from Boston, whatever comes natural and true to yourself means it’s authentic. But one thing is for sure, can we stop saying “Aussie Hip-Hop” or “Skip-Hop”? It’s not Australian Hip-Hop; it’s Hip-Hop that just happens to be Australian.
In 2014, practically one and a half decades after I started rapping, I travelled to New York. As a hip-hop tragic I attended any and every gig I could. At the historical End of the Weak open mic and battle tournament I jumped on stage. Before spitting I proclaimed, “I’m from Australia, just in case you can’t pick my accent.” When I hopped off, after being eliminated, a flock of heads approached and bumped knuckles. “You were dope, son! You said you was from Australia? Didn’t sound like it! I thought you were from BK!” And all I did was spit naturally. If that doesn’t kibosh the accent debate, I suggest all die-hards book a ticket to the states and see who gives a fuck. They only care if you’re dope. As should we all.
Defron is a 28 year old rapper and writer based in Melbourne. He was the 2009 Revolver MC Battle Champion as well as a Victorian state finalist in the 2013 Australian Poetry Slam. His music has received airplay on Triple J, PBS, FBI, Triple R and his writing has appeared in Overland, Going Down Swinging, Kill Your Darlings, Tone Deaf, Verandah and Voiceworks. His first EP was released in 2015 and he is currently working on a solo mixtape along with a demo tape as part of hip-hop band, Kilamari.