The first true Australian song that I heard was from an effervescent taxi driver who – much to our delight – sung ‘Flame Trees’ by Jimmy Barnes. Aside from cementing his place as the greatest taxi driver in Australia, he also made me realise that there was much more than just a wealth of land to be explored out here.
Case in point: Who the hell knew that Australia had their own brand of hip-hop?! My mind was blown when my boss told me that the old school hip-hop track he was listening to was in fact by a relevant Australian hip hop group named Thundamentals. In defence of my ignorance, it’s not like much of the hip-hop over here has been heard outside of Australia. That could be due to many things – but I don’t think that it’s to do with the quality of the music.
The first authentic “Australian’ hip-hop collection, Down Under By Law, was released in 1988, whilst some of the more notable hip hop albums by Australian artists in the 1990’s emanated from the Western Suburbs of Sydney. In a cultural sense, it could be said that these Western Suburbs were in many ways similar to the birth place of U.S hip hop in the 70’s – the South Bronx – in that there was a clear ethnic, economic and social class segregation that existed in comparison with Sydney’s Northern suburbs. Greek, Lebanese and Italian migrant youths built on themes prominent in U.S hip-hop, such as racial opposition and cultural deprivation, to express themselves in an artistic sense.
It wasn’t until the late 90’s that Hilltop Hoods began to penetrate the mainstream, gaining Australian artists more recognition on a national scale. Authentic Australian hip-hop was born with a localised narrative and style. Far from trying to emulate their American counterparts such as N.W.A, Hilltop Hoods were more ‘beer’s down the pub’ than ‘fuck the police’. Artists used the American style only as a template, rapping in their own accents about stuff that was happening in their own communities. It is perhaps for this reason that from my alien perspective, Australian hip-hop seems a tad, well, friendlier.
Australian hip-hop essentially skipped the gangster rap stage that was such a global phenomenon in the 90’s, fronted by rappers such as 2pac and The Notorious B.I.G. There is nothing wrong with this; rhymes about gaming consoles rather than gun crime and murder is reflective of a less violent, more galvanised society.
Trivial references to the lighter side of life by no means suggests that Australian hip-hop doesn’t have a specific cause or identity. This is exemplified by artists such as A.B. Original, who ruffled a few feathers with their recent song, ‘January 26th’. The track essentially gives a voice to a different, indigenous perspective of Australia day. Ambiguous culturally, this day commemorates the arrival of the first British fleets on Australian land, juxtaposed with the cultural suppression and literal massacres of the lands of original indigenous inhabitants. In my mind, it is this ethos of standing up for something, whether directly relatable to the listener or not, that is at the very crux of hip-hop as a poetic, musical expression. It is as much about education as it is about vocalising a cause.
Whilst true that originally, hip-hop over here borrowed a lot stylistically from America, it has evolved to become something truly Australian. It provides a voice for cultures suffering oppression, catharsis for those who need to vent, and an outlet for people who are having a good time.
With the evolution of a more authentic hip-hop culture has come a more authentic style. Pioneers of a new age such as REMI and Sampa the Great provide a unique sound that can only be born out of unique beginnings. The new school of Australian hip-hop is quintessentially similar to what is traditionally considered ‘old school’; the beats are a little more mellow, layered with simplistic lyrics that are delivered at a moderate tempo.
Australian hip-hop is essentially unrecognised on a global scale. Why share something that has become such an expression of Aussie culture with the rest of the world? Australia is big enough, you can’t blame artists for staying put when it is this great country that helped to make them what they are. Australian hip-hop has evolved from an imitation of an American culture to a celebration of an Australian one. Over time, borrowed cultural beginnings have paved the way for something truly authentic. After all, isn’t that what culture is all about?